The Vietnamese Identity
Perhaps because of the years of rivalry, Vietnam has developed a powerful sense of national identity, placing the Vietnamese somewhere between China and the rest of Southeast Asia - possessors of a unique cultural heritage which is both strongly sinicised, yet also distinctively Southeast Asian.
Thus, most Vietnamese are Buddhists, but follow the Mahayana doctrine as taught in China rather than the Theravada school of nearby Thai- Below: the valiant remembered land, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Traditional Vietnamese values respect and closely adhere to the teachings of Confucius, while many Vietnamese also revere the Way of Taoism. Yet they also believe in spirits and practice a distinctly Southeast Asian form of spirit worship.
Nowadays, the Vietnamese may wear Western attire and turned to toothpaste instead of betel nut, but they remain as firmly devoted to the concept of national independence and a distinct Viet cultural identity. At different times, this has been both their country’s weakness and its strength.
Long centuries of fighting the Chinese were followed in the 19th and 20th centuries by the experience - in close succession - of French colonialism, Japanese occupation and American intervention. Surely, by the time the communists finally attained victory in 1975, foreigners of all kinds must have seemed aggressive and untrust-worthy to the victors.
Yet Vietnam would not be left alone. Within months of achieving its decisive victory, Hanoi was once again threatened by an expansionist Khmer Rouge regime in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, backed by the old enemy, China, to the north. The apparent solution, an alliance with the Soviet Union and its allies, proved hardly more appealing. The So Vietnamese people behaved not unlike ‘poor Americans’, having far smaller purse-strings than the US, but making similar demands for naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and special status elsewhere in Vietnam.
To make matters worse, all too often the Russians behaved in a condescending way. A journalist’s account from the 1980s - of burly Russians bargaining with a despairing Vietnamese shop-keeper as they try to exchange antique porcelain for bundles of Soviet calendars - sums up much of what was wrong with the relationship.
Vietnam heading for a New Future
Today, most Vietnamese are anxious to put the years of war and privation behind them. Looking westwards to their Thai neighbors, they see the manifold benefits that international tourism can bring, but they are also darkly aware of the problem's. The Vietnamese authorities very much want to attract the hard currency associated with tourism, but worry about the negative impact such visitors can bring.
On the surface, the problems associated with tourism and a more open society are broadly rep-resented as those of loose morals, drugs, antisocial behavior and Aids, but truth to tell, the apparatchiks who control the party machine are more concerned with the threat of open debate, a free press and genuine opposition.
Still, in the 10 years since Vietnam first began to open up to the outside world, great changes have been made. Standards of accommodation have improved, thousands of new restaurants have opened, communications have improved and almost the whole country is now accessible.
More importantly, as the regime has relaxed, so have the Vietnamese people. Once characterized by a certain shyness or lack of security which sometimes manifested itself in a reserved manner, the people are now increasingly open, friendly and eager to meet foreigners.
Vietnam’s Location & Size
Slightly larger than Italy and a little smaller than Japan, Vietnam stretches over 1,600km (1,000 miles) from north to south and from as little as 50km (31 miles) from east to west. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as it is officially known, covers an area of 329,566 sq km (127,246 sq miles). Vietnam’s northernmost point lies just below the Tropic of Cancer, and its southern extreme just above latitude 8°N. Its land borders with that of China to the north and Laos and Cambodia to the west. Vietnam also has a 3,450-km (2,150-mile) coastline along the East Sea of Vietnam in the east.
The capital, Hanoi, is located in the heart of the Red River Valley in the north, the traditional heartland of the Viet people.
The largest city, Saigon - which has been called Ho Chi Minh City since 1975 - dominates the broad Mekong Delta in the south, which forms the nation’s rice bowl.
Climate in Vietnam - When is the best time to go?
Vietnam’s location in the Southeast Asian monsoon zone, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, gives rise to a complex and humid climate. The average temperature of 22°C (72°F) varies slightly from one season to another.
Northern Vietnam’s climate is influenced by the winds of Central Asia, which give rise to a climate similar to that of southern China. From November to April, the northern part of the country experiences a relatively cold winter. Temperatures often fall as low as freezing point in the mountains north and west of Hanoi. Summer, between May and September, sees higher temperatures, heavy rain and sometimes typhoons. Both the north and centre experience their hottest months during June, July and August.
Central Vietnam from Danang to Nha Trang has its own weather patterns because of the monsoons: the dry season is from January to September, with the most rainfall from October to mid-January.
Southern Vietnam’s climate is characterized by relatively constant temperatures, a rainy season between May and November, a relatively cooler and dry season from December to February, and a hot season between late February and April, when temperatures may reach 35°C (95°F).
About 87 percent of the 90-million populations are ethnic Vietnamese people, also known as Kinh. It is likely that they are descended from a number of diverse ethnic groups. Foremost among these are the Hung, also known as Lac, who practiced intensive wet rice cultivation in the fertile Red River Delta. Over the centuries, the Vietnamese people migrated southward, adding a Malayo-Polynesian element both to Viet ethnicity and to the Vietnamese language.
The Chinese, Khmers and Chams
Vietnam's 1 million Chinese constitute the most important minority group. Only a few thousand have retained Chinese nationality, while the rest known as Hoa, and have adopted Vietnamese nationality. Their largest concentration is in the south, especially at Cholon and in the Mekong Delta. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, they excel at business and are predominantly urban.
Ethnic Khmer, who live mainly in the Mekong Delta, number around 500,000; they are ethnically identical to the Khmers of Cambodia (by whom they are called Khmer krom, or ‘Lower Khmer’).
The Cham inhabit the Phan Rang and Phan Thiet regions, as well as the Mekong Delta. Once masters of the central coast, they are now reduced to as few as 120,000 people. The coastal Cham are predominantly Hindu, while those of the Mekong Delta are Muslim.
Ethnic minorities living in the mountains in central and southern Vietnam form another important group. Called Montagnards by the French, these tribes include the Muong, Ra De, Jarai, Banhar and Sedang living in the Central Highlands. Totaling around 700,000 people, they have long resisted Viet influence and have only recently begun to integrate a little more into national life.
The highlands of northwestern Vietnam are home to many ethnic minorities. These include the Tay, who number just over a million and are found in the provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Thai, Quang Ninh, Ha Giang and Tuyen Quang. Their villages are located in irrigated valleys where they build traditional stilt houses. They cultivate wet paddy rice, soya beans, cinnamon, tea, tobacco, cotton, indigo and a variety of fruits.
Other important upland minorities of northwestern Vietnam include the Tai, close relations to the various Tai-speaking groups of Laos, Thailand and China’s Yunnan province, as well as the Hmong and the Nung.
Religion in Vietnam
Most Vietnamese would describe themselves as Buddhists, but theirs is a very different Buddhism to that practiced elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia. Buddhism came to Vietnam from the north, by way of China, as did the other major belief systems of the Vietnamese, Confucianism and Taoism. The resultant mix, combined with an indigenous tradition of spirit worship, makes Vietnamese spiritual values both complex and unique.
Most ethnic Vietnamese people are Mahayana Buddhists, following the ‘Greater Vehicle’ interpretation of Buddhism, which places emphasis on attaining perfect wisdom and ultimately becoming a bodhisattva - that is, one who has achieved enlightenment but eschews nirvana, preferring instead to remain behind and help others follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
In the south, and especially in the Mekong Delta, the ethnic Khmer are also Buddhists, but follow the older Theravada form of Buddhism which emphasizes becoming an arhat, or saint, attaining enlightenment and achieving extinction. In practice, both Viet and Khmer Buddhists strive to do well in this life in the hope of being reborn into a better position.
The teachings of Confucius - Khong Tu in Vietnamese - also derive from China, where the great philosopher K’ung Fu-tzu (551-478BC) taught a system of morals and ethical principles which guided Chinese (and subsequently Vietnamese) society for more than two millennia, and which still today underlie many values in both countries. Essentially, Confucianism emphasises filial piety, correct behavior and loyal service in a society where the ruler maintains power by example rather than through force.
Taoism, once again, is derived from China, where the philosopher Lao Tzu taught his doctrine of dao - literally ‘The Way’ - in the 6th century BC. Taoism emphasizes the duality of the universe based on a tension of opposing but complimentary forces, yin and yang, the female and male principles. The essence of Taoism is to preserve this natural balance through complex rituals and practices such as feng shui or geomancy.
Chiefly through the efforts of Jesuit missionaries and the country’s long association with France, Vietnam has an estimated 8 million Christians - after the Philippines, the largest number in Southeast Asia - most of who live in the south. Of these, around 95 percent are Catholics, the rest being more recent converts to Protestantism, often minority peoples living in the Central Highlands.
Cao Dai & Hoa Hao
Vietnam has two indigenous religious sects, both of which were established in the 20th century, and both of which are based firmly in the south of the country. Cao Dai is the larger, with an estimated 2 million followers. With its Holy See at Tay Ninh to the northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, Cao Dai is an interesting and eclectic amalgam of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Catholicism. The second sect, called Hoa Hao or ‘Peace and Happiness’, is centered on Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta. Its followers practice an ascetic and austere form of Buddhism.
Hinduism & Islam
Hinduism was once a major religion in the region that constitutes modern Vietnam, but with the extinction of the Kingdom of Champa, it went into near terminal decline. Indeed, even while Champa survived, it was already threatened by Buddhism and by Islam, both of which made serious inroads among the Chams.
Today, followers of Hinduism are limited to a few urban South Asians and perhaps 60,000 Chams in and around Nha Trang and Phan Thiet. There are rather more Muslims, perhaps 80,000 Chams, living mainly in the Mekong Delta, as well as small communities of Chulia or Tamil-speaking Muslims in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
The Vietnamese language is a fusion of Mon- Khmer, Tai and Chinese elements. Linguists consider that the original base was Mon-Khmer, a non-tonal language family from which modern Cambodian is derived, and from which Vietnamese acquired a significant proportion of its base vocabulary. To this over the centuries was added tonality and grammatical structure adapted from the neighboring Tai-speaking peoples, and finally an extensive vocabulary, especially in the realms of philosophy, literature and political administration, from the Chinese.
Chinese influence during the first centuries of Vietnam’s history led to extensive usage of characters called chu nho, thought to have replaced an old written script of Indie origin. A derivative of this is used by the ethnic Muong minority.
Even after independence in the 10th century, all manuscripts and government documents were written in chu nho. In time, scholars realized the necessity and advantages of developing a separate written Vietnamese language.
Several tentative attempts were made to modify Chinese characters, but it was not until the 13th century that the esteemed poet Nguyen Thuyen managed to evolve a distinct though complex script called chu nom. Although standardized for popular literature, chu nom never received official recognition, and most Vietnamese scholars continued to use Chinese characters. A sea change came in the mid- 17th century when Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary, developed a Romanised script known as quoc ngu. Initially, use of this system was confined to the Catholic Church and after about 1860, the colonial administration. The study of quoc ngu became compulsory in secondary schools in 1906, and two years later, the royal court in Hue ordered a new curriculum, written entirely in quoc ngu. It became the national written language in 1919.
Politics and Administration
In July 1976, following the victory of the communist North in the Second Indochina War, Vietnam was officially reunified. A radical program of socialist construction was put forward, calling for the rapid socialization of the defeated South, with the forced collectivization of agriculture, small industry and commerce. This soon led to economic disaster, prompting waves of refugees - the tragic ‘boat people’ - to flee the country.
On the international front, in early 1977, Vietnam found itself in conflict with Pol Pot’s Cambodia and on a collision course with its old enemy, China. As a result, in 1978, Vietnam signed a security pact with COMECON and the former Soviet Union. Once again, Vietnam was entangled in great power rivalries and the politics of the Cold War.
The invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and the subsequent Chinese invasion in early 1979 augured a new cycle of struggle, which - combined with disastrous socialist economic policies at home - spelled gradual financial collapse for the struggling Vietnamese state. Vietnam was isolated internationally, tied into a failing Soviet power bloc, and engaged in fighting a protracted war against the elusive Cambodian resistance.
At the Sixth Party Congress in 1986, following the Soviet example of glasnost and perestroika, the Party finally decided to launch the country on an ambitious program of social and economic reform called doi moi. Collectivization of land was rolled back, and a new emphasis was placed on the individual peasant. As a result, agricultural production increased, and rice harvests burgeoned. But political controls remained tight.
Between 1989 and 1991, the Vietnamese leadership was deeply shaken first by the events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, then - to the very roots of their ideology - by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe. Political solidarity aside, they had lost in one fell swoop all their major financial and economic backers. The country was technically bankrupt, mired in Cambodia, and increasingly sidelined internationally.
Hanoi responded by negotiating a withdrawal from Cambodia with the United Nations, and cautiously opening the doors to foreign investment. Western nations - notably France and the European Union - were keen to test the waters, but not until early 1994 did the United States lift its punitive embargo and permit economic and cultural exchanges with Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s new face had struck a responsive cord with its Southeast Asian neighbors. As a result, after short but intensive negotiations, Vietnam was admitted to ASEAN in 1995.
Today, the Communist Party’s aim is to retain its firm grip on power as the country develops economically. The leaders are ageing, yet there are no clear indications as to who is to replace them. Within the party, there are divisions of opinion, with some wishing to continue the liberalization of the economy and opening the door to foreigners, while others pin their hopes on slowing down reform, fearing the party is losing control.
For most of the 1990s, the leadership had little to fear in the way of opposition. The economy was developing erratically but steadily, sometimes at rates of as much as 8 percent a year. Standards of living were low, but were clearly improving. Rice exports were on the rise, the country was at peace, and there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.
The Asian economic crisis of 1997 changed all that. Suddenly, Southeast Asia’s booming economies were in regression, with currencies falling in value and export figures in negative growth. Although things in Asia have picked up in recent years, talk of Vietnam becoming Asia’s next ‘tiger economy’ seems premature, to say the least.
Vietnam is a fertile land blessed with great natural resources as well as a shrewd, hard-working and ambitious population. Shielded by the remnants of its faltering command economy, the country seems so far to have weathered the Asian economic downfall comparatively well. If the path to political reform remains unobstructed and the economics of the free market are fully espoused, Vietnam seems bound to prosper. After all the years of suffering and sacrifice, it certainly deserves to do so.
Economy of Vietnam
The Vietnamese economy suffers from the long years of war, sterile socialist command economics, and suspicion of capitalism both domestic and foreign. Following the doi moi economic liberalization of the early 1990s, great things were expected but, by and large, have only partly materialized. Vietnam’s gross domestic product surged in the early 1990s, but then fell back, weakened both by the sclerosis of party control and by widespread graft and corruption in both administration and the workplace.
The problem was compounded by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, with Vietnam seriously affected by the falling currencies and declining exports across the region. Economic disparity between town and countryside is high and growing fast, and disillusion with party interference in the supposedly free market economy is widespread.
The Rise of Capitalism
The streets of the capital, Hanoi, and especially the largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, still bustle with enthusiasm and business energy. The abandonment of socialist economics and its gradual replacement by limited market-oriented capitalism has been welcomed by the populace. People everywhere are angling to make money, and the streets are filled with small-scale private enterprises selling cheap consumer goods.
Yet the country is still poor. About 40 percent of the population is undernourished. Unemployment is on the rise. While almost everyone has a job, an increasing number of people are underemployed. Nearly every household in the cities has a TV set, but fewer than 10 percent do in the countryside. Motorcycles are the vehicle of choice in urban areas, but are rare in the countryside where most people work. The state sector has been trimming jobs and eliminating whole sectors, driving up unemployment. The over-large and antiquated military is being down-sized, while the population is young and growing.
Workers are comparatively well-educated and learn quickly, but they are not yet highly skilled, requiring foreign firms to invest in training. The government remains cautious and conservative, apparently unwilling to allow the free market full reign. Privatization remains a dirty word, and although foreign investment has seen some limited success, the state sector seems reluctant to relinquish its stranglehold on key sectors of the economy. Corruption remains rampant, salaries are low, and the old men in power remain deeply suspicious of foreign intentions.
Vietnam's Nature & Environment
Vietnam is regarded as one of Asia’s most biologically diverse countries - an evolutionary hotspot. The Vu Quang wildlife reserve has even been described as ‘the Galapagos of Southeast Asia’, with various previously unknown flora and fauna still being discovered.
Habitats range from the mountainous Central Highlands to the long, extended coastline and from the flat, marshy Mekong Delta to the cool, high mountains of the country’s northwest. The wild fauna includes 275 species of mammal, 180 reptiles, 80 amphibious species, 773 bird species, hundreds of fish and thousands of invertebrate species. Plant life is more varied, with around 7,000 plant species. More than 2,000 are used for food, medicine, animal fodder and timber.
Unfortunately, the all too common problems of deforestation and burgeoning population have placed enormous pressure on the country’s natural resources, an environment already severely crippled by 30 years of war. During the Second Indochina War, over 72 million liters of herbicides were dropped over much of southern Vietnam. Over 2 million hectares of forest and farmland were lost to defoliation and bombing.
In 1943, more than 40 percent of the land was covered with forest, but by 1995, that figure was just 19 percent. Recently, however, it has risen to 28 percent as a result of the government’s banning of unprocessed timber products and an active reforestation program.
Wildlife in Vietnam
Over the past decade, scientists have discovered three new large mammals in Vietnam’s remote forests. This is astonishing when one considers that fewer than 10 new large mammals have been discovered in the 20th century in the world. The most recent discovery in Vietnam, the Truong Son muntjac follows that of the saola, or Vu Quang ox, found in 1992 and the giant muntjac in 1994.
Other large mammals found in Vietnam include the tiger, leopard, banteng, kouprey, Asian elephant and gaur. All these animals are regarded as endangered. Endemic Vietnamese species include the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, Edward’s pheasant and Vo Quy’s pheasant.
Festivals in Vietnam
Most festivals in Vietnam can be traced to the country’s close links with Chinese traditions and follow the lunar calendar. In addition to the major nationwide celebrations, there are many smaller local festivals, especially in the Red River Delta where the Viet nation has its origins.
Perhaps the best known and loved of all Vietnamese festivals is Tet, the Lunar New Year, a celebration marked for centuries by the explosion of a million firecrackers. Though these have been banned, Tet is still a pretty noisy occasion as the Vietnamese celebrate with drums and recordings of firecrackers! For details of secular public holidays.
: 1 January: Tet Duong Lich or New Year’s Day.
: The first to seventh days of the first lunar month: Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet, the Vietnamese (and Chinese) Lunar New Year. After a tumultuous initial celebration, Tet becomes a family affair.
: Fourteen days after Tet, at Lim Village, Bac Ninh province, in the Red River
Delta, quan ho songs are performed as men and women sing improvised songs of love, compliment and amiable jest.
: On the sixth day of the second lunar month, the Hai Ba Trung festival honours the Trung sisters’ resistance to the Chinese. Celebrated at Hai Ba Trung Temple in Hanoi. March/April: At full moon of the second lunar month, pilgrims travel to Chua Huong, the Perfume Pagoda near Hanoi, for the climax of the Perfume Pagoda Festival.
: Fifth day of the fifth lunar month: Tet Doan Ngo signals the summer solstice. Celebrations held to ensure good health and well being. Eighth day of the fourth moon is Dan Sinh or the Birthday of the Buddha.
: Fourteenth day of the seventh lunar month, Trang Nguyen (or Vu Lan) marks the Day of Lost Souls. Tombs are cleansed and offerings made to spirits.
: Kate, or Cham New Year, at Phan Rang. Fourteenth day of the eighth lunar month, Trung Thu or Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated. Mooncakes filled with lotus seed paste, melon seeds and salted duck egg yolks are eaten and children carry brightly-coloured lanterns. Six-teenth day is the Whale Festival at Vung Tau where crowds gather to make offerings to whales.
: 25 December, Christmas Day.