Washington Women's Delegation to Vietnam
Background on Viet Nam

When we think about Viet Nam, we tend to think about rice paddies and water buffalo, and the legacies of the Viet Nam War.  But there is far more to Viet Nam than most of us know. Many members of the delegation have been meeting monthly to discuss books written by Vietnamese and other authors on topics unique to Viet Nam.  If you have missed our book club meetings, here are a few background facts on Viet Nam to place help familiarize you with the country.

The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam is one of the world’s few remaining one-party Communist states.  It covers a geographic area of over 127,000 square miles, bordering China, Cambodia, and Laos, and has a population estimated at just over 90 million, making it the fourteenth most populous country in the world.[1]

There are 54 ethnic groups in Viet Nam, of which the ethnic Viet (Kinh) make up close to 86% of the population. The vast majority of those in national, regional, and local leadership in the economic, political, social and cultural life of the country are members of the Kinh group. Members of the ethnic minority groups tend to be among the poorest and most poorly educated of the national population.

Political history
Vietnamese nationalists have long cultivated a collective narrative defined by resistance to foreign aggressors.  The first foreign aggressors in Vietnam came from what is now China beginning in 111 BC and dominated Vietnamese society for the next thousand years.  As a result, contemporary Vietnamese culture is infused with Confucian ideas and political sensibilities.  The Vietnamese threw off Chinese control in 939 AD but other foreign aggressors followed.  France claimed political and economic control of Viet Nam in 1885 at which time the French took control of all governmental functions.  The Japanese military occupied Viet Nam during World War II, with the assistance of the French Vichy government.  In September 1945, after Japan’s defeat, Ho Chi Minh declared a newly independent Democratic Republic of Viet Nam.  The French, however, were unwilling to release their hold on Viet Nam and a guerrilla war broke out between Vietnamese nationalists and French colonial authorities.  That war lasted for eight years, ending with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  France and the communist nationalist forces signed a cease-fire in 1954 that divided Viet Nam at the 17th parallel into a communist northern zone, and a non-communist southern zone.  Although the division was to be temporary and anticipated a national election by 1956, the government of the southern zone refused to participate in the election and instead declared the southern zone to be the independent Republic of Viet Nam.  The northern communist government sought to reunify the country by force, and in 1961 U.S. military advisers were dispatched to the south to help it resist communist incursions.  What followed was a devastating chapter in the history of Viet Nam that did not end until the final withdrawal of American military personnel in 1975.

Reunification of North and South in 1975 did not end civil conflict as the communist government imposed forced collectivization on agricultural communities, confiscated private property, and sent thousands to re-education camps.  Over the next decade, the economy stagnated and thousands of “boat people” fled to neighboring countries to avoid starvation and repression.  In 1986, the government backtracked on its reform proposals and eased restrictions on commercial development, a policy referred to as doi moi (“change to something new’).  In 1992 the government approved a new constitution that reaffirmed the central role of the Communist Party of Vietnam but also allowed new economic freedoms.  Since that time, Viet Nam has orchestrated a striking reduction in the poverty rate.

Although Viet Nam was once one of the poorest countries in the world, it has made remarkable progress over the past two decades reducing the poverty rate.  In 1993, almost 60% of the population lived below the poverty line but by 2004 that number was down to 20% and by 2008 it had dropped to 14.5%.[2]  The country has met most of the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations, and is witnessing enormous improvements in living standards and economic growth. Viet Nam currently has a 93% literacy rate among adults,[3] and one of the highest life expectancies among countries in East Asia and the Pacific.

[1] Statistics taken from the Vietnam country report prepared by the U.S. State Department, available at http://www.state.gov/p/eap/ci/vm; see also The World Bank, Data by Country, at http://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam; CIA, The World Factbook, Country Comparison: Population, at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html?countryName=Vietnam&countryCode=vm&regionCode=eas&rank=14#vm.; see also Vietnam country report prepared by the Centre for Intercultural Learning for the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, http://www.intercultures.ca/cil-cai/ci-ic-eng.

[2] The World Bank, Data by Country, http://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam.

[3] Among 15-24 year olds, the overall rate is higher, and almost evenly balanced between males (97.3%) and females (96.5%).  See UIS Statistics in Brief, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/document.aspx?ReportId=124&IF_Language=eng&BR_Country=8680&BR_Region=40515.