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Vietnam Flag


Full Country Name: The Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Country Profile: Vietnam

Vietnam Map


Area: 331,689 km2
Population: 82 million
Capital City: Hanoi (population 2.7 million)
Largest City: Ho Chi Minh City (population 5.1 million)
People: Kinh Vietnamese 85%, plus 53 other ethnic groups
Languages: Vietnamese, minority languages
Religion(s): mainly Buddhism, also Catholicism, Protestantism, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religions
Currency: Vietnamese Dong, US Dollars also widely used
Major political parties: Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)
Government: Vietnam is a one-party communist state, led by a triumvirate of CPV General Secretary Mr Nong Duc Manh, State President Mr Tran Duc Luong, and Prime Minister Mr Phan Van Khai
Foreign Minister: Mr Nguyen Dy Nien
Membership of international groupings/organisations: Vietnam is a member of the United Nations, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Non-Aligned Movement, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and hopes to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005.


In area, Vietnam is slightly larger than the UK and Ireland. It stretches 1,600km north to south, but is only 40km wide at its narrowest point in the centre. It is predominantly mountainous, with densely-populated fertile plains in the north and south around the Red River and Mekong deltas respectively. The Vietnamese consider than Vietnam has 3 regions, the north, the centre and the south. Spoken Vietnamese differs considerably between them. Ethnic minorities are primarily concentrated in mountainous areas in the north and central highlands. Climate varies considerably from north to south, but is generally hot (bar a cool winter in the north), humid and – during rainy season – wet.


History since 1945

During World War II, Japanese forces displaced the French colonial rulers of Vietnam. Following Japan's surrender, the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated nationalist grouping under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, stepped into the power vacuum and proclaimed Vietnam's independence in September 1945. The French tried to re-establish their authority over Vietnam, however, and fighting erupted between their forces and the Viet Minh. Following their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French agreed at the 1954 Geneva Conference to withdraw. Vietnam was effectively divided into a communist-controlled North (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and a Western-backed South (the Republic of Vietnam). After the South reneged on an agreement to hold nation-wide elections, the North began to strengthen the communist movement in the South with the aim of achieving national re-unification. The South became increasingly dependent on the USA.

The US began direct military intervention in the early 1960s and increased its commitment in Vietnam as the war escalated, reaching over 500,000 US troops in 1968. Withdrawal began thereafter due to lack of military success and domestic US opposition to the war. The US and North Vietnam finally reached a peace agreement in Paris in 1973. At this point, many Western countries, including the UK, established full diplomatic relations with North Vietnam. The civil war continued, however, and a full North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 led to a rapid collapse of the South. Vietnam was formally re-unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976 and admitted into the UN in 1977.

But national re-unification did not lead to peace and stability. Relations with Cambodia's Khmer Rouge government and their Chinese backers soon deteriorated. After a series of provocative border incidents, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, removed Pol Pot's regime and installed a friendly government. Vietnam's intervention was widely condemned internationally. China, incensed, launched a short punitive invasion into northern Vietnam in 1979, although quickly withdrew. Conflict in Cambodia continued into the 1980s as Vietnamese forces and their Cambodian allies faced attack from Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Vietnam endured a period of international isolation, supported only by the Soviet Union and its allies. Vietnamese forces finally withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.

Vietnam's economy, sapped by over 30 years of war, was further weakened by the disastrous introduction of Soviet-style collectivist economic policies after reunification. As Vietnam neared economic collapse, hundreds of thousands of refugees (the 'Vietnamese Boat People') fled in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Vietnam's government, faced also with declining Soviet aid, was forced to make a drastic change in economic direction. In 1986, Vietnam introduced a ground-breaking new economic programme called doi moi ('renovation'), which slowly introduced liberal market principles and set the foundations for today's rapid economic growth in Vietnam.

Following formal settlement of the Cambodian conflict at the 1991 Paris Conference, Vietnam's international isolation ended. Vietnam normalised relations with China in 1991, with Japan in 1993 and (finally) with the US in 1995 - the same year Vietnam became a member of ASEAN.

This is an external link BBC Monitoring Timeline


Political System

Vietnam is a one-party state in which the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) decides all major policy issues, which are then implemented by the government. The country is led by a triumvirate of CPV General Secretary, State President and Prime Minister. Although the National Assembly is increasingly powerful, it remains firmly subordinate to the CPV.

No legal opposition to the regime is permitted in Vietnam, but neither is there much sign of widespread popular opposition to the regime. The CPV still enjoys popular support following its success in defeating the French colonialist rulers, resisting American intervention, re-unifying the country, opposing Chinese encroachment and - most importantly - creating and maintaining peace and stability. In addition, liberal economic policies pursued since the late 1980s have delivered 7%+ GDP growth and increasingly high living standards for most of the population. Vietnam's record on poverty reduction is excellent – the proportion of people living poverty has halved over the past decade. For their part, the younger generation appear more interested in their economic prospects than in politics. As Vietnam has opened to the world, ordinary people enjoy much more personal freedom on a day-to-day level than previously. But an ever-present, effective security apparatus keeps a lid an effective lid on any dissent.


There are no free elections in Vietnam. Candidates for election to the National Assembly and local People's Councils must in practice be approved by the CPV. There is, however, an increasing minority of elected representatives who are not CPV members.

Vietnam's main legislative body is the National Assembly, which convenes twice per year. It has developed, in recent years, from little more than a 'rubber stamp' body to one increasingly able to scrutinise legislation and hold government to account. It has, on paper at least, wide powers over the state budget and its Members, 25% of whom are full time, are increasingly professional. Ultimately, however, the National Assembly remains firmly under the control of the CPV and thus is still far from being a proper democratic legislature. Elections to the 498-Member National Assembly are held every five years. The next elections are due in 2007.

Recent Political Developments

Vietnam's current leadership was confirmed by the last major 9th CPV Party Congress in 2001. A shake-up of Vietnam's leadership is expected at the next 10th CPV Party Congress in 2006. But Vietnam is expected to continue its successful doi moi ('renovation') economic reform programme. No significant changes to Vietnam's political system are expected. Vietnam's next major challenge is to join the WTO, possibly in late 2005, which should further consolidate and spur its economic reforms.

The CPV is increasingly concerned at the high level of corruption in Vietnam, which it perceives as a threat not only to economic growth but also to the popular legitimacy of the political system. A crackdown in recent years has netted a number of senior figures (including some Vice Ministers) and further anti-graft efforts, led by the National Assembly, are in the pipeline. But suspicions remain that some areas remain off-limits to anti-corruption efforts, while the media's freedom to investigate corruption is tightly restricted.

Another major issue facing Vietnam is the under-development and stubborn high poverty in remote, ethnic-minority regions, and the flux of unregistered internal migrants flocking to major cities. Poverty, combined with land disputes and heavy-handed treatment (amounting at times to human rights abuse) of some ethnic minorities, has led to unrest in the Central Highlands region.


Basic economic facts (for 2004)

GDP: US$45.5 billion
GDP per head: approx. US$550
Annual Growth: 7.7%
Annual Inflation: 9.5%
Major exports: oil and gas, textiles, footwear, seafood, rice, coffee
Exchange rate: £1 = approx. 30,000 Vietnam Dong (March 2005)

Compared with many of its neighbours, Vietnam suffered three 'lost decades' of economic development due to war. But it is catching up fast. Notwithstanding a hiccup following the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Vietnam has boomed since the CPV turned away from communist economic policies and central planning in the late 1980s under its doi moi ('renovation') policy. Vietnam is now among the fastest-growing economies in Asia with consistent GDP growth above 7% in recent years. Vietnam has set a growth target of 8.5% for 2005.

The entry into force, in 2001, of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement was a major economic boost to Vietnam. Vietnamese exports to the US grew rapidly and became a major driver for economic growth – notwithstanding trade disputes over catfish and shrimp exports. Vietnam's accession to the ASEAN Free Trade Area, still under way, has so far had much more limited impact.

Joining the WTO has now become a key economic policy objective for Vietnam. WTO membership will help Vietnam maintain its high rate of growth by securing market access for Vietnam's key exports (especially textiles) and establishing Vietnam as a destination for foreign direct investment world-wide. Vietnam hopes to join the WTO in late 2005. It took a key step forward in October 2004 when it agreed bilateral terms for WTO membership with the EU (including the UK). Negotiations with other key players (including the US, Japan, and Cairns Group) continue, however, and WTO membership for Vietnam in 2005 remains far from a foregone conclusion.

While impressive, some analysts have questioned the quality of Vietnam's economic growth. Too much is driven by inefficient domestic investment by government and state-owned enterprises. Reform of state-owned enterprises, to place them on a sounder economic footing, is proceeding far too slowly. Large amounts of lending by state-owned banks to unreformed state-owned enterprises has resulted in large numbers of non-performing loans on their balance sheets. Vietnamese policymakers have yet to drive through root-and-branch reform of inefficient state-owned enterprises and the banking sector, which is vital to ready Vietnam's economy for the fierce global competition WTO membership will introduce.


Human rights in Vietnam are an issue which have attracted considerable public attention from NGOs and Parliament in recent times. In its 2004 Annual Report on Human Rights, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office lists Vietnam as a country of particular human rights concern.

Overall, the great majority of Vietnamese people enjoy greater security, prosperity and personal liberty than previously in their history. Vietnam has also made great strides in terms of economic and social rights over recent decades. Vietnam has a poor record with regard to civil and political rights, however, notwithstanding gradual improvements over recent years. Restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the high number of executions are particular causes for concern.

There are tight controls in freedom of expression, including media freedom, in Vietnam. A number of 'cyber-dissidents' have been imprisoned for expressing opinions (unwelcome to the government) on the internet or by e-mail. The media is considered an official mouthpiece and journalists may not cover sensitive stories. Access to non-state approved sources of information is restricted (eg, the BBC Vietnamese service website is regularly blocked).

Vietnam has among the highest execution rates per capita in the world. Death penalty statistics are officially secret, but executions are thought to number at least 100 per year. Most executions are for drug offences, but economic crimes (eg, corruption) may also attract the death penalty. There are concerns that Vietnam's legal system may not offer fair trials in many cases. In a positive move, Vietnamese Ministers have spoken of reducing use of the death penalty, but abolition appears a distant prospect.

While individuals, by and large, enjoy freedom of religion in Vietnam, there are restrictions on non-authorised religious groups. Non-recognised Protestant groups, particularly in the Northern and Central Highlands regions, have faced severe restrictions and – at times - repression. The leaders of the breakaway Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam remain under de facto house arrest. In positive (if modest) steps forward, a 2004 Ordinance on Belief & Religion sets out a legal framework for official recognition of religious groups, while restrictions on some Protestant groups have been eased.

The UK raises regularly human rights concerns with Vietnam both bilaterally and, with EU partners, through twice-yearly EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue meetings. The EU also maintains a List of Prisoners/Detainees of Concern, whose cases are brought up regularly with the Vietnamese authorities. We also seek to constructively help Vietnam improve its human rights performance. In 2004, for example, the UK led organisation of an EU-Vietnam Seminar on the Death Penalty to contribute to Vietnam's debate on possible future abolition.


Following years of isolation, Vietnam has sought to reach out and rejoin the world since the early 1990s. Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995 and, in 2004, hosted the Fifth Asia-Europe Meeting of world leaders in Hanoi. Vietnam hopes to join the WTO in 2005 and also aspires to take a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008.

Vietnam's relations with its neighbours

Vietnamese harbour mixed feelings towards their largest neighbour, China, and relations are complex. One thousand years of Chinese rule of what is now northern Vietnam, ending in the 10th century, had a deep impact on Vietnamese culture and the Vietnamese psyche. In recent times, the political relationship has swung back and forth, from Chinese support for Ho Chi Minh during the war against the French to a short Chinese invasion of northern Vietnam in 1979. Communist solidarity between the two nations must still sometimes take a back seat to narrow national interests. Sovereignty over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea and border disagreements still lead to occasional incidents.

Vietnam enjoys close political relations with its former allies and fellow ASEAN members in the governments of Laos and Cambodia. Among ordinary Lao and Cambodians, however, there remain suspicions that Vietnam – as in the past – seeks to dominate them.




You should avoid any involvement with drugs. Drug trafficking and possession carries heavy penalties, including the death penalty, which is enforced in Vietnam. Other crime, such as sex offences or fraud, can result in very long prison terms or a death sentence. The Vietnamese legal system is not well developed and the standard of prisons is very poor.

Foreign visitors to Vietnam are not permitted to invite Vietnamese nationals into their hotel rooms.



Providing prompt consular assistance is difficult outside Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City because of Vietnam’s poorly developed infrastructure. It is essential that you have comprehensive travel/medical insurance.

You should bring enough money for your stay. US$ are most widely accepted. Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, but outside main centres you may find cash the only acceptable currency and find it difficult to cash travellers’ cheques. ATM distribution is still poor and limited to the major cities and tourist areas. It is possible to have funds transferred to Vietnam via international money transfer companies.

Foreign passport holders can exchange up to US dollars 500-worth of Vietnamese dong back into US dollars on departure.

When checking into a hotel, you will have to surrender your passport so that the hotel can register your presence with the local police. It is advisable to carry a photocopy of the data page from your passport, which can be used as proof of identity.

Last updated – 6 May 2005


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