Contemporary Viêt Nam
and the Legacy of the U.S. War:
Tradition, Transformation & Challenges

Ngô Thanh Nhàn
New York University
Linguistic String Project

A Public Symposium:
The History, Literature, and Music of the Vietnam War

sponsored by The University of Texas at El Paso
Departments of History and English
March 26-30, 1996
El Paso, Texas


It is an honor for me to join you here today at this conference on the history, literature and music of the Vietnam war or, as they call it in Viêt Nam, the U.S. war. I am both honored and a bit bewildered by my status as the only Vietnamese American on the program of this conference. I will try my best to share with you current developments in my country of birth.

To say a few words, by way of introduction, about my own history: I was born in Saigon in 1948 to a mother from Huê and a father from Nghiã Lô in the north. My father worked for the government as an office worker and then as a prison warden until his retirement in 1972. My mother sold goods at the local market for a few years when I was in elementary school and had a total of nine children. My family was rather poor and I attended local elementary and high schools.

In 1968, as the head of my class, I received a Leadership Scholarship from the US Agency for International Development to study at San José State University of California. While in the U.S. I read the Geneva Accords between the French and the Vietnamese signed in 1954 and the history of my country, and decided that the war must end and that the U.S. should not be in Viêt Nam. I, along with several hundred of my fellow Vietnamese students, joined the anti-war movement. In 1972 one of my best friends in the same scholarship program, Nguyên Thái Bình was deported by the U.S. government to Viêt Nam at the request of the Saigon government in retaliation for his active participation in anti-war activities. After making a symbolic declaration that he wanted the airplane to fly to Hà Nôi, Bình was grabbed by the pilot who broke his neck. A U.S. agent shot him and threw his body out on the Tân Son Nhât airport tarmac in Saigon. When we learned of his death on July 2 we founded the Union of Vietnamese in the United States (which later became the Association of Vietnamese in the United States).

Two years later, the war came home to my family very painfully. I received word that my eldest brother (I am the second eldest) had been killed in the war. He had been a soldier in the Army of the Republic of Viêt Nam (South Vietnamese Army) and his unit was engaged in battle with a women's guerilla unit of the National Liberation Front's "long haired army" [1]. In order to "win" this battle, a napalm bomb was dropped on the battlefield, decimating the troops on both sides. My brother's body could only be identified from among the charred remains by his dental records.

I continued to be active in the anti-war movement and got my masters in linguistics. After 1975, I moved to New York City for doctoral studies at New York Univerity where I still work as a computational linguist. I have continued to be active in scientific and cultural exchanges with Viêt Nam and work with the California based Vietnamese Heritage Institute. We currently have several funded studies on the environment, economy, agriculture and information technology in Viêt Nam. I am also working with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and its Southeast Asian Organizing Collective. I participate in the summer Youth Leadership Project for the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian communities in the Fordham area of the south Bronx.

I first returned to Viêt Nam in 1985 to see my family and to get married. My wife was born in the Bronx, New York. I have since gone home 14 times and have had a chance to witness the changes the country has undergone from when I was growing up in Saigon and from 1985 to now. Half of my family still lives in Viêt Nam -- my parents, two brothers and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

Many things have changed since my youth. One thing that has not is the feeling of relief that the war is over and peace is finally here to stay. There is also the national pride that everyone feels in the independence of Viêt Nam. For the first time in 148 years of Vietnamese modern history, no foreign power is occupying our land, no foreign government is pulling the strings. The decisions being made about Viêt Nam's development may be right or wrong, but they are truly being made by an independent Vietnamese people and government.

Like myself, and many Vietnamese Americans, Viêt Nam is struggling to deal with the aftermath of the war.

Finally at peace, Viêt Nam is now embarked on a system called market socialism -- an amalgam of market economics and socialist principles. In analyzing this current stage in Viêt Nam's development, I think it is most significant to examine its impact upon the majority of Vietnamese people. While economic levers like growth in Growth Domestic Product (GDP) or foreign investment are certainly important, the real question is what this all means for the vast majority of the over 70 million Vietnamese people.

To give you some basic idea of the situation in Viêt Nam:

This means that every year, the GDP growth is dwarfed by the population growth. Even at its best, the arable land of Viêt Nam is too small to support such a large population. And, even assuming that Viêt Nam will achieve a GDP-per capita of US 4,500 dollars by the year 2020 as projected by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) [4], Viêt Nam will still be a very poor country. This is the objective condition facing Viêt Nam. Thus, it is not surprising that Viêt Nam has always been short of food. It is a major achievement that Viêt Nam is now self sufficient in rice production. It was very educational for me to learn that as soon as foreign aid from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe stopped in 1989, Viêt Nam began to record stunning economic growth.

How does the current political, economic, social and cultural situation impact upon the lives of ordinary Vietnamese ?

The Economy

In the aftermath of the war, the Vietnamese government responded to severe economic problems by initiating what they called dôi mói or renovation in 1986 [4]. It should be noted that dôi mói preceded perestroika in the former Soviet Union, rather than being influenced by it, as is often said. Đôi mói represented a new way of looking at the socialist economy -- a shift away from the totally state owned and controlled model to a more flexible, multi sector market economy. The goal of dôi mói as stated in official documents, and also in the priorities set by the VCP for the next 25 years is to develop "prosperity for the people, a strong nation and an equitable and civilized society" [4].

Over 70% of Vietnamese are peasants, living in the countryside. For these people, life has gotten dramatically better. Đôi mói brought a system called the contract system to the countryside, eliminating the heavy administrative machinery and lessening corruption that had been present before. This system combined a loosened system of collectivization with greater autonomy and incentive for farmers. This system also has certain antecedents in traditional forms of rural cooperation of villagers. In almost every area of the country, there has been a dramatic increase in income and in the standard of living of the people. You can see this as you pass through the countryside and see the many new brick houses with the date of building over the door. Viêt Nam is now self sufficient in rice (something never achieved in its recent history) and is now the third largest exporter of rice in the world. Beginning in 1994, the Vietnamese government, in order to protect agriculture, began to reserve 600,000 tons of rice [5], to stabilize the market and to cope with hundreds of storms plaguing Central Viêt Nam yearly.

Land belongs to the people and is subject to administration by the state [6]. People can have a long term lease (leases for foreigners are now granted up to 99 years up from 20-30). Leasing land, rather than selling it, helps to keep land from being bought off quickly by foreign companies under the current liberal investment laws. For the minority who live in the cities, dôi mói has brought a dramatic rise in the standard of living. A private sector has created new job opportunities in addition to government jobs. According to statistics, between 1986-1994, the state sector eliminated nearly 1 million jobs, while the non-state sectors, not including the farming sector, absorbed 2.6 million workers [7]. While the official median/average yearly income is only $300, benefits and additional income bring this amount up considerably. Viêt Nam's cities offer a plethora of consumer choices in goods and services, both homegrown and foreign. Inflation, once the bane of Vietnamese shoppers at more than 774.7% a year in 1986, was down to 5% in 1989, and reached 14.4% in 1994 and 12.7% in 1995. The government housing construction program has somewhat improved the lives of apartment and house dwellers, but still fallen far short of demand.

In addition to self sufficiency in rice production and control of inflation, Viêt Nam has recorded a number of impressive achievements in the past years, notably:

While overall the Vietnamese people are doing better now than at any time before, there are some problems inherent in the socialist oriented market economy which complicate, if not threaten, the current development. The market creates new opportunities to mobilize the creativity of Vietnamese producers and businesspeople. It also creates opportunities for increased exploitation of Viêt Nam's people and resources.

Viêt Nam will be the first country to quickly have a foreign sector that will own more than the domestic sector in the near future. What does it mean for the "independence" of Viêt Nam ? Mr. Trân Xuân Gia, Vice Minister of Cooperation and Investment, announced in early April that licensed foreign direct investment reach US 1.5 billion dollars in the first quarter of 1996, a rise of 27% over the same period last year [10].

Second, there is the question of whether Viêt Nam's native industries can be developed and protected from unfair foreign competition and dumping. If Viêt Nam is to maintain its economic and political balance, this is a key issue. Viêt Nam has been an observer in the GATT and plans to join the World Trade Organization in the future, raising new issues about its ability to safeguard Vietnamese producers from unfair trade practices.

Third, when one maintains a multi-sector economy in which government subsidies to state enterprises and offices are greatly tightened and reduced, massive unemployment and underemployment results. Since 1986, while state subsidies have been reduced, the state sector is growing from 38% share of the GDP in 1986 to 42% in 1995. According to the draft plan of the VCP for the coming 8th Congress, the state sector (and cooperative sector) will increase its GDP share to 60% by the year 2020 [4], and thus inadvertently the non-state sector will be reduced to 40% (down from 58% in 1995). This will have the result of increasing unemployment. Almost 15% of the labor force is not in the economy in 1995. The successful anti-inflation program also has this result, since the government cannot print additional money to pay salaries without restraint, for fear of fueling inflation. According to the International Labor Organization, the increase of job creation in Viêt Nam is 2.5% while the increase of the work force is 3%, and in cities, 5% [11].

The lack of sufficient government resources has also resulted in a decreased level of spending on social services such as education, health care and child care which were hallmarks of socialism in Viêt Nam. Until the Vietnamese government can effectively tax private business’ profits and incomes [2], there is a danger that the previously rudimentary but comprehensive social services will continue to decline.

The total budget deficit will be around VN 9,200 billion Đông (US 840 million dollars) or 3% of the GDP. This affects all social and welfare programs. While the education budget increased 13% to VN 7,100 billion Đông (or US 646 million dollars) in 1996, it is still less than US 34 dollars per child/student per year, the health care budget remains about US 83 cents per person per year, and is decreasing. In 1994, 4.5% of the budget was allocated for health care, in 1995 it was reduced to 3.6%, and to 3.4% in 1996 [12]. In the meantime, the administrative reform produced 12,000 new jobs and the salary budget increased three-fold. The projected budget payment for 1.2 million government workers in 1996 is about VN 16,000 billion Đông (US 1.46 billion dollars) or 38% of the total budget [13].

In education, from 1987 to 1993, the number of students in junior high schools decreased 9%, in senior high schools decreased 34%, in training schools decreased 24% and in technical training schools decreased 54% [14]. As of 1993, only 2.32% of the population is at college level. According to the same source, the Vietnamese government budgets 10% for education, while it will have to pay twice that for industry and basic investment, and more than twice that in foreign loan interest payment.

The stabilization of the exchange rate between the Đông and the dollar has also had a down side, since this has led to Vietnamese goods being expensive to export to other countries and foreign goods being cheaper to import to Viêt Nam. The existence of private capital and particularly foreign capital has also raised a renewed specter of labor and environmental exploitation. According to the Confederation of Trade Unions in 1995 there were 46 strikes, almost twice as many as 1994 (the majority of which were in Hô Chí Minh City) [15] by workers at foreign or joint foreign / Vietnamese owned companies, some of which resulted from workers being beaten by their employers. One of these cases was brought to court for criminal proceeding against a Korean supervisor [16]. The influx of foreign investment has also begun to evidence negative environmental consequences. For example, a European company imported a species of snail which was not native to Viêt Nam and began to farm raise these snails. They neglected to study the environmental impact of introducing these snails. The snails began to infest the rice crop and have now spread to a significant area of the country, threatening rice paddies and the livelihood of many farmers.

All of this has meant a widening gap between the rich and the poor -- something which threatens to undermine the ideals of social justice and equality that many Vietnamese fought for and that the VCP proclaims. The market economy has also produced a new level of corruption and cynicism among both state and private employees. While this is not remotely like the corruption in the south before 1975, it is nonetheless corrosive and worrisome. Average per capita GDP growth is 5.4%/year between 1990-1994, of which 3.2% is for peasants, 8.7% is in urban areas [14]. At this rate, the peasants (70% of the population) will be poorer. The state investment in agriculture decreased from 19.5% of the budget in 1990 to only 8.6% in 1994.

The contradictions inherent in the socialist oriented market economy represent a dilemma for the Vietnamese government and Party. How do they develop, as quickly as possible, their national economy while at the same time preserving their promised focus on the well being of the majority of workers and peasants ? How do they avoid a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs shaping the country's future in their own image and at the expense of the majority ?

The Vietnamese government has responded by passing environmental laws intended to protect their land and wildlife, and established more than twenty natural reserves since 1991. Forests and wildlife of Vietnam has sustained tremendous damage as a result of the Vietnam war, and now from the fast track of market economic development. Yet, the forests have been shrunk at an alarming rate: in 1942, forests covered 44% of the country, and now make up only 28%.

Tough labor laws (January 1995), which guarantee the right to organize and to strike, are now on the books. Government agencies are trying to increase funding for social services and to insure that holes in the safety net are plugged. For example, the CPCC (Committee for Protection and Care of Children) is trying to cope with the problems of street children, by supporting group homes and drop-in shelters and also by coordinating the development of a social work curriculum for understanding issues of child development.

The new civil codes enacted in October 1995 by the National Assembly are noted to have codified ownership rights and first mentioned human and civil rights (rights of citizen) and the right of being innocent until proven "guilty" in a court of law [17].


The market economy also poses challenges in terms of maintaining and developing Viêt Nam's beautiful and dynamic cultural and social traditions. Our history, both ancient and recent, is rich with literature, art, music and drama. Private efforts have been made to keep the Vietnamese culture alive, without funding from the state. But the war and the recent opening of the market economy has brought the worst of foreign and western commercial culture to Viêt Nam. Between 1954 and 1974, the south received subsidies from the U.S. to import more than 7,500 films from the U.S. They amounted to 96% of all films shown in Viet Nam. Now Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon translated into Vietnamese, are staples in Vietnamese book stalls as are top 40's music in music stands and most up-to-date films in videos. These "ambassadors of U.S. culture" threaten to overwhelm Viêt Nam's native cultural production in the name of profit and expediency. For example, under the title, The Modern American Literature, Judith Rosner's Looking for Mr Goodbar was published in 1994 by the Lao Đông Publishing House. Genuine U.S. people"s culture is rarely seen, with most having been circulated before dôi mói. For example, the translation of Whitman's Leaves of Grass [Lá co] was done before 1986. Recently, overseas Vietnamese have attempted, together with private and government efforts in Viêt Nam, to revive Nôm ideographic script [18, 19] and traditional literature and arts. However, as long as the Vietnamese government has not promulgated a non-profit corporation status, larger and concerted funding efforts will not occur [19, 20]. Foreign films and stars occupy one page of Thanh Niên daily, and which also carries one page of modern foreign music, cosmetics and fashion, mostly from the U.S.

Decree 87/CP promulgated in December 1995 and in force today aims "to cleanse the cultural environment in the entire country [21]." This affects mainly pornographic video tapes and cassette records, and prostitution in bars, hotels and karaoke gatherings.

Viêt Nam's historic old cities and scenic places are also threatened by the mighty market. Only now has a historic preservation movement begun to fight to save centuries old houses from the wreckers ball. Hà Nôi now has 220 foreign investment projects with a total capital of US $4 billion dollars, mostly construction projects. Companies are already building exclusive golf clubs and Club Meds on some of Viêt Nam's most pristine and lovely beaches and hills. Only Viêt Nam's wonderful cuisine has yet to suffer from the invasion of McDonald's and Burger King, although bars like Apocalypse Now are now in vogue.


Much has been said about the political system in Viêt Nam. Everyone in Viêt Nam complains loudly and often about the government -- in public and private. Everyone would like to see the country develop more quickly. Most disagree with one policy or another or dislike a local or national official. Overall, ordinary citizens are more involved in the way the government runs things than ever before. Contested elections with upwards of 85% turnout are held for national assembly (congress) and for local offices. Many people belong to mass organizations like the peasants union, women's union or youth union. In some areas, block organizations offer chances for citizens to participate in local decision making and polling has begun to be used to gage public opinion.

Still the only party, the VCP's role has been more clearly delineated as giving general guidance rather than as running everything directly. This has meant an enhanced role for those who are not party members even in government offices. A number of well known Party members have written papers calling for changes in the system, from the establishment of other parties to changes in how socialism is viewed. These papers were distributed or published in the daily newspapers and magazines and widely debated. They also appear in overseas Vietnamese publications. This type of debate will continue, particularly in the period now leading up to the Party Congress in late June of this year. Even the Prime Minister, Vơ Van Kiêt, wrote a letter raising at least four major differences with the draft document of the Party [22], from reassessment of post-cold war international situation to the role of state enterprises to a redefinition of "democratic centralism" in terms of "democracy."

In a recent draft document prepared for the upcoming Party Congress, the VCP points to its success in keeping the country intact and at peace. It prides itself on not allowing the state of confusion now plaguing countries like Russia and those in Eastern Europe. There is some truth to this. Most Vietnamese agree that Viêt Nam must have peace first to achieve other things [4].

Most peasants and workers respect the leadership of the VCP (whether they are themselves communists or not) and view the urgent political tasks as being the development of more effective and less corrupt local government rather than of an alternative to the system as a whole. This has strong roots also in Vietnamese tradition where the saying goes, the king's mandate stops at the village gate. Local and regional governments and issues are very important in Viêt Nam and often act as a counterweight to national policy (whether for good or ill). As noted in history, the Vietnamese village is the unit that could withstand foreign domination and protect Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese people are also more focused on the economic development of the country and how it affects their family economy than on debates about whether Viêt Nam needs additional political parties.

Viêt Nam in the World

The character of the Vietnamese and the sense of a great national unity are two decisive factors of Vietnamese patriotism and a source of their creativity and moral strength. During this time, the spirit of self-reliance, self-support, national pride, the will power and the creativity of the Vietnamese is helping to transform the socio-economic image of the country. The Vietnamese people, due to their long and arduous history, never claim to be a pure race and are not afraid to learn from other peoples. The Vietnamese are always eager to develop normal relations with all countries in the world, including the United States. Despite the destruction wrought on the Vietnamese people during the U.S. war, Viêt Nam wants peaceful and friendly relations with the U.S. on the basis of equality and respect for each others sovereignty.

The Vietnamese people do not want to remain poor. Peace, stability and progress will ensure the continuing development of the country. A key question for Viêt Nam today is how to defend itself without having to resort to war. As we know, Viêt Nam's location in a prime geographical area that connects the Pacific to the Indian Oceans has been one cause of the continuous wars of occupation against Viêt Nam by the Chinese, French, Japanese, and the U.S. Now, China has laid claim to a number of islands in the East Sea belonging to Viêt Nam (along with islands belonging to several other Southeast Asian countries). Defense of these islands will be difficult since Viêt Nam has no navy, and China has demonstrated its determination to use naval strength to solve disputes over the region.

Viêt Nam is trying to resolve the remaining problems with China through negotiations and without resort to military actions. The countries have recently exchanged high level delegations and signed new trade treaties (24 agreements in 1995) and signs are hopeful for improved relations. The Viêt Nam-China railway (Hà Nôi-Beijing) was reopened on February 14, 1996 after more than 17 years.

The Legacy of the U.S. War against Viêt Nam

Many people in the U.S. see Viêt Nam through the lens of the war. Thus, there is a tendency to think that people in Viêt Nam view the U.S. in the same way. However, there is a saying that many Vietnamese Americans are fond of: Viêt Nam is a country not a war.

Viêt Nam's legacy of the war is both profound and unobsessive. Its people suffered almost unimaginable violence and horror at the hands of the U.S. military. Of approximately 40 million Vietnamese during the war period, 2-3 million, or 5-6% of the population were killed. Millions more Vietnamese (including Vietnamese overseas) live with the physical or psychological scars of the war. The dioxin in the Agent Orange that U.S. planes dropped on the countryside will continue to maim generations to come.

Despite this awful suffering, Vietnamese people everywhere are eager for peace and a normal relationship with the U.S. This is not because they have short memories or do not harbor a certain amount of anger or bitterness towards the U.S. government. Rather, it is rooted in the historic Vietnamese tradition of making peace with “enemies” after a war and with a high level of political maturity and education. Most significantly, it is a result of the VCP and government's differentiating between the U.S. government and the U.S. people. Even during the darkest days of the war, Vietnamese people always were taught that their enemy was the government and its army and weapons of death and not the U.S. people.

The Vietnamese people, including the Vietnamese government and VCP, are eager to continue the process of normalization with the United States. They seek equal trade status through the signing of a trade treaty and the granting of most favored nation status (MFN) [23]. In fact, Viêt Nam now accords the U.S. MFN status.

Vietnamese people resent, however, the U.S. government trying to dictate their internal affairs or lecture them about human rights or democracy. As a country which dropped 15 million tons of explosives on Viêt Nam -- more than 400 atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima in World War II -- the U.S. government has no moral authority to impose its policies on Viêt Nam. The U.S. government's failure to guarantee human rights and dignity even to the hundred thousand U.S. war veterans who are now unemployed or homeless also renders doubtful any claims that they have to care about the rights of the Vietnamese people.

The Vietnamese people continue to deal with the legacy of the war and want the final chapter to be written in peace. To accomplish this, the U.S. government will have to abandon its remaining cold war intentions of determining the future of Viêt Nam's economy and political system. The recent FBI "Vietcong spy hunt" in the Vietnamese American community [24] goes counter to these efforts. It also reopens the bitter rifts within the community [25]. The U.S. people, including many veterans, who took the lead in pushing for an end to the trade embargo and the normalization of relations, will play the key role in determining how the legacy of the war plays itself out here. The Vietnamese-American community, about one million strong, will occupy a pivotal role in this relationship. Although previously dominated by anti-communist politics, more and more young Vietnamese are visiting and seeking educational and cultural ties with their country of origin [25, 26, 27, 28]. Conclusion

While many problems remain, the Vietnamese economy will continue to improve. So will the standard of living of the population, although too slowly. The remaining question is how this economic growth will be shared among the large and poor population. The health, education and welfare of the population are key areas to watch. Vietnamese law promises attention to these issues. According to the Vietnamese Constitution [29] -- Article 58 states that "Work is the primary right", Article 60 states "Education is the right and obligation of citizens", Article 61 states "Citizens have the right to health care", Article 62 states "Citizens have the right to housing", Article 63 states "Women and men have equal rights in all respects... in political, economic, cultural, social and family life". These rights stated in the Constitution, when fully realized, will enable and empower the Vietnamese people to shape the direction of their country towards a just and humane society.

I have great hopes for the future of my country of birth. I hope that the U.S. people, including the millions of veterans who had to visit my country in difficult circumstances, will share with us the joys and frustrations of building a new society of justice and equality - - a country at peace with itself and with the world.

Thank you.


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Ngô Thanh Nhàn is a computational linguist at New York University Linguistic String Project. He received his Ph.D. from NYU in Vietnamese morphology (linguistics) and has published numerous articles and scholarly papers in English and Vietnamese. He is a vice chair of the Joint Committee on Information Technology of Viêt Nam's General Department of Standards, Metrology and Quality Control (TCVN/TC/JTC 1). He specializes in computer standardization of latinized Vietnamese, Nôm ideographic script and Chàm indic script. Nhàn is a founder and member of the Association of Vietnamese in the U.S. He is a member in the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and its Racial Justice Committee and its South East Asian Organizing Collective based in New York City, and the Vietnamese Heritage Institute, based in the Bay Area, California. Nhàn performs Vietnamese traditional music on the ðàn tranh (16 string zither) on a regular basis.