1. Vietnam Population & People

In 1999 Vietnam’s population reached 77.8 million, making it the 13th most populous country in the world. Eighty-four per cent or the population is ethnic- Vietnamese, 2% is ethnic-Chinese and the rest is made up of Khmers, Chams and members or over 50 ethno-linguistic groups.

Vietnam has an average population density of 225 persons per square kilometer, one of the worlds highest for an agricultural country. Much of the Red River Delta has a population density of 1000 people per square kilometer or more. Life expectancy is 66 years and infant mortality is 48 per 1000. The rate of population growth is 2.1 % per year and, until recently; ideology prevented any effective family planning.

Unfortunately, the 15 years or so during which Vietnam encouraged large families will be a burden for some time to come. The country’s population will likely double in the next century before zero population growth can be achieved. The task or reducing population growth is daunting. As elsewhere in the Third World, low education and low incomes tend to encourage large families. Unable to afford modern birth control techniques, most Vietnamese couples still rely on condoms, termination or self-induced miscarriage to avoid unwanted births.

The Vietnamese government takes a carrot and stick approach to family planning. For couples who limit their family size to two children or less, there are promises of benefits in education, housing, health care and employment (though a lack or funding means these promises ore often not kept).

The stick comes for those who exceed the two child limit. To begin with, the government can deny the third child household registration (needed to obtain an ID card, admission to school and access to various crucial permits). If the parents have a government job, they can be fired. In general these inducements have succeeded in urban areas -- a two child family is now the norm in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city). However, family planning campaigns have had only a minor impact on birth rates in rural areas.

2. Education in Vietnam

Compared with other Third World countries, Vietnam’s population is very well educated. Vietnam’s literacy rate is estimated at 82%, although official figures put it even higher (95%). Before the colonial period, the majority of the population possessed some degree of literacy, but by 1939 only 15% of school-age children were receiving any kind or instruction and 80% of the population was illiterate.

During the late 19th century, one of the few things that French colonial officials and Vietnamese nationalists agreed on was that the traditional Confucian educational system, on which the mandarinal civil service was based, was in desperate need of reform. Mandarinal examinations were held in Tonkin until WWI and in Annum until the war’s end.

Many or Indochina’s independence leaders were educated in elite French-language secondary schools such as the Lyce’e Albert Sarraut in Hanoi and the Lyce’e Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon.

Although the children of foreign residents can theoretically attend Vietnamese schools, the majority go to special private academies. These are expensive, but if you’re working for a foreign company then it’s possible that they will pay the bill.

3. Vietnam climate

There are no good or bad seasons for visiting Vietnam. When one region is wet, cold or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else that is sunny and pleasantly warm.

Vietnam has a remarkably diverse climate because of its wide range of latitudes and altitudes. Although the entire country lies in the tropics and subtropics, local conditions vary from frosty winters in the far northern hills to year-round, sub-equatorial warmth in the Mekong Delta. Because about one-third of Vietnam is over 500m above sea level, much of the country enjoys a subtropical or -- above 2000m -- temperate climate.

Vietnam lies in the East Asian monsoon zone. Its weather is determined by two monsoons that set the rhythm of rural life. The winter monsoon comes from the northeast between October and March bringing wet chilly winters to all areas north of Nha Trang, but dry and warm temperatures to the south. From April or May to October, the south-western monsoon -- its winds laden with moisture picked up while crossing the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand -- brings warm, humid weather to the whole country except for those areas sheltered by mountains (such as the central coastal lowlands and the Red River Della).

Between July and November, violent and unpredictable typhoons often develop over the ocean east of Vietnam, hilling central and northern Vietnam with devastating results.

Most of Vietnam receives about 2000mm of precipitation annually, though parts of the central highlands get approximately 3300mm.

Central Vietnam
The coastal lowlands are denied significant rainfall from the south-western monsoon (April or May to October) by the Truong Son Mountains, which ore very wet during this period. Much of the coastal strip’s precipitation is brought between December and February by the north-eastern monsoon. Nha Trang’s long dry season lasts from late January to October, while Dalat’s dry season is from December to March. Dalat, like the rest of the central highlands, is much cooler than the Mekong Delta and the coastal strip. From November to March, Dalat’s daily highs arc usually in the low to mid-20s.

The North
Areas north of the 18th parallel have two seasons: winter and summer. Winter is quite cool and wet, and usually lasts from around November to April. February and March are marked by a persistent drizzling rain that the Vietnamese call ‘rain dust’ (crachin). The hot summers run from May to October. The north is subject to occasional typhoons during the summer months.

The South
The south, with its sub-equatorial climate, has two main seasons: the wet and the dry. The wet season lasts from May to November (June to August are the wettest months). During this time, there are heavy but short-lived downpours almost daily, usually in the afternoon. The dry season runs from December to April. Late February to May is hot and very humid, but things cool down slightly when the summer rainy season begins.

In Saigon, the average annual temperature is 27°C. In April, daily highs are usually in the low 30s. In January, the daily lows average 21°C. Average humidity is 80% and annual rainfall averages 1979mm. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Saigon is 14°C.

4. Flora & Fauna of Vietnam

Originally Vietnam was virtually covered in forest, from vast mangrove swamps fringing the coast to dense rainforest in the mountainous regions. Over millennia the forests have progressively been pushed back: first by the gradual clearing of land for the cultivation of rice and other crops, and then by a rapidly expanding population and the ravages of war.

Much has been said about the human and economic devastation wrought by the American War, but it was also the most intensive attempt to destroy a country’s natural environment -- ‘ecocide’ (see the ‘Ecocide’ boxed text in the Around Ho Chi Minh City chapter). US forces sprayed 72 million litres of herbicides, known as Agents Orange, White and Blue (after the colour of the canisters they came in), over 16% of South Vietnam to destroy natural cover for Viet Cong (VC) troops.

Although the scars of war can still be seen and much of the damage is irreversible, re-forestation programs have been implemented and today the landscape is showing signs of recovery. Natural forests at higher elevations, such as in the north-west, feature wild rhododendrons, dwarf bamboo and many varieties of orchids; the central coast is drier and features stands of pines; while the river deltas support mangrove forests, which are valuable nurseries for fish and crustaceans as well as feeding sites for many bird species.

Rare and little-known birds previously thought to be extinct are turning up and no doubt more wait, particularly in the extensive forests of the Lao border region. For example, Edwards’ pheasant, a species previously thought to be extinct in the wild, was recently rediscovered; other rare and endangered species recently spotted by scientific expeditions include the white-winged wood duck and white-shouldered ibis.

Even a casual visitor will notice a few birds: swallows and swifts flying over fields and along watercourses; flocks of finches at roadsides and in paddies; and bulbuls and mynas in gardens and patches of forest. Vietnam is on the East Asian Flyway and is an important stopover for migratory waders en route from Siberian breeding grounds to their Australian winter quarters. A coastal reserve has been established at the Red River mouth for the protection of these birds, including rare species such as the spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann’s greenshank. Zoologists have recently seen previously unknown species of large mammals in Vietnam. In 1992 John MacKinnon, who was working for the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature) sighted a large ox at Vu Quang in northern Vietnam. This ox was only the fourth large land mammal to be discovered in the 20th century. In 1994 a hitherto unknown species of muntjac deer was seen near the same site. It is believed that both animals occur in border areas with Laos and Cambodia, from Nghe An to Dak Lak.

The scientific and conservation interest of these recent discoveries has not been lost on authorities, and the Vietnam government recently expanded the reserve from 16,000 to 60,000 hectares and banned logging within its boundaries. Scientists are only beginning to catalogue the country’s flora and fauna visitors are most likely to encounter macaques, rhesus monkey and tree squirrels -- however, as research continues, more rare and previously undocumented species should be discovered.

5. Vietnam Ecology & Environment

Vietnam’s environment is not in the worst shape, but there are some troubling signs. Because Vietnam is a poor, densely populated agricultural country, humans often compete head-on with native plants and animals for the same resources.

Deforestation is perhaps the most serious problem. Originally, almost the whole of Vietnam was covered with dense forests. Since the arrival of the first human beings many millennia ago, Vietnam has been progressively denuded of forest cover. While 44% of the original forest cover was extant in 1943, by 1976 only 29% remained, by 1983 only 24% was left and in 1995 it was down to 20%. Fortunately, recent reforestation projects by the Forest Ministry, including banning of unprocessed timber exports in 1992, have seen a significant rise in forest cover -- in early 1998 the coverage was 8%, and a year later in 1999 it was up to 30%.

In addition, the Ministry of Education has made the planting and taking care of trees by pupil’s part of the curriculum. However, even at this rate, reforestation can not keep up with forest losses.

Each hectare of land stripped of vegetation contributes to the flooding or areas downstream from water catchments areas, irreversible soil erosion (upland soils arc especially fragile), the silting up of rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs, the loss or wildlife habitat and unpredictable climatic changes.

Vietnam has so far suffered little industrial pollution largely because there is little industry. However, the nation’s rapid economic and population growth indicates environmental trouble ahead. The dramatic increase in noisy, smoke-spewing motorbikes over the past few years should he taken as a sign or abominations to come.

6. Vietnam geography

Vietnam stretches over 1600km along the eastern coast of the Indochinese Peninsula (from 8°34′ N to 23°22′ N). The country’s land area is 326,797 sq km, or 329,566 sq km including water. This makes it slightly larger than Italy and a bit smaller than Japan. Vietnam has 3451 km of coastline and 3818km of land borders: 1555km with Laos, 1281km with China and 982km with Cambodia.

Vietnamese often describe their country as resembling a bamboo pole supporting a basket of rice on each end. The country is S-shaped, broad in the north und south and very narrow in the centre where at one point it is only 50km wide.

The country’s two main cultivated areas arc the Red River Delta (15,000 sq km) in the north and the Mekong Delta (60,000 sq km) in the south. Silt carried by the Red River and its tributaries (confined to their paths by 3000km of dikes) has raised the level of the river beds above that of the surrounding plains. Breaches ill the levees result in disastrous flooding.

Three-quarters of the country consists of mountains and hills, the highest of which is 3143m-high Fansipan (or ‘Phan Si Pan’) in the Hoang Lien Mountains in the far northwest. The Truong Son Mountains (Annamite Cordillera), which form the central highlands, run almost the full length of Vietnam along its borders with Laos and Cambodia.

The largest metropolis is Ho Chi Minh City (usually still called Saigon), followed by Hanoi, Haiphong and Danang.

7. Vietnamese language

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, and it is spoken throughout the country. Dialectical differences are marked between the north, central and southern regions. There are also dozens of different languages spoken by the various ethnic minorities, particularly in the Central Highlands-and the far north of the country. Khmer, the Cambodian language, is spoken in parts of the Mekong Delta, and in addition Laotian and various Chinese dialects can be heard in spots along their respective borders.

The Vietnamese people’s knowledge of foreign languages reflects their country’s relationship with foreign powers -- cordial or otherwise -- in recent history. Much of Vietnam’s elder generation still speak French, while many middle-aged Vietnamese speak Russian and other Eastern European languages -- many of these people spent time in countries like Russia, Bulgaria and the former East Germany during the Cold War (at least until it thawed in the late 1980s). Today, however, Vietnam’s youth has fully embraced the English language. A fair number of young people also study Japanese, French and other Western European languages.

For a good start on basic vocabulary and picking up some conversational Vietnamese, see the Language chapter in the back of this book.

Vietnamese alphabet and pronunciation