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POPULATION: 7080 million

LANGUAGE: Vietnamese

RELIGION: Confucianism; Taoism; Buddhism, Roman Catholicism; Cao Daism


The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, commonly known as Vietnam, is located in Southeast Asia. The country's history has been shaped by its location between China and India. Straddling lines of trade between north and south, east and west, Vietnam has been a center of human trade, interaction, and conflict for centuries.

Archaeological excavations reveal that the the Dong-son peole lived in Vietnam around 800 bc. The Dong-son built dikes and canals to control the rivers and irrigate their rice fields, and crafted bronze drums, tools, and weapons.

Aroung 200 bc, a Chinese military commander demanded that the people in Vietnam join China. At that time, Vietnam was called Nam VietNam meaning "south" and Viet referring to the people living along China's southern border.

Nam Viet was ruled by China until ad 900. China's influence on Vietnam could still be seen in 1990s, in ways including ideas about government, philosophy, script, education, religion, crafts, and literature.

In the 1500s and 1600s, Portuguese and French traders came to Vietnam. Some Roman Catholic missionaries converted Vietnamese to Christianity. In the 1800s, the French returned to Vietnam to explore economic and trade opportunities. For the next eighty years, France drained resources from Vietnam, and taxed the people. In the mid-1950s the Vietminh, nationalist communists led by Ho Chi Minh (18901969), gained power and forced the French to leave.

In 1955, Vietnam was divided into two countries. The area north of the seventeenth parallel became North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh and the communists; south of the line lay South Vietnam, run by a pro-Western prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem. The United States sent advisors and soldiers to help South Vietnam fight communism. This led to years of devastating war.

The war continued until 1973, when the United States Congress ceased military funding for South Vietnam. In 1975, North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and reunited the country. Almost a million Vietnamese escaped their homeland and were resettled in Western countries. Another million fled Vietnam by sea in 1978. Vietnamese continued to flee their country until the early 1990s.

By the late 1990s, there was an increase in international investment and trade in Vietnam. The government was run by the Communist Party of Vietnam (the country's only political party), and its general secretary, Do Muoi, was the political leader of the country.


Vietnam has between 70 and 80 million people, making it one of the most populous countries in the world. Most Vietnamese live in the Red and Mekong River deltas.

Vietnam is long and slender, stretching in an S-shape more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from China in the north to Cambodia in the south. It is only 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point. River deltas sit at each end of the country, yielding enormous quantities of rice.

Located just north of the equator, Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. In northern Vietnam, the rainy season extends from April to October. In the southern part of Vietnam, the rainy season extends from May to November. Humidity is high throughout the year. Summers are generally hot and wet and winters are mild and dry. The typhoon season extends from July through November, often causing serious damage to crops and people especially along the central coast area.


The Vietnamese language has been influenced by Chinese more than any other language. Chinese was the language used by government officials, scholars, and artists during the thousand years that China ruled Vietnam, but Vietnamese remained the popular language.

In the seventeenth century, missionaries transcribed the Vietnamese language into Roman letters (the letters used to write English and other languages). By the end of the nineteenth century, this system, called quoc ngu, had replaced the Chinese system of writing. Quoc ngu uses diacritical marks above or below letters to indicate pronunciation and tone.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that a change in tone alone can change the meaning of a word. To Vietnamese, their language has the sound of poetry, but it is very difficult for English-speakers to learn to pronounce.

Vietnamese use their father's family name, but unlike Americans, they use the family name first to reinforce the importance of family over the individual. The family name comes first and the individual's name second. For example, if Mr. Nguyen names his son Tai, then the boy will be known as Nguyen Tai. If Mr. Nguyen also gives his son the middle name, Thanh, his son will be called Nguyen Tai Thanh (family name, first name, and finally middle name).


In ad 4043, the Trung sisters (Trung Trac and Trung Nhi) led a revolt against China. They failed, but are remembered as great Vietnamese heroines.

A Vietnamese patriot who also sought independence for his country in the 1400s was Le Loi. After leading an elephant-mounted army against Chinese invaders in the 1420s, Le Loi became King of Vietnam. He is remembered as a benevolent ruler who increased agricultural production and built dams, dikes, and bridges for the Vietnamese people.

Ho Chi Minh (18801969), the first president of North Vietnam, is a national hero. Ho Chi Minh traveled extensively, becoming committed to the goal of freeing his country from French colonialism. He is revered as a communist patriot.


The Vietnamese sometimes practice several religions at the same time. Confucianism, which came from China over 2,000 years ago, emphasizes good behavior, education, and respect for hierarchy and has been very influential in Vietnam.

Another religion inherited from China is Taoism, which emphasizes beliefs in the spirit world and ancestor worship. Most homes have an altar to the ancestors holding a small vase of flowers, some incense, a plate or two of food, and candles. Taoism also includes belief in geomancy, which focuses on the importance of aligning human objects and activities with the landscape. Thus, a father's grave must face the proper direction or his son will suffer.

In addition, most Vietnamese call themselves Buddhists. Vietnamese Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karmic destiny (the belief that people get what they deserve). If a man is good in this life, he will have a better life the next time round. If he is bad, however, the opposite will happen.

There are also several million Catholics, mostly in urban areas in the south, where the French missionaries had the greatest influence.

Cao Dai, a small but important religion, is followed by more than 1 million people. It combines elements from Buddhism, Christianity, and history. Its saints include Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, and Charlie Chaplin. Cao Dai maintains a standing army, which was involved in the Vietnam War. Cao Dai adherents believe they are combining the best beliefs of all the world's religions.


The most important Vietnamese holiday is Tet (New Year), a celebration that falls in late January or early February. Tet is celebrated over three days. Vietnamese try to return to the home of their parents to unite with family and friends. People repay their debts and ask for forgiveness from all those whom they have wronged during the year. They put on new clothes, pray for blessings, exchange gifts, and give thanks for being together.

Tet decorations include peach tree branches and red and gold paper, the colors of happiness. They light firecrackers at night and spare no expense in preparing the feast.

Other holidays include January 27, the anniversary of the peace agreement that resulted in America's withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; March 29, the actual withdrawal of American troops; and September 2, the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.


The birth of a child is a welcome occasion, especially if the child is a boy. A couple without children is pitied, while a family with several offspring is considered fortunate. Children are cared for by an extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles, especially on the father's side.

On all important family occasions, such as the birth of a child, engagements, marriages, funerals, and the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths, families hold celebrations and notify gods and ancestors of family events by special offerings.


Vietnamese have great respect for hierarchy and take care to demonstrate respect to all they consider their superiors and demand respect from those they consider their inferiors. Older people are generally considered superior to younger people, men to women, the wealthy to the poor, and those of higher occupation or status to those of lower.

Vietnamese may greet one another with a slight bow and always with a broad smile. Civility is greatly valued, and one's true feelings are concealed beneath smiles and friendliness. Vietnamese also honor reserve and modesty, attributing loudness and brashness to immaturity and vulgarity.

Dating is virtually unknown in the countryside, where young people are closely supervised by their elders until marriage. There is little touching in public even by married couples, although young people of the same sex often hold hands as a sign of friendship.


The health of the Vietnamese people has suffered from decades of war, upheaval, and population increase. While the infant mortality rate is lower and life expectancy at birth is higher than the average for Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese continue to be plagued by numerous health problems. Malaria and tuberculosis are widespread, and cholera and bubonic plague continue to threaten many Vietnamese. Malnutrition also affects many in the country. An additional legacy of the Vietnam War is a high percentage of birth defects which are linked to chemicals sprayed on Vietnam's forests. Bombs and shells left over from the war continue to cause injury, especially to children, soldiers, and farmers.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam's economy has frustrated many Vietnamese in their desire for consumer goods. When the Americans left and Vietnam was shut off from trade with many Western nations, goods stopped flowing into the country. Many Vietnamese have compensated by purchasing goods on the black market (the informal, unregulated, and illegal economy). Access to consumer goods is increasing as the country's economy has become incorporated into the global economy.

Close to 80 percent of the Vietnamese population lives in rural areas, primarily in small villages. The housing of northern and southern Vietnam differs due to climatic differences. In the cooler north, most rural people live in houses made of wood or bamboo with tile roofs. In the south, which is warmer, most country folk live in houses made of straw, thatch, or palm leaves. Many families now use sheets of metal or plastic to roof their houses.

The majority of urban dwellers live in small apartments. Most dwellings are small and cramped, crowding numerous family members into a few small rooms. Building materials are predominately wood, brick, and tile.

Few homes have electricity or running water, and families carry water to their homes from nearby streams and ponds. Furniture is rare, seldom more than beds on the floor and a low table around which family members gather to eat while sitting on the floor.

American bombing during the Vietnam War destroyed many roads, bridges, rails, and ports, and the country continues to struggle with modern transportation. The poor condition of the railroads, ports, and roads continue to hamper Vietnam's ability to increase industrial productivity. However, the number of cars, buses, and trucks is increasing in Vietnam, so much so that the country's roads can scarcely handle them.

Motorbikes are a popular means of transportation for successful Vietnamese. Most families make do with bicycles, and travel any distance at all by bus, ferry, or boat.


Vietnamese are likely to marry young and have four or five children, although many continue to have as many as possible either out of desire or the inaccessibility of birth control. Children are highly valued, not least for their potential in helping with family chores and supporting their parents in their older years.

Marriage is viewed as a social contract between two people and their families. It is arranged by intermediaries and approved by parents who may or may not allow their children some choice in their spouse.

Vietnamese say that family is the most important element of their lives, and the obligations of children to their parents, wives to husbands, and younger people to their elders are constantly emphasized. Individual interests are less important than family interests, and each individual is seen as one in a long family line that includes ancestors already dead and current and future family members.

Vietnamese families are patriarchal (headed by the father). Families generally live in nuclear family groups, although grandparents sometimes share the home with a grown child and family. Families also socialize together, gathering with other extended family members for festivals, marriages, funerals, and other important occasions.

Individuals are identified primarily by their patrilineal ties, and larger kin groups are defined through men rather than women. Women join their husbands' families, children belong to their father's family, and male children are preferred over female children. Although the government has attempted to equalize relationships between men and women, most Vietnamese continue to hold traditional views of family, marriage, and childrearing.

Children assist in the support of their family. In rural areas, boys help their fathers with farm work. In cities, boys are more likely to go to school, help their mothers with house chores or errands, or take part-time jobs on their own.

Girls assist their mothers with housework, caring for younger siblings, and helping with work outside the home. For children in rural areas, that includes farming, gardening, and caring for animals. For urban children, it includes helping their mothers in the shop or preparing food to sell.

Animals are primarily for eating, selling, or working. Dogs are used for guarding the home, hunting, and as food. Cats are kept to keep down rats and mice. Animals kept strictly as pets are a luxury most families cannot afford.


A special type of Vietnamese women's gown is the ao dai. This garment is a dress or long blouse worn over trousers. Usually made of light material, the gown flutters at the slightest movement, being both modest and sensuous at the same time.

For everyday wear, most urban Vietnamese wear Western clothes. Men wear short-or long-sleeved and collared shirts, tucked in for business and hanging out for informal activity. Businessmen and students usually wear long trousers, while children and physical laborers often prefer shorts. Shirts are usually light colored, while trousers tend toward dark colors. Because of the heat and humidity of Vietnam, shirts and trousers are made of light material.

In the countryside, farmers often wear baggy pajama-like shirts and pants made of black cotton. Both men and women usually wear sandals. Many Vietnamese, especially in the countryside, wear straw hats as protection from the sun.


Rice is served at virtually every meal, including breakfast. Fish is almost as important, since Vietnam is a country that has abundant water with vast resources of fish. Fish and other fresh and salt water life is eaten fresh, but is also frequently dried.

Fowl, such as chicken, ducks, and geese, along with eels and eggs, provide additional protein. Beef and pork are enjoyed only by the wealthy or on special occasions such as at weddings or festivals.

A common traditional food of Vietnam is nuoc mam, a liquid sauce made from fermented fish. Characterized by an extremely strong smell, nuoc mam is frequently used in Vietnamese dishes.

The typical Vietnamese meal consists of a bowl of rice and vegetables cooked in fermented sauce. Vegetables are mainly grown at home and include bamboo shoots, soybeans, sweet potatoes, corn, greens of various kinds, onions, and other root crops. Fruit includes bananas, coconuts, mangos, mangosteens, and pineapple. Noodle dishes are also popular. A distinctive Vietnamese dish is pho, a hot soup containing any variety of noodles in sauce with vegetables, onions, and meat or fish.

Many Vietnamese drink tea at every meal and other times throughout the day and evening. On special occasions or when guests are visiting, the Vietnamese serve rice wine, beer, soft drinks, or coffee.

Breakfast is usually eaten shortly after awakening. The large meal of the day is eaten around noon, after the morning's work, before the lighter work of the late afternoon, and during the hottest portion of the day. A lighter meal follows the day's work.

The Vietnamese eat with chopsticks, and typically dine while sitting on a mat on the floor. Vietnamese eat loudly, slurping, sucking, chomping. Such table noises are not considered bad manners; they are considered evidence that people are enjoying their food.


Most Vietnamese are literate (able to read and write). Children begin school at age five and usually complete at least the first five years of schooling. Children in cities continue their education more often than children in the country. If children are able to pass the examinations given at the end of an additional four years of secondary school, they can go to three years of high school or a vocational school. Those who cannot pass go into the military or try to find a job. High school graduates are considered fortunate, for they receive better jobs, higher pay, and more respect.

Vietnamese have traditionally valued education and their children to receive as much schooling as possible. The government offers twelve years of schooling for free, but many parents cannot afford the cost of school books and the loss of earning power that occurs when a child is in the classroom.


Vietnamese music is very different from Western music in rhythm, sound, and even scale. Classical music is played on instruments that include a two-stringed mandolin, a sixteen-string zither, a long-necked guitar, a three-stringed guitar, and a four-stringed guitar. Traditional bands include instruments that most closely resemble Western flutes, oboes, xylophones, and drums.

Many traditional tunes are sung without accompaniment, with each region having its own folk melodies. Western love songs, especially slow, sad songs recorded by Asian artists, are also much loved by the Vietnamese. Popular theater combines singing with instruments and has dance, mime, and poetry. Classical theater or opera which came from China in the thirteenth century is popular, as are puppet shows. A unique Vietnamese form is water puppetry, with the controlling rods and strings handled beneath water so that the puppets appear to be dancing on the water.

Poems relate love stories, epic tales from long ago, or discuss love of country. One famous poem, Kim Van Kieu (The Tale of Kieu), tells how a young girl struggles to preserve her family's honor. Many Vietnamese know the entire epic by heart.


In the cities, men work at construction, in government offices, and as teachers, drivers, retailers, and mechanics. Women are primarily tradespeople or street vendors, selling clothing and a myriad of other items in the marketplace or cooked food on the streets. Women also work in clinics, as teachers, and as factory workers.

In the rural areas, most men are rice farmers. Men's work also includes caring for draft animals (such as water buffaloes, which are used for pulling carts and plows), fishing, repairing equipment, and helping clear gardens. Other men are full-time fishermen, merchants, traders, drivers, monks, or officials.


Vietnamese children play a variety of games, but the most popular sport is soccer. Because most Vietnamese families continue to struggle to make a living, children spend most of their time assisting their parents or going to school.


Vietnam is blanketed by a loudspeaker system and music and programs are offered regularly. Many people now own radios, and most of the country also receives television broadcasts, although many Vietnamese do not own a television set. Watching videos or television or hanging around and chatting with their friends are especially valued leisure activities for most Vietnamese youth.


Since the 1400s, Vietnamese artisans have been making lacquerware. Wooden objects are painted and decorated with pearl, gold, silver, shell, and other objects. The objects are then coated repeatedly with a lacquer made from the tree sap.

Another popular craft is to make block prints on which scenes have been carved, inked, and then pressed onto paper. The Vietnamese also make porcelain and other ceramics, which they learned from the Chinese many centuries ago.


Reports of arbitrary arrest, detention, and surveillance continue. Freedom of speech and movement are limited. However, there is an increasingly tolerant attitude toward literary and artistic expression. A number of political prisoners have been released since the late 1980s.

In the 1980s, the government admitted that alcoholism was a problem in the cities.


Crawford, Ann Caddell. Customs and Culture of Vietnam. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1966.

Hall, D.G. E. A History of South-East Asia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1968.

Osborne, Milton E. The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Thayer, Thomas C. War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985.


Embassy of Vietnam, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Vietnam. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Annamese, Cochinchinese, Kinh, Tonkinese


Identification. The Vietnamese speak the Vietnamese language and live in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Significant numbers of Vietnamese, especially since 1975, are now found in most Western countries, including the United States, France, Australia, and Canada. Remnants of earlier Vietnamese migrations still exist in northeastern Thailand and New Caledonia. Many Vietnamese have also lived in Cambodia and Laos for many decades. Under French colonial rule Vietnam was divided into three separate political entities: Tonkin (north Vietnam), Annam (central Vietnam), and Cochinchina (south Vietnam). Foreigners have sometimes used these terms as designators of ethnicity (e.g., the "Tonkinese"), sometimes employing the term "Annamese" to include all Vietnamese. This usage is offensive to Vietnamese, who all refer to themselves as "Vietnamese," sometimes using "northern," "central," or "southern" as adjectives to designate region of origin. Ethnic Vietnamese also refer to themselves as kinh, meaning "lowlanders," as opposed to highland "tribespeople."

Location. Vietnam is located between 8°30 and 23° N and between 102° and 109° E. Very narrow and elongated in the center, it is wider in the south and in the north. The country lies to the south of China and east of Laos and Cambodia, with a long coastline on the South China Sea. Although some three-quarters of Vietnamese national territory is hilly or mountainous, ethnic Vietnamese have lived mainly in the lowland plains.

Demography. The population of Vietnam is about 68.5 million, over 20 percent of whom live in urban areas. Population density is over 207 per square kilometer. About 85 percent of the total population is ethnic Vietnamese. There are many highland ethnic minorities, including numerous Tai-speaking groups as well as Hmong (Meo), Nung, and Muong in the northern highlands and Austronesian-speaking groups (e.g., Rhadé and Jarai) and Mon-Khmer (Austroasiatic)-speaking groups (e.g., Bahnar, Sedang, Stieng, Mnong, and Katu) in the southern highlands. A sizable and long-established ethnic Chinese population lives mostly in urban areas of the south, although many left the country between 1975 and 1980. Many ethnic Khmer live in parts of the Mekong Delta. The Red River and Mekong deltas, containing less than a quarter of the total land area, hold almost 60 percent of the population and over 70 percent of all ethnic Vietnamese. Population density in these core areas is often very high (over 2,000 persons per square mile), but in highland areas it is often under 25 per square mile and rarely exceeds 150 per square mile. Both the southern and the northern regimes during the division of Vietnam (1955-1975), as well as more recently the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, had programs to resettle Vietnamese into the highlands, but they encountered numerous difficulties and achieved only limited results.

Linguistic Affiliation. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic and tonal language of composite origin, basically Mon-Khmer (Austroasiatic), but with elements derived from Tai and Sinitic languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The early inhabitants of the area apparently were Negritos. Some 4,000 years ago Austronesian (Indonesian) migrants from the north were moving into the area that is now north Vietnam. Later, Austroasiatic (Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian) peoples arrived. Then, about 2,500 years ago Viet (Yueh) and Tai peoples moved down from southern China. Out of this mixture of genes, languages, and cultures arose Van Lang, considered to have been the first Vietnamese kingdom. In mid-third century b.c. Van Lang was overrun by and incorporated into another state to the north, forming the kingdom of Au Lac. Then Au Lac was incorporated into an even larger and more powerful state: Nam Viet (Nan Yueh in Chinese), centered on Canton. Local leadership and culture were little disrupted in the Red River Delta, although new cultural elements entered from the north. In 111 b.c. the region was incorporated into the expanding Han Empire in China and the Red River Delta was part of the Chinese empire for a thousand years. Local hereditary leadership was used by both Nam Viet and early Han rulers, but as infrastructure and more intensive production techniques developed, pressure increased for more complete Sinicization of local culture and administration. In a.d. 39 the Trung sisters led the traditional local elite in a popularly supported revolt that flourished briefly but was suppressed in a.d. 43, ending hereditary leadership. The new hybrid elite of the Red River Delta kept and developed a sense of regional identity; the local language and many non-Chinese customs were retained. Revolts came periodically until a.d. 939 when independence from Chinese rule was achieved, although China would remain a military threat and a continuing source of cultural influence. What is now central Vietnam was then the kingdom of Champa. The Cham spoke an Austronesian language, had a powerful Indian influence on their culture and political organization, and also had a strong maritime orientation. Over the next six centuries Vietnam displaced or assimilated the Cham and extended Vietnamese territory down the coast to the plains and foothills east of Saigon, which they took and occupied during the seventeenth century. The Vietnamese then expanded at the expense of Cambodia, settling the western Mekong Delta in the eighteenth century and the eastern portion in the nineteenth. But between 1859 and 1883 all of Vietnam fell under French colonial control. South Vietnam (called Cochinchina) was a French colony; central Vietnam (called Annam) and northern Vietnam (called Tonkin) became protectorates. Together with Cambodia and Laos, they constituted French Indochina. A public school system established by the French in 1908 disseminated elements of Western culture in Vietnam, influencing but not destroying Vietnamese culture. In 1945 a popular revolution erupted against French rule. As this movement came under increasingly strong Communist control, however, some Vietnamese became disaffected. In 1955 Vietnam gained independence from France but was divided into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the northern half and the anti-Communist Republic of Vietnam in the southern half. About 900,000 Vietnamese relocated from the north to the south, while 90,000 or so others moved from south to north. A Communist-led revolution in the south evoked heavy American support for the Republic of Vietnam, adding American influence to the already heterodox southern region, and led to the invasion of the south by northern troops. After a devastating war, Communist forces in 1975 took over all of Vietnam, the foreign troops departed, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established in 1976.


The traditional Vietnamese village, typical of lowland northern and central Vietnam, was a highly nucleated settlement surrounded by a bamboo hedge or sometimes by an earthen wall. Each village had a communal hall (dinh ) that served as a sanctuary for the cult of the village guardian spirit and as a public meeting hall. Mahayana Buddhist temples were also common. These villages tended to be tightly bounded and relatively closed communities (both physically and socially) with an elaborate community structure, located along roads or waterways or on knolls or hillsides. Houses were built with mud or brick walls, thatched or tile roofs, and earthen or concrete floors. In the more recently settled southern region, especially in the western Mekong Delta, settlements have been more scattered and less tightly bounded, with a less well-defined community structure. Some southern villages had no dinh. Most are strung out along roads or waterways and some households are scattered over the countryside. Houses have walls of woven bamboo, brick, or wood, earthen or concrete floors, and roofs of palm leaves, thatch, or, in recent decades, corrugated iron or metal sheets made from recycled aluminum cans.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Vietnam is a poor country, with an annual per capita income of less than U.S. $200. Agriculture, the dominant sector of the economy, emphasizes the cultivation of wet rice, but the production of secondary food crops (maize, yams, manioc, beans) and industrial crops (rubber, tea, coffee, pineapple, citrus fruits, sugar, tobacco, jute) has increased in recent decades. Despite efforts to mechanize agriculture, water buffalo and human beings still do most of the farm work. Pigs, chickens, ducks, cattle, and fish ponds are common. Many coastal villages specialize in fishing. Home gardens play an important role in the household economy.

Industrial Arts. Small-scale food processing, charcoal making, and handicrafts (furniture, lacquerware, pottery, silk, baskets) play an important economic role. Sewing machines are widespread. Mining and metalworking are important in the north. Some industries (cernent, textiles, chemicals, steel) are well established, but efforts to build heavy industry have been impeded by war and a weak economic base.

Trade. While small shops, stalls, street peddlers, and market squares are common, and Vietnamese women are especially active in petty retail and trade, until recently ethnic Chinese dominated many wholesale activities. Government efforts to socialize the economy in 1978 closed tens of thousands of small private businesses that were replaced by a state trading network, but some private enterprise has now returned.

Division of Labor. Traditionally women have had charge of domestic affairs, including finances. Men dominated public affairs, the professions, and agricultural activity. Extended warfare and government regulations have given women greater opportunities in all areas, but much de facto division of labor by gender persists.

Land Tenure. The ratio of people to arable land is one of the most unfavorable in the world for an agricultural country. Most landholdings have been collectivized under Communist rule. Each household in a collective is permitted to have some land for its own use; private plots (about 5 percent of the land area) typically produce from 10 to 20 percent or more of the total yield.


Kin Groups and Descent. The structure of Vietnamese kinship involves logical opposition and functional complementarity between two models. Especially in northern and central Vietnam, patrilineage has been the dominant form, with emphasis on hierarchy and solidarity. But bilateral tendencies, with greater egalitarian emphasis, have always been present, most strongly in the south. In recent years Socialist policies have reinforced bilateral tendencies, weakened patrilineage, and strengthened the nuclear family. Descent is patrilineal, but with increasingly strong bilateral tendencies.

Kinship Terminology. Vietnamese kinship terminology is of the Sudanese type, highly descriptive. There are different terms for father's siblings and mother's siblings, and father's older brother is terminologically distinguished from his younger brother.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although free choice in marriage is now the law and is quite common, arranged marriages and the use of matchmakers persist, and parents and important elders wield much influence. In the northern and central regions, village endogamy and patrilocal residence have been the norm and are still common. Polygynous marriage, once common, is now illegal; but it has not disappeared.

Domestic Unit. Households average from five to seven persons, but they vary greatly in size. Most consist of a nuclear family, often supplemented with one or more other close relatives, and function as a single economic unit, sharing the work and resources.

Inheritance. In general, all children inherit equally, although sons, especially eldest sons, are sometimes favored. The oldest, or sometimes the youngest, son (or even the youngest daughter) may stay at home to care for aging parents and inherit the house.

Socialization. The attitude toward young children is very permissive, but older children are much more strictly controlled and disciplined. Boys have somewhat more freedom than girls and, although the tendency is weakening, are likely to get more education. Family solidarity is emphasized over independence, and nurturance/dependency relationships over self-reliance.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Vietnamese social organization entails complex interaction between two contradictory sets of ideas. Traditionally, individual Vietnamese have been firmly embedded in powerful corporate groups, first and foremost in a family. A family was part of a lineage and of a village. Villages were aggregated into the state through a national civil service. Within families, lineages, and villages a strict, male-dominant hierarchy was common. These biases persist in Vietnamese society. Relative age, rank, titles, degrees, and other status markers remain significant determinants of attitudes and behavior in social interaction. Yet at each level a distinct set of more open and egalitarian institutions has always been present: bilateral family ties, mutual aid groups, shamanistic cults, and Buddhist practices. Situational shifting between these two logically contradictory but on the whole functionally complementary domains at every level has been and to a large extent remains the essence of Vietnamese social organization. In recent decades state ideology and legal codes have weakened the strength of traditional social groupings and hierarchies; but the new Socialist men and women and the new Socialist society envisioned by state planners since 1955 in the north and 1975 in the south remain more of an ideal than an actuality as older patterns reemerge in new forms. Vietnamese social organization is changing, but the extent and precise nature of change is still unclear and unevenly distributed from region to region.

Political Organization. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a Communist state divided into thirty-nine provinces and three autonomous municipalities. Provinces are divided into districts, districts into villages and townships. Each such unit has its own People's Council, the main public organ of state authority, and a People's Committee, the executive agent of the People's Council and the major administrative body. The Communist party of Vietnam plays a major role in all spheres at all levels, however, imposing parameters of discourse and action and setting social and economic goals. The Communist party is designated by the constitution to be the "sole force leading the state and society," and the executive branch of government is virtually an extension of the Central Committee of the party.

Social Control. Traditionally families, lineages, and villages could be held corporately responsible for the actions of their members. Concern for the welfare and reputation of one's family has served to constrain misbehavior. Gossip and ridicule have been important weapons for social control because of a concern for "face." Now neighborhood committees and Communist party cells and organizations monitor behavior and rebuke deviance. Self-criticism and public-criticism sessions are used to check antisocial tendencies.

Conflict. Local disputes have often involved competition for scarce water or land; historically much conflict has arisen from Vietnam's southern expansion and from resistance to encroachment upon Vietnam's territorial integrity and independence from the north. Ideological disputes have torn the country and region apart for the past fifty years, while regional rivalry has reemerged with national independence. Within groups, conflict often involves perceived slights in regard to respect behavior and relative status. Underlying such sensitivities there are both high psychological stakes and competition over the control of resources. Vietnam, with the twelfth-largest population in the world, has maintained the fourth-largest army and a large public-security apparatus, despite a weak economy.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The official ideology of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is basically atheistic, and the state is committed by its constitution to combat "backward life styles and superstitions." While official policy guarantees freedom of religion, secular activities of religious groups are severely circumscribed, and activist religious leaders have been jailed.

Religious Beliefs. Popular Vietnamese religion is a mixture of ritual and belief derived from animist, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sources. Veneration of ancestors is a very important part of this syncretic system, as are many elements of Mahayana Buddhist practice and belief. But only a minority of Vietnamese could properly be called Confucianists or Buddhists. Beliefs in astrology, geomancy, and the intervention of spirits in human life are all widespread. Traditional villages had cults to a village guardian spirit. There are perhaps over 5 million Roman Catholics in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese are nominally Buddhists, but active members of organized Buddhist churches probably number only 3 or 4 million, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City and Hue. The Cao Dai, numbering between 1 and 2 million and limited to the south and south-central regions, combine folk religion and Christian beliefs. The Hoa Hao, limited to one portion of the western Mekong Delta, with about 2 million adherents, are a puritanical, poor, peasant-based sect committed to a simplified and austere Buddhist doctrine. There are also a small number of Protestant Christians and other small sects built around prophets or charismatic leaders. For some Vietnamese, Marxism seems to function as a secular religion and appears to have acquired some sacred aspects. Ho Chi Minh, "the father of independence," is to some a cult figure similar to traditional heroes worshiped as powerful spirits after their death.

Village guardian spirits were once important cult figures, but now less so. Some spirits are believed to provide assistance if venerated, or illness and misfortune if ignored. People who die violent deaths are thought to linger as angry spirits and bring misfortune if not propitiated. There are many categories of malevolent or potentially malevolent spirits, among them ghosts (ma ), and demons (guy ). There are numerous minor deities who may intervene in human life for good or ill, and a generally benevolent category of supernatural, tien, a "fairy" or "genie."

Religious Practitioners. Buddhist monks are to be found in many villages. They do not automatically enjoy high respect or exert influence in village affairs, although some may achieve these things. Catholic priests and many Cao Dai and Hoa Hao leaders are respected leaders in their communities. Shamans, fortune-tellers, and a variety of other specialists in dealing with the supernatural may build up a group of clients or followers.

Ceremonies. The most widespread and important ceremonies involve the ancestors. Death-anniversary celebrations, New Year's festivities, and other events bring the ancestors back to visit the family, where they must be ritually greeted. The Midyear (Wandering Souls) festival is widely observed. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. Many households have, in addition to altars for the ancestors, small shrines to various spirits (the earth god, Shakyamuni, the goddess of mercy, the god of wealth, etc.) and present ritual offerings once or twice a month.

Arts. Literary arts, especially poetry, are highly prized. A wide variety of musical forms and instruments is popular. Many southerners enjoy reformed opera, musical dramas with humorous elements. Some people like Western music, everything from classical to rock and roll. While guitars and pianos are popular, some people still play traditional stringed instruments with great skill. Fine arts and architecture reveal both Western and Chinese influence. Skits and impromptu musical performances or recitations of verse are popular at many kinds of gatherings.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to many causes: it may be organic or owing to germs, but it also may be caused by fright or hardship, heartbreak, an imbalance of elements, a curse, or spirit possession. Picking the right kind of treatment is essential. There are many specialists in the supernatural who diagnose and treat illness in a variety of ways, often sharing clients with modern medical centers and with Vietnamese or Chinese herbalists. Vitamin injections, tonics and elixirs of many kinds, and special dietary regimens are also used. Sometimes women feel called to worship a particular spirit or deity, and illness is the penalty for failure to make offerings. Protective talismans and amulets and ritual support for protector spirits are used to ward off illness.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals (and sometimes reburials) were elaborate and costly affairs, especially for the well-to-do, but they are now less so. Ritual support for the deceased is most crucial. Those not honored by a cult become errant spirits, unhappy and harmful. A series of rituals elevates the deceased into the ranks of the ancestors. Ancestors return to visit the family on death-anniversary celebrations and special family occasions. Major life events are reported to the ancestors.


Gourou, Pierre (1936). Les paysans du delta tonkinois. Paris: Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient. Translated as Peasants of the Tonkin Delta. 1955. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

Hickey, Gerald C. (1964). Village in Vietnam. Chicago: Aldine.

Hy Van Luong (1989). "Vietnamese Kinship: Structural Principles and the Socialist Transformation in Northern Vietnam." Journal of Asian Studies 48:741-756.

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Rambo, Arthur Terry (1982). "Vietnam: Searching for Integration." In Religion and Societies: Asia and the Middle East, edited by Carlo Caldarola, 407-444. Berlin: Mouton.


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Vi·et·nam·ese / vēˌetnəˈmēz; ˌvyet-; ˌvēət-; -ˈmēs/ • adj. of or relating to Vietnam, its people, or their language. • n. (pl. same) 1. a native or national of Vietnam, or a person of Vietnamese descent. 2. the language of Vietnam, which is probably a Mon-Khmer language although much of its vocabulary is derived from Chinese.

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Vietnamese National language of Vietnam, spoken by c.70 million people. It is part of the Muong branch of the Mon-Khmer sub-family of Asiatic languages, and derives much of its vocabulary from Mandarin Chinese.

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VietnameseAchinese, Ambonese, appease, Assamese, Balinese, Belize, Beninese, Bernese, bêtise, Bhutanese, breeze, Burmese, Cantonese, Castries, cerise, cheese, chemise, Chinese, Cingalese, Cleese, Congolese, Denise, Dodecanese, ease, éminence grise, expertise, Faroese, freeze, Fries, frieze, Gabonese, Genoese, Goanese, Guyanese, he's, Japanese, Javanese, jeez, journalese, Kanarese, Keys, Lebanese, lees, legalese, Louise, Macanese, Madurese, Maltese, marquise, Milanese, Nepalese, Nipponese, officialese, overseas, pease, Pekinese, Peloponnese, Piedmontese, please, Portuguese, Pyrenees, reprise, Rwandese, seise, seize, Senegalese, she's, Siamese, Sienese, Sikkimese, Sinhalese, sleaze, sneeze, squeeze, Stockton-on-Tees, Sudanese, Sundanese, Surinamese, Tabriz, Taiwanese, tease, Tees, telegraphese, these, Timorese, Togolese, trapeze, valise, Viennese, Vietnamese, vocalese, wheeze •superficies • Héloïse • Averroës •rabies • pubes • Maccabees •headcheese

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