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