March 13 - 24, 2008

Vietnam has had many names through the years – most of which included neither ‘Viet’ nor ‘Nam’.  Its present name has been a gradual evolution from ‘Viet’ which is the largest ethnic group in Vietnam and ‘Nam’ which means south.  King Gia Long proposed calling his land Nam Viet in the early 19th century; however, the Chinese Qing dynasty objected.  The Chinese named it Viet Nam.  Viet Nam means ‘people of the south’ and differentiates the Vietnamese from the Chinese whom are the ‘the people of the north.  Combining the two words – Viet Nam – in to one – Vietnam – was an English language adaptation.  In Vietnam, both are common.  The English language adaptation is used here.


Having lived in the US during the Vietnam war, we learned one perspective on the history of Vietnam.  While in Vietnam, we sought out their perspective.  How did they describe their history – particularly the years of the Vietnam war?  It was not always easy to listen to, but we learned a lot.

Early History

The land of today’s Vietnam has been inhabited since around 2000 BC. Wet rice cultivation is believed to have occurred since around 1200 BC, and at least three Vietnamese dynasties existed prior to 111 BC when the Chinese Han Dynasty overtook Vietnam. The Chinese continued to rule Vietnam until 939 AD with the exception of brief independence from 544 to 602.

Dynastic era

Vietnam’s dynastic era began in 938 with the Ly then Tran dynasties. Over the next 500 years, they successfully repelled three Mongol invasions, but they briefly lost independence to the Chinese Ming Dynasty. However, their independence was regained by the Le Dynasty in the 15th century. Over the next three centuries, they expanded southward and eventually conquered the kingdom of Champa and part of the Khmer Empire. Towards the end of the Le Dynasty, civil strife degenerated in to civil war and continued for more than a hundred years. During this time, the Nguyen Lords in the south expanded Vietnam southward to include the Mekong Delta. The Nguyen Lords were briefly displaced by the Tay Son brothers, but the Nguyens, with the help of the French, reestablished their power. Nguyen Anh founded the Nguyen Dynasty – Vietnam’s last dynasty – and ruled under the name Gia Long.

Colonial era
Vietnam’s independence was again interrupted in the mid-nineteenth century when they were colonized by the French. The French imposed western structure – political, educational, religious, economic – that was inconsistent with Vietnamese culture and values, and a nationalist political movement emerged. Ho Chi Minh was one of the leaders of that movement. The French retained their control of Vietnam until World War II when Japan invaded in 1941.

Indochina War
In 1941, the Viet Minh formed. This was a communist national liberation movement directed by Ho Chi Minh in efforts to regain independence from France and oppose the Japanese occupation. When Japan was defeated in 1945, the Viet Minh claimed independence and established a government in Hanoi. However, the French did not accept that proclamation, and they sent troops to regain control of Vietnam. Vietnamese troops were backed by China and the Soviet Union. French troops were backed by the United States. The Vietnamese and French were at war from 1946 to 1954. A ceasefire emerged from the Geneva conference of 1954 by which the country was divided at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh ruled the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the US-supported Republic of Vietnam in the south. This division was to be temporary pending an election in 1956 – an election that never occurred.

Vietnam/US War
The north and the south disagreed over elections and reunification.  The US began an influx of military advisors, and they committed their first combat troops in 1965.  The US was unofficially at war against North Vietnam until Saigon surrendered on April 30, 1975 and Vietnam was reunified. This is not an appropriate forum for discussion of the war that ensued, but it does seem appropriate to acknowledge the impact of that war on the Vietnamese.  One million Vietnamese combatants – combining north and south – were killed.  Four million Vietnamese civilians were killed.  More than 6 ½ million Vietnamese civilians were displaced.  These numbers do not include the American, Cambodian, or Laotian casualties – only Vietnamese.

Vietnam was seriously war ravaged, and the reconstruction efforts seemed to worsen their situation.  Humanitarian and economic issues caused millions to flee the country creating the international crisis of the ‘boat people’.  Their situation worsened further when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1978.  As a result of that invasion, the Vietnamese then had a brief conflict with China in 1979.  The lives of the Vietnamese people were very slow to improve.

Vietnam Today

Vietnam has made tremendous strides in recovery since the war years.  They appear to be recovering well on all fronts.

Vietnam is an ‘S’ shaped country on the eastern edge of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. To the east is the South China Sea, to the north is China, and to the west Laos and Cambodia. Although Vietnam is 1,000 miles long in a north-south direction, it is as narrow as 30 miles at its narrowest. It has a land area of 128,527 square miles that is divided in to 59 provinces and 5 municipalities.

The topography of Vietnam is mostly hills and densely forested mountains. Less than 20% of the land is level, but that 20% is highly productive.

The Red River Delta in the north covers less than 6,000 square miles. In contrast, the Mekong River Delta in the south covers approximately 15,600 square miles. However, the Red River Delta is more intensely developed and populated than the Mekong River Delta. Also, increased rainfall in the north enables three annual crops of rice to be grown where only two crops are grown in the Mekong Delta. The two delta regions produce a tremendous amount of food.

The capital of Vietnam is Hanoi with a population of 2.5 million. However, Saigon has a larger population of 3.6 million.

Vietnam’s population is approximately 86 million. It is the 13th most populous country in the world. The Vietnamese are 90% ‘Viet’ or ‘Kinh’, 2% Chinese, 1% Khmer, 1% Cham, 1% Amerasian, and 5% montagna – a name given to the hill tribes. There are 54 known ethnic hill tribes in Vietnam. The population is concentrated in the deltas and coastal plains, and more than 20 million live in the Mekong Delta. Vietnam also has a young population with 65% being born after 1975 – the year of reunification.

The Vietnamese speak their own language – Vietnamese – and write in their own characters that were developed in the 13th century. Some French is spoken by the older population, and some English is spoken by many – especially the young. English has become obligatory in most schools.

Vietnam has no official religion. However, 80% are Buddhist – predominantly Mahayana – often mixed with Confucianism and Taoism as their unique ‘triple religion’. The remaining 20% are 10% Caodai, 8% Catholic, and 2% other – a few Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is.

Education in Vietnam is a mixture of public and privately run institutions. Education from age 6 to 11 is free and mandatory. Education beyond age 11 is not free. Therefore, many poor families do not educate their children past age 11.

The Vietnam War devastated the Vietnamese economy.  Then, following reunification, the government created a planned economy that did not help their recovery efforts.  Problems included inefficiency, official corruption, poor quality of goods, underproduction, and overly restrictive policies.  Further, they suffered a trade embargo from the US (until 1994) and much of Europe. In a historic shift in 1986, the government implemented free-market reforms known as Doi Moi – Vietnamese for ‘renovation’.  This policy enabled private ownership of farms and companies.  Deregulation and foreign investment were encouraged.  The Vietnamese economy has since achieved rapid growth, and it is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies.  In recent years, foreign investment has tripled, and domestic savings has quintupled.

Manufacturing, information technology, and high-tech industry form a large and fast-growing part of today’s economy.  In the entire world, Vietnam is the #1 cashew producer, the #2 rice producer, and the #2 coffee producer.  They are Southeast Asia’s #3 oil producer, and they also produce large amounts of clothing and footwear. Tourism has also become an important industry in Vietnam.  Numbers have increased steadily over the last decade with more than 3.5 million foreign tourists visiting Vietnam in 2006.  That was an increase of 3.7% just from 2005. Nonetheless, Vietnam is still a relatively poor country.  Their average per capita income is the equivalent of only a few hundred USD, and it is much less in rural areas. The Vietnamese currency is the dong.  Approximately 16,000 dong are equivalent to one US dollar.

Our Time in Vietnam

We planned to see Vietnam by both land and boat (see itinerary).  Our land travels were organized in three ‘clusters’.  We started in the north – in and around Hanoi.  Then we flew to the central coastal city of Hue.  Then we flew further south to Saigon – or more correctly, Ho Chi Minh City.  We traveled over land to the Mekong Delta and boarded the RV Mekong Pandaw – a riverboat that would take us around the delta, up the Mekong River, and on in to Cambodia.

Vietnam is beautiful.  Although we were there at the end of the dry season, most of Vietnam was still lush and green.  The rice paddies were breathtakingly beautiful.  We also enjoyed the Vietnamese people.  They are energetic and ambitious.  They want to work and make money.  They are also highly nationalistic and have strong family ties.  We felt very welcome by the Vietnamese.  One cannot avoid hearing caustic remarks about the American government during the Vietnam War years; however, they are kind and welcoming to the American people.  We never once sensed any personal resentment related to the war. If the opportunity ever presents itself, we would return to Vietnam.  It is a lovely place.

Follow us as we begin our travels in Hanoi or jump ahead to Hue or Saigon or jump ahead to the Mekong Delta and River or skip Vietnam and jump ahead to Cambodia.