New Internationalist

The Facts

Issue 216

new internationalist
issue 216 - February 1991

VIETNAM - THE FACTS

POLITICS

[image, unknown] General Secretary: Nguyen Van Linh
Prime Minister: Do Muoi
Foreign Minister: Nguyen Co Thach
Interior Minister: Mel Chi Tho

Only one political party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, is permitted: its General Secretary is the country's leader and its Politburo the country's executive body. The National Assembly does little more than rubber-stamp Party decisions. Nguyen Van Linh came to power in 1986 as a reformer but he is seen as a moderate figure in the current power battle between reformists and conservatives.

 

PEOPLE

Vietnam's population stood at 64.4 million In 1989, the 13th highest in the world.1

Photo: Chris Brazier Most of Vietnam's people are Kinh (those we conventionally think of as Vietnamese) but there are 60 minority ethnic groups, mainly concentrated in the hills of the north and west.

Population density is high at 194 people per square kilometre - still lower than crowded European countries like the Netherlands (357) and the UK (232) but their population growth is negligible.

The Vietnamese Government takes family planning very seriously:
. Parents pay for the delivery of any babies after the second; State employees receive income supplements only for their first two children.
. Condoms are distributed free or at greatly subsidized prices
. A financial incentive of one to five dollars is offered to women having IUDs inserted and to men or women being sterilized.

Population 1975-89 (millions)2

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Ethnic composition3

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WOMEN

The position of women has improved under Vietnamese Communism - but the reality is far behind the rhetoric.

Photo: Chris Brazier Unlike Western countries Vietnam has a law (passed in 1986) which states that house-hold chores and care of children are the joint responsibility of a married couple. This is rarely observed in practice.

There is still a serious male - female imbalance due to the number of men killed in the war against the US: 115 women to every 100 men in the 25-44 age-group. The resultant surfeit of unmarried women often suffer a loss of status.

In both literacy and primary-school attendance women are now almost equal to men - having once been extremely disadvantaged.

[image, unknown]

But the more senior the level, the more disadvantaged women become.

. There are twice as many male college graduates and four times as many qualified male technical workers while only seven per cent of postgraduates are women.
. Of the 44 provincial heads of People's Committees only one is a woman.
. The proportion of women in the National Congress has sunk from one-third 20 years ago to 17 per cent now.4

 

TRADE

Vietnam's exports of $709 million in 1988 were among the lowest in Asia. Compare its exports per head wIth other Asian and Western countries:

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In 1989 the liberalization of trade, together with the devaluation of the currency to realistic levels, produced some immediate results:

. A 100% increase in exports to non-Communist countries.
. Vietnam capitalized on a record paddy harvest and became the world's third largest exporter of rice - after years of having to import food.
. Inflation was reduced from 400% in 1988 to 18.6% by March, 1990.

Ironically Vietnam's poverty might help its trade to develop. Its average factory wages of $10-25 are lower than in any other Asian country except Bangladesh - so its exports would be cheap if only the goods could be produced. The trade most likely to take off is in clothing and footwear, which already sell well in the former Communist bloc.

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MONEY

Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world. World Bank estimates vary between $100 and $200. But even the higher figure would mean Vietnam has only one fifth the Income per head of ThaIland, which 50 years ago was its equal.2

A Western economic boycott since 1979 has denied Vietnam access to new loans. Yet it is still one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world - its overall debt is equal to 100 per cent of its gross domestic product.

[image, unknown]

 

HEALTH AND EDUCATION

A key goal of Vietnam's revolution was to improve the health and education of its people. Its achievements have been impressive - but are endangered by the current economic changes.

Vital statistics
Vietnam's record on life expectancy, child mortality and adult literacy is better than that of some much richer Asian countries.

[image, unknown]

But free health and education have been undermined by the market reforms - the State no longer has the funds to support them.

. Doctors and teachers are now allowed to practise privately in their spare time.
. Local clinics are still free. But consultation fees range from 7 cents at a district hospital to 25 cents at a national one. Treatment fees are extra (an appendectomy costs $3.40, a baby delivery $1.30).
. Until 1989 the first 12 years of schooling were free; now only the first 3 years. After that the fee is 15-40 cents a month (tied to the price of rice) and textbooks are sold wherever possible.
. The poor are exempt from fees if they produce a certificate from their local authority. Yet in one district hospital the number of inpatients fell by 50% after the introduction of fees and school attendance is beginning to fall off.4

 

LANGUAGE

Vietnamese, like the Chinese languages and Thai is a tonal language - but it is easier for Westerners to grasp than other tonal languages because it is written in Latin script. The six tones are indicated by accents, a system invented by a nineteenth-century French priest and popularized by radical nationalists who wanted literacy to be widespread rather than the province only of an educated Confucian elite.

A difference in tone means that the same word can have six different meanings. So:

bao (said flat with no tone and pronounced as 'bough' in English) means 'concentrated'
báo (said rising higher at the end of the word) means 'newspaper'
bào (said descending lower at the end of the word) means 'to plane (wood)'
bao (also said descending but with much heavier emphasis) means 'impoliteness'
bão (said with a dip downwards in the middle like the miaow of a cat) means 'typhoon'
bào (said with a downward wiggle in the middle and hard to distinguish from 'bão') means 'indicate'.

1 The 12 above it are China, India, USSR, US, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mexico and Germany.
2 Vietnam: Stabilization end Structural Reforms, world Bank internal report. April 1990.
3 Vietnam's 1989 census.
4 Quoted in Women in Vietnam, Susan Allen, a report for the Swedish International Development Authority in Hanoi, 1990.
5 World Development Report 1990, World Bank (vietnam figure from world Bank internal report).
6 State of the World's Children 1990, UNICEF.

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