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Keith Woodford sees Vietnam working diligently to get out of China's shadow, using an open internet to access markets which is helping boost living standards quickly

Keith Woodford sees Vietnam working diligently to get out of China's shadow, using an open internet to access markets which is helping boost living standards quickly

By Keith Woodford*

Recently I have been working in Vietnam with colleagues from Hue University. After an absence of some eight years, it has been fascinating to see the changes that have occurred, both physical and attitudinal.

There are many ‘Vietnams’. But the Vietnam that I know is the Central North Coastal region, comprising five provinces, with Hue, the old imperial capital, now the regional centre.

The legacy of war

To many Western minds, Hue is still associated with the famous Tet offensive of 1968. This is where the American attempt to dominate Vietnam was lost.

American and South Vietnamese forces eventually won the battle of Hue, after destroying the city with artillery and from the air. But it was this event that convinced the American public that they could win battles but they could never win the war. And that, of course, was how it turned out.

For many years thereafter, there was huge hostility in America towards Vietnam. I saw some of that in the early 1990s when I was working in neighbouring Cambodia.

Cambodia could never have escaped from the clutches of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge without Vietnamese help.  After three years, eight months and 21 days of atrocities, the Khmer Rouge were driven from Cambodia in 1979 back to the Thailand border by Cambodian and Vietnamese forces. But it was the Vietnamese forces that really made all the difference.

So the Vietnamese did a huge service to Cambodia in getting rid of Pol Pot and his crazy mates. But for many years, America, Australia and New Zealand still considered Pol Pot the legitimate government of Cambodia.  None of them recognised the real Cambodian Government for another 15 years. It was all a payback for being smashed up in Vietnam – physically, emotionally and in terms of pride.

Vietnam forgave America remarkably quickly, despite the huge pain of what they call the ‘American War’.  But for the Americans, it took longer.

Just two specific examples of that war.  When I worked on a Vietnam project from 2006 through to 2008, my counterpart was a person brought up in the old North Vietnam, about 100 km north of Hue. He lived several years of his childhood in underground tunnels seeking shelter from the American B52 bombers randomly dropping their defoliants, their napalm and their explosive bombs from way up in the sky. For cooking, the Vietnamese had to emerge above ground to maintain a liveable air quality. His school-age sister died from one of those bombs, while cooking the family meal beside the tunnel entrance. 

The colleague I currently work most closely with in Vietnam is Dr Quan, who some years back studied with me for his PhD at Lincoln University. On this trip, I met his father, now in his eighties, who spent seven years working on the Ho Chi Minh trail, that amazing network of mountain paths through which provisions and armaments travelled from the North to the South.

Most Vietnamese families have a personal story from that war, but it is now 41 years since unification of the North and South.  The wheel has now turned in both Vietnam and America, and both countries have now cast aside the historical enmity. 

Economic integration

During my latest visit to Vietnam, I co-chaired a session at an international conference on the economic integration of Vietnam into the world. We heard about the relationships between foreign investment and growth, and we heard considerable enthusiasm for free trade agreements.

In fact, Vietnam has been opening to the world for a long time. It is a member of ASEAN, comprising 10 South East Asian countries, and through those arrangements it also has a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand. Late last year, Vietnam successfully completed negotiations for a free trade agreement with the EU. And Vietnam is also an enthusiastic supporter of the TPP.

The official statistics show Vietnam continuing to grow at about 6% per annum, and from what I saw that is no exaggeration. There are lots more motor bikes, cars and now smartphones, even in the country side.  And the housing quality is definitely improving.

Vietnam still considers itself a communist country, and nothing happens without approval of the Communist Party. But it is apparently much less authoritarian relative to China. One immediate difference is that Vietnam does not censor the internet.   This alone creates a totally different atmosphere.

China’s shadow

To understand Vietnam’s enthusiasm for integration with the West, one has to understand something of the relationship with China. It is an uneasy relationship.

Before the colonial era starting in the 19th century, Vietnam was dominated by China for more than 1000 years.   And then much more recently, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, China responded by invading the northern provinces of Vietnam to teach the Vietnamese a lesson. Senior Brother had spoken.

More recently, China and Vietnam have had ongoing tense relationships relating to the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia all see China’s actions there as being a militaristic power play. In contrast, China asserts its actions are consistent with historical boundaries.

Vietnam still depends on China as its most important trading partner, but that in itself is a cause for concern. Hence, Vietnam is reaching out for increasing integration with the West, not only for economic reasons, but also as a counter balance to China.

The Vietnamese Government tries to remain respectful of China – it makes no sense to get into a fight, given the differences in size and power. But beneath the surface there is no doubt as to the extent of the concern.

Rural development

After the conference, Dr Quan and I visited some communes in Quang Binh Province between 100 and 200 km north of Hue. These were communes which Quan had studied while undertaking his PhD some ten years ago. We wanted to start updating the data, including visiting the same families that Quan had studied back then.

Our first visit was to a coastal commune which relies on fishing.

This commune had no road access until 2000, and Quan had chosen it because it was one of the poorest communes in the province, with Quang Binh itself being one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam.   On this visit, we focused on the macro picture. Quan will subsequently go back and fill in the detail. But what I saw was evidence of considerable progress, despite ongoing environmental and economic vulnerability.

More than 95% of the commune households now have electricity. Mobile phone coverage came in 2009 and almost all families now have at least one mobile phone. Most families also have a motor cycle.

Although the Vietnamese still talk of ‘communes’, a more accurate translation would be ‘administrative communities’.  In theory, the land is still owned by the Government, but in practice, ongoing land-use rights are considered secure.  Farming is undertaken in family units.

Subsequently, we visited a mountain commune adjacent to the Lao border, where most of the local people are from an ethnic minority.  Once again, this commune had been chosen by Quan, back in 2006, for its high level of poverty.  

Back in 2006, there was no phone communication system in this mountain commune. In a community of 1500 people, the only motorcycles were owned by traders. A fine weather road came in 2000 and an all-weather road in 2008. Electricity came in 2006.

Now, about 65% of the families have a motor bike and almost everyone has a smart phone. This means that the farmers are now connected to markets.

There is more progress to be made in this mountain commune. The local people are all investing at the family level in production forestry as a replacement for logging of natural timber. But it is still early days in getting the new industry to the harvest stage. And 54% of households are still classed by the Government as being in poverty.

Looking ahead

Vietnam still has big challenges. There are about 94 million people in Vietnam, and population continues to grow at about 1% per year. But this all seems manageable. However, industrial pollution is a huge issue in many parts of Vietnam. And China is casting a big shadow. 

Health and education are fundamental issues, and it seems that Vietnam is making big progress there. Life expectancy is now 73 years, but maternal deaths and child mortality are still too high. At the University of Hue, there are now 80,000 students. And Vietnamese students are also spreading out across the world to overseas universities. So something is indeed happening.

Keith Woodford is Honorary Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University. He combines this with project and consulting work in agri-food systems. His archived writings are available at

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Indochina v China.

Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

The numbers just do not add up and it's going to get very nasty quite soon because oil extraction for several countries in the region peaked a while ago. Many have transitioned from net exporters to net importers and they are already squabbling over a diminishing 'cake'. The predicament is going to get a lot worse very quickly. .

On top of the energy predicament, Vietnam (along with other nations) has to deal with the abrupt climate change/planetary meltdown predicament:

'The worst drought ever recorded in Vietnam is stoking fears of a food security crisis. In a meeting with government officials next week, researchers with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)’s Asia regional office in Hanoi will unveil maps showing how water scarcity and climate change may imperil key crops—rice, cassava, maize, coffee, and cashew nuts—across the country.

"The severity of this year's drought will have a profound impact on Mekong delta agricultural production,” says Brian Eyler, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

As of mid-March, nearly a million people in central and southern Vietnam lack access to fresh drinking water, according to a recent United Nations report. And supplies of rice, the main staple crop, are in jeopardy. Saltwater intrusion in the Mekong delta has destroyed at least 159,000 hectares of paddy rice so far, with a further 500,000 hectares at risk before the onset of the summer monsoon...... '

Yes, there are indeed many challenges. But it is also important to recognise that some of these organisations beat up these issues for their own purposes. However, I did note, from the air, that the lower Mekong did look very dry. Where I was, on the North Central Coast, the crops looked OK..
Keith Woodford

Thanks for posting this Keith. I'm based in Vietnam but I only understand the urban centers and I think many people tend to not realize that the demographics of Vietnam are still primarily rural. Food security is a major issue for Vietnam considering the size of the population and the dependency on agriculture. The recent issue with dead fish turning up on the coast (the cause it seems is pollution caused by foreign manufacturing) is a concern, particularly with the govt's inability to deal with the issue transparently. Also, it's probably important to understand that Japan is the leading source of FDI.

Regarding Vietnam and Cambodia, I recommend that you source the documentaries by NZ-born Australian James Gerrand. I think your understanding of Vietnam "helping" Vietnam is not necessarily correct. The invasion has aspects of Vietnamese imperialism and anti-Chine fears. I definitely think it's wrong to perceive Vietnam as saviors of Cambodia as their objectives were not necessarily about emancipation of the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge. Anti-Vietnamese feeling still exists in Cambodia today. Historically, there has been much distrust and conflict between the two countries.

Thanks J.C.
It is always interesting to hear from people with first hand accounts of these countries. And there are indeed, as I said in the post, 'many Vietnams'.
I am watching with great interest to see the final outcome and causal conclusions regarding the dead fish. The coastal commune that I visited in Quang Binh was greatly affected by this, and the fishing families there had lost all source of buy rice. The Government was distributing free rice at the time I was there. That in itself was interesting to see a well organised relief effort in place.

In regard to Cambodia, the dominant history is usually written by the winners. But Cambodia is complex. All I can say from first hand cCambodian experience in the 1990s, is that the Vietnamese occupation appeared to have been very benign. They struggled to root out the remnants Khmer Rouge, who were supported by Thailand and the West, and even when I was there (after the Vietnamese departed), there were 'no go' areas.

I am sure you are right, in that the Vietnamese invasion was not motivated simply by good will. The Khmer Rouge were making many incursions into Vietnam in 1978 and eventually the Vietnamese lost their patience.

I think Cambodia was also a salutary lesson for the Vietnamese. For the first time, they were operating off their own soil and away from their own people.

Yes, there has always been tension between Cambodia and Vietnam, and various groups try and use that for their own ends. However, my own experience was that the Vietnamese invasion was benign, and I never heard convincing stories (or even unconvincing stories) about atrocities. My Cambodian colleagues were grateful to the Vietnamese, but also very pleased when they quietly departed. And that was how it was; they simply slipped away of their own accord.

When the Vietnamese first arrived in Cambodia there were no civil structures they could work with. As just one small example, I spent considerable time over a five year period at Prek Leap Agricultural College. Only four out of 52 staff survived the three years, 8 months and 21 days of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. It was the educated people who were targeted.

So, although I accept that the motivations might have been complex, and in the same way that China casts a shadow over Vietnam, so does Vietnam cast a shadow over Cambodia, I do consider that Vietnam saved Cambodia from a terrible regime.

As for press freedoms, I see some evidence that progress is being made in Vietnam. And it was interesting to see that there were widespread demonstrations in the towns and cities over the dead fish incidents. As integration with the West proceeds, I expect there will be ongoing pressure on Vietnam to provide civil rights. It will be a long and winding road.
Keith Woodford

Also, regarding "open internet", you are somewhat correct, even though bloggers are still imprisoned for criticism of the govt.

Yes fascinating article. I was a teenager during the "Vietnam Years", and later joined our military. Today I am fascinated about the level of misinformation that was bandied about at the time. There were many many injustices. When i look at it all I believe Ho Chi Minh to be possibly one of the 20th Century's smartest leaders, particularly as he was able to see through so many different ideologies and formulate a strategy for the future for Vietnam. To label him as simply a Communist was both inaccurate, shallow and inane. He was simply a Nationalist who saw advantages in different ideologies that would allow them to ditch the feudal past, the domination by foreign nations who were effectively enslaving their people, and become one nation in charge of it's own destiny. It is a pity the US leadership of the time weren't smart enough to see this or even listen to the advice of it's own advisors and ambassadors. JFK wanted disengagement, but his assassination opened the door for LBJ to create the fiasco that was the Vietnam War. Indeed the American track record was virtually repeated when George W took the allies into Iraq to oust Saddam, and look at the mess that created.

My only concern is that Vietnam to this day is not a democracy, but then ... when I look at ours and a few others I wonder if that is actually a bad thing?

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Days to the General Election: 36
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.