This collection of Vietnam War essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions, homework activities and other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact us.
Vietnam to World War II
2. Discuss Vietnam’s contact and relationship with the West, up to 1850. How did this contact shape or affect Vietnamese society?
3. Explain how the French assumed control of Vietnam in a relatively short space of time. What methods and justifications did they use to increase their power?
4. How did the Nguyen emperors attempt to rid their country of foreign influence, particularly religion, in the 19th century?
5. “French colonialism in Indochina was motivated by a desire to civilise and develop the local population.” To what extent is this statement true?
6. Explain how the French colonial regime maintained its political, economic and social control over Vietnam. What role was played by Francophile Vietnamese?
7. What was life like for Vietnamese peasants and workers during the French colonial period? What problems and conditions did they face?
8. Referring to at least three movements or leaders, explain how some Vietnamese resisted the French colonial regime. How successful was this resistance?
9. Why did Vietnamese nationalists like Ho Chi Minh turn to communism after World War I?
10. Why did the Japanese invade Vietnam in 1940? What methods did they use to assert and expand their control?
The struggle for control, 1945 to 1954
2. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, what arrangements were made for the transition of power in Vietnam?
3. Explain why Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in September 1945. In doing so, why did he refer to the United States Declaration of Independence?
4. During World War II the United States provided material support to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Why did the American position change after 1945?
5. Discuss how the communist victory in China in October 1949 affected Western policies and attitudes to south-east Asia.
6. Explain the metaphor of “the elephant and the tiger” and how it shaped the outcomes of the First Indochina War.
7. How did Vo Nguyen Giap and the Viet Minh engineer a victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu?
8. What were the terms of the Geneva Accords pertaining to Vietnam? What were they intended to achieve?
9. Many historians trace the origins of the Vietnam War to the failure of the Geneva Accords. Did the Accords have any chance or success – or were they destined to fail?
10. Discussing similarities and differences, compare the development of Korea and Vietnam in the decade following World War II.
The two Vietnams, 1954 to 1963
1. Describe the political evolution of North Vietnam during the mid 1950s. Who ruled the North and what were their objectives?
2. Evaluate North Vietnam’s policy of land reform during the mid to late 1950s. Did these reforms make life better for the majority of people?
3. Investigate the background and political views of Ngo Dinh Diem. How did he become the leader of South Vietnam in 1954?
4. Western nations described Ngo Dinh Diem as the “Asian Churchill” and “our man in Saigon”. Was Diem a Western puppet, an Asian nationalist or a loose cannon?
5. Discuss the ‘Agroville’ and ‘Strategic Hamlets’ programs, initiated by Ngo Dinh Diem with Western backing. What were these programs intended to achieve and why did they fail?
6. Explain why the government of Ngo Dinh Diem failed to gain popular support in South Vietnam.
7. Investigate the role of Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife Tran Le Xuan in the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
8. Evaluate the Kennedy administration’s policy with regard to Vietnam, between January 1961 and November 1963.
9. Why did Ngo Dinh Diem and his followers target South Vietnam’s Buddhists? What effects did this persecution have on Diem’s own regime?
10. Evaluate the origins, structure and ideology of the National Liberation Front (NLF). Why was this group formed and what methods did it employ?
The Vietnam War, 1964-75
1. Why did Lyndon Johnson decide to commit American forces to the conflict in Vietnam? What people, advice and factors influenced Johnson’s decision?
2. Explain why Thailand, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand contributed military forces to the war in Vietnam.
3. The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided a pretext for American military involvement in Vietnam. To what extent was this justified?
4. Evaluate the leadership of General William Westmoreland between 1964 and 1968. What was Westmoreland’s strategy for protecting South Vietnam? How successful was this?
5. Describe the challenges faced by American combat soldiers in Vietnam. What conditions and factors blunted the effectiveness of the American military?
6. Consider the causes and effects of the My Lai massacre of March 1968. What did this incident reveal about America’s military involvement in Vietnam?
7. Explain why the Tet Offensive was a victory and a defeat for both the Americans and the NVA-Viet Cong.
8. Discuss the objectives of Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamisation. How successful was this policy in achieving its goals?
9. Investigate American media coverage of the war in Vietnam. How was the war reported between 1964 and 1975 and how did this shape public attitudes and opinions?
10. Referring to data like opinion polls, evaluate American attitudes to the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1975. Which policies, developments or events caused significant shifts in public opinion?
11. What ideas, tactics and methods were used by individuals and groups opposed to Western involvement in Vietnam?
12. Evaluate the role of art, music and literature in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Effects and aftermath
2. Evaluate the development of Vietnam in the two years after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. How did the communist victory affect the lives of ordinary Vietnamese?
3. Describe the difficulties faced by Vietnam veterans as they returned to civilian life in the United States or Australia.
4. Evaluate the claim made by some leaders, including General William Westmoreland, that the United States did not lose the Vietnam War.
5. Was the Domino Theory validated or refuted by the progress and outcomes of the Vietnam War?
6. Position the Vietnam conflict in the broader Cold War. How did the Vietnam War shape or affect the relationship between the United States, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China?
7. What effects did the Vietnam War have on American government and society between 1965 and 1975? Consider changes to political, social and cultural attitudes.
8. What effect did American military intervention have on nearby Cambodia between 1969 and 1975?
9. Discuss how events in Vietnam shaped the development of neighbouring Laos from 1957 onwards.
10. Who were the Khmer Rouge and what was their vision for Cambodia? How did they go about implementing this vision?
Identification. The name Vietnam originated in 1803 when envoys from the newly founded Nguyen dynasty traveled to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese court. The new emperor had chosen the name Nam Viet for his kingdom. The word Viet he derived from the traditional name for the Vietnamese imperial domain and its people in what is now northern and central Vietnam. Nam (south) had been added to acknowledge the expansion of the dynasty's domain into lands to the south. The Chinese objected to this new name because it was the same as an ancient state that had rebelled against Chinese rule. They therefore changed it to Viet Nam. Vietnamese officials resented the change and it did not attain public acceptance until the late 1800s.
The story of the origin of Vietnam's name captures several prominent themes that have run throughout the nation's history. As the usage of Viet indicates, the Vietnamese have for centuries had a sense of the distinctiveness of their society and culture. However, as the inclusion of Nam shows, the land they inhabit has expanded over time, and also has its own internal divisions into northern, central, and southern regions. Additionally, as evidenced by the name change, their history has been profoundly influenced by their contact with other, often more powerful, groups.
Vietnam today stands at a crossroads. It has been at peace for over a decade, but since the 1986 introduction of the "Renovation" or Doi Moi policy that began dismantling the country's socialist economy in favor of a market economy, the country has experienced tremendous social changes. Some have been positive, such as a general rise in the standard of living, but others have not, such as increased corruption, social inequality, regional tensions, and an HIV-AIDS epidemic. The Communist Party still exercises exclusive control over political life, but the question of whether Vietnam will continue its socio-economic development in a climate of peace and stability remains uncertain at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Location and Geography. Vietnam occupies approximately 127,243 square miles (329,560 square kilometers), an area roughly equivalent to New Mexico, and is situated between 8 and 24 degrees latitude and 102 and 110 degrees longitude. It borders China in the north, Laos in the northeast and center, and Cambodia in the southwest. Its 2,135 miles (3,444 kilometers) of coastline run from its border with Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand along the South China Sea to its border with China. The delineation of Vietnam's borders has been a focus of dispute in the post–1975 period, notably the ownership disputes with China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia over the Spratly Islands; and with China and Taiwan over the Paracel Islands. Recent progress has been made settling land border disputes with China and Cambodia. The Vietnamese culturally divide their country into three main regions, the north ( Bac Bo ), center ( Trung Bo ), and south ( Nam Bo ), with Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) serving as the main cities of each region. Hanoi, the site of the former capital of one of the country's earliest dynasties, has been the capital of the unified Vietnam since 1976.
Vietnam contains a wide-variety of agro-economic zones. The river deltas of Vietnam's two great rivers, the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south, dominate those two regions. Both deltas feature irrigated rice agriculture that depends on the annual monsoons and river water that is distributed through immense and complicated irrigation systems. Irrigated rice agriculture is also practiced in numerous smaller river deltas and plains along the country's coast. Vietnam's western
Demography. The current population is approximately seventy-seven million composed almost exclusively of indigenous peoples. The largest group is the ethnic Vietnamese ( Kinh ), who comprise over 85 percent of the population. Other significant ethnic groups include the Cham, Chinese, Hmong, Khmer, Muong, and Tai, though none of these groups has a population over one million. Expatriates of many nationalities reside in urban areas. The country's two largest population centers are Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but over 75 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The country's birth rate, estimated to increase at 1.37 percent per year, has led to rapid population growth since the 1980s with approximately 34 percent of the population under 14 years of age.
Linguistic Affiliation. Vietnamese is the dominant language, spoken by an estimated 86.7 percent of the population. It is a tonal Mon-Khmer language with strong Chinese lexical influences. The six-toned dialect of the central Red River delta region, particularly around Hanoi, is regarded as the language's standard form, but significant dialectical variations exist between regions in terms of the number of tones, accents, and vocabulary. Dialectical differences often serve as important symbols of regional identity in social life. As the official language, Vietnamese is taught in schools throughout the country. Since the 1940s, Vietnamese governments have made great progress in raising literacy rates and approximately 90 percent of the adult population is literate. During the twentieth century the country's elite have mastered a variety of second languages, such as French, Russian, and English, with the latter being the most commonly learned second language today. Linguists estimate that approximately eighty-five other languages from the Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, Daic, Miao-Yiao, and Sino-Tibetan language families are indigenous to the country. These range from languages spoken by large numbers of people, such as Muong (767,000), Khmer (700,000), Nung (700,000), Tai Dam (over 500,000), and Chinese (500,000), to those spoken by only a few hundred people, such as O'Du, spoken by an estimated two hundred people. Many minority group members are bilingual, though not necessarily with Vietnamese as their second language.
Symbolism. The Vietnamese government extensively employs a number of symbols to represent the nation. These include the flag, with its red background and centered, five-pointed gold star; a variety of red and gold stars; the image of Ho Chi Minh; and representations of workers and soldiers. Images and statues of the latter, wearing green pith helmets and carrying weapons, are common in public places. Images of Ho are ubiquitous, adorning everything from currency to posters on buildings to the portraits of him commonly found hanging in northern Vietnamese homes. Ho was a strong advocate of national unity and referred to all Vietnamese as "children of one house." Other commonly visible symbols are the patterns of seabirds and other figures featured on Dong Son drums. These drums, manufactured by early residents of northern Vietnam in the first and second millennia B.C. , represent the nation's antiquity. Since Vietnam began developing its tourist industry in the late 1980s, a number of other images have become commonplace, such as farmers in conical hats, young boys playing flutes while riding on the back of buffalo, and women in ao dai , the long-flowing tunic that is regarded as the national dress.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. Many Vietnamese archeologists and historians assert that the origins of the Vietnamese people can be reliably traced back to at least the fifth or sixth millennium B.C. when tribal groups inhabited the western regions of the Red River delta. A seminal event in the solidification of Vietnamese identity occurred in 42 B.C.E. when China designated the territory as its southern-most province and began direct rule over it. China would rule the region for almost one thousand years, thereby laying the foundation for the caution and ambivalence that Vietnamese have felt for centuries toward their giant northern neighbor. The Vietnamese reestablished their independence in 938. The next thousand years saw a succession of Vietnamese dynasties rule the country, such as the Ly, Tran, Le, and Vietnam's last dynasty, the Nguyen (1802–1945). These dynasties, though heavily influenced by China in terms of political philosophy and organizational structure, participated in the articulation of the uniqueness of Vietnamese society, culture, and history. This period also saw the commencement of the "Movement South" ( Nam Tien )in which the Vietnamese moved south from their Red River delta homeland and gradually conquered southern and central Vietnam. In the process, they displaced two previously dominant groups, the Cham and Khmer.
The modern Vietnamese nation was created from French colonialism. France used the pretext of the harassment of missionaries to begin assuming control over Vietnam in the 1850s. By 1862 it had set up the colony of Cochinchina in southern Vietnam. In 1882 it invaded northern Vietnam and forced the Vietnamese Emperor to accept the establishment of a French protectorate over central and northern Vietnam in 1883. This effectively brought all of Vietnam under French control. The French colonial regime was distinguished by its brutality and relentless exploitation of the Vietnamese people. Resistance to colonial rule was intense in the early years, but weakened after the late 1890s. The situation began to change dramatically in the late 1920s as a number of nationalist movements, such as the Indochinese Communist Party (formed in 1930) and the Vietnam Nationalist Party (formed in 1927), became more sophisticated in terms of organization and ability. Such groups grew in strength during the turmoil of World War II. On 19 August 1945 an uprising occurred in which Vietnamese nationalists overthrew the Japanese administration then controlling Vietnam. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh officially established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French attempted to reassert control over Vietnam by invading the country in December 1946. This launched an eight-year war in which the Vietnamese nationalist forces, led primarily by the Vietnamese Communists, ultimately forced the French from the country in late 1954. Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam for the next twenty-one years. During this period the North experienced a socialist revolution. In 1959 North Vietnam began implementing its policy to forcibly reunify the country, which led to outbreak of the American War in Vietnam in the early 1960s. This concluded on 30 April 1975 when North Vietnamese soldiers captured the city of Saigon and forced the surrender of the South Vietnamese government. On 1 January 1976 the Vietnamese National Assembly declared the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, thereby completing the reunification of the Vietnamese nation.
National Identity. National identity is a complex and contentious issue. One of the most basic components is the Vietnamese language. Many Vietnamese are tremendously proud of their language and its complexities. People particularly enjoy the rich opportunities for plays on words that come from its tonal nature and value the ability to appropriately use the countless number of adages and proverbs enshrined in the language. Vietnamese also have an attachment to their natural world. The expression "Vietnamese land" (dat Viet) , with its defining metaphors of mountains and rivers, encapsulates the notion that Vietnamese society and culture have an organic relationship to their environment. Another important component of national identity is the set of distinctive customs such as weddings, funerals, and ancestor worship that Vietnamese perform. These are subject to a great deal of regional and historical variation, but there is a perceived core that many regard as uniquely Vietnamese, especially the worship of patrilineal ancestors by families. Vietnamese food, with its ingredients and styles of preparation distinct from both China and other Southeast Asian nations, also defines the country and its people.
Contemporary national identity's contentiousness derives from the forced unification of the country in 1975. Prior to this, the northern sense of national identity was defined through its commitment to socialism and the creation of a new, revolutionary society. This identity had its own official history that celebrated such heroes as Ho Chi Minh and others who fought against colonialism, but rejected many historical figures associated with the colonial regime, the Nguyen dynasty, and what it regarded as the prerevolutionary feudal order. South Vietnamese national identity rejected Communism and celebrated a different set of historical figures, particularly those that had played a role in the Nguyen dynasty's founding and preservation. After unification, the government suppressed this history and its heroes. The northern definition of national identity dominates, but there remains alternate understandings among many residents in the southern and central regions.
Ethnic Relations. Vietnam is home to fifty-four official ethnic groups, the majority of which live in highland areas, although some large groups such the Cham or Chinese live in lowland or urban areas. Since the mid-1980s, relations between ethnic groups have generally been good, but conflict has been present. The most frequent problem is competition for resources, either between different highland groups or between highland groups and lowland groups that have settled in the midlands and highlands. Some minority group members also feel discriminated against and resent governmental intrusion in their lives. The government, which at one level supports and celebrates ethnic diversity, has had complicated relations with groups it fears might become involved in anti-government activities. This has been the case with several highland groups in northern and central Vietnam, the ethnic Chinese, many of whom fled Vietnam at the time of the Vietnam War and China's brief border war in 1979, and expatriate Vietnamese who have returned to Vietnam.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
Vietnam's cities carry the architectural traces of the many phases of its history. The city of Hue, capital of the Nguyen dynasty, features the Citadel and other imperial structures, such as the mausolea of former emperors. In 1993 UNESCO designated the Citadel and other imperial sites as a part of their World Heritage List and have subsequently begun renovations to repair the extensive damage they received in the 1968 Tet Offensive. The French left behind an impressive legacy of colonial architecture, particularly in Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon. Colonial authorities meticulously planned these cities, creating wide, tree-covered avenues that were lined with impressive public buildings and private homes. Many of these structures still serve as government offices and private residences. Following the division of the country in 1954, South Vietnam saw an increase in functional American-style buildings, while North Vietnam's Eastern Bloc allies contributed to the construction of massive concrete dormitory housing. The 1990s brought an array of new architectural styles in the cities as people tore down houses that had for years been neglected and constructed new ones, normally of brick and mortar. New construction has removed some of the colonial flavor of the major cities.
City residents often congregate to sit and relax at all hours of the day in parks, cafes, or on the street side. The busiest locations during the day are the markets where people buy fresh meat, produce, and other essentials. Religious structures such as Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and spirit shrines are often crowded to capacity on worship days. Almost all lowland communities have structures dedicated to the war and revolution. These range in size from a large monument for war dead in Hanoi to the numerous cemeteries and cenotaphs for the war dead in towns and villages across the nation. These sites only commemorate those who fought for the victorious north, leaving those who served the south officially uncommemorated.
Vietnamese rural villages feature a variety of architectural styles. Village residents in lowland river deltas usually live in family compounds that
Traditional thatched-roof homes on piles in a village outside Sapa. These homes are more common among poorer, rural families.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. Rice is the dietary staple which most people eat three meals a day. Rice is usually consumed jointly by family members. The common practice is to prepare several dishes that are placed on a tray or table that people sit around. Individuals have small bowls filled with rice, and then take food from the trays as well as rice from their bowls with chopsticks. Vietnamese often accompany these main dishes with leafy vegetables and small bowls of salty sauces in which they dip their food. Popular dishes include sauteed vegetables, tofu, a seafood-based broth with vegetables called canh, and a variety of pork, fish, or meat dishes. A common ingredient for cooked dishes and the dipping sauces is salty fish sauce ( nuoc mam ). Another important family practice is the serving of tea from a small tea pot with small cups to guests. Northern cuisine is known for its subtle flavors, central cuisine for its spiciness, and southern cuisine for its use of sugar and bean sprouts. Diet varies with wealth; the poor often have limited amounts of protein in their diets and some only have the means to eat rice with a few leafy vegetables at every meal.
The major cities feature restaurants offering Vietnamese and international cuisines, but for most Vietnamese, food consumed outside of the home is taken at street-side stalls or small shops that specialize in one dish. The most popular item is a noodle soup with a clear meat-based broth called pho . Many Vietnamese regard this as a national dish. Other foods commonly consumed at these sites include other types of rice or wheat noodle soups, steamed glutinous rice, rice porridge, sweet desserts, and "common people's food" ( com binh dan ), a selection of normal household dishes. There are no universal food taboos among Vietnamese, although some women avoid certain foods considered "hot," such as duck, during pregnancy and in the first few months after giving birth. The consumption of certain foods has a gendered dimension. Dishes such as dog or snake are regarded as male foods and many women avoid them. Some minority groups have taboos on the consumption of certain food items considered either sacred or impure.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Food consumption is a vital part of ritual celebrations. Historically, villagers held feasts after the conduct of rites dedicated to village guardian spirits, but revolutionary restrictions on resource consumption in these contexts has largely eliminated such feasts. Feasts held after weddings and funerals remain large and have increased in size in recent years. The most popular feast items are pork, chicken, and vegetable dishes served with rice. Liberal amounts of alcohol are also served. In the countryside this usually takes the form of locally-produced contraband rice spirits, while feasts in the cities often feature beer or imported spirits. Feasts are socially important because they provide a context through which people maintain good social relations, either through the reciprocation of previous feast invitations or the joint consumption of food. Other important occasions for feasting are the death anniversaries of family ancestors and the turning of the Lunar New Year or Tet . Many of the foods served on these occasions are similar, although the latter has some special dishes, such as a square of glutinous rice, pork and mung bean cake called banh trung. These feasts are comparatively smaller and, unlike the weddings and funerals, generally are confined to family members or close friends.
Basic Economy. Despite efforts at industrialization after 1954, agriculture remains the foundation of the economy. The 1998 Vietnam Living Standards Survey showed that over 70 percent of the total population engaged in farming or farm-related work. Vietnam imports few basic agricultural commodities, and the majority of the items people consume are grown or produced in Vietnam.
Land Tenure and Property. The Vietnamese government, in line with socialist ideology, does not legally recognize private land ownership. Since the early 1990s, the government has made moves to recognize de facto land ownership by granting individuals long-term leaseholds. This trend received more formal recognition with the passage of the 1998 Land Law. Control over land is extremely contentious. With the recent growth of a market economy, land has become an extremely valuable commodity, and many cases of corrupt officials illegally selling land-use rights or seizing it for personal uses have been reported. Ambiguities in the law and the lack of transparent legal processes exacerbate tensions and make land disputes difficult to resolve.
Commercial Activities. Agricultural and manufactured products are sold both retail and wholesale. Cities, towns, and villages all feature markets, most of which are dominated by petty traders, normally women. The most commonly sold commodities are foodstuffs and household items such as salt, sugar, fish sauce, soaps, clothing, fabric, tableware, and cooking implements. Major purchases such as household appliances, bicycles, or furniture are often made in specialty stalls in larger markets or in stores in towns and cities. Currency is used for most transactions, but the purchase of real estate or capital goods requires gold. The number of open market wage-laborers has increased in recent years.
Major Industries. Industrial output is evenly split between the state-owned, private, and foreign sectors. Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has actively promoted foreign investment, resulting in a very rapid growth in output by that sector. International corporations have been most active in mining, electronics assembly, and the production of textiles, garments, and footwear, usually for export. Corruption and an unclear legal system have severely limited Vietnam ability to attract additional foreign investment since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Vietnamese state-owned factories produce a number of commodities for local consumption, such as cigarettes, textiles, alcohol, fertilizer, cement, food, paper, glass, rubber, and some consumer appliances. Private firms are still relatively small in size and number, and are usually concentrated in agricultural processing and light industry. Many complain that state interference, an undeveloped commercial infrastructure, and a confusing and ineffective legal system inhibit their growth and success.
Overview of Hanoi's Old Quarter. The French colonial influence is apparent in the architecture of many of the buildings that line the street.
Trade. Vietnam's international trade relations have grown considerably since the early 1990's. Major exports include oil, marine products, rubber, tea, garments, and footwear. The country is one of the world's largest exporters of coffee and rice. It sells most of its rice to African nations. Its largest trading partners for other commodities include Japan, China, Singapore, Australia, and Taiwan.
Division of Labor. Vietnamese of all ages work. As soon as they are able, young children begin helping out around the house or in the fields. Men tend to perform heavier tasks, such as plowing, construction, or heavy industrial work while women work in the garment and footwear sectors. Individuals with post-secondary school educations hold professional positions in medicine, science, and engineering. The lack of a post-secondary education is generally not a barrier to occupying high-ranking business or political positions, though this had begun to change by the late 1990s. National occupational surveys show that only slightly more than 16 percent of the population is engaged in professional or commercial occupations, while just under 84 percent of the population is engaged in either skilled or unskilled manual labor.
Classes and Castes. The vast majority of the contemporary Vietnamese population is poor. The average annual earnings in the 1990s for a family is estimated at $370. There has been an increase in social stratification based upon wealth, particularly in urban areas where some individuals, often with links to business or the government, have become very wealthy. Another important axis of stratification is the distinction between mental and manual labor. Given the recent origin of this wealth-based stratification and the widespread poverty, these groups have yet to congeal into clearly-defined classes.
Symbols of Social Stratification. The most prominent contemporary symbols of social stratification are consumer goods. Two of the most common symbols are the possession of a motorcycle, particularly one of Japanese manufacture, and a mobile phone. Other items include refrigerators, televisions, video players, gold jewelry, and imported luxury goods, such as clothing or liquor. Some individuals also assert their status through large wedding feasts. For the very wealthy, automobiles, foreign travel, and expensive homes are important status symbols. Many of the poor ride bicycles, wear old and sometimes tattered clothing, and live in thatched homes.
Government. Vietnam is a socialist republic with a government that includes an elected legislature, the national assembly, a president as head of state, and a prime minister as head of government. However, real political power lies with the Vietnamese Communist Party. Party members hold virtually all executive and administrative positions in the government. The party's Fatherland Front determines which candidates can run in elections and its politburo sets the guidelines for all major governmental policy initiatives. The most powerful position in the country is the Communist Party general secretary. Other important positions are the prime minister, the president, the minister of public security, and the chief of the armed forces. Women and members of Vietnam's ethnic groups are nominally represented in the government. One of the most sensitive issues the government faces is balancing regional interests.
Leadership and Political Officials. The Communist Party pressures its members to serve as examples of political virtue. The image they employ as their ideal leader is Ho Chi Minh. Ho was a devoted revolutionary who lived a life of simplicity, avoided corruption, behaved in a fair and egalitarian manner, and put the nation and revolution above his own personal interests. Party members and others often invoke the numerous moral adages coined by Ho during his life as a benchmark for social and political morality. Ho's popularity is greatest in the north. Residents of other regions sometimes have more ambivalent feelings about him.
Local political officials often are caught between two conflicting sets of expectations regarding their behavior. As party members, they are exhorted to follow the official line and disregard their own interests, but relatives and members of their communities often expect them to use their positions to their advantage; thus nepotism and localism are, at one level, culturally sanctioned. Officials must balance these two sets of demands, as moving too far in one direction can lead to criticism from the other.
The Vietnamese revolution eliminated the extremely inegalitarian forms of interaction such as kowtowing or hierarchical terms of address that had existed between commoners and officials. Most Vietnamese address officials with respectful kinship terms, such as "older brother" ( anh ) or "grandfather" ( ong ), or in rare cases as "comrade" ( dong chi ). Events in the late 1990s, notably several uprisings in rural areas in 1997, have demonstrated that the people's respect for the party and its officials has declined, largely as a result of the highhandedness and corruption of many officials. However, significant alternative political movements have not emerged.
Social Problems and Control. Vietnam has enjoyed a large measure of stability since the late 1970s, but its government today faces a number of significant social problems. Its greatest concern has been unrest in rural areas brought on by official malfeasance and land disputes. The government is also concerned about relations with religious groups in the south, particularly Catholics, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao, who have demonstrated against the government since the 1990s. Another source of concern is smuggling and the production of counterfeit commodities. Three problems that have increased dramatically in urban areas during the 1990s have been theft, prostitution, and drug abuse. Many who engage in the latter two activities are often from the poorest segments of the population. Official corruption associated with the drug trade and sex industry are another significant problem.
Vietnam has a legal system supported by a police force, a judicial and a security system. Yet, many Vietnamese feel that the system does not work, particularly with regard to its failure either to punish high-ranking offenders or to prevent the wealthy from bribing their way out of being punished for illegal activities. The former is often made possible by the extremely low salaries received by public officials. People also feel that the state deals more severely with political dissidents than many civil and criminal offenders. While there is a limited police and security presence in rural communities, the tightly-packed living spaces and ubiquitous kinship relations hinder the conduct of many crimes. If possible, local officials often prefer to settle disputes internally, rather than involve higher authorities. Public skepticism regarding the police and judicial system is a source of concern for the government.
Military Activity. The People's Army of Vietnam has roughly 484,000 active members with three to four million in the reserves. Over the past decade the military has cut its forces considerably, though recent estimates are that military expenditures constitute an amount equivalent to approximately 9 percent of the GDP ($650 million). Since its withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989, the military has not been
Houses clustered along the shore of Halong Bay. It is common for houses in Vietnam to be built close to one another within a village.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
The Vietnamese government has a strong commitment to social welfare and social change, particularly health improvements, poverty alleviation, and economic development. It is also concerned with providing assistance to war invalids and the families of war dead. Numerous offices at all levels of government are dedicated to these goals, but their efforts are severely constrained by a lack of funding. As a result, the implementation of many such policies is carried out with the assistance of international donors and organizations. Several governments including those of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Japan, have provided significant assistance.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
The international nongovernmental organization presence is significant, ranging from various organizations of the United Nations that conduct a wide variety of projects across the country, to small groups that work in only one community. The programs they finance and implement include poverty alleviation, infectious disease control, contraception, educational assistance, and water purification, among others.
The development of civil society in Vietnam is still in its nascent stages, thus there are as of yet few indigenous nongovernmental associations that play a significant role in social life. Two types that appear to be gaining importance are patrilineages and religious or ritual organizations, such as local Buddhist Associations or Spirit Medium Associations. Some official organizations such as the Communist Party's Elderly Association that has a presence in villages throughout the country play an important role in organizing funerals and assisting the elderly.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. In prerevolutionary Vietnam the "public" ( ngoai ) domain was the male domain while the "domestic" ( noi ) domain was for women. This pattern still largely remains with women performing most of the essential tasks for running the household such as cooking, cleaning, going to market, and caring for children. Outside
Two women sit down to breakfast in Vietnam. While women have a strong role within families, their status in business and government is less significant than men's.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Vietnamese revolutionary policies endorse the principle of gender equality, but its realization in social life has been incomplete. Men dominate official positions, the Communist Party, business, and all other prestigious realms of social life. Women play a strong role within their families, a point made in the reference to the wife as the "general of the interior" ( noi tuong ). The position and status of women has improved significantly since 1950, but lower literacy rates, less education, and a smaller presence in public life indicate that their inferior status remains.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. Marriage is an expected rite of passage for the attainment of adulthood. Almost all people marry, usually in their late teens or early twenties. According to Vietnamese law, arranged marriage and polygamy are illegal. Young people can court freely, but many women are careful not to court too openly for fear of developing a negative reputation. Many Vietnamese regard the development of romantic love as an important component in deciding to marry, but many will also balance family considerations when making their decision. Vietnamese prefer to marry someone of equal status, though it is better for the husband to be of slightly higher status. Such considerations have become more significant in recent years as wealth differentials have grown. Vietnamese law allows both men and women to ask for a divorce. Divorce rates have increased, particularly in urban areas, but many women are reluctant to divorce because remarriage is difficult for them.
Domestic Unit. The common pattern for the domestic unit is to have two or three generations living together in one home. In some urban settings, particularly if the family resides in government allocated housing, the household might only include two generations, while some homes in the countryside have up to five generations. Residence in most homes is organized around the male line. Authority within the household is exercised by the eldest male, although his wife will often have an important say in family matters. Sons stay in the parent's home, and after marriage their brides move in with them. The eldest son will usually remain in the home, while younger sons might leave to set up their own household a few years after marriage. Women of all generations tend to such matters as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, though these responsibilities tend to fall on the younger wives.
Inheritance. The general custom is for the eldest son to inherit the parental home and the largest portion of the family property, particularly land. Younger sons will often inherit some land or other items, such as gold. In rare cases daughters receive small items. Many parents like all of their children to receive something in order to prevent discord. If a person dies without a pre-stipulated arrangement, Vietnamese law requires an equal distribution of property among the next of kin.
Kin Groups. Patrilineages are the most important kin groups. At birth, children become members of their father's patrilineage and are forbidden from marrying anyone of that patrilineage within five degrees of relation. Most rural villages have several patrilineages whose members live amongst each other. Patrilineages generally do not exercise a dominant role in social life, although lineage members often meet to conduct commemorative rites for their ancestors. Many highland groups have matrilineages and different rules regarding marriage.
Infant Care. Vietnamese infants are in constant contact with others. People hold children and pass them around throughout the day. During the night infants sleep with their parents in the parents' bed. Infant care is largely the responsibility of female family members. Mothers play the primary role, although in cases when they must be away, older relatives help care for the children. Older siblings often help out too. People talk and play with infants, calm them when they cry, and always try to make them smile and laugh.
Child Rearing and Education. Adults take a generally indulgent attitude toward children until they reach the age of five or six. At that point, they become more strict and begin more serious moral instruction. The general moral message is for children to learn to "respect order" ( ton ti trat tu ), a reference to knowing their inferior position in society and showing deference to their superiors. Parents also emphasize the importance of filial piety and obedience to the parents. A good child will always know its inferior place and yield to its seniors. As they get older, the moral socialization of girls is more intense than that of boys. Girls are expected to display a number of feminine virtues, particularly modesty and chastity. Schools continue the instruction of these moral themes, but given that the majority of Vietnamese do not study beyond primary school, they are not a significant site for moral socialization.
Higher Education. Higher education is very prestigious, a tradition that dates back to the competitive examination system to become an official in the precolonial period. Many families want their children to attend university, but such an option is beyond reach for the majority of the population, particularly those in rural or highland areas.
Polite behavior is highly valued. One of the most important dimensions of politeness is for the young to show respect to their elders. In everyday life, younger people show this respect by using hierarchical terms of address when interacting with their seniors and parents regularly instruct their children on their proper usage. Younger people should also be the first to issue the common salutation chao when meeting someone older, should always invite their seniors to begin eating before they do, ask for permission to leave the house, announce their arrival when they return, and not dominate conversations or speak in a confrontational manner with their seniors. Prerevolutionary practices demanded that juniors bow or kowtow to their seniors, but the revolution has largely eliminated such practices. Many elders today feel that the revolution produced a general decline in politeness.
People of the same gender often maintain close proximity in social contexts. Both males and females will hold hands or sit very close together. People of different genders, however, especially if they are not married or related, should not have physical contact. In general woman are expected to maintain greater decorum than men by avoiding alcohol and tobacco, speaking quietly, and dressing modestly. In many public spaces, however, people often avoid standing in queues, resulting in a chaotic environment where people touch or press up against one another as they go about their business.
Rice is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, eaten three meals a day, but rice is also exported as well—mostly to African countries.
Religious Beliefs. The Vietnamese government recognizes six official religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and two indigenous religious traditions that emerged during the colonial period, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. The Mahayana tradition of Buddhism is dominant in Vietnam, and over 70 percent of Vietnamese consider themselves at least nominally Buddhist. The constitution technically allows for the freedom of religion, but this right is often constrained, particularly with regard to any religious activities that could become a forum for dissent. All religious organizations are technically overseen by the Communist Party's Fatherland Front, but opposition, notably from the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and some Buddhist sects, has been present.
Denominational variations aside, the core of religious practice for almost all Vietnamese is the worship of spirits. The most important spirits are the souls of the ancestors. Almost all families have altars in their homes where they perform rites for family ancestors, especially on the deceased's death anniversaries and the Lunar New Year. Many Vietnamese also perform or participate in rites for their village guardian spirits, spirits associated with specific locations, spirits of deceased heroes, or the Buddha or different Boddhisatvas, particularly Avalokitesvara. Some Vietnamese believe that spirits have the ability to bring good fortune and misfortune to human life. Revolutionaries strenuously objected to such thinking because they felt that it prevented the Vietnamese from becoming masters of their own destinies. Today, acceptance of ideas of supernatural causality is more common among women, while some men, particularly those with party or military backgrounds, reject such ideas.
Religious Practitioners. Each of the main religious traditions has its own set of practitioners such as Christian priests, nuns, and ministers, Buddhist monks and nuns, Islamic clerics, and Cao Dai and Hao Hao priests. Vietnamese society also features spirit priests, Taoist masters, spirit mediums, diviners, and astrologers. The three former specialists have the ability to interact with the spirit world in order to learn the spirits' desires and persuade or coerce them to behave in particular manners. They are usually consulted to help the living cure illness or end a pattern of misfortune. Spirit priests and Taoist masters are usually men who study religious texts to learn their specialty. Most mediums are women, many of whom become mediums after a crisis or revelatory experience. Diviners and astrologers have the ability to predict the future. Diviners make their predictions through a range of divinatory rites or by reading faces or palms. Astrologers make their calculations
Agriculture is one of the few areas in which men and women share tasks in Vietnamese culture.
Rituals and Holy Places. The most important ritual event in Vietnamese society is the celebration of the Lunar New Year ( Tet Nguyen Dan ) when families gather to welcome the coming of the new year and pay their respects to family ancestors. The first and fifteenth of every month in the twelve month lunar year are also important occasions for rites to ancestors, spirits, and Buddhist deities. Other common days for rites are the death anniversaries of family ancestors, historical figures, or Buddhist deities; the fifteenth of the third lunar month when family members clean ancestral graves; and the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month, which is Vietnamese All Soul's Day. Vietnamese conduct rites in a variety of sacred spaces. These include family ancestral altars, lineage halls, a variety of shrines dedicated to spirits, communal houses that hold the altars of village guardian spirits, temples of Buddhist or other affiliations, Christian churches, and mosques. The country also has many shrines and temples that hold annual festivals that pilgrims and interested visitors attend, often from great distances. Among the more famous are the Perfume Pagoda in the north, the Catholic shrine at La Vang in the center, and the Cao Dai Temple in the south.
Death and the Afterlife. The vast majority of Vietnamese hold that a person's soul lives on after death. One of the most important moral obligations for the living, especially the deceased's children, is to conduct a proper funeral that will facilitate the soul's movement from the world of the living to what Vietnamese refer to as "the other world" ( gioi khac ). This transfer is vital because a soul that does not move to the other world is condemned to becoming a malevolent wandering ghost, while the soul that does move can become a benevolent family ancestor. There is a great deal of variation regarding the conduct of funeral rites, but they share this common goal.
The other world is regarded as identical to that of the living. To live happily there, the dead depend on the living to provide them with essential items. At a minimum this includes food, though some also send money, clothing, and other items. Family members deliver these items through mortuary rituals, especially those performed annually on the deceased's death anniversary. All rituals associated with death have a tremendous moral significance in Vietnamese society.
Medicine and Health Care
The Vietnamese, like residents of other poor, tropical countries, suffer from a wide range of maladies, including parasitic, intestinal, nutritional, sexually transmitted, and respiratory diseases. In 1999, the average life expectancy at birth was 65.71 years for men and 70.64 years for women. The major endemic diseases include malaria, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B. Other diseases present are HIV-AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, measles, typhoid, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, cholera, leprosy, and tuberculosis. Since the early 1990s, the Vietnamese government, with assistance from international organizations, has achieved tremendous successes in reducing malaria fatalities and also in eliminating polio. However, some infectious diseases have begun reemerging in recent years, particularly tuberculosis, and the number of HIV-AIDS cases has also grown significantly. Many infectious diseases are associated with poverty and the poor often suffer the most severe consequences.
The Vietnamese revolution created improvements in the quality and availability of health care. The government constructed hospitals in urban areas and health clinics in rural communities where patients were required to pay only minimal fees. Many of the larger facilities were constructed with international assistance. These programs helped reduce infant mortality and the frequency of many infectious diseases, but many of these advances were unevenly spread throughout the country as many poor highland areas continued to receive inadequate care. Budgetary restrictions held back overall health improvements. Many facilities today do not have adequate resources to function and have begun charging patients higher fees. Many specialists have also left rural areas for better opportunities in cities. These changes have put adequate health care out of reach of many Vietnamese.
One of the greatest strains on the contemporary medical system is HIV-AIDS, the first Vietnamese case of which was reported in 1990. Experts estimate that the disease has affected over 165,000 Vietnamese. The government has launched effective education and awareness programs to combat the spread of the disease so Vietnam has not experienced an epidemic as severe as other Asian countries. The two groups most heavily affected by the disease have been prostitutes and intravenous drug users. HIV-AIDS is a largely stigmatized disease due to its association with perceived immoral behavior. Many sufferers seek to conceal their infection, producing a significant difference between the 20,000 officially reported cases and the expert estimates of over 165,000 cases. There are several hospitals devoted to the care of HIV-AIDS patients, but a lack of adequate funding prevents the majority of patients from receiving the most advanced and effective treatments.
The treatment of illnesses illustrates the diverse medical systems that coexist in Vietnam. The most commonly consulted, particularly in urban areas, is western biomedicine with its reliance on surgery and pharmaceuticals. For most Vietnamese, biomedicine is the first resort in cases of acute illness or bacterial or viral infections. With chronic illness, many will first try biomedical treatments, but if these fail, they will turn to herbal treatments. Vietnam has two main herbal traditions: Chinese herbal medicine ( thouc bac or "northern drugs") and Vietnamese herbal medicine ( thuoc nam or "southern drugs"). Both traditions have substantial similarities, particularly in their theories that illness results from humoral imbalances in the body, yet the treatments prescribed in the latter rely more on herbal remedies available in Vietnam. In some cases people use biomedical and alternative treatments in a complementary manner. Many Vietnamese comment that herbal medicines are more effective in the long run because they deal with the true cause of illness whereas biomedicine only treats the symptoms. Members of different highland communities also employ biomedical and herbal remedies to treat illness, but the poverty of many communities makes access to the former difficult.
The Vietnamese have a range of indigenous healers, such as spirit mediums or other spirit specialists, who are consulted in cases of prolonged physical or mental illness. These healers believe that disease and misfortune are caused by spirits or other malevolent entities. The techniques they employ involve contacting the spirit world, finding and identifying the offending spirit, and determining what is needed to end the spirit's torments. The government strongly opposes and criticizes these specialists, but they remain active throughout the country.
Vietnam's socialist government has created a range of secular celebrations to glorify official history and values. Official holidays include: Labor Day (1 May), National Day (2 September), and Teacher's Day (19 November). Other important dates are War Invalids' and Martyrs' Day (27 July), and the anniversaries of the founding of the Communist Party (3 February), Ho Chi Minh's birth (19 May), and the August Revolution (19 August). Perhaps the most
Celebrants crowd Hanoi streets during the Tet lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts. Vietnam's socialist government places a strong emphasis on the arts, particularly because it regards them as a prime vehicle for the propagation of socialist values. All of the main artistic forms such as theater, literature, cinema, and painting have state-controlled organizations that artists are encouraged if not forced to join. The government at times severely constrains the direction of artistic development through censorship, control over printing, and the presence of party members in artistic organizations. This has not prevented a minor artistic renaissance, particularly in literature, since the late 1980s. Some artists find ways to insert critical messages into their work. Many artists struggle financially because of the recent dramatic reductions in government subsidies for the arts, the absence of adequate protection for copyrights, and the fickle tastes of a public that sometimes prefers imported films, music, and literature. Artists, especially painters, who can produce for expatriates or the tourist market, have the greatest freedom to pursue their craft.
Literature. Vietnam has a vibrant literary tradition dating back many centuries. Elite mandarins and scholars in the premodern period composed sophisticated poetry. Many poems from earlier eras such as Nguyen Du's The Tale of Kieu or Nguyen Dinh Chieu Luc Van Tien are regarded as literary masterpieces. Along with these traditions, the Vietnamese also maintained a rich oral legacy of songs, poems, and morality tales people still recite today. Prose fiction became popular under colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Writers of this period such as those of the "Self-Reliance Literature Group" ( Tu Luc Van Doan ) developed the role of author as social critic. The socialist authorities kept literature under tight control for several decades to ensure that it was in accord with the officially prescribed "socialist realist" canon that described the virtues of the working class and the revolution. Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has experienced a literary revitalization with the publication of numerous works that present war, and revolution, and their consequences in a critical light. The work of several such authors, including Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong, and Nguyen Huy Thiep has attracted an international audience.
Graphic Arts. A number of indigenous graphic art traditions remain popular. These include lacquerware, ink block prints, and ceramics, all of which employ distinctive themes developed by Vietnamese artists. Historically, specialist families or villages have produced these items for local sale, though some objects such as ceramics were sold throughout the country and abroad. Painting has become more popular in urban areas since the colonial period. All of these forms are displayed in museums and, with the exception of paintings, are sold in local markets as well as galleries or shops in major cities.
Performance Arts. The most popular performance arts in Vietnam have historically been a variety of musical theater traditions, all of which continue to be performed by government-organized troupes. The main forms included the courtly tradition of classical opera ( hat tuong ); reform theater ( hat cai luong ); an innovative tradition that emerged in the Mekong Delta in the early twentieth century; and hat cheo, a rural folk tradition. The former tradition has been in decline for several decades. Reform theater is popular in the south, and hat cheo in the north. Most performances take place in theaters usually in urban areas. Troupes struggle financially and perform less frequently than before the revolution. The French introduced Western drama to Vietnam, but its popularity has never matched musical theater. Musical performances, either of traditional musical forms or contemporary popular music, are also popular. Radio and television have become a common way to listen to or watch the whole range of performance arts.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
The Vietnamese government has a strong commitment to the development of the physical and social sciences. Officially sponsored universities and research institutes have specialists in most major disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics. Many specialists have received training abroad, either in the former Eastern Bloc nations or in advanced capitalist nations. Despite this commitment, the overall state of the physical and social sciences is poor due to a lack of funding that hinders the construction of adequate research facilities such as laboratories or libraries, constrains the training of adequate numbers of specialists, and keeps scientists' pay extremely low.
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—S HAWN K INGSLEY M ALARNEY
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