The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
VIETNAM – INFORMATION
On this page:
- People and Society
- National Identity
- Media and the Internet
Stretching along the coast of South-East Asia and down the eastern edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, Vietnam covers a total land area of around 330,000 square kilometres containing 96.5 million people. For a broad overview on the country, see the CIA World Factbook on Vietnam. The country shares 4,616km of borderlines with China, Laos, and Cambodia and another 3,444km (excluding islands) of expansive coast, starting with the Gulf of Tonkin in the north, the South China Sea, and Gulf of Thailand. Watch the video below for an overview of Vietnam’s geographic challenges.
Part of the Indomalayan realm, there is a uniquely high level of biodiversity and the climate is divided between a tropical south and monsoonal north. Vietnam has a varied geographical terrain with a low and flat delta in the south and northeast, then central highlands building up into mountains in the far north and northwest. The land is mostly hilly and densely forested with two noteworthy natural features. The first is the Mekong Delta, the size of the area covered by water depends on the season, but the region encompasses over 40,500 square kilometres. Dubbed a 'biological treasure trove' it serves as an important source of agriculture and aquaculture. Life in the Mekong Delta revolves around the river, and many of the villages are often accessible by rivers and canals rather than by road. The other is the world's largest cave called Son Doong which measures 38.5 million cubic metres. The underground system is so massive it contains its own jungle, underground river, and localised weather system: clouds form inside the cave and spew out from its exits and two sinkhole skylights. For an excellent introduction to Vietnam watch the following video.
Vietnam's natural hazards are limited to occasional typhoons from May to January. The landscape is prone to extensive flooding and more recently droughts, especially in the Mekong River Delta, which is contributing to internal migration. A third of the country's population are at risk of rising sea levels, including those in urban areas such as Ho Chi Minh City. The following report by the BBC investigates the growing pressures of climate change on Vietnam.
To learn more about Vietnam’s geography, access the resources below:
- TEDx Talks | Vietnam and climate change: it's high time to act - Koos Neefjes - TEDxBaDinh
- South China Morning Post | French colonial-era ‘tube houses’ remain popular in Vietnamese capital
- Left Handed Asians | Vietnam: East or Southeast Asian?
- Touropia | 10 Best Places to Visit in Vietnam - Travel Video
- BBC News | Vietnam bridge: Walking through a god's hands
- Viet Nam News | HCM City to spend VND4,500 billion for flood control
- The World Bank | Vietnam's Climate Change and Green Growth Agenda Receives $90 million Boost
- The Conversation | Climate change is triggering a migrant crisis in Vietnam
- Lowy Institute: The Interpreter | Bad news for Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Vietnam Online | Vietnam Country Names
People and Society
Vietnam is one of the most populous countries in Southeast Asia and its society has many different features. The official language is Vietnamese (tiếng Việt) which has six distinctive tones and the modern alphabet is written in Latin script. English is increasingly favoured as a second language although there is also some French, Chinese, and Khmer. With the population hovering under 97 million, Vietnam has one of the highest population densities in the world and is expected to grow to 120 million by 2050. This despite the country implementing a one-or-two-child policy in 1988 which reflected the Communist Party of Vietnam’s official family-size ideal and led to increased rates of contraception and abortion. The population is not evenly distributed; clustering is heaviest along the coastlines, the Mekong Delta, and the Red River Valley.
Family is the most important aspect of life in Vietnam. The 'family unit' is tight-knit and includes a wide relationship network of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other extended relatives. Three generations normally live under the same roof and provide a central support system. Filial piety is important as Vietnamese society places a strong emphasis on age determining the level of respect, reflected in language and behaviour.
Vietnam is officially declared as an atheist state. While there is legislation to protect the freedom to practice any religion it is heavily constrained by the Government. The 2009 national census showed only 19.2% of the Vietnamese population identified with a registered religion while 81.8% identified as non-religious. Of those that did identify with a religion in the census, 9.3% affiliated with Buddhist and 7.2% identified as Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian. However, it is estimated nearly half the population practice an amalgamation of folk religions and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The beliefs of these faiths are often considered to complement one another, referred to as ‘Tam Giáo’ translated as 'triple religion' or the Three Teachings. There are also deep superstitious foundations to many Vietnamese people’s practices.
There remains a major geographical split between the Vietnamese people left over from the war. Those in Southern Vietnam – heavily influenced by Western ideals of individualism and liberalism – support democracy and feel disenfranchised by the one-party government. On the other hand, the North of Vietnam is generally considered more conservative, traditionally minded, and aligned with the communist regime. It is important to understand that this dichotomy between the North and South, regarding the perceptions of historic events and the current Communist Party, can be a very sensitive subject for Vietnamese people. For more information on Vietnam’s people and society, access the following resources.
- Vietnam News | Faces of Vietnam/Emojis about 54 ethnic minority groups in Việt Nam
- Viet Language | Why do Vietnamese use the Latin alphabet?
- TEDx Talks | Traditional and modern music, what should we choose | Quynh Trinh Diem - TEDxYouth@Hanoi
- National Geographic | Cao Dai's History in Vietnam - The Story of God
- Saigoneer Podcast | Traditional Vietnamese Culture's Role in Pop Culture; Dessert Fight
- Vietnam on the Mic | English in Vietnam Today and Globalization ft. Dang Thi Hong Phuc (Chloe Dang)
- Why Do Vietnamese...? Cultural Podcast with VSARyerson | EP.1 Why Do So Many Vietnamese have the Nguyen Last Name?
Vietnamese contemporary ideologies have been significantly shaped by the foreign influences of both neighbouring and Western countries. Despite many prolonged invasions by other countries, the Vietnamese sense of national identity has survived and engenders a strong sense of patriotic affiliation. Vietnam's sovereign principles and insistence on cultural independence have been laid down in numerous ways in the centuries before its independence. An ancient symbol of the Vietnamese spirit of resistance are the two Trưng sisters (known as Hai Bà Trưng) who led a rebellion against the Chinese Han dynasty in AD 40. Their legacy remains embedded in the cultural and national identity of the country, with the people of Vietnam regarding the sisters as inspirational heroines. Today, the Vietnamese identity is independent, opportunistic and resilient.
The major ethnic group is Kinh (Viet) which makes up over 85% of the population, yet the Government recognises another 53 ethnic groups such as the Tay, Thai, Muong, and Khmer. There are a few shared cultural norms that deeply influence behaviour and communication across the general population of Vietnam, including: harmony, humility, face, filial piety, perseverance, stoicism, and khiêm or modesty. For more information on Vietnamese cultural identity, see the SBS Cultural Atlas.
Globalisation has been carefully incorporated into local Vietnamese traditions. Resulting in a curious co-existence where a farmer making traditional offerings to the spirits of his ancestors may burn pictures of mobile phones and other technological devices that are perceived as valuable to those deceased. The flag of Vietnam was adopted in 1976 when the North and South were unified. The red field symbolises revolution and blood while the five-pointed yellow star represents the elements of the populace – peasants, workers, intellectuals, traders, and soldiers – that unite to build socialism. Alongside the historical national colours of red and yellow, national symbols include the lotus blossom, Phở soup dish, and the Áo dài clothing style representing beauty and elegance.
To learn more about Vietnam’s traditions and national psyche, see below:
Media and the Internet
The first Vietnamese-language newspaper was the French-sponsored Gia Định News which published its first issue in Saigon in April 1865. What followed was the distribution of a long list of new journals, books, and newspapers adding to the burgeoning public sphere and shaping political currents in urban centres. Starting a long history of the media – newspapers and radio – being used as a propaganda tool. The French colonial government established a radio broadcasting network in the late 1920s, but all Vietnamese people were banned from owning radio receivers. The first Vietnamese-language radio transmission was made on 02 September 1945 when former President Hồ Chí Minh read the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at Ba Đình square. A week later the national radio station, now called the Voice of Vietnam, started broadcasting from Hanoi. During the war, Radio Hanoi operated as a propaganda tool of North Vietnam.
The rise of television technology in Vietnam took place on either side of the war and reflects the opposing alliances of the Cold War. The debut took place in the south with the appearance of Saigon Television Station using the US broadcasting standard in 1965. While the Voice of Vietnam broadcast the first test television program five years later in the north using the Soviet's SECAM standard. Following reunification, all radio stations were combined into the national radio broadcaster, the Voice of Vietnam, and television stations were renamed to align with the ruling Government.
From 1991 onwards, the CPV worked to modernise and expand the reach of mass media and is now transitioning to digital television. There is significant media censorship, in a policy of television socialisation the Government controls all broadcast media, managed under the Press Law by the Ministry of Information and Communications. The public TV provider, Vietnam Television (VTV) operates a network of several channels relayed nationwide. Currently, television is one of the largest mass media platforms in Vietnam, as surveys show that 8 out of 10 people watch television daily. However, television is being challenged by new forms of media, seeing a decline in broadcaster revenues as well as a shift in audiences to services such as video on demand or social networks on the Internet.
The Internet in Vietnam is growing rapidly. Between 2001 and 2021, the number of Internet users increased from 800,000 to 69 million. Internet usage in Vietnam is predominantly mobile based, thanks to the high rate of smartphone usage. The Government of Vietnam regulates its citizens' Internet access using both legal and technical means, such censorship efforts have been referred to as a 'Bamboo Firewall'. However, citizens can usually view, comment, and express their opinions if it does not evoke anti-government sentiment, a political coup, or disrupt the social stability of the country. A component of the Government's strategy is to arrest bloggers, netizens, and journalists which persuades individuals and outlets to practice self-censorship. In 2019, Vietnam introduced another cybersecurity law that made it illegal to criticise the government online and requires ISPs to hand over user data when requested. For more information on Vietnam’s ‘Bamboo Firewall’ and relationship with social media, watch the following video and access the resources below.
- Lowy Institute: The Interpreter | Vietnam's crackdown on dissent could undermine its stability and growth
- The Guardian | Vietnam criticised for 'totalitarian' law banning online criticism of government
- The Diplomat | Vietnam's Internet Control: Following in China's Footsteps?
- Al Jazeera | 'Fear and paranoia': How Vietnam controls its media
- Vietnam is a nation with a history rich in culture but steeped in conflict, which has significantly influenced its modern structure. Has the one-party policy undermined Vietnam’s ability to thrive as a nation, or has traditional culture and socialist politics found a successful balance?
- With the US and China both setting sights on gaining a diplomatic edge in South East Asia (and the wider Indo-Pacific), it may be time for Vietnam to seek to increase its influence and power in the region. How will Vietnamese national identity influence this?
- The Vietnamese government heavily censors social and mainstream media use, restricting what the population has access to and can comment on. With the increasing use of mobile Internet, will the government be able to fully impose censorship on the population, or will it have to relax some of the restrictions? What other nations in the region face the same issues?