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Vietnam - History & Background

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Vietnam's nearly 1300-mile long coastline uncoils in the shape of an "S" from China's border to the southeastern extremity of mainland Southeast Asia. It is bordered on the north by China, to the west by Laos and Cambodia, and to the east and south by the South China Sea. Vietnam extends unevenly at widths ranging from 31 to 310 miles and covers an area of 127,300 square miles.

Vietnam's two fertile alluvial basins, the Red River in Tongking and the Mekong in the south, have inspired the image of the Vietnamese peasant carrying a pair of rice baskets suspended at the end of a pole. The two deltas, covering only a quarter of the land area, supports almost 80 percent of the country's population, which was estimated at 76,000,000 people in 2000. Vietnam ranks seventh in Asia and twelfth in the world in its size for population. The female population is larger, at 52 percent. In general, the population is young, with 80 percent of the people born after 1945; the population below 15 years of age accounts for 45 percent. Vietnamese citizens between the ages of 16 and 60, who comprise the bulk of the workforce, account for 48 percent of the population, while the elderly population (aged 61 and older) accounts for only 6.5 percent. Infant mortality has gone down significantly since 1975, standing at 48 per 1,000 in the year 2000.

The Tongking Delta has long reached the point of optimum agricultural expansion; its cultivable land has benefited from a 2000-year-old irrigation system based on an intricate network of dams and canals. It is the cradle of Vietnam's history and culture. Until the fifteenth century, Vietnam was limited to a little south of the Tongking Delta. Pressures on land have historically led to expansion in Central and South Vietnam through the extinction of the Champa kingdom in Central Vietnam—most of it in 1471 and the remnant in 1720. It wrested the Mekong delta from Cambodia in the eighteenth century, thereby reaching its present borders of Vietnam. The two rich deltas made Vietnam one of the world's leading rice exporters in the twentieth century. (That status was lost during the decades of conflict from 1940 to 1975, but it was restored in the late 1980s.) In the last quarter of the twentieth century, extensive reserves of petroleum and natural gas, believed by some experts to be the largest in the world, were also found.

Approximately 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, mostly in the river delta areas and along the coast. Ethnically, an overwhelming majority of the population, 85 percent, are Vietnamese or Kinh, a mixture of non-Chinese Mongolian and Austro-Indonesian stock, who moved into Tongking Delta from Kweichow, Kwangsi, and Kwantung areas of China beginning around the third century B.C. Minority communities in Vietnam, comprising roughly 11,000,000 people in 2000 A.D. included more than 50 diverse tribes, living mostly in the northwest mountains and in the central highlands where the French lumped many of them together as montagnards or mountain people. There are some 35,000 to 40,000 Chams, descendants of a once mighty Cham kingdom (second to fifteenth century A.D.) who fled to central highlands, and about 660,000 Khmers in South Vietnam. There are also 1,000,000 Hoa or Chinese, who migrated at different times in history, most of them during the French rule and with French encouragement, to Vietnam in the nineteenth century. The Chinese are concentrated in Quang Ninh province in North Vietnam and in Cholon, the twin city of Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Many of them were relocated in the New Economic Zones following the reunification of Vietnam. An estimated 250,000 of them migrated across the northern border to China and to other countries as "boat people" during the period of hostile relations between Vietnam and China.

Few countries have attracted international attention for so long as Vietnam did in the third quarter of the twentieth century. The world witnessed a small country of relatively short and wiry people with only conventional weapons and without the use of airpower holding a superpower at bay and emerging victorious. Historians will debate for a long time whether the Vietnamese were inspired by visions of world communism or those of narrow nationalism. Communist Vietnam's wars with the fraternal Communist states of Cambodia and China in the late 1970s raised serious questions whether communism had ever been a dominant motivation among the Vietnamese masses during the severe conflict with the Americans in the Second Indochina War (1964-1975).

Vietnamese nationalist identity was fostered by long periods of struggle against alien domination, first the Chinese rule for 1050 years from 111 B.C. to 939 A.D. and from 1407 to 1428 A.D. and in modern times by a century of French rule that ended in 1954. Vietnamese historians have emphasized the existence of a thriving indigenous culture, notably the Dongson culture (700-300 B.C.) predating the Chinese rule and the numerous expressions of Vietnamese "nationalism" in the form of anti-Chinese revolts, some of them successful in punctuating the Chinese rule. One of the revolts was led by two Trung sisters, who ruled as joint queens for two years in the first century A.D. A disproportionately large Chinese force crushed the revolt, and the two sisters jumped in the river Day to commit suicide.

During the long centuries of their rule, the Chinese imposed their culture and institutions on their Vietnamese subjects, notably Confucianism, which provided the basis for the political order, the social hierarchy, and the value system. It also formed the core of the curriculum for their civil service examination system. It took several years to gain proficiency in the Chinese script (characters), and to master the literature, philosophy, and law that were mostly based on Confucian scholarship and were needed to pass the triennial examinations that were offered at three levels corresponding to the district, provincial, and imperial levels. Success in the examinations brought bureaucratic appointment of a mandarin along with high prestige in the society and land grants from the government.

Even after the overthrow of the Chinese rule, the Vietnamese emperors continued with the study of Confucianism and the conduct of the civil service examinations. During the last quarter of the eleventh century A.D., the Ly rulers established an elaborate apparatus to promote the Confucian cult at the court; these included a Confucian Temple of Literature and the Han-Lin Academy for Study in Confucianism at the highest level. In 1076 A.D., the Quoc Tu Giam (National College) was opened to teach Confucianism to children of the royal family and nobility. Only scholars well-versed in Confucianism could pass the civil service examinations. In 1089, the Ly Emperor fully adopted the Chinese model of hierarchical bureaucracy, creating nine levels of civil and military officials. In 1397, Emperor Tran Thuan Tong opened public schools right down to the district level. In the following century, during the rule of Emperor Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497), the number of such schools multiplied substantially to enable the children of the common people to study Confucianism and prepare them to take the civil service examinations. Besides the relatively smaller number of government schools at the nation's capital and the capital cities of the provinces and districts, there were a large number of private schools, financed and managed by the people at village and commune levels. Thus, despite fears that China would dominate Vietnam politically, the Vietnamese rulers deliberately set their nation on a course of Sinicization (change through Chinese influence) through adoption of Confucianism.

Parallel to and sometimes overlapping the civil service examinations, a system of conferring academic degrees developed over the centuries. Thus, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, a degree called thi hoi, which according to Vietnamese experts, roughly equaled the western Master of Arts degree, was conferred. From the fourteenth century onwards, a higher degree, thi dinh, equivalent to a doctorate, was awarded. The best among the holders of the doctorate were called trang nguyen. At Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) in Hanoi, there are 83 steles bearing the names of 1,036 "doctors" who had won the highest academic distinction from 1442 to 1779. The Vietnamese emperors held the civil service examinations in Tongking until 1915 and in Hue until 1918.

Along with continuing Confucian learning, some Vietnamese emperors developed pride in Vietnamese culture and promoted the development of an independent literature in the Vietnamese language. In the fourteenth century A.D., a form of writing called Chu Nom, which represented a radical modification of the Chinese Chu Han, developed. In the middle of the seventeenth century, a Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes, developed Quoc Ngu, a Romanized phonetic script with diacritical marks to help catechism and compile a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary. The French rulers encouraged Quoc Ngu, which progressively replaced the Chinese as well as Chu Nom methods of writing. After World War I, a group called Tu Luc Van Doan (Self-Reliance Literary Club) reformed Quoc Ngu by standardizing six tone signs and three vowel signs, making it easier to learn the script and the language. It is this form that has been adopted by the Vietnamese governments since 1945.

As in China, the Vietnamese people have always given education a high priority and held educated people in high respect. Vietnamese mandarins, Confucian scholars who had passed the examinations, were, as a rule, regarded as social, intellectual, and cultural leaders In the period just before the French rule began in the nineteenth century, Vietnam had an estimated 20,000 schools with a very high literacy rate. At the end of the French rule, literacy was estimated at around 10 percent, a measure of the neglect of education under the alien Western rule.

For purposes of administration, the French divided Vietnam into trois pays or three countries. Tongking in the north with Hanoi as center was technically a protectorate though, in practice, it was as directly ruled as was Cochin-China or South Vietnam centered on Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975), which was given the status of a colony. In the center of the country was Annam, with Hue as the seat of the imperial Nguyen family, which was allowed nominally to rule with the help of a traditional council of mandarins. Hanoi became the seat of the French governor-general of Indochina, including Lao and Cambodia. Beginning the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the French introduced a dual policy aimed at the eventual acculturization of its colonial subjects: the higher-level policy of "assimilation" for Cochin-China and the transitional-level policy of "association" for Tongking and Annam. There was a very high percentage of Frenchmen in the administration as well as in the educational establishment of Cochin-China, where Confucianism disintegrated faster than in the other two areas. Those who collaborated with the French regime in business and administration saw benefits of acquiring a French education in Vietnam and France. These included a large number of Catholics, who received preferential treatment from their ruling co-religionists.

While in France, many Vietnamese improved in their self-esteem as they successfully competed with Frenchmen in studies. They also learned about the disparity in the French profession of liberty, equality, and fraternity and their government in the colonies where these values were conspicuous by their absence. Some of the Vietnamese ex-patriates in France like Ho Chi Minh got acquainted with radical ideologies including Marxism-Leninism. Many of those who returned to Vietnam with university degrees found their avenues of employment blocked by French nationals. Not surprisingly, the anti-colonial movements, whether communist or noncommunist, were led by such frustrated educated young men who developed an identity for Vietnam as a whole condemning the French concept of trois pays as a deliberate myth to divide the colonial subjects and make it easy for the French to rule over them.

Inspired by the victory of Japan over Russia in 1905, many Vietnamese, among them a future eminent leader of the nationalist movement, Phan Boi Chau, went to Japan for higher studies. In northern Vietnam, an anti-colonial movement manifested itself in the form of a "free schools" movement, the most notable of these being the Dong Kinh Free School, which opened in Hanoi in 1907. The school's founders openly declared that education would be a means to "regain national autonomy." It quickly became a movement attracting more than 1,000 students; besides regular education, it promoted agricultural and commercial cooperatives and became a center for raising funds to send students to China and Japan for higher studies. The movement reflected the thinking of China's modernizers such as Kang Yu-wei, who had advocated in the beginning of the twentieth century a combination of tradition and Western sciences and Western literature as a means of strengthening nationhood of a people. The French colonial authorities quickly smothered the movement by closing the Dong Kinh School in less than one year of its opening.

However, the French reacted to the development by establishing a Franco-Vietnamese or Franco-Native school system of its own, not so in pursuance of its proclaimed goal of a civilizing mission but to combat the incipient growth of nationalism through Vietnamese traditional education. Thus far, the French had established schools in three cities of Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon not for the benefit of the colonial subjects, but for the children of French residents of Indochina. Very few Vietnamese children, mostly from Francophile families, would be admitted if they passed the prerequisite examinations for admission to lycees (grammar schools). By the early twentieth century, children of Vietnamese civil servants and business collaborators outnumbered the French children in the lycees because often the latter failed to pass the examinations.

In 1906, the French appointed the Council for the Improvement of Native Education, which met periodically in Hanoi. Its deliberations clearly indicated that the French school system would be developed in Vietnam as a response to the indigenous bid to establish their own system, with their own interpretations of Western civilization. The Council's recommendations eventually led to a Code of Public Instruction in December 1917. Under it, new Franco-Vietnamese schools were opened in the main cities and towns of Vietnam. In 1924, in a move that would exclude all other educational systems, the government enacted strict laws that required all educational institutions to follow a common curriculum, to use only French and Vietnamese (not Chinese) in the Quoc Ngu script, and to employ only government-certified teachers. All schools, public and private would be subject to inspection by the Inspector of Public Instruction. The curriculum in the schools for French children would be different from that followed by the Franco-Vietnamese schools. The Vietnamese schools were the most affected by this law, which led to the closure of 1,835 Vietnamese traditional schools.

The educational system introduced by the French rulers in Vietnam in 1917 consisted of 13 years of education: 3 years of elementary school in Vietnamese in the Romanized Quoc Ngu script; 3 years of primary education in French; 4 years of vocationally-oriented primary superior education in French; and 3 years of French-language secondary education leading to an Indochinese baccalaureate. The enrollment in schools was about 15 percent of the school-age children. Of them, 90 percent were in elementary classes where the teaching was in Vietnamese, elementary math, moral education, hygiene and/or drawing, and manual labor. The remaining 10 percent were in primary through secondary university education. The first university was established in 19l9.

While the emphasis at the elementary level was chiefly on learning Vietnamese, at the primary and secondary levels, it was on learning French and literature. There was hygiene and practical science but no hard sciences; math was only for 2 hours of a 27-hour school week, history for one half hour, and moral education and physical education were about 2 hours each. The emphasis was on teaching about Vietnam, not about France or other parts of the world, the intention being to expose the population to more than a simplistic life and agricultural pursuits. The French neglected education of their subjects in Vietnam focusing primarily on the economic exploitation of the country, a principle source of exports of rice and rubber.

After 1917, the French made some half-hearted efforts to introduce education also at the higher level. Thus, a number of colleges were opened. Before 1917, there was only one, namely, the College of Medicine and Pharmacy opened in 1902. In 1917, the Teacher Training College was started. In 1918, four were added: the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Law and Administration, the College of Agriculture and Forestry, and the College of Civil Engineering. In 1923-1924, three more were opened: the College of Literature, the College of Experimental Sciences, and the College of Fine Arts and Architecture. Yet as Pham Minh Hac observed, the education offered in these mostly two-year institutions was more like that offered in vocational education. Beginning in 1919, the first pre-university level courses in physics, chemistry, and natural sciences were taught. It was beginning in 1924 that the first batch of students for the degree in medicine was enrolled. Most institutions needed to wait until the establishment of the University of Indochina, to which most colleges were affiliated, in 1940. And it was later, during the course of the war when the pro-Vichy and pro-Japanese regime prevailed, that the college education was upgraded to the degree level in Law, Agriculture, Civil Engineering, and the Sciences. In l954, when the French were forced to quit Vietnam, there was only one university in the country and 14 secondary schools. Only 10 percent of the primary-school-age children enrolled in the so-called Franco-Vietnamese schools.

The severe suppression by the French of the noncommunist nationalist movement in 1930 gave scope for the Indochina Communist Party (ICP), which was also suppressed but survived because of their superior underground organization. Taking advantage of the wartime conditions, Ho Chi Minh brought Communists and noncommunists alike under an anti-Japanese front, the Viet Minh (short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi or Vietnamese Independence League), which received assistance, financial and military, from the Allies, including the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA, in their fight both against Japan and Japanese-supported pro-Vichy French regime in Vietnam. Taking advantage of the interregnum between Japan's withdrawal and the arrival of the Allied forces, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on September 2, 1945, with a program that was liberal but totally devoid of communism. In the following year, Ho entered into an agreement with the French, allowing them to return temporarily on certain conditions, an agreement soon violated by the French bombardment of the port of Haiphong, which commenced the First Indochina War (1946-1954). After the birth of NATO and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the conflict became increasingly a part of the global Cold War between Communist and anti-Communist forces. The Viet Minh, by then led by the ICP, emerged victorious at Dien Bien Phu in May, 1954. The Geneva Peace Agreements that followed in July, temporarily divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, with the provision for elections two years later for the reunification of the country. The DRV in the north became a communist regime; in the south, the government was led by Ngo Dinh Diem, who received massive U.S. assistance including military in the capacity of "advisers." In 1955, South Vietnam declared itself a separate sovereign republic and was recognized among others by the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

Frustrated by the pro-Catholic, anti-Buddhist, authoritarian regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, badly advised by his brothers and a sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, a strong anti-government movement developed under the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was dominated by the southern communists who were soon to be assisted by the DRV. The assassination of the Ngo brothers in 1963 brought several revolving-door governments led by the military and assisted by the United States.

The Second Indochina War (1964-1973), called "The American War" by pro-Communist and Communist Vietnamese, adversely impacted both the halves of Vietnam, resulting in a loss of 3,000,000 Vietnamese lives, and causing long-term damage to the environment. It brought physical and emotional devastation far more in the south than in the north, creating large-scale demographic changes as large numbers of rural population moved for security to towns and cities, inducting hundreds of thousands of youngsters, who should have been in schools, into prostitution and pimping. The war's end in 1975 marked a communist victory and led to the reunification of the country in the following year, for the first time in a century, this time under Hanoi's domination. Saigon's name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam - Constitutional Legal Foundations [next]

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