Vietnam - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Vietnam: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, country located on the eastern coast of the Indochinese Peninsula. Vietnam is bordered on the north by China, on the west by Laos and Cambodia, and on the south and east by the South China Sea. Hanoi is the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the largest city.

Vietnam is relatively long and narrow, with a varied terrain. The far north and much of central Vietnam are hilly to mountainous. In the north, the highlands slope gradually toward the eastern coast, forming broad plains intersected by numerous streams. The plains are intensely cultivated, and over centuries the Vietnamese have built many dikes and canals to irrigate crops and control flooding. In central Vietnam, the narrowest part of the country, the mountains and highlands extend nearer to the coast, in a few places jutting into the sea and elsewhere dropping sharply to a narrow coastal plain. Southern Vietnam is very low lying, containing the broad, fertile delta of the Mekong River. Like the northern plains, much of the Mekong Delta is cultivated, and there are vast tracts of rice paddies.

Vietnam developed as an agricultural society, and the population is still predominantly rural. In 2005, 27 percent of the population lived in urban areas. People are increasingly migrating to cities, however, swelling the populations of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other places.

Vietnam has about 50 ethnic and language groups, but ethnic Vietnamese, or Viets, constitute the vast majority of the population. The original homeland of the Vietnamese people was in the valley of the Red River, a river that originates in southern China and flows through northern Vietnam before entering the Gulf of Tonkin. China conquered the region in the 2nd century BC, but the Vietnamese successfully restored their independence in AD 939. During the next 1,000 years, Vietnam became one of the most dynamic civilizations in Southeast Asia and expanded southward along the coast.

France invaded Vietnam in the late 19th century. The French divided the country into three separate regions; joined the regions with Cambodia and Laos into the Indochinese Union, known as French Indochina; and exploited Vietnamese resources to benefit France. After World War II (1939-1945), anticolonial groups led by the Indochinese Communist Party revolted against French rule. In 1954, after Vietnamese forces defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was temporarily divided into two zones: North Vietnam, led by a Communist government, and South Vietnam, headed by anti-Communists. For the next 20 years the government in the South, supported by the United States, sought to defeat a growing insurgent movement led by the North to unify the country (see Vietnam War). The United States withdrew its combat troops in 1973, and South Vietnam fell to a Communist offensive two years later. In 1976 a unified Communist state was established with its capital at Hanoi. Although Vietnam remains under Communist rule, its leadership has begun implementing aspects of a market economy in order to promote economic development.


Shaped like an enormous letter S, Vietnam extends more than 1,500 km (1,000 mi) from China in the north to the Gulf of Thailand in the south. At its narrowest, just north of the port city of Da Nang, the distance between the sea and the country’s western border is less than 50 km (30 mi). Vietnam’s total area is 33,121 sq km (12,788 sq mi).

Natural Regions of Vietnam

Vietnam has four major geographic regions. The country’s northernmost section consists of a tangled mass of rugged and heavily forested mountains that extend into Vietnam from China’s Yunnan Plateau. In Vietnam, these mountains attain a maximum elevation of 3,143 m (10,312 ft) at Fan Si Pan, the country’s highest point. To the east and southeast of these mountainous highlands is the Red River Delta, a triangular-shaped alluvial plain that stretches along the Gulf of Tonkin, an arm of the South China Sea. The Truong Son (Annam Highlands) lies to the south of the delta and forms the backbone of Vietnam. Also in this region are the Central Highlands, a vast upland plateau situated between the Cambodian border and the South China Sea. Vietnam’s fourth and southernmost region is the Mekong Delta. This region is a fertile area of marshy flatland that stretches from the southern edge of the Central Highlands in the north to the mangrove swamps of the Ca Mau peninsula in the south.

Rivers of Vietnam

Vietnam’s two major rivers are the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south, both of which are navigable for their entire lengths within Vietnam. The Red River flows almost directly southeast from southern China into Vietnam’s northwestern highlands. The Mekong follows an irregular path across Southeast Asia to its mouth at the South China Sea. Farming in much of the Mekong Delta was once impossible because salt water from the South China Sea would periodically cover the low-lying land. To combat this problem, the French installed dikes during the 20th century. Today, an intricate system of dikes and canals helps prevent flooding of the Mekong and Red River deltas. Among Vietnam’s noteworthy smaller rivers are the Huong River (Perfume River) at Hue and the Ka Long O River near Vinh.

Coastline of Vietnam

Vietnam’s coastline extends 3,444 km (2,140 mi) from the Chinese border in the north to the frontier with Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. In some areas, such as east of the Central Highlands and north of the Red River Delta, the mountains extend directly into the sea. This creates a number of protected harbors suitable for shipping, including those of the port cities of Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang. The mountains also form a picturesque backdrop, and beaches at Da Nang and Nha Trang are among the most popular resort areas in the country. The remaining coastal areas are flatlands, created by the deposits of alluvial soils by rivers. Over time, this deposition process creates triangular, flat deltas, notably the Red and Mekong deltas.

Plant and Animal Life in Vietnam

Many plant and animal species thrive in Vietnam’s warm, rainy climate. Mountain forests are typically dense, consisting of a wide variety of evergreens and rain forest vegetation. Upland farmers periodically clear lands for cultivation, which causes some deforestation, although this is not nearly as serious a problem as in other areas of Southeast Asia. During the Vietnam War (1959-1975) heavy bombing cleared some areas of foliage, but plant life in these areas has gradually begun to recover. In the country’s warmest zones, farmers have widely planted the hillsides and plateau regions with cash crops such as coffee, tea, and rubber. Most lowland areas and some upland valleys are planted with wet rice, although other useful crops include bananas, coconuts, papaya, and bamboo. Dense mangrove swamps cover the lowland areas along the southern coast of the Mekong Delta and on the Ca Mau peninsula.

Vietnam’s forests are inhabited by many large mammals, including elephants, deer, bears, tigers, and leopards. Smaller animals, such as monkeys, hares, squirrels, and otters, are also found in considerable numbers throughout the country. In recent years, scientists have identified several previously unknown species of animal life in the Truong Son, including the endangered sao la, a cattlelike animal. Many species of birds and reptiles, including crocodiles, snakes, and lizards, also thrive in Vietnam.

Natural Resources of Vietnam

Vietnam’s most valuable natural resource is its land, particularly the fertile, alluvial soils in the Red and Mekong deltas. Some 29 percent of the land is currently being cultivated.

Vietnam has some valuable mineral resources, including gold, iron, tin, zinc, phosphate, chromite, apatite, and anthracite coal. Most deposits are located in the northern part of the country. Few attempts were made to extract these minerals until the French takeover of Vietnam at the end of the 19th century. The French opened coal mines, principally along the coast directly east of Haiphong. They also established a phosphate factory on the Paracel Islands, located in the South China Sea.

Since reunification, the Communist government has sought to increase exploitation of Vietnam’s natural mineral resources but has had only modest success so far. Extraction of oil deposits in the South China Sea began in the mid-1980s. In the mid-1990s oil production was sufficient to meet domestic needs, while also providing an important source of export earnings.

Climate of Vietnam

Vietnam’s climate is generally hot and humid. In central and southern Vietnam, seasonal variations are slight and marked only by a dry and a wet period. The average daily temperatures in the Mekong Delta range from 17° to 34°C (63° to 93°F) in January and from 22° to 33°C (72° to 91°F) in July. Along the central coast, temperatures range from 18° to 28°C (64° to 83°F) in January and from 24° to 37°C (76° to 99°F) in July. The northern plains experience greater seasonal variations and generally have cooler nighttime temperatures. The average daily temperatures at Hanoi, for example, range from 13° to 20°C (56° to 68°F) in January and from 25° to 33°C (78° to 91°F) in July.

In general, rainfall is plentiful throughout the country, although most precipitation in southern and central Vietnam occurs during the summer months when monsoon winds sweep in from the sea. The Mekong Delta has the longest rainy season, typically lasting from May to October. Central Vietnam receives heavy precipitation from September to December. The average annual rainfall is about 1,680 mm (66 in) in the Red River Delta, 1,650 mm (65 in) along the central coast, and 1,980 mm (78 in) in the Mekong Delta. Typhoons periodically strike the central coast, and in recent years some have caused considerable loss of life and destruction of cropland.

Environmental Issues in Vietnam

Groundwater contamination has led to inadequate supplies of drinking water in many areas of Vietnam. Only 98 percent (2006) of the urban population has access to safe drinking water. Chemicals sprayed during the Vietnam War caused widespread defoliation in the country’s forests, contributing to soil degradation and water pollution. Coastal water pollution, along with severe overfishing, has greatly endangered the country’s marine life.

Deforestation rates in Vietnam were high in the late 20th century as a result of logging, agriculture, and heavy bombing during times of war. Forests cover 39 percent (2005) of Vietnam, and only 3.9 percent (2007) of the land is protected in parks and other reserves. Vietnam is party to international treaties concerning climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, ship pollution, and wetlands.


Vietnam’s 2009 population was 86,967,524, yielding a population density of 267 persons per sq km (692 per sq mi). However, most people live in or near the densely populated Red or Mekong deltas.

Principal Cities of Vietnam

Four of the five largest cities in Vietnam are located on or very near the coast. Vietnam’s largest metropolis is the southern port of Ho Chi Minh City. The administrative capital of Hanoi, Vietnam’s next largest city, lies in the Red River Delta about 140 km (about 85 mi) upriver from the Gulf of Tonkin. Haiphong is the major northern seaport; Da Nang is an important port in central Vietnam; and Hue, located near Da Nang, is the former imperial capital and an important trade center.

Ethnic Groups in Vietnam

Vietnam’s population is relatively homogeneous. As much as 90 percent of the people are ethnic Vietnamese, descendants of the people who settled in the Red River Delta thousands of years ago. Ethnic Chinese constitute the largest minority group. Other important minorities are the Khmer and the Cham. In addition, there are also numerous tribal groups. While the ethnic Vietnamese live in lowland areas scattered throughout the country, most minorities are concentrated in specific regional areas. The ethnic Chinese, also known as overseas Chinese, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who settled in Vietnam during the last 300 years. They live primarily in the cities and provincial towns and number about 2 million. The Khmer (about 500,000) and the Cham (about 50,000) are descendants of peoples who lived in central and southern Vietnam prior to the Vietnamese conquest of those areas. The tribal peoples are descendants of communities who migrated into Vietnam from other parts of Asia over a period of several thousand years. They are divided into about 50 different language and ethnic groups (including the Tho, the Tay, the Nung, the Muong, the Rhadé, and the Jarai) and live almost exclusively in the mountains surrounding the Red River Delta and in the Central Highlands. Taken collectively, the tribal peoples represent 7 percent of the country’s total population.

For the most part, the various ethnic groups in Vietnam coexist with few mutual tensions. Relations between the ethnic groups are not always amiable, however. Ethnic Chinese play a dominant role in the national economy, which angers some Vietnamese who resent the economic power of the much smaller Chinese population. Furthermore, some Vietnamese are suspicious of China, which subjugated parts of Vietnam for centuries, and this suspicion is occasionally directed at the ethnic Chinese citizens of Vietnam. Some tribal minority communities have resisted recent Vietnamese penetration into mountain areas.

Languages spoken in Vietnam

The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, a member of the Austro-Asiatic language family. Linguists usually consider Vietnamese to be a distinct language group, although it has some similarities to Chinese and other languages spoken in Southeast Asia. Like Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language, but its syntax is closer to Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. Other languages spoken in Vietnam are Chinese, Khmer, Cham, and various tribal languages spoken by peoples living in the mountains.

When China conquered the Red River Delta in the 2nd century BC, Chinese was adopted as the official language. Eventually a separate script based on Chinese characters and known as chu nôm (southern characters) came to be used unofficially for the written form of Vietnamese. In order to translate works of scripture, Catholic missionaries devised a form of written Vietnamese using the Latin (Roman) alphabet in the 17th century. This system, known today as quoc ngu (national language), was the first to indicate tones through the use of accent marks. In 1910 quoc ngu officially replaced Chinese characters as a means of writing Vietnamese, and in 1954 the governments of both North and South Vietnam adopted it as their national script.

Religion in Vietnam

Vietnam contains a rich mixture of religions, reflecting the influence of many cultures. Early Vietnamese culture included three major belief systems: Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism (Taoism). Indian and Chinese monks brought Buddhism to Vietnam early in the 1st millennium AD, and Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) were both introduced after the Chinese conquest. After the restoration of Vietnamese independence in the 10th century, the royal court initially gave official support to all three belief systems. Eventually, however, the court recognized only Confucianism, which is more a set of social ethics than a religious faith. Buddhism and Daoism continued to be popular among the mass of the population.

Today, the majority of Vietnamese are at least nominally Mahayana Buddhists. Of this number, only a minority are serious adherents. Roman Catholicism, which French missionaries introduced in the 17th century, is a major religion, claiming almost as many followers as Daoism. Other religions include such recently established sects as Hoa Hao (a variant of Buddhism practiced in the Mekong Delta) and Cao Dai, which blends various Asian and Western religious beliefs. Theravada Buddhism is practiced by the Khmer minority. Some tribal peoples practice spirit worship. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution, but the Communist government suppresses religious organizations and activities that it considers threatening to national security.

Education in Vietnam

For centuries, education in Vietnam was based on the Confucian system practiced in China. Young males studied classical Confucian texts in preparation for taking civil service examinations. Those who passed the exams were eligible for positions in the bureaucracy. The French introduced Western schooling, although few students received training beyond the elementary level, and literacy rates were low.

Major advances in education occurred after the division of Vietnam in 1954. The South adopted an education system based on the United States model, which emphasizes the development of an individual’s talents and skills. The North introduced mass education and trained people for participation in a Communist society based on the political theories of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. After reunification in 1975 the Communist system used in the North was extended throughout the country, although technology training is now as important as teaching Communist ideology.

About 94 percent of the population aged 15 and over is literate. Education is compulsory for children ages 6 to 14. Nearly all children receive primary schooling. Fewer young Vietnamese receive a secondary education, however, partly because there is a shortage of adequate facilities, particularly in the mountainous areas. In addition, some families cannot afford to send their children to school, as even public schools impose student fees to help meet operating costs.

In 1993 the government reorganized higher education to improve the system’s overall ability to educate students in the principles of a market economy and train them to meet the changing needs of the labor market. In 2005 just 10 percent of the people of relevant age were expected to attend schools of higher education. Major universities are located in Hanoi, Hue, Thai Nguyen, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City, and the provincial capitals have smaller institutes.

Social Structure of Vietnam

During the period of Chinese rule and for centuries after, Vietnamese social structure was patterned after the system prevalent in China. The vast majority of people were farmers. The governing class comprised about 5 percent of the population and was selected from candidates who had passed the Confucian civil service examinations or from influential landholding families. There were also a small number of artisans and merchants.

After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, the Communist government of North Vietnam completely changed the social structure. Private property was eliminated, and peasants and workers were given a new, if nominal, dominance in the social order. At the top of the order, functioning as the new ruling class, were officials of the Communist Party. In the South, on the other hand, the social structure remained virtually unchanged after the partition. After the Communists won the civil war in 1975, however, they imposed the same social structure on the South as they had on the North in 1954. Since the mid-1980s a more complicated social system has developed as a result of market economic reforms. Although most Vietnamese remain farmers, the number of industrial workers is increasing. Furthermore, an urban middle class is emerging, which includes many private entrepreneurs.

Way of Life in Vietnam

Before the late 1800s, nearly all the people of Vietnam lived in villages, and the cultivation of wet rice was the principal economic activity. The basic component of rural society was the nuclear family, composed of parents and unwed children. As in China, however, extended family relationships were also important. In many cases, extended families lived together. Parents arranged the marriages of their children, and filial piety (obedience to one’s parents) was expected. Wives, too, were expected to obey their husbands. Families venerated their ancestors with special religious rituals. The houses of the wealthy were constructed of brick, with tile roofs. Those of the poor were of bamboo and thatch. Rice was the staple food for the vast majority, garnished with vegetables and, for those who could afford it, meat and fish.

The French introduced Western values of individual freedom and sexual equality, which undermined the traditional Vietnamese social system. In urban areas, Western patterns of social behavior became increasingly common, especially among educated and wealthy Vietnamese. Elite Vietnamese attended French schools, read French books, replaced traditional attire with Western-style clothing, and drank French wines instead of the traditional wine distilled from rice. Adolescents began to resist the tradition of arranged marriages, and women chafed under social mores that demanded obedience to their fathers and husbands. In the countryside, however, traditional Vietnamese family values remained strong.

The trend toward adopting Western values continued in South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954. Many young people embraced sexual freedom and the movies, clothing styles, and rock music from Western cultures became popular. But in the North, social ethics were defined by Communist principles adapted from China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Communist government officially recognized equality of the sexes, and women began to obtain employment in professions previously dominated by men. At the same time, the government began enforcing a more puritanical lifestyle as a means to counter the so-called decadent practices of Western society. Traditional values continued to hold sway in rural areas, where the concept of male superiority remained common.

In 1986 the Vietnamese government adopted an economic reform program that borrowed freely from free-market principles and encouraged foreign investment and tourism. As a result, the Vietnamese people have become increasingly acquainted with and influenced by the lifestyles in developed countries of East Asia and the West. The Communist regime finds this trend worrisome, believing it could lead to an increase in individualism, materialism, drug use, and pornography. While the administration stresses the importance of economic development, it remains committed to wiping out what it considers the “poisonous weeds” of capitalism in Vietnamese society.

Social Issues in Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, the Communist government of North Vietnam was successful in limiting the country’s social problems to those directly connected with the war effort. Although malnutrition and poverty were common, corruption was rare and the incidence of drugs, prostitution, and crime was limited.

Following the war, Vietnam developed high rates of birth defects, probably due to the aerial spraying of Agent Orange and other chemical herbicides during the war. The U.S. military sprayed these defoliants on forests and crops to help expose the hiding places of Communist forces. As a consequence, innumerable Vietnamese were exposed to extremely toxic byproducts known as dioxins, which have been associated with severe birth defects and certain rare cancers in humans. Toxins that leaked into croplands and rivers around the sprayed areas also had long-term effects on the food supply of the country as a whole. Tests conducted after the war showed that considerable levels of dioxins were present in fish, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, and in milk from nursing mothers.

Land mines from the war also posed a significant problem. Concealed by both U.S. and Communist forces, land mines continued to kill and cripple people after the war. From the end of the war in 1975 to 2005, more than 58,000 Vietnamese were killed by land mines—more than all the U.S. servicemen who died during the war. See also Mine (Warfare).

Social problems have increased since the economic reforms of 1986. Corruption has escalated as increasing amounts of money circulate through society. Unemployment is also on the rise, especially among young people. Drug addiction and alcoholism are becoming serious problems; prostitution is rampant, especially in urban areas; and incidents of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) have increased in Vietnam. Many of these social ills may be inevitable consequences of the modernization process. However, they represent a serious challenge to a government determined to bring about economic development without the accompanying problems of social and political instability.

Social Services in Vietnam

Before the Communist era, the government relied on the family network to care for the sick and elderly and to provide other social benefits to family members. Under Communism, the state assumed responsibility for some of these benefits through collective farms and state-run industries that provided for the care and welfare of their employees. After the economic reforms of 1986, which essentially dismantled collective farms, farmers were expected to provide their own savings to cover the expenses of illness or retirement. People in the emerging private sector had to do the same.

Although the government has reduced benefits in certain areas, it still lacks the resources to deal with many of the other social needs of the population. As much as one-third of the workforce in rural areas is underemployed, and an estimated one-half of the rural population lives in poverty. At the same time, the availability of health care is declining.


Traditional Vietnamese culture reflected the influence of neighboring China. Vietnamese art, architecture, music, and literature all followed Chinese forms. With the advent of French colonialism in the late 19th century, however, the influence of Western culture replaced that of China. Modern Vietnamese cultural expression combines the socialist realism of Communist systems with current trends in the capitalist world.

Literature in Vietnam

Before French colonial rule, literature in Vietnam was divided into two styles: a classical style based on the Chinese model and a vernacular one based on local themes and genres. Classical literature was written in literary Chinese and took the form of poetry, history, and essays. Vernacular literature was written in chu nôm and took the form of poetry or verse novels. French colonial rule significantly influenced Vietnamese literature. Drama, poetry, and novels began to be written in quoc ngu and imitated Western models. This trend continued in the South after the country was divided in 1954. In the North, a new form of literature, called socialist realism, developed. In this literature, actual people and events are depicted in an idealized, optimistic way to provide a glimpse of the “glorious” future in a socialist, or Communist, society. In modern Vietnam, however, the influence of socialist realism is in decline, as writers increasingly seek a more realistic approach to describing the problems of society and the bitter legacy of the Vietnam War.

Art and Architecture of Vietnam

In the precolonial era, art and architectural styles were patterned after those in China. Traditional Vietnamese religious temples and official buildings were usually constructed of wood with tile roofs and typically included intricate carvings. Painting, usually on silk, followed classical modes current in China with an emphasis on landscapes, birds and plant life, and calligraphy. Sculpture, in wood or in stone, was usually Buddhist in inspiration. The ceramics industry was relatively well developed, and artisans produced wares both for household use, such as bowls and plates, and for religious purposes, such as statues.

After the French conquest, Western styles predominated. Official buildings were often built in French colonial style, and schools of Western painting became popular. These trends have continued to the present. Architecture now tends to follow international styles, although there is some effort to preserve the distinctive character of major cities such as Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City. Abstract painting has become popular, although traditional modes and folk art continue to attract interest. Lacquerware and woodwork are produced primarily for the tourist trade.

Music and Drama in Vietnam

Traditional music in Vietnam reflected a variety of influences from China and neighboring societies in the region. The use of the five-tone scale reflects Chinese influence, while Indian-style dancing and percussion instruments, such as the Cham rice drum, were borrowed from neighboring Champa. Similar to the Chinese style, music and verse were often closely tied together, as in various types of theater and the uniquely Vietnamese ca dao (a form of lyrical folk song performed without instrumental accompaniment).

Since the colonial era, Western music and theater have begun to dominate over the traditional forms. After 1954, Western-style rock music attained considerable popularity in South Vietnam. As in the West, the lyrics often contained a political message, conveying the malaise of a generation raised in a society ripped asunder by war. The popularity of Western-style music continued after reunification in 1976. Despite government efforts to promote music that contains messages of patriotism and self-sacrifice and that is based on traditional forms like the ca dao, Western music has tended to predominate through imported records and tapes. On the surface, popular music in Vietnam lacks the underlying message of rebellion that it sometimes projects in the West. However, the government is still concerned that Western popular music encourages attitudes of individualism and self-gratification—values not welcomed in official circles. Contemporary drama, often based on Western styles, is often laced with satire, as authors use irony and innuendo to criticize the shortcomings of the government and the ruling party.

Film in Vietnam

A local film industry first developed in North Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954. The Communist government created the state-run Vietnamese Feature Film Studio to produce newsreels and documentaries that promoted the cause of reunification and revolution. The quantity and quality of such films were limited, although among the most interesting were films produced by artists operating with guerrilla units in South Vietnam during the war.

Film production increased after reunification. With the assistance of a newly founded College of Stage Arts and Cinematography, about ten feature films were produced each year. Thematic content, however, was tightly controlled by the state and focused on the struggle for national unification or the challenges of constructing a Communist society. In recent years, film producers have begun to assert their independence in the selection of subject matter. A number of recent films have criticized postwar social and economic conditions, and some have even questioned the official line on the heroic character of soldiers fighting against the regime in the South during the Vietnam War. However, film producers risk censorship or persecution when they transcend the limits of official approval.

Libraries and Museums in Vietnam

The National Library, founded in Hanoi in 1919, includes more than a million volumes. A number of specialized science and social science libraries are located in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Most major museums in northern Vietnam are in Hanoi, including the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts and the Army Museum, which includes weaponry and aircraft from the Vietnam War. The Cham Museum, located in Da Nang, houses a collection of cultural artifacts from the ancient kingdom of Champa, including many sandstone sculptures of Hindu images. Most of the major museums in southern Vietnam are located in Ho Chi Minh City. Two of them, the Vietnam Revolutionary Museum and the War Crimes Museum, focus on the Communist struggle for power in Vietnam and the Vietnam War.


During the centuries of Chinese and Vietnamese imperial rule, Vietnam’s society was predominantly agrarian. Its major source of wealth was rice. Although some manufacturing and trade existed, they received little official encouragement and occupied minor segments of the gross domestic product (GDP). Under French colonial rule, agriculture continued to occupy the primary place in the national economy, although emphasis shifted to the cultivation of export crops. In addition to rice, these crops included coffee, tea, rubber, and other tropical products. Small industrial and commercial sectors developed, notably in the major cities, but their growth was limited because colonial officials were determined to avoid competition with goods produced in France.

After partition in 1954 the governments of North and South Vietnam sought to develop their national economies, although they established different economic systems with different resources and trading partners. The North operated under a highly centralized, planned economy, whereas the South mostly maintained a free-market system that had some government involvement. After reunification in 1976 the North gradually extended its centrally planned economy throughout the country. In 1986, however, the government launched a reform program to move toward a mixed economy that operates under private as well as collective or state control. As a result, Vietnam entered a period of rapid development. By 2007 GDP had risen to $68.6 billion, increasing at an annual rate of 8.5 percent in the 1990s. However, per capita incomes remained low, averaging about $806.10 a year. The services sector contributed 38 percent of GDP; industry, 42 percent; and agriculture, forestry, and fishing, 20 percent.

Government Role in the Economy

In Vietnam, as in other states ruled by Communist parties, the government is expected to play a guiding role in all matters, including the national economy. Classical Marxist economic theory calls for all major industries and utilities to be nationalized and for farmland to be placed under state or collective ownership.

Such was the situation in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and initially in the reunified country established in 1976. However, Vietnam’s economy performed disastrously in the first decade after the war. Excessive government controls, lack of managerial experience, limited capital resources, and the absence of a profit incentive all contributed to the weak economy. In 1986 the government launched a reform program called doi moi (economic renovation) to reduce government interference in the economy and develop a market-based approach to increase national productivity.

The need for economic reform gained urgency in 1990, when poor harvests and economic mismanagement left millions of Vietnamese facing malnutrition. However, Vietnamese leaders initially encountered many difficulties in their effort to renovate the system. Among those obstacles was the reluctance of party leaders to further privatize the economy as well as a high level of bureaucratic interference in economic affairs.

The pace of economic reforms accelerated following the Communist party’s approval in 2001 of a ten-year development strategy enhancing the role of the private sector. The strategy simultaneously affirmed the primacy of the state in driving economic development, and Vietnam’s economy came to be characterized as “a market economy with socialist orientation.”

In the second decade of the doi moi reforms, Vietnam achieved one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Annual growth rates exceeding 7 percent ranked Vietnam second only to China. The country’s economic vitality attracted surging levels of foreign investment and significantly decreased the number of Vietnamese living in poverty. However, Vietnam lagged behind in modernizing its infrastructure, a crucial step in making Vietnamese businesses competitive against foreign competition.

Vietnam sought to increase foreign trade and investment through membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Following more than a decade of negotiations, Vietnam’s entry was formally approved in November 2006, paving the way for the country to become the organization’s 150th member in December.

Labor in Vietnam

The official labor organization in North Vietnam is the Vietnam General Confederation of Trade Unions, founded in Hanoi in 1946. After the country was reunified, the organization absorbed the South Vietnam Trade Union Federation. The confederation is an umbrella organization overseeing the activity of specialized labor unions in Vietnam, such as the National Union of Building Workers. By the mid-1990s the confederation contained more than 50 labor unions with a total membership of more than 4 million. As in all Communist systems, the labor movement in Vietnam is under strict party supervision. Labor unrest, including unsanctioned strikes, has increased since the doi moi reforms were launched in 1986. Much of the hostility fueling this unrest results from poor working conditions and low salaries in foreign-owned enterprises.

Vietnam’s labor force numbered 44 million in 1996. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employed 58 percent of the workforce in 2004; the services sector employed 25 percent; and industry employed 17 percent.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing of Vietnam

Vietnam has traditionally derived the bulk of its wealth from agriculture, especially from the cultivation of wet rice. During the traditional and colonial eras most farmland was privately owned and cultivated either by owners or tenants. Under Communist rule, however, the government placed farmland in the North under collective ownership. After reunification, the government attempted to collectivize all privately held farmland in the South, but local resistance and declining grain production eventually persuaded party leaders to dismantle the collective system. Instead, they granted long-term leases to farmers in return for an annual quota of grain paid to the state. Surplus production could be privately consumed or sold on the free market.

Agricultural production increased dramatically, rising 62 percent between 1985 and 1997. By far the most important crop is rice, which is farmed under wet conditions in the Red and Mekong deltas as well as in parts of central Vietnam. Most rice-growing areas can support two crops per year, and three crops per year are possible in parts of central Vietnam. Total rice production rose from about 16 million metric tons in 1985 to 36 million metric tons in 1997, while tea production rose from 28,200 to 153,000 metric tons. Other important crops are coconuts, coffee, cotton, fruits and vegetables, rubber, and sugarcane. The annual fish catch increased from 808,000 metric tons in 1985 to 3.6 million metric tons in 2007.

The growth of commercial forestry has been hindered by a lack of transportation facilities as well as by the mixture of different species of trees, which makes it uneconomical to harvest a single species. Furthermore, population pressures have increased the rate of deforestation. Since 1992 the government has banned the export of logs and some timber products in an attempt to preserve remaining forests. Most harvested roundwood is used for household fuel. Timber production, primarily teak and bamboo, has remained stagnant.

Manufacturing in Vietnam

At the time of the French conquest in the late 19th century, Vietnam’s industry was at a relatively primitive stage. The French introduced some modern technology and production methods. After the division of Vietnam in 1954, both the North and South governments attempted to promote industrialization. However, efforts were stymied by the Vietnam War, and little was accomplished before 1975.

After reunification, the Communist government promoted the creation of an advanced industrial society characterized by state ownership, but the results were meager. The plans adopted as a part of the doi moi reforms call for a balanced approach to developing both industry and agriculture, with a mix of state, collective, and private ownership.

Most large firms remain under state ownership, but the role and number of private enterprises has steadily increased. Most enterprises produce consumer goods for the domestic market, although a growing number manufacture goods for export, notably textiles and processed foods. Steel production has increased dramatically since the end of the war, and the manufacture of cement, chemical fertilizer, and textile and paper goods is on the upswing. Foreign firms play a growing but still limited role in the industrial sector.

Mining in Vietnam

Most mining activities take place in the northern provinces of the country, where anthracite coal, phosphate rock, gypsum, tin, zinc, iron, antimony, and chromite are extracted. Coal and apatite are mined extensively. The total coal production in 2003 was 16 million metric tons.

In recent years, large petroleum and natural gas deposits have been discovered along the continental shelf in the South China Sea. With assistance from the Soviet Union, Vietnam began extracting oil from its first oil field in the mid-1980s. Additional oil fields have since become productive. In the late 1990s petroleum accounted for nearly one-third of Vietnam’s export revenues. Further development may be hindered, however, by disputes with China and other neighboring nations over the ownership of offshore deposits in the area.

Energy in Vietnam

Per-capita consumption of electricity is relatively low in Vietnam because many people, especially in rural areas, burn wood to meet their household energy needs. Such traditional fuels accounted for nearly half the country’s total energy use in the mid-1990s, but commercial and urban growth is increasing the demand for electricity. In the mid-1990s electricity was supplied mainly by hydroelectric stations, although thermal installations burning petroleum and coal were also important.

Transportation and Communications in Vietnam

A primitive transportation system has long been one of the main obstacles to economic development in Vietnam. While the system of roads is one of the best in Southeast Asia, until recently the motor fleet was outmoded, consisting primarily of Soviet trucks built during the 1950s. Furthermore, rail facilities suffered damage during the war, and a lack of funds prevented adequate repair or expansion of the system. In the late 1990s, the government began an attempt to modernize the truck fleet and the rail system and to improve the major roadways. Most goods in the country, however, are still transported by barge along the numerous rivers and canals.

Major ports used for international shipping are Haiphong, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. All, however, lack modern facilities. The state-run Vietnam Airlines operates both internationally and domestically but has been seriously hindered by an aging fleet consisting of Soviet-built planes that have been in operation since the Vietnam War. To modernize the airline, the government is using scarce foreign exchange reserves to purchase new aircraft from Europe and the United States.

Poor communications facilities represent an additional obstacle to economic development. The nation’s telephone system is grossly inadequate, and Vietnam is just beginning to enter the computer age. Private ownership of telephones and computers is still severely limited. Access to information is somewhat better, as most Vietnamese own a radio or a television set, and there are a number of major national newspapers, including the official daily Nhân Dân (The People) and the military newspaper Quan Doi Nhân Dân (People’s Army). Many independent newspapers and periodicals are now being published, although those that transcend the official line run the risk of censorship or losing their licenses.

Foreign Trade in Vietnam

During the French colonial period, Vietnamese foreign trade was characterized almost exclusively by the export of primary raw materials—such as rice, rubber, and other tropical products—and the import of manufactured goods from abroad, mainly from France. During the Vietnam War, both the North and South had a chronic imbalance in their balance of payments, as their sponsors pumped in military and economic assistance with little regard to their client’s ability to pay.

After reunification, these adverse conditions continued. Vietnam consistently ran a significant deficit in its trade relations with foreign countries. At first, the bulk of Vietnamese trade was with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, which exported manufactured goods, food, and oil to Vietnam in return for cheap textile goods, cash crops, and maritime products. Trade was tightly controlled under the management of several state-owned trading corporations, each specializing in a particular commodity line. The United States imposed a trade embargo on North Vietnam in 1964 and all of Vietnam in 1976; this embargo was lifted in 1994.

Foreign trade has developed rapidly since the implementation of the doi moi reforms and the end of the U.S. embargo. Most foreign trade now takes place with other countries of Asia or with developed countries in the West. Exports have increased significantly, notably in the area of cash crops, oil, and rice. But imports of foreign technology and consumer goods have increased as well, and the trade deficit continues to be one of the country’s most serious problems. In 2007 the value of imports was estimated at $60.8 billion, while exports were estimated at $48.4 billion.

Currency and Banking of Vietnam

Vietnam’s national monetary unit is the new dông, which is divided into 100 xu (16,105 new dông equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Until 1990 the only banking system within the country was The State Bank of Vietnam, with its headquarters in Hanoi. In 1990 the government established four independent commercial banks (for foreign trade, investment and construction, agricultural development, and industry and commerce) and allowed foreign banks to operate. The State Bank continues to perform general supervisory functions; it also controls the money supply and credit policies. The Bank of Foreign Trade is authorized to handle foreign currencies.

Tourism of Vietnam

Modern tourism began in Vietnam during the colonial era, but it declined drastically during the long years of conflict after World War II. With the launching of economic reforms in 1986, the government opened the country to foreign travelers and has made a concerted effort to improve its tourist facilities as a means of earning hard currency. Old hotels like the Metropole in Hanoi and the Continental in Ho Chi Minh City have been renovated, and a number of new ones have been built in both cities. In addition, a number of foreign cruise lines stop at ports along the coast en route to Hong Kong and Singapore. In 2007, 4.2 million tourists from all parts of the world visited Vietnam. Most visitors make short trips to the major cities and the former imperial capital of Hue.


Prior to the French conquest, the political institutions of Vietnam were patterned after the Chinese model. Confucianism was the state ideology, and the emperor ruled with the assistance of mandarins—scholars trained in Confucian principles. That system was essentially discarded during the period of French colonial rule, although the Vietnamese emperor was still permitted a figurehead authority from his imperial palace in Hue. After the division of the country in 1954, the North established a Soviet-style Communist regime, while the government in the South created a parliamentary system patterned after those in the West. Neither became a practicing democracy. The Communist system of the North was extended to the entire country after reunification in 1976. Modern Vietnam has a unitary system of government with a strong central government, and exclusive power resides with the Vietnamese Communist Party, the sole legal party in the state.

Constitution of Vietnam

After the end of French colonial rule in 1954, two independent governments emerged in Vietnam: the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in the South, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the North. After the North won the Vietnam War and took control of all of Vietnam, the DRV became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The current constitution was promulgated in 1980 and was patterned after the Soviet model, which combined nominal democratic ideas, such as the concept of elections by secret ballot, with the Leninist concept of a dominant Communist party ruling by dictatorial means in the overall interests of the people. In 1992 the constitution was amended to reflect economic reforms undertaken in 1986 as well as a decision to reduce the role of the party in the governing process.

Executive of Vietnam

Under the constitution as amended in 1992, the head of state is a president, elected to a five-year term by the National Assembly from among its members. The president is advised by a National Defense and Security Council and is assisted by a cabinet composed of a prime minister, a deputy prime minister, and other senior ministers. All ministers are appointed by and accountable to the National Assembly.

Legislature of Vietnam

According to the constitution, Vietnam’s legislature, the unicameral (single-house) National Assembly is the “highest organ of State power” in Vietnam. It possesses sole power to pass legislation and to amend the constitution. It is composed of 498 deputies, elected for five years by all citizens over 18 years of age. The National Assembly holds two sessions each year to pass legislation proposed by the executive branch of the government. In the past, it served as a rubber stamp for decisions already reached by the Communist Party. Recently it has begun to adopt a more independent position on issues of direct concern to the Vietnamese populace.

Judiciary in Vietnam

The judicial system in Vietnam was patterned after the Soviet model. At the lowest level are district courts, whose decisions may be appealed to provincial and city courts. The highest court of appeal is the Supreme People’s Court, which also functions as a court of first instance for certain serious crimes. Members of the Supreme People’s Court are elected by the National Assembly for five-year terms. Each of the lower courts is assigned a judge and several people’s assessors, who play a role similar to that of a jury in the Anglo-American system. All are elected by and held accountable to the local government.

The Supreme People’s Office of Supervision and Control is responsible for the uniform implementation of the law. The office is headed by a procurator-general who is appointed to a five-year term by the National Assembly. Below the central office are local offices of supervision and control, which ensure observance of the law by local government bodies and by all citizens.

Local Government of Vietnam

For administrative purposes, Vietnam is divided into 57 provinces and four cities directly under the central government. The provinces are further divided into districts and then villages or communes. At each level, voters elect people’s councils with legislative powers. These councils in turn elect a people’s committee from among their members to serve as an executive body. In some respects, people’s councils and people’s committees resemble local governments in Western democracies. They have the right to question decisions taken by other governmental organs at their level, but their decisions and actions are subject to review by higher organs of government power. Moreover, decisions by local government organs are normally undertaken in accordance with the instructions of Communist Party committees at that level, although party influence has declined somewhat since the inception of the doi moi (economic renovation) program in the mid-1980s. Party directives are circulated at the local level through the Fatherland Front, a mass association with branch offices at all administrative levels and among various interest groups in the country.

Political Parties of Vietnam

Vietnam is in practice a one-party state. According to the amended 1992 constitution, the Communist Party is “the force leading the State and society.”

The supreme body of the Vietnamese Communist Party is the National Congress, which meets approximately every five years. Delegates are elected to the Congress by party branches at lower levels. The delegates approve major policy decisions and elect a Central Committee, which functions in the intervals between the National Congresses. The Central Committee holds sessions twice a year to approve decisions by party leaders. The Central Committee also elects a Politburo that serves as the ruling body of the party. The Politburo is currently composed of 19 members and meets several times a month. A Politburo Standing Committee of four members operates as a standing executive body. Membership in the Vietnamese Communist Party is estimated at about 2.2 million.

Defense in Vietnam

The Vietnamese armed forces are firmly subordinated to the authority of the government. They are represented at senior levels by a minister of defense in the cabinet, and senior military officials frequently serve in the party Central Committee and Politburo. In addition to local militia units, the military has three branches of service: the army, the navy, and the air force. In 2006 the military contained 455,000 troops. Vietnamese men age 18 to 35 must fulfill a 24-month term of military service; specialists must serve an additional 12 months.

International Organizations in Vietnam

Vietnam has been a member of the United Nations since 1977. The country is also a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 1998 Vietnam joined the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.


Archaeological findings indicate that settlers in the Red River Delta may have been among the first peoples in East and Southeast Asia to practice agriculture. By the end of the 2nd millennium BC, Vietnamese civilization had begun to enter the Bronze Age. The ancestors of the modern Vietnamese were one of many scattered communities that lived in what are now South China and northern Vietnam during the 1st millennium BC. According to local tradition, a line of hereditary kings ruled over the ancient kingdom of Van Lang in the Red River Delta for thousands of years. Van Lang was conquered by Thuc Phan, who founded a small Vietnamese kingdom called Au Lac.

Chinese Rule in Vietnam

In 221 BC the state of Qin completed its conquest of neighboring states and became the first dynasty to rule over a united China. However, the dynasty collapsed soon after the death of its dynamic founder Qin Shihuangdi in 210 BC. In the wreckage of the empire, the Qin’s Chinese commander in the south, General Zhao Tuo (Chao T’o), created his own kingdom out of the Qin’s former southern provinces. Zhao, known in Vietnam as Trieu Da, named the kingdom Nam Viet (Nan Ywe in Chinese, meaning “southern Viet”). He soon conquered the Vietnamese kingdom of Au Lac and added it to his kingdom.

In 111 BC, however, Chinese armies conquered Nam Viet and absorbed Zhao’s kingdom, including the old state of Au Lac, into the growing empire of the Han Dynasty. At first, the Han tried to rule through local chieftains, who periodically attempted to expel the Chinese invaders and restore an independent state. The Han imperial court then integrated the Red River Delta politically and culturally into the Chinese Empire. They imposed Chinese-style political institutions and made Confucianism the official ideology. They also made Chinese the official spoken and written language. Eventually, Chinese characters were adapted as the written form for the Vietnamese spoken language. Chinese art, architecture, and music all became models for their counterparts in Vietnam.

Vietnamese resistance to Chinese rule was fierce but sporadic. The first major revolt occurred in AD 39 when two widows of local chieftains, known as the Trung Sisters, led an uprising against foreign rule. The revolt was briefly successful and the eldest sister established herself as ruler of an independent state. However, Chinese armies led by General Ma Yuan invaded the Red River Delta and again conquered the Vietnamese four years later.

Independence Restored in Vietnam

In the succeeding centuries a series of unsuccessful uprisings against Chinese rule followed. Finally in AD 939 Ngo Quyen took advantage of chaotic conditions in China and led a successful Vietnamese rebellion against the local occupation forces. He established the Ngo dynasty, but after his death in 944 the dynasty disintegrated and a long period of civil strife followed. In the early 11th century Ly Thai To founded the first of the great Vietnamese dynasties. Under the astute leadership of several dynamic rulers, the Ly dynasty ruled Vietnam from 1010 to 1225. The rise of the new state, known as Dai Viet (Great Viet), reflected the emergence of a strong sense of Vietnamese national identity. The Ly rulers, however, found Chinese techniques useful in controlling and mobilizing their subjects; therefore they retained many of the political and social institutions that had been introduced during the long centuries of Chinese rule. For example, they adopted the Confucian civil service examination system, formalized in China during the 8th and 9th centuries, as a means of selecting government officials. This method of selection allowed talented individuals to rise to positions of power based on their abilities, not their political connections. At first, only members of the ruling aristocracy were authorized to compete in the examinations, but eventually the right was extended to most males. The Ly used the educational system to spread moral principles valued in China. Young Vietnamese who prepared for the examinations learned the Confucian classics and grew up conversant with the great figures and ideas that had shaped Chinese history.

But Vietnamese society was more than just a pale reflection of China. Beneath the veneer of Chinese thought and fashion popular among the upper classes, native forms of expression continued to thrive. Young Vietnamese learned to appreciate the great heroes of the Vietnamese past, many of whom—like the Trung Sisters—had built their reputation on resistance to Chinese occupation. At the village level, social mores reflected native traditions more than patterns imported from China. In Vietnam, for example, the legal rights of women were more extensive than in neighboring China. Although to the superficial eye Vietnam may have looked like a “smaller dragon” under the watchful eye of the powerful empire to the north, it continued to develop a separate culture with vibrant traditions of its own.

An Agrarian Society

Nevertheless, China and Vietnam shared a number of important similarities. In both states, the primary source of wealth was agriculture. Because of its subtropical climate and plentiful rainfall, Vietnamese food production was based almost exclusively on the cultivation of wet rice. As in China and medieval Europe, much of the land was owned by powerful noble families, who often owned thousands of serfs (indentured farm laborers) or domestic slaves. A class of peasant landholders also existed, however, and the imperial court frequently attempted to limit the power of the noble families by dividing their large manorial estates and distributing the land to the peasants.

The Vietnamese economy was not based solely on agriculture, however. Commerce and manufacturing thrived, and local craft goods appeared in regional markets throughout the area. Especially prized were Vietnamese ceramics, cheaper than those produced in China and only slightly lower in quality. But Vietnam never developed into a predominantly trading nation, nor did it become a major participant in regional commerce. Like China, Vietnam looked inward, and the imperial court viewed the merchant class with suspicion.

March to the South

Under the Ly dynasty Vietnam gradually became a dynamic force in Southeast Asia, and this power increased under the succeeding Tran dynasty. The Tran took power from the Ly in 1225, when the eight-year-old Ly empress transferred power to her new Tran husband. During the remainder of the 13th century, the Tran were preoccupied with the growing power of the Mongols, pastoral warriors from northern Asia. The Mongols completed their conquest of China in 1279 and established a new empire there known as the Yuan dynasty. A few years later, Mongol armies invaded Vietnam in an effort to reincorporate the Red River Valley into China. Under the leadership of General Tran Hung Dao, the Vietnamese vigorously resisted; after several bitter battles they defeated the invading forces and drove them back across the border.

While the Vietnamese maintained their guard to the north, an area of equal and growing interest lay to the south. For centuries, the Vietnamese state had been restricted to its heartland in the Red River Valley and the mountainous perimeter. Determined to obtain an outlet for their growing population, in the 10th century Vietnamese rulers began turning their attention south to the kingdom of Champa, a seafaring state inhabited by Malay-speaking peoples. The two states competed bitterly for advantage. On several occasions, Cham armies broke through Vietnamese defenses and occupied the Vietnamese capital. More frequently, Vietnamese troops were victorious, and they gradually drove the kingdom of Champa to the south. In the 15th century Vietnamese forces captured the Cham capital, south of present-day Da Nang, and virtually destroyed the kingdom. For the next several generations, Vietnam continued its historic “march to the south,” wiping up the remnants of the Cham kingdom and gradually penetrating the marshy flatlands of the Mekong Delta. There it confronted a new foe, the Khmer kingdom of Angkor, which had once been the most powerful state in mainland Southeast Asia. By the late 16th century, however, it was in a state of decline and unable to offer sustained resistance to Vietnamese encroachment. A hundred years later, Vietnam occupied the lower Mekong Delta and began advancing westward, threatening to transform the disintegrating Khmer state into a mere protectorate.

Civil War

The Vietnamese advance to the south coincided with new challenges to the north. In 1407 the Chinese Ming dynasty, which had overthrown Mongol rule in 1368, occupied Vietnam. By 1428, however, resistance forces under rebel leader Le Loi had restored Vietnamese independence. Le Loi mounted the throne as the first emperor of the Le dynasty, which was to last for more than 300 years.

The new ruling house retained its vigor for more than 100 years, but internal rivalries weakened the dynasty in the 16th century. In 1527 General Mac Dang Dung deposed the Le monarch and made himself ruler. The Nguyen and Trinh families, Le nobles who supported reinstatement of the Le ruler, regained control of the country by 1592. By that time an ambitious Trinh noble, Trinh Kiem, had become dominant in the Le court and had granted a member of the Nguyen family a fiefdom in the south. This effectively divided the state into two separate administrative regions, and a rivalry developed between the Trinh and Nguyen lords. The split of Vietnam into two squabbling regimes coincided with European interest in the region. In the 16th and 17th centuries European fleets visited Vietnam carrying traders who sought wealth and missionaries who were intent on converting Vietnamese and others in the region to Christianity. To seek advantage over their rivals, the European traders and missionaries sided with one or another of the Vietnamese states, further dividing the country.

By the late 18th century, the Le dynasty was near collapse. With no powerful central government, feudal lords increasingly gained control of vast rice lands. In 1773 three brothers from the village of Tay Son in central Vietnam launched a peasant rebellion against the corruption and misrule of the Nguyen court. In each village they captured, the Tay Son confiscated land from the wealthy and redistributed it to the poor. By 1783 the Tay Son rebellion succeeded in overthrowing the Nguyen family in the south. The Tay Son brothers, as they were popularly called, then turned their forces against the Trinh government in the north. By 1789 the ablest of the brothers, Nguyen Hue (no relation to the Nguyen family that had controlled the south), gained control of the north and declared himself founder of a new dynasty. His death in 1792, however, left a power vacuum.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Anh, the sole surviving heir of the Nguyen house in the south, had assembled a force to retake Vietnam. By 1789 his forces had recaptured most of the former Nguyen territory. They then moved north and in 1802 defeated the Tay Son armies. Nguyen Anh established a new Nguyen dynasty, with its capital at Hue in central Vietnam to symbolize the newly restored unity of the country.

French Conquest in Vietnam

A French Catholic missionary, Bishop Pigneau de Behaine, had raised a mercenary force to help Nguyen Anh seize the Vietnamese throne. The bishop hoped the new emperor would provide France with trading and missionary privileges, but Nguyen Anh was suspicious of French influence. Under his rule and that of his successors, any resistance to the absolute power of the government was dealt with harshly. The Nguyen regime persecuted religious followers, including Christians, Buddhists, Daoists (Taoists), and followers of traditional beliefs. The persecution of French Christian missionaries and their Vietnamese converts, in particular, received the attention of French Catholics. Religious groups in France demanded retaliatory action from the government in Paris. When commercial and military interests also urged a decisive move to protect French interests in Southeast Asia, the French emperor Napoleon III approved the launching of a naval expedition to punish the Vietnamese and force the court to accept a French presence in the country. The first attack at Da Nang in 1858 failed to achieve its objectives. A second attack farther south the following year was more successful, however, and in 1862 Emperor Tu Duc agreed to cede several provinces in the Mekong Delta to France as the colony of Cochin China. In the 1880s the French resumed their advance, launching an attack on the Red River Delta on the pretext of protecting French citizens there. After severe defeats, the Vietnamese court accepted French rule over the remaining territory of Vietnam, which was divided into two protectorates—Tonkin in the Red River Delta and Annam along the central coast. In 1887, after France had established a third protectorate over Cambodia, it consolidated the administration of its Southeast Asian territories, creating the Indochinese Union, or French Indochina. Laos was incorporated into the union in 1893.

Colonial Rule and Resistance

The imposition of French colonial rule met with little organized resistance. Emperor Tu Duc himself hoped that by adopting a conciliatory attitude toward French demands in the southern provinces, the invaders might eventually be brought to reason and persuaded to give up their new conquests. He therefore prohibited his subjects from openly resisting French actions. But the sense of national identity was not extinguished, and anticolonial sentiment soon began to emerge. Poor living conditions, worsened by French economic exploitation, contributed to growing Vietnamese hostility to foreign rule. French occupation did bring some improvements in the area of transport and communications and also contributed modestly to the growth of a commercial and manufacturing sector. However, as a whole, colonialism brought little improvement in the lives of the Vietnamese. In the countryside, peasants struggled under heavy taxes and high rents. Workers in factories, in coal mines, and on rubber plantations labored in abysmal working conditions for paltry wages. By the early 1920s nationalist parties began to demand reform or independence. In 1930 the Moscow-trained revolutionary Ho Chi Minh (real name Nguyen Tat Thanh) established the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).

Until the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945), the ICP and other revolutionary groups labored with little success. In 1940, however, Japan demanded the right to place northern Vietnam under military occupation. Japan planned to use the area as a base from which to launch a future invasion of the rest of Southeast Asia. The French viceroy, the senior government official in French Indochina, lacked sufficient armed forces to resist. He agreed to Japanese demands and was reduced to a figurehead authority. Seizing the opportunity, Ho Chi Minh organized a broad national front group called the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Viet Minh for short) and built up guerrilla forces in preparation for an uprising at war’s end. To win wide popular support, the Viet Minh program emphasized national independence and moderate reform rather than openly Communist aims. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, Viet Minh forces rose throughout the country and, in what is known as the August Revolution, declared the establishment of an independent republic with its capital at Hanoi.

The French, however, were unwilling to concede independence, and in late 1945 they seized control over the southern provinces from retreating Viet Minh and other nationalist forces. Negotiations to seek a compromise solution were held in France in the summer of 1946, but they failed to resolve differences. War broke out in December when Viet Minh military units attacked French positions in Hanoi and then retreated to the mountains north of the Red River Delta.

The Expulsion of the French

The Franco-Viet Minh conflict (now often called the First Indochina War) lasted nearly eight years. The Viet Minh set up their headquarters in the mountainous area between the Red River valley and the Chinese border and built up their forces for a major counter-offensive. After failing to capture Ho Chi Minh and destroy the guerrilla movement, the French formed a rival Vietnamese government under Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. In August 1945 Bao Dai had abdicated the throne in favor of Ho Chi Minh’s republic, which was formally declared in September. Viet Minh forces lacked the strength to defeat the French, but the movement had earned sufficient popularity among the Vietnamese people to prevent French victory. In 1950 the United States—increasingly concerned about Communist advances in Asia—recognized Bao Dai’s government and began to provide military and economic aid to the French. In turn, the Viet Minh (still dominated by Ho Chi Minh’s ICP) sought assistance from the new Communist government in China.

The war was a virtual stalemate for three years. In France, however, the public grew weary of the war in Indochina. In March 1954 Viet Minh forces attacked Dien Bien Phu, the French military outpost in the isolated town of Dien Bien. The dispirited government in France agreed to hold negotiations on a peace agreement at Geneva, Switzerland. The French outpost fell to a Viet Minh assault on May 7, the night before negotiations began at Geneva (Dien Bien Phu, Battle of).

Vietnam Divided

Representatives from all the major world powers, the two rival Vietnamese governments, and the new royal governments in Laos and Cambodia attended the peace talks, which lasted for several weeks. In mid-July, despite U.S. urging to continue the struggle, the French agreed to a compromise agreement (known as the Geneva Accords). This agreement called for the withdrawal of French troops and a temporary division of the country into two separate zones. The Communists would withdraw to North Vietnam, while the non-Communists would move into South Vietnam. To avoid a permanent division, a solution unacceptable to the supporters of both Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai, national elections were to be held in 1956 to bring about a reunified Vietnam.

The Uneasy Peace

For the next five years Indochina experienced a brief interlude of peace. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh’s government (known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV) focused attention on laying the foundations of a Communist society while hoping for national reunification by means of elections, which were widely expected to favor Ho. But in the South, Bao Dai was soon replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunchly anti-Communist Catholic who refused to hold national elections as called for by the Geneva Accords. Sympathetic to his anti-Communist beliefs, the United States supported Diem, who claimed that Vietnam’s colonial oppressors had negotiated the agreements. A constitution was written, and after elections staged only in the South, Diem became president of a new Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

During the next several years the Diem regime vigorously sought to crush lingering support for the Viet Minh in the South, as well as all other forms of domestic opposition. His harsh actions resulted in growing hostility from many South Vietnamese. Meanwhile Diem’s social and economic programs failed to reduce the severe inequality of landholdings in the countryside. In 1959, fearing that the Communist base in the South could be entirely eliminated, the North adopted a policy of revolutionary war intent on toppling Diem’s government and bringing about national reunification. In 1960 the North Vietnamese government ordered the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), based on the model of the Viet Minh created two decades earlier. Most members of the NLF were native southerners. Relatively few were members of the Communist Party, but the Communists ruled from behind the scenes. In 1961 the armed wing of the NLF, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, popularly known as the Viet Cong, or “Viet Communists”), was formed.

The United States provided increasing amounts of military assistance to Diem’s government, and U.S. advisers instructed South Vietnamese troops on how to fight a guerrilla war. Diem became increasingly unpopular, however, and conditions throughout the country steadily worsened, allowing the PLAF to gain control of much of the countryside. The South alienated many Vietnamese Buddhists by the government’s alleged favoritism to Catholics. With tacit U.S. approval, dissident elements in the army launched a coup in November 1963 to overthrow Diem, and he was killed in the attack. In the political confusion that followed, the security situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate, putting the Communists within reach of total victory. In early 1965, faced with the South’s imminent collapse, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson ordered the intensive bombing of North Vietnam and the dispatch of U.S. combat troops into the South.

The Vietnam War

The U.S. intervention caused severe problems for the Communists on the battlefield, but it did not persuade them to abandon their struggle. The North Vietnamese leaders were convinced that they could outwait the Americans as they previously had the French. The North Vietnamese government sent regular units of the North Vietnamese army into the South to bolster the efforts of the local PLAF forces. But the sheer weight of U.S. firepower was difficult to overcome. As casualties mounted, insurgent units were being driven out of the villages into the mountains or along the borders of the country.

In early 1968, hoping to bring about a collapse of the RVN or at least undermine public support for the war effort in the United States, Hanoi launched the Tet Offensive, a simultaneous attack on almost every major South Vietnamese city. Similar attacks took place on towns and villages in the countryside. The Tet Offensive resulted in enormous casualties for the attacking forces, but it also weakened the regime of the new South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu. The Tet Offensive was also successful in severely shaking the American people’s confidence in the effectiveness of U.S. strategy. In March President Johnson decided to seek a negotiated settlement and announced he would not run for reelection. Peace talks opened in Paris in May but quickly collapsed and stalled for months. In November Richard Nixon was elected as the new U.S. president.

During his presidential campaign, Nixon announced that he had a secret plan to end the war. When implemented, the plan consisted of a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops while simultaneously strengthening the South Vietnamese army to defend its own territory. At the same time, Nixon opened contacts with China, hoping China would agree to limit its support for North Vietnam in return for better relations with the United States. In 1972, when a second Communist offensive failed to achieve a victory, North Vietnam agreed to a compromise settlement. Under the arrangement, the South’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, was allowed to remain in office in Saigon, but the NLF was permitted to play a legal political role in the South. All U.S. combat troops were to be withdrawn from Vietnam, but the United States could continue to provide military assistance to the South. The agreement did not address the presence of North Vietnamese units inside the South’s territory. Despite President Thieu’s anger at these conditions, the Paris Agreement was signed in January 1973. According to the terms of the agreement, consultations were to be held on future elections to form a new government in South Vietnam.

The agreement soon unraveled. In early 1975 the Communists launched a military offensive in the Central Highlands, intensifying the attack when the United States failed to respond. At the end of April the Thieu regime collapsed, and the Communists seized power in Saigon.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam

In 1976 the South was officially reunited with the North in a new Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Under the leadership of Le Duan, party chief since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, Communist leaders in Hanoi adopted an ambitious plan to bring about the creation of an advanced Communist society. However, extensive war damage, lack of foreign investment, managerial inexperience, and the passive resistance of millions of people in the southern provinces all combined to defeat the program. By the end of the decade, the economy was in shambles, and popular hostility to the leadership had reached alarming heights. Thousands of people, many of them ethnic Chinese merchants and their families, fled the country in flimsy boats or across the border into China.

A foreign policy crisis worsened the domestic problems. For decades, Communist Party leaders had planned to unite Vietnam with revolutionary governments in neighboring Laos and Cambodia to form a militant alliance against the threat of imperialism. By the end of 1975, Communists had come to power in both countries, but the new government in Cambodia, under the leadership of militant revolutionary Pol Pot, was suspicious of Vietnamese intentions. Pol Pot refused to join with Hanoi, and Cambodian troops attacked Vietnamese villages near the Cambodian border. Pol Pot also demanded the return of territories in the Mekong Delta that the Vietnamese had seized from Cambodia’s predecessor, the Angkor Empire, during their “march to the south” centuries before.

In December 1978, after abortive efforts to bring about a compromise, Vietnam launched an offensive to overthrow the Pol Pot regime and install a new pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia. They accomplished this in early 1979; however, the Vietnamese government had underestimated China’s interest in the area. Long suspicious of Vietnamese plans to dominate all of Indochina, Chinese leaders warned Vietnam that any attack on Cambodia would be viewed as a grave threat to the peace. Adding to China’s suspicions was the fact that Vietnam had recently signed a military security pact with China’s bitter rival, the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Chinese and Vietnamese troops had recently clashed on their mutual frontier, and the Chinese government bitterly criticized Vietnamese mistreatment of its ethnic Chinese population.

Less than two months after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, China launched a brief but bitter assault into northern Vietnam. Although Chinese troops withdrew a few weeks later, they remained along the common frontier, forcing Vietnam to maintain a high defense posture in the area. In the meantime, Vietnam was forced to station nearly 200,000 occupation troops in Cambodia to protect the pro-Vietnamese government it had installed there.

The Doi Moi Reforms

By 1986, the year of Le Duan’s death, Vietnamese leaders had begun to recognize that major changes were needed. At a national congress held in December, new party leaders launched the doi moi (economic renovation) program to reform Vietnamese society and stimulate economic growth. They abandoned efforts to build a fully Communist society by the end of the decade and dismantled collective farms. Party leaders declared their intention to bring about a mixed economy, involving a combination of state, collective, and private ownership. Foreign investment was encouraged, and a more tolerant attitude was adopted toward the free expression of opinion in the country.

Vietnam also sought to improve its position in foreign affairs. All Vietnamese occupation troops were withdrawn from Cambodia by the end of the 1980s. In 1991 Vietnam signed a peace agreement in Paris that created a coalition government of Communist and non-Communist elements in Cambodia. Vietnam made serious attempts to improve relations with China and with the United States, which ended its economic embargo in 1994. Full diplomatic relations were established the following year. In 1995 Vietnam joined with non-Communist governments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization dedicated to promoting the economic growth of its member states. Also in 1995, Vietnam applied for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the aim of opening the country to greater foreign trade and investment.

Vietnamese leaders, however, have not yet entirely abandoned their dream of creating a Communist society. While stating their intention to create a modified market economy, they insist that state-run industries will hold the “commanding heights” in the system. Party leaders will not tolerate the creation of rival political organizations and rigorously suppress dissent from opposition forces. Conservative party leaders express open concern at the corrosive influence of decadent ideas from the West, which they view as a plot by “dark forces” in the United States to destroy the Vietnamese revolution. Like the leadership in neighboring China, Vietnamese leaders have declared their support for a policy of “economic reform, political stability.”

In 2001 Vietnam’s Politburo elected Nong Duc Manh as the Communist Party’s general secretary, making him the country’s top leader. Manh pursued a program of economic liberalization, and Vietnam’s economy came to be characterized as “a market economy with socialist orientation.” Manh was reelected to a second five-year term in 2006 and indicated that economic reforms would accelerate. The doi moi reforms had brought tangible success, making Vietnam one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. From 1996 to 2006 Vietnam maintained an annual growth rate of more than 7 percent. In 2006 it ranked second only to China in economic growth.

Vietnam’s economic prospects received a further boost in November 2006, when the WTO approved the country’s bid for membership. The acceptance capped more than a decade of negotiations. The Politburo of Vietnam ratified the deal in late November, paving the way for Vietnam to become the 150th member of the WTO the following month. To gain membership, Vietnam committed to further opening its economy to foreign trade and investment. Among other provisions, Vietnam agreed to lower many import tariffs, abolish trade quotas and restrictions, and open previously protected economic sectors to foreign investors. Membership was expected to give Vietnam more access to overseas markets but also increase the pressures of foreign competition on Vietnamese businesses.

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