Vietnam

Vietnam: A Country Profile

Vietnam Profile

When viewed through the lens of its historic past, Vietnam may appear to be a nation defined by sorrow and loss. But zoom in and take a closer look and you will see one of Southeast Asia’s most soaring economies, determined to become a developed nation by 2020. Although going through a time of remarkable development, Vietnam is still a land of incredible beauty and captivating culture. This is a country home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites – seven others are on its pending list – and amongst its population of 90 million are 54 distinct ethnic groups, each with its own language, lifestyle, and cultural heritage.

With its rapid growth and colourful diversity, Vietnam attracts an increasing number of travellers – more than six million visitors yearly – and is constantly praised as one of the most interesting destinations for expats due to its income opportunities and quality of life, not to mention its endless charm. Even those who have been living in Vietnam for years will tell you that every day is an adventure in this land of the dragon people. So get ready to soak up the rich culture, and vivid lifestyle whilst starting your own extraordinary journey.

Location ▪ Climate ▪ Population

Located on the easternmost seaboard of the Indochina peninsula, this S-shaped country sits on 331,210 square kilometresof land – roughly similar in size to Italy or Japan – and shares borders with China, Cambodia, and Laos. 

The Land of the Dragon People

Vietnamese believe that they are descendants of the Dragon King, known in famous folklore as Lac Long Quan, who married Au Co, the Fairy of the Unknown World.

From this union, Au Co laid 100 eggs that then turned into 100 sons. Fifty of them followed their dragon father toward the lower coastal regions and became the first Vietnamese settlers, while the rest followed their fairy mother towards the hills and mountains and became the ancestors of the colourful ethnic minorities in Vietnam.

Today, the dragon is frequently used in Vietnamese art and architecture, glorified for its powerful symbolism and deep-rooted philosophy.

Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, is also popularly known as Thang Long, which literally means ’ascending dragon’.

Four-fifths of the country is densely forested and mountainous. Its tallest peak, Mount Fansipan, is the highest mountain on mainland Southeast Asia, with an apex 3142 m above sea level.

Inland, the country is crisscrossed by countless rivers and streams – the Red and Mekong Rivers are among the most famous – running through valleys and lush paddy fields, as well as bustling cities and quiet countryside.

Along Vietnam’s 3444 km of coastline stretch beautiful beaches, coves, lagoons, and tropical islands, from the ravishing seascape of limestone pillars in Ha Long Bay, to the beach destinations of Nha Trang, Mui Ne, Danang, and Vung Tau.

Because of the country’s diverse topography and differences in latitude, Vietnam’s climate varies a great deal from north to south. There are three distinct regions where the climates differ: North, Central, and South Vietnam.

North Vietnam

The North is generally cooler than the rest of the country. The winter months of November to January can be unexpectedly cold, especially in the mountainous areas of Sapa and Cao Bang along the Chinese border. Even in Hanoi, where despite the high humidity, the temperature can fall ten degrees; you will need a jumper to keep warm. The hottest period of the year is May to October when temperatures can rise to 37 degrees Celsius. During these months, the North will bear the force of an occasional typhoon.

Central Vietnam

Central Vietnam can be split into two sub-regions. The Coastal Lowlands is generally dryer and hotter than the Central Highlands. However, unprotected parts of the coast have more typhoons and storms than the North from November through March. With cooler temperatures, the Central Highlands experiences more than double the average rainfall of the country so be prepared to get a bit wet.

South Vietnam

The South has only two seasons, rainy and dry, and experiences little variation in temperatures, which fluctuate from 27-32 degrees Celsius throughout the year. The rainy season lasts for six months from May to November while the dry season dominates the rest of the year. Nha Trang experiences a longer dry season which runs from January to September with high temperatures and little rain. The mercury tends to dip somewhat in January and February. To beat the heat, take a trip to Da Lat where the temperatures are always a bit cooler than Ho Chi Minh City, which has an average humidity level of 75% and an average temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.

Today, with its 90 million citizens, Vietnam is the eighth most populous country in Asia. The majority of the population make their homes along the two largest rivers, the Red and Mekong, while some ethnic minorities reside in the mountains of the North and Central Highlands. The two most densely packed cities are Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi has a population of 11 million, and Ho Chi Minh City, 8 million.


Due to the different climates, soils, and histories of the three regions, people from the North, the Centre, and the South of Vietnam are reputed to have different ‘characters’. Southerners are considered open, sincere and generous. Northerners are well presented, good orators and hard working. People from Central Vietnam are thought of as being economical and diligent in their work. Note that after Vietnam’s reunification, Saigon became home to citizens from all three regions. So don’t be surprised if many of the people you meet in Saigon have northern or central characteristics, or a mixture of personality traits represented by the three different regions.


History of Vietnam

Vietnam’s history has been shaped with long-running struggle and resistances, from where it drew the country’s strong and sophisticated characters and culture. Family unit is viewed as being of the utmost importance (see Family Chapter page links for further reading), while hard work and perseverance are the nation’s virtues. It is with those traits that the Vietnamese survived and thrived against centuries of occupation of successive Chinese dynasties from 111 BCE until 938, succeeded a period of French colonisation in the late 19th century, and overcome civil wars as well as the American War in 1973. Following the years of USSR influence in politics and governance, in the mid-1980s, Vietnam opened up its economic policy and began reforming processes in its private sectors. Since then, Vietnam has experienced substantial economic and political growth all across the nation.

 A chronicle of key events in Vietnam’s history:

111 BCE – The Nam Viet Kingdom (spreading from the Red River delta to north of Canton) is annexed by the Han, and becomes the Chinese district of Giao-chi. Centuries following are marked by progress in civilisation, but national sentiment is also growing. Some notable uprisings are recorded, and during the whole of Vietnam’s history, China remains both a model and a threat.

939 CE – General Ngo Quyen successfully drove out the Chinese rules and established Vietnam as a nation.

1651 – Alexandre de Rhodes codified a Romanised version of the Vietnamese language. This alphabet was firstly developed by Gaspar d’Amiral and Antonio Barboza, two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who arrived in Vietnam in the 1600s.

1858 – The French began their conquest of Vietnam. In 1885, the French ruled Cochin China, and Vietnam was established as French “protectorates”.

1920 – Nationalist parties emerged and began to demand reform and independence.

1930 – Ho Chi Minh formed an Indochinese Communist party.

2 September 1945 – Ho Chi Minh announced the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French, however, were unwilling to concede and in October drove the nationalist groups out of the south. In December 1946, an eight-year guerrilla war between the nationalist group and the French broke out.

May 1954 – The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and on 29 July 1954, Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam was signed officially ending French colonial rule.

21 July 1954 – An ad interim compromise to end the war between the communist (Vietminh party) and anti-communist nationalist forces, the Geneva agreement was signed, dividing the country at the 17th parallel, with the Vietminh in the North and the anti-communist to the South.

1955 – US President Eisenhower sent military advisors to South Vietnam

1961 – US President Kennedy increased military aid to South Vietnam, sending 400 Special Forces (Green Beret) troops to South Vietnam.

1973 – The US military withdrew, and on 30 April 1975 the South Vietnamese army surrendered, marking the end of the American War and the start of a formal reunification of Vietnam.

1976 – Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed.

1986 – Nguyen Van Linh bcame party leader, he introduced Doi Moi policy, marking the beginning of Vietnam’s open-door economy policy.  

Government

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party Communist state. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) is responsible for the state’s policies as well as the sole source of leadership for the government and society. The country is run by a three-person collective leadership, consisting of the president, the prime minister, and the secretary general of VCP.

Elections are held every five years. Citizens vote for members of the National Assembly, a one-house legislature which serves as the main governing body in the country. This legislative body elects the head of state – the president of the republic – who is also Chairman of the Council for Defence and Security, and commander-in-chief of the Vietnam People’s Armed Forces. The president represents the country internally as well as externally, and together with the National Assembly, appoints key positions in the government, including the prime minister.

The prime minister of Vietnam is the head of the government, running the country’s day-to-day operations including the implementation of economic, social, cultural and political policies, and national defence and security. As with the president, the prime minister holds his position for a five-year term, and can be re-elected or dismissed by the National Assembly at the request of the president.

The President

Truong Tan Sang was born in 1949, took office as the president of Vietnam in April 2006, and was re-elected in July 2011 with 97% of votes in the parliament. He was a former mayor and party secretary of Ho Chi Minh City before becoming president.

On re-election, Sang stated that the priority under his presidency was to defend Vietnam’s independence and territorial integrity, and to resolve the Spratly Island dispute with China peacefully. He is also determined to make Vietnam an industrialised and developed country by 2020.

The Prime Minister

Nguyen Tan Dung, the youngest prime minister to have been elected in Vietnam – 56 years old when he was appointed to the post in 2006 – has been serving the country since he was 12 years old, joining the Vietcong and working as a first-aid physician, as well as defending the country during the American war.

He was a one-time governor of the State Bank of Vietnam and came into office with the public’s expectation to continue economic and political reform in the country.

People’s Committee

According to the Article 123 of Vietnam’s 1992 Constitution, the People’s Committee is the “organ of local State administration”. It is elected by the People’s Council (who, in its turn, is elected by the local people and they are accountable to them and to the superior State organs). The People’s Committee is responsible for “implementing the Constitution, the law, the formal written orders of superior State organs and the resolutions of the People’s Council”.

The concrete power and responsibilities of different levels of People’s Committee (city, districts/provincial cities, communes/wards…) are prescribed in the Law on Organization of People’s Council and People’s Committee (2003). In brief, the People’s Committee must undertake its function of local governmental management, contributing to assuring a coherent management of administrative system, from the center to local level, in many different fields (economic, agriculture, sylviculture, fishery, forestry, irrigation, land, industrial, transportation, construction, urban management and development, trade, service and tourism, education and training, culture, information, sports, social and health care, science, technology, resource management and environment, national security, public order, national policy and religious policy, law application, governmental body establishment, administrative boundaries’ management…).

For example, do you see that beautiful colonial building on Le Thanh Ton street? It is Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee and members of this Committee are the ones who decide hundreds of important things that affect your life here, such as: planning the budget in the city, organizing and managing the inspections and protection of public construction projects, managing the construction and construction licensing in the city, providing and withdrawing licenses of tourism companies, inspecting and controlling educational and training activities; and many others.

Local Time in Vietnam is:

+7 hours ahead of UTC/GMT

+6 hours ahead of Central European Time

+12 hours ahead of US/Canada Eastern Time

+15 hours ahead of US/Canada Pacific Time

-3 hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time

Local Time Social/Business Hours Public Holidays

Local Time

Vietnam is seven hours ahead of UTC (Universal Coordinated Time – formerly known as GMT). DST (Daylight Savings Time) is not applied, and every city in Vietnam shares the same time zone: ICT (Indochina Time). 

Social and Business Hours

Most people in Vietnam are early risers. On many of the country’s corners you can still hear the socialist outdoor loudspeakers waking people up at 5 am, followed by calls to begin various exercise regimens to start the day. Hence, business begins very early in Vietnam. Typical offices will open between 7 and 8 am, and close sometime between 4 and 6 pm, Monday to Friday, weekends excepted, though many offices work until noon on Saturday.

During lunch time virtually everything shuts down. It is a common practice for businesses – excluding lunch food vendors – to close between 12 and 1.30 pm. You will also see people taking siesta – naps – during these hours, curling up in their hammocks, on motorcycles, or resting their heads on their desks. With a few exceptions in tourist areas, opening hours for restaurants tend to be quite set. Kitchens are closed outside breakfast, lunch, or dinner service times, making it challenging to find food at odd hours.

Shops and malls are generally open from 8 am until 9 or 10 pm. The official closing time for bars and nightclubs is midnight, however it is not unusual for some venues to stay open until the early hours.

Nevertheless, it is important to notice that schools are a remarkable and interesting exception to the rule of enterprises that close sometime between 4 and 6 pm. In Vietnam, especially in big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, thousands of people attend night schools including foreign language, vocational, art, and technology institutes. These are often open until 9 pm. Vietnamese love to learn, it is one of their many strengths.


Typical Business Hours in Vietnam:

Government offices and banks

8 am-4 pm (Monday to Friday and until noon on Saturday)

Museums

8 am-5 pm (open every day, some are closed on Monday)

Post offices

6:30 am-9:30 pm (Monday to Friday, until noon on Saturday)

Traditional markets

7 am-5 pm (except flower markets and night markets)

 

Public Holidays

As with other countries in the region, Vietnam uses both the solar or Gregorian calendar (dương lịch) and lunisolar calendar (âm lịch). By and large, most practical matters in daily life are handled using the solar calendar.

The lunisolar calendar is used to determine various seasonal holidays, which are usually related to the country’s important historic events, or to celebrate Vietnamese festivals and traditions. Some holidays vary from year to year because of the time difference between the lunisolar and solar calendars.

Lunisolar Calendar

Vietnamese follow the lunisolar calendar where dates indicate both the moon phase and the time of the solar year.

As with the Chinese, the Vietnamese calendar begins with the year 2637 BCE, has twelve months of 29 or 30 days each, and a total of 355 days a year.

Every third year, an extra month is included between the third and fourth months, to indicate the solar phase of the year.

The most important holiday of the year, Tet Nguyen Dan or the Vietnamese New Year, takes place from the last two days of the last lunisolar month, to the first three or four days of the new month. Expect to find most shops and businesses closed for a week before and after this period.

In 2014, Tet will begin on 31 January. In 2015 it will fall on 19 February.

List of Public Holidays in Vietnam:

Date

English Name

Vietnamese Name

Significance

1 January

New Year

Tết dương lịch

 

The worldwide new year is also celebrated in Vietnam. Most businesses and government offices are closed on this day.

From the last two days of the last lunisolar month to the third to fifth day of the first lunisolar month.

 

Vietnamese New Year

Tet Nguyen Dan (often shortened to Tet)

Celebrates the arrival of spring. Official public holidays last for four days, but some businesses and shops give more days leave.

Tenth day of the third Lunisolar month

Hung Kings Commemoration

Giỗ tổ Hùng Vương

Commemorated as the ancestral death anniversary of Hung Kings who founded Vietnam. Commonly combined to adjacent weekend to make it a long holiday.

30 April

Reunification Day

Ngày giải phóng

Commemorates the liberation of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975.

1 May

International Worker’s Day

Ngày Quốc tế Lao động

There are usually marches and parades on Labour Day.

2 September

National Day of Vietnam

Quốc khánh

The independence day of the nation. Some celebrate this historical day by visiting Ba Dinh square and Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

Other than official public holidays, some foreign offices and embassies may observe extra holidays according to their countries of origin.

Economy Currency Trade and Industry

Economy

Following the shift in 1986 from a highly centralised planned economy that focused on collectivising industry and agriculture to a socialist-oriented market economy which encourages private enterprise and foreign investment, Vietnam’s economy appears unstoppable.

The Doi Moi policy, as it is called, triggered a sudden economic boom, transforming a stagnant peasant economy into a vibrant, market-driven, capitalist system. Poverty levels decreased significantly, and numerous businesses flourished across the country, driving Vietnam to become one of the world’s biggest contenders in the race towards economic growth.

Accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that by 2025, Vietnam may be the fastest growing emerging economy in the world, with a potential annual growth rate of about 10% in real dollar terms. 

Trade and Industry

Around 65% of Vietnam’s labour force works in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. However, these sectors only account for approximately 23% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In 2011, it was the industrial and manufacturing sectors that contributed up to 40.3% of Vietnam’s USD121 billion GDP.

Vietnam’s Economy Fact Sheet 

GDP (purchasing power parity): USD320.5 billion (2012)

GDP comparison to the world: 42

GDP (official exchange rate): USD137.7 billion (2012)

GDP real growth rate: 5.1% (2012)

GDP real growth rate comparison to the world: 53

GDP per capita (PPP): USD3500 (2012)

GDP per capita comparison to the world: 168

GDP composition by sector: Agriculture: 21.5%, Industry: 40.7%, Services: 37.7%

Labour force: 49.18 million (2012)

Unemployment rate: 4.3% (2012)

Minimum wage in urban Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City: VND2.35 million / month

Currency: Vietnam dong (USD1 = VND20,896) as of 19 April 2013

Inflation rate (consumer prices): 9.2% (2012)

Inflation rate comparison to the world: 194

Imports: USD109.6 billion (2012)

Main imports: machinery and equipment, petroleum products, steel products, raw materials for clothing and shoe industries, electronics, plastics, automobiles

Exports: USD109.4 billion (2012)

Main exports: clothes, shoes, marine products, crude oil, electronics, wooden products, rice, machinery, coffee, pepper

Industrial production growth rate: 6% (2011)

National debt: 57.3% of GDP (2011)

Member of WTO: Since January 2007

These dramatic shifts in the economic landscape are all part of Vietnam’s financial master plan. In keeping with the country’s 2011-2020 socio-economic development strategy, Vietnam is undergoing its own industrial renaissance, optimising all key sectors with the goal of becoming a modern industrial nation by the end of this decade as well as maintaining its export revenue growth.

According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade, the country’s export revenues reached USD114.5 billion in 2012, representing a steep growth of 18.2% from 2011. This year, the Ministry aims to achieve USD129.5 billion in export revenues.

Vietnam’s Key Industries

Food Processing – The government continues to develop technologies to improve food processing techniques and increase the production of rice, tapioca, and corn. Currently the country has become a food processing hub for the region, with an annual growth rate of 20-30%.

Construction – Vietnam is now undertaking development on a massive scale, targeting 30-32 million square metres for construction throughout the country to ensure 12 square metres of living space for each individual. Real estate markets are still generating much excitement – the country’s been known to be amongst the top 20 most expensive real estate markets in the world – and opportunities are abundant. Vietnam’s first subway lines are also on the way.

Manufacturing – Vietnam is steadily becoming a global manufacturing centre due to the improving business climate and low labour costs. The country’s manufacturing sector is focused on chemicals, leather, textiles, electronics, and automotive products as well as information and communication technologies.

Mining – Mineral resources in Vietnam are abundant and diversified and include barite, chromites, coal, limestone, crude oil, tin, zinc, and phosphate rock. Titanium is heavily mined north of Phan Thiet. In 2010, the export value of Vietnam’s mining industry, excluding natural gas, was estimated at USD7.74 billion – 11% of Vietnam’s total export volume. 

It is worth noting that while statistics in Vietnam are officially available, these stats are often questioned by experts and locals alike. There is also a sharp and noticeable contrast in what is officially planned and what actually eventuates.

Currency

The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese dong (VND), represented by the symbol ₫. Banknote denominations are 200, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000.

Coins are rarely circulated, though they exist in denominations of VND 200, 500, 2000 and 5000. No new coins have been minted since 2010 due to rising steel prices.

Dong = Money

The word dong is originated from the Chinese word tong gian, which refers to the Chinese copper coins used as currency during the dynastic periods of China and Vietnam.

In the Vietnamese language, dong is often used as a generic term for money.

 

The dong is one of the world’s least valuable currencies: approximately VND21,000 to USD1. This means that you can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle that is very affordable. The downside? You will have to pay extra money for imported goods.

Exchange Rates (NB update at time of publishing and link)

AUD

AUST.DOLLAR

21,430.36

21,559.72

21,861.72

CAD

CANADIAN DOLLAR

20,168.40

20,351.56

20,636.64

CHF

SWISS FRANCE

21,828.39

21,982.27

22,290.19

EUR

EURO

26,984.90

27,066.10

27,445.23

GBP

BRITISH POUND

31,198.83

31,418.76

31,795.21

HKD

HONGKONG DOLLAR

2,656.44

2,675.17

2,723.52

JPY

JAPANESE YEN

214.38

216.55

219.58

SGD

SINGAPORE DOLLAR

16,509.41

16,625.79

16,926.25

THB

THAI BAHT

693.84

693.84

723.54

USD

US DOLLAR

20,920.00

20,920.00

20,960.00

 

 


The dong has a very important relationship with the US dollar. The value of VND is regulated by the State Bank of Vietnam and loosely pegged to the US dollar through a ’crawling peg‘ system – a fixed exchange rate that allows any depreciation or appreciation in the value to be gradual. This system makes it unlikely that the VND will be prone to strong fluctuations as it was four years ago when the US dollar bought VND16,000.

Note that it is highly difficult to exchange VND outside of Vietnam, so be sure to covert you money before leaving the country.

Cash is the main exchange medium as credit cards and debit cards are not accepted by most vendors. Some shops and restaurants will accept your cards, but it is wise to always carry enough cash.

Environment

Due to its wide range of latitudes, Vietnam has a rich biodiversity. War, however, has taken its toll on the country’s natural environment. Between 1961 and 1971, US military forces sprayed more than 72 million litres of herbicides, known as Agents Orange, White, and Blue (named after the colour of the canisters they came in) to defoliate the jungle cover of the Viet Cong soldiers.

The result was one of the most devastating ecocides in the world. The upland forest took the hardest hit. An estimated 90 million cubic metres of timber was destroyed and about one-third of the country’s mangrove areas, vital to its coastal ecology, were damaged.

Native wildlife was also affected. Lost along with the forests were the Southern white cheeked gibbons, the Eastern Sarus Cranes, Asian elephants, wild boar, gaur, tigers, and many other animal species. 

Timeless Charm

Vietnam’s new slogan – Timeless Charm – reveals the country’s new positioning in the market. No longer a hidden tourist destination, the country is geared up and on track to welcome travellers eager to explore its beauty.

The new campaign features Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus, with five different petal colours: Blue for sea and island tourism, green for bio-tourism, yellow for cultural tourism, purple for discovery and adventure, and pink for the warmth and hospitality of Vietnamese people.

Post-war, the country’s economic and population growth is in turn creating more challenges. Industrialisation poses serious waste management issues – most of the industrial wastewater is discharged improperly, polluting water sources in rivers such as Hong River or Ku Cing River.

In some rural areas, villagers are still using the ‘slash and burn’ cultivation technique, causing extensive deforestation, soil degradation, and erosion. The cities are not faring any better. Rapid urbanisation brings with it hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles, creating substantial air pollution problems that worsen by the day.

Vietnam is also under scrutiny for its cavalier attitude towards endangered species. Hunting and trapping protected wildlife for use in traditional medicine or smuggling are common practices.

On the positive side the government and many Vietnamese environmental groups and organisations have started reforestation and conservation projects, and today the landscape and its inhabitants are showing signs of recovery.

Environmental awareness is increasing. Since 1993, Vietnam has passed various laws concerning environmental protection and in 2011, Ho Chi Minh City’s Environmental Protection Agency reported that there were around 1.25 million people in Vietnam joining various community-based environmental activities.

Vietnam’s MONRE

Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) is responsible for environmental management throughout the country.

At present, a total budget allocation of VND500 trillion is available through Vietnam Environmental Protection Fund (VEPF) to provide financial support for programs and projects related to nature conservation as well as prevention of and recovery from environmental problems.

Tourism

Vietnam used to be known as Asia’s best-kept travel secret – until 2011, Vietnam’s tourism board still pitched ’Vietnam: Hidden Charm‘ as their campaign’s slogan – but the country’s reputation for its exquisite landscapes, cultural wonders, and historical charm has taken off in a big way. The secret is out.

The nation ranks second on a list of attractive destinations for international visitors in 2013, according to a recent survey conducted by the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). Earlier this year, British travellers voted Hoi An as the best city for travelling, placing it above 970 other cities nominated by Wanderlust, the leading UK travel magazine.

Over the past 10 years, Vietnam has seen an extraordinary boost in tourist numbers, with an average growth of 13% annually. In 2012 alone, nearly seven million tourists entered Vietnam, generating total revenue of VND160 trillion.

Vietnam’s sights are set on sustaining this growth. For 2015, Vietnam has targets of 7.5 million international arrivals and 36-37 million domestic arrivals. These tourist numbers are expected to generate for the country a lump sum of USD11 billion and as many as 2.2 million jobs.