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Vietnam | Facts and History

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Vietnamese market lady with produce

Photo of a woman at a market in Vietnam.

Keren Su / Photodisc

In the western world, the word "Vietnam" is almost always followed by the word "War." However, Vietnam has more than 1,000 years of recorded history, and it is much more interesting than just the events of the mid-20th century.

Vietnam's people and economy were devastated by the process of decolonization and decades of war, but today, the country is well on its way to recovery.

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Hanoi, population 8.4 million

Major Cities:

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), 10.1 million

Hai Phong, 5.8 million

Can Tho, 1.2 million

Da Nang, 890,000

Vietnam's Government:

Politically, Vietnam is a one-party Communist state. As in China, however, the economy is increasingly capitalistic.

The head of government in Vietnam is the Prime Minister, currently Nguyen Tan Dung. The President is the nominal head of state; the incumbent is Nguyen Minh Triet. Of course, both are top members in the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Vietnam's unicameral legislature, the National Assembly of Vietnam, has 493 members and is the highest branch of the government. Even the judiciary falls under the National Assembly.

The top court is the Supreme People's Court; lower courts include provincial municipal courts and local district courts.

Population of Vietnam:

Vietnam has about 86 million people, of whom more than 85% are ethnic Kinh or Viet people. However, the remaining 15% include members of more than 50 different ethnic groups.

Some of the largest groups are the Tay, 1.9%; Tai, 1.7%; Muong, 1.5%; Khmer Krom, 1.4%; Hoa and Nung, 1.1% each; and Hmong, at 1%.

Languages:

The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, which is part of the Mon-Khmer language group. Spoken Vietnamese is tonal. Vietnamese was written in Chinese characters until the 13th century, when Vietnam developed its own set of characters, chu nom.

In addition to Vietnamese, some citizens speak Chinese, Khmer, French, or the languages of small mountain-dwelling ethnic groups. English is increasingly popular as a second language, as well.

Religion in Vietnam:

Vietnam is non-religious due to its Communist government. However, in this case Karl Marx's antipathy to religion is overlaid on a rich and varied tradition of different Asian and western faiths, and the government recognizes six religions. As a result, 80% of Vietnamese self-identify as belonging to no religion, yet many of them continue to visit religious temples or churches, and to offer prayers to their ancestors.

Those Vietnamese who identify with a particular religion report their affiliations as follows: Buddhist - 9.3%, Catholic Christian - 6.7%, Hoa Hao - 1.5%, Cao Dai - 1.1%, and less than 1% Muslim or Protestant Christian.

Vietnam's Geography and Climate:

Vietnam has an area of 331,210 sq km (127,881 sq miles), along the east coastal strip of Southeast Asia. The majority of the land is hilly or mountainous and heavily forested, with oly about 20% flatlands. Most cities and farms are concentrated around river valleys and deltas.

Vietnam borders on China, Laos and Cambodia. The highest point is Fan Si Pan, at 3,144 meters (10,315 feet) elevation. The lowest point is sea level.

Vietnam's climate varies with both latitude and elevation, but generally it is tropical and monsoonal. The weather tends to be humid year-round, with substantial rainfall during the summer rainy season and less during the winter "dry" season.

Temperatures do not vary much throughout the year, generally, with an average around 23°C (73°F). The highest temperature ever recorded was 42.8°C (109 °F), and the lowest was 2.7°C (37°F).

Economy:

Vietnam's economic growth remains hampered by the government's control of many factories as state-owned enterprises (SOEs). These SOEs produce almost 40% of the country's GDP. Perhaps inspired by the success of Asia's capitalist "tiger economies," however, the Vietnamese recently declared a policy of economic liberalization and joined the WTO.

Per capita GDP as of 2010 was $3,100 US, with an unemployment rate of just 2.9% and a poverty rate of 10.6%. 53.9% of the labor force work in agriculture, 20.3% in industry, and 25.8% in the service sector.

Vietnam exports clothes, shoes, crude oil, and rice. It imports leather and textiles, machinery, electronics, plastics and automobiles.

The Vietnamese currency is the dong. As of May, 2011, 1 USD = 20,560 dong.

History of Vietnam:

Artifacts of human habitation in what is now Vietnam date back more than 22,000 years, but it is likely that humans have lived in the area for much longer. Archaeological evidence shows that bronze casting in the area began around 5,000 BCE, and spread north to China. Around 2,000 BCE, the Dong Son Culture introduced rice cultivation into Vietnam.

To the south of the Dong Son were the Sa Huynh people (c. 1000 BCE - 200 CE), ancestors of the Cham people. Maritime traders, the Sa Hyunh exchanged merchandise with peoples in China, Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan.

In 207 BCE, the first historic kingdom of Nam Viet was established in northern Vietnam and southern China by Trieu Da, a former governor for the Chinese Qin Dynasty. However, the Han Dynasty conquered Nam Viet in 111 BCE, ushering in the "First Chinese Domination," which lasted until 39 CE.

Between 39 and 43 CE, sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi lead a revolt against the Chinese, and briefly ruled independent Vietnam. The Han Chinese defeated and killed them in 43 CE, however, marking the beginning of the "Second Chinese Domination," which lasted until 544 CE.

Led by Ly Bi, northern Vietnam broke away from the Chinese again in 544, despite the southern Champa kingdom's alliance with China. The First Ly Dynasty ruled northern Vietnam (Annam) until 602, when once again China conquered the region. This "Third Chinese Domination" lasted through 905 CE, when the Khuc family overcame Tang Chinese rule of the Annam area.

Several short-lived dynasties followed in quick succession, until the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225 CE) took control. The Ly invaded Champa and also moved into Khmer lands in what is now Cambodia. In 1225, the Ly were overthrown by the Tran Dynasty, who ruled until 1400. The Tran famously defeated three Mongol invasions, first by Mongke Khan in 1257-58, and then by Kublai Khan in 1284-85 and 1287-88.

The Ming Dynasty of China managed to take Annam in 1407, and controlled it for two decades. Vietnam's longest-reigning Dynasty, the Le, next ruled from 1428 to 1788. The Le Dynasty instituted Confucianism and a Chinese-style civil service exam system. It also conquered the former Champa, extending Vietnam to its current borders.

Between 1788 and 1802, peasant revolts, small local kingdoms and chaos prevailed in Vietnam. The Nguyen Dynasty took control in 1802, and ruled until 1945, first in their own right, then as puppets of French imperialism (1887-1945), and also as puppets of the occupying Japanese Imperial forces during World War II.

At the end of the Second World War, France demanded the return of its colonies in French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). The Vietnamese wanted independence, so this touched off the First Indochina War (1946-1954). In 1954, the French withdrew and Vietnam was partitioned with the promise of democratic elections. However, the North under communist leader Ho Chi Minh invaded the US-supported South later in 1954, marking the beginning of the Second Indochina War, also called the Vietnam War (1954-1975).

The North Vietnamese eventually won the war in 1975, and reunited Vietnam as a Communist country. Vietnam's army overran neighboring Cambodia in 1978, driving the genocidal Khmer Rouge out of power. Since the 1970s, Vietnam has slowly liberalized its economic system and recovered from decades of war.

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