Lush green mountains, scenic beaches, ancient pagodas, and the allure of a fascinating culture attract millions of visitors to Vietnam each year. The country emerged from the 1990s as an increasingly prosperous nation, with a strong tourism industry, largely due to economic reforms and an effort by its people to rebuild after the war and move further away from Communist principles that have stifled the nation.
Bounded by the warm waters of the South China Sea, Vietnam is in the southeastern corner of the Indochinese peninsula. To the country’s west are Laos and Cambodia, separated from Vietnam by the Annamite Mountains or the Truong Son Range, while to the north lies the great bulk of China. Vietnam itself is long and thin – just 31 miles (50 km) wide at its narrowest – with an extensive coastline stretching from the Gulf of Tonkin in the north to the Gulf of Thailand in the south.
The Vietnamese generally divide their country into three regions. In the north, dominated by the charming capital Hanoi and hemmed in by mountains on three sides, is the fertile Red River Delta. The long central part of Vietnam is marked by several scenic beaches, the former imperial city of Hue, the mercantile town of Hoi An, and the large port city of Danang, along with remnants of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In its lower half, it broadens and is home to the highlands around Pleiku and Dalat. In the far south lies burgeoning Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial hub, and the Mekong Delta. Characterized by palm trees and numerous canals, this bucolic region is the country’s largest riceproducing belt.
Vietnam’s geographical diversity is reflected in its people, and the nation is home to 54 recognized ethnic groups. The largest, Viet or Kinh, constitute 86 percent of the nation’s 94 million people and live mainly on the coastal plains and in the delta regions.
Most of the ethnic minorities inhabit the northern and central highlands and are distinguished by their unique history, culture, and language. The ethnic Chinese, or Hoa, by contrast, are mostly based in the lowlands and major cities, while the Cham and Khmer are settled in the southern coastal plains and the Mekong Delta.
The traditional structure of Vietnamese society has always been hierarchical and patriarchal. Drawing heavily from the Confucian model, family and filial duties are upheld as cardinal virtues. Elders are given respect and education is highly esteemed. The role of women has changed since their emancipation by the Communist regime. Today, although women have gained equality in the public sphere, the home is usually still “run” by a woman.
Vietnam’s culture is made more fascinating by the foreign influences it has assimilated over the centuries. Nearly 1,000 years of Chinese occupation has left its mark on the Vietnamese, who have selected and adopted those customs, traditions, beliefs, and architecture most suited to their culture. It is, however, a love-hate relationship, with Vietnam emulating Chinese culture while rejecting any form of political domination by its northern neighbor. The impact of the French, who attacked Saigon after a wave of Catholic executions in the 19th century and went on to conquer the country, is less comprehensive. The colonial power’s influence is most visible in the distinctive architecture of the cities and, to some extent, in the food.
Some overseas Vietnamese, or Viet Kieu, who fled the country as refugees from the communist North in the 1950s and from the South after 1975, are now returning and bringing Western cultural influences with them. While members of the older generation refuse to visit their former homeland, still ruled by the very people who forced them into exile, others are coming back to set up businesses or discover their “roots.”
Tourism and the media have also played a role in the Westernization of the culture, which is evident among urban youngsters. Everyone is learning English, iPhones are coveted, and jeans and designer clothing are common. During the 1990s Vietnam was known for its austere fashions, but today it is an emporium for purchasing clothes, accessories, and homeware in luxurious fabrics and funky designs. Western- style clothing is common among young women, but the traditional ao dai or trouser dress, is still worn on special occasions, in schools, and in formal settings.
During the communist years, atheism was officially promoted, but in the modern era of pragmatism, old faiths and traditions flourish. Vietnam has long embraced a mélange of faiths based on Tam Giao or the Triple Religion of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, to which has been added ancestor worship, indigenous spirit beliefs, and even Hindu traditions from ancient Champa. The country is also home to a large Catholic population, and idiosyncratic faiths such as Cao Daism and Hoa Hao. These are all tolerated, provided they do not threaten the Communist Party’s hold on power.
Language and Literature
Vietnamese, or tieng Viet, is the national language of Vietnam, spoken by around 87 per cent of the population as their first language. Until about AD 1000, there was no written form of Vietnamese, but in the 11th century, a system called chu nom was introduced, using adapted Chinese characters. In the 17th century, a Romanized script, quoc ngu, was developed by European missionaries, and this has become the accepted script. However, there are regional and intra-regional variations in dialect throughout the country.
Vietnam has a rich literary heritage, written in Chinese, chu nom, and quoc ngu. The epic poem, The Tale of Kieu, written by mandarin and scholar Nguyen Du (1766–1820), is a classic morality tale widely regarded as the greatest work in Vietnamese literature. Also famous are the poems of high-ranking concubine, Ho Xuan Huong (1772–1822), known for her witty verse. Today, as a result of gradual political liberalization, a new style of writing has emerged that explores “forbidden issues,” and focuses on the plight of the individual. Bao Ninh is a popular writer whose novel Sorrow of War is a powerful account of the Vietnam War. Some contemporary names include Pham Thi Hoai, Nguyen Huy Thiep, and Duong Thu Huong.
Once among the poorest nations of the world, Vietnam experienced an economic boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. The credit for this initially went to the introduction of doi moi (economic reforms) in 1986, which permitted the setting up of free market enterprises, abolished the practice of collectivized farming, and set the stage for political liberalization.
In 1993, the World Bank declared 58 percent of the population to be living in poverty. By 2012, this figure had fallen dramatically, to less than 4 percent. Agriculture remains the most important element of the economy, forming a major portion of the country’s exports sector and employing nearly 50 percent of the population. Today, Vietnam is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice – an astounding feat for a nation facing famine in the 1980s.
The industrial sector has shown immense improvement and expansion as well. Mining continues to be an integral part of the economy, and oil, gas, and coal production account for more than 25 percent of industrial GDP. By 2013, the country’s GDP per capita rate was up to almost US$2,000. Vietnam has also made great strides on the international stage. It became a full member of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1995, and then of the WTO in 2006.
The tourism industry (see facing page) is also helping to power the economy. In 2015, nearly 8 million people visited Vietnam, more than double the figure of just a decade before.
Government and Politics
Vietnam is a one-party country run by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Currently, Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Tran Dai Quang are the prime minister and the president of the Republic of Vietnam respectively. They were chosen by the National Congress which meets every five years. Authoritarian in essence, the party opposes political dissent; many who have expressed disagreement with the regime have been punished. However, since the adoption of limited free market capitalism, the party has taken several steps towards reforming. At the same time, though, it is plagued with corruption, slowing down the process of any political change. As a result, while economic reform speeds along, political rights and freedoms continue to lag behind. In 2009, Hanoi began blocking social networking sites. Several foreign journalists were detained and expelled due to reports on human rights. Then in 2012, the plight of citizens in re-education and work camps were made public. Yet the desire for change amongst the Vietnamese is great, and the populace recognizes that an increased say in politics is not only desirable, but essential for continued development.
Despite its increasing wealth, Vietnam remains a poor country with a rapidly expanding population and limited land resources. By 2020, Vietnam is projected to have around twice the population of Thailand, but with less than half the arable land. According to the World Conservation Monitoring Center, at present around 74,000 acres (30,000 ha) of forest is lost annually. Both plantlife and wildlife have suffered at the hands of hunters and farmers, but the government’s relocation and collectivized farming programs have perhaps had the greatest long-term impact on the environment. In the 1980s, large tracts of arable land were cleared for futile farming efforts that never saw fruition.
Fortunately, the outlook for Vietnam’s nature is improving now. Laws protecting forests and endangered species are being introduced every year, in keeping with Ho Chi Minh’s 1962 pronouncement that “forest is gold.” Tourism has indirectly had a positive impact on the environment by providing a new source of income that can prove far more profitable than hunting and logging.
When Vietnam first opened to tourism in the early 1990s, many visitors were drawn by images of a war-torn nation. The Viets have since done their best to change this view, emphasizing the country’s beauty instead. Historic pagodas and French- Colonial buildings have been restored, while most hotels and restaurants have now returned to the private sector, allowing proprietors to strive for excellence in an increasingly competitive industry. The country’s road and rail transport infrastructure needs major upgrading, but its airports and national airline offer a high standard of service.
The tourism industry has grown steadily since the 1990s, and Vietnam is now a major tourist destination. Each year, millions of visitors are drawn to the country by its ancient monuments, scenic beaches, sophisticated cuisine, excellent shopping opportunities, and the warmth of the Vietnamese people. Another positive outcome of the tourist boom has been the resurgence of traditional culture, including music, dance, and drama. Old festivals are being re-established, and arts such as water puppetry are flourishing.