Country Profile: Vietnam
On a November evening last year in Hanoi’s upscale Tay Ho district, the pop star turned dissident Mai Khoi was huddled in her modest apartment with her husband. No-one dared to go outside as plainclothes government agents had already tried to forcibly kick the couple out, hitting a visiting filmmaker in the process and breaking his microphone. They also knew well that Vietnamese political activists were prime targets for brutal, extrajudicial beatings by men everyone presumed worked for the security forces. Khoi discussed their options with her husband: should they flee the country? Make a stand and risk imprisonment on anti-state charges?
The provocation was petty: hours before, as US President Donald Trump’s motorcade passed near her house, Khoi had briefly unveiled a sign saying ‘peace on you, Trump’, with the first word crossed out and replaced with ‘piss’. It was over in a matter of minutes, and no-one in the crowd of spectators seemed to notice. But Vietnam’s secret police kicked into action soon after.
A police state
Despite the uninterrupted rule of the Communist Party since 1975, leftist economics have given way to massive foreign investment and a booming local private sector. While Marx may have been shoved aside, the country remains a harshly authoritarian police state. Media that are not owned outright by the state are editorially controlled by the Party, political opposition is banned and vague laws banning ‘propagating against the state’ and ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ result in lengthy prison sentences.
The Vietnam of yesteryear that many Westerners use as a reference point for the nation is long outdated. The Vietnam War, known locally as the Resistance War Against America, or simply the Resistance War, is an increasingly fading memory that only minimally explains the country that exists today. The tenacious resistance fighters who once stood up to a superpower are now old men and women, and their grandchildren, born into a world of economic opportunity completely alien to their elders, have other priorities.
US patrol boats
As for the United States, Vietnam’s forgiveness has evolved into a strategic partnership that is increasingly putting Hanoi into Washington’s camp. While it remains to be seen how far the relationship will go, it is increasingly absurd to see Vietnam, in any shape whatsoever, as an opponent to the US. It was an eager participant in the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership and, since 2016, a buyer of US arms. More than a dozen American patrol boats have been sold to Vietnam and, surreally, the USCGC Morgenthau, a 3,250-ton cutter that once bombarded Vietnam from the sea during the war, has been in service in the Vietnamese coastguard since being purchased in 2017. With Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea alarming Hanoi and Washington alike, both governments are more interested in a military partnership than in reigniting a war that ended 43 years ago.
Human rights repression
Vietnam, though smoothly integrating itself into a US-backed international order, continues to repress human rights at home. The 88 Project, a US-based advocacy group that monitors political repression in Vietnam, counts 130 prisoners of conscience serving a prison sentence, with another 16 in pretrial detention. Their numbers include the blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for speaking out after a leak at a Taiwanese-owned steel factory killed hundreds of tons of fish off the central coast; and labour-rights activist Truong Minh Duc, serving 12 years.
Mai Khoi an untouchable
The musician Mai Khoi remains free, although she only performs at private, secretive shows. Having once been the winner of Vietnam Television’s Album of the Year award, she is today banished from the mainsteam, labelled an opponent by the regime and an untouchable by polite society.
|Leader||General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $2,170 (Cambodia $1,230, United States $58,270).|
|Main exports||Electronics, garments, crude oil. As wages and other business costs rise in China, foreign manufacturers are increasingly moving operations to Vietnam. Once a hub for low-value goods, Vietnam now courts Samsung as its largest foreign direct investor.|
|People||95.5 million. Annual population growth rate 1.0%. People per square kilometre 288 (UK 271).|
|Health||Infant mortality rate: 17 deaths per 1,000 live births (Cambodia 25, US 6). Maternal mortality rate: 58 deaths per 100,000 live births. HIV prevalence rate 0.4%.|
|Environment||Vietnam is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The low-lying Mekong Delta, the country’s rice basket, risks losing farmland to saltwater intrusion from the sea. Reports of endemic industrial pollution, including a 2016 mass fish kill caused by illegal dumping at a Taiwanese-owned steel factory in Ha Tinh province, are commonplace.|
|Culture||Around 85% of Vietnam is ethnic Kinh. The remaining 15% come from 54 minority groups including the Muong, Tay, Hmong and Khmer Krom.|
|Religion||While around 80% of Vietnamese do not have an organized religion, observation of supernatural folk traditions infused with elements of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism is the norm. Almost 7% are Catholic.|
|Language||Vietnamese is the native language, with ethnic-minority groups speaking languages ranging from Tai-based tongues similar to Thai and Lao to Hmong-Mien languages from southern China.|
|Human Development Index||0.694, 116th of 189 countries (Cambodia 0.582, US 0.924).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||While recent decades have seen the birth of a new middle class, millions, particularly rural ethnic minorities, have been left behind.|
|Literacy||93%. Education is supposedly free, but schools frequently levy fees that sometimes lock out the poorest students.|
|Life expectancy||76 years. Healthcare is free on paper, although bureaucratic caveats on treatment sometimes lead to patients greasing the system with bribes.|
|Freedom||Dissent is banned in Vietnam, with not even a token tolerance of opposition to the ruling Communist Party present. Joining a protest movement can result in penalties ranging from termination at work to serving hard time for ‘abusing democratic freedom’.|
|Position of women||While the party lauds the role of women in the anti-French and American wars, Vietnam’s skewed gender ratio speaks to the value placed on men over women.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality has always been legal and LGBT+ rights are slowly making headway. Gender changes have been officially practised since 2017. Outside of major cities, however, the queer scene remains subdued.|
|Previously reviewed||March 1992|
|New Internationalist assessment||Vietnam is ruled by a single-party state that aggressively pursues control of all facets of society. The National Assembly is a rubber stamp for the ruling Communist Party’s central committee, which is in turn ruled by the Politburo. To its credit, the Party maintains internal divisions of power that keep individual ambitions in check. Its model of collective leadership has thus far ensured that no single strong leader has ever ruled Vietnam in the modern era. Nonetheless, the Party behaves oligarchically, with local tycoons and foreign investors being the biggest winners.|