Post-war Vietnam

One of the challenges of the new nation was the bombing damage left by years of war.

Post-1975 Vietnam faced many challenges. Two years after the withdrawal of the last United States combat troops, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) tanks and soldiers rolled into Saigon. Within days the US-backed South Vietnamese government turned on its heels and fled, its leaders spirited out of Vietnam with American assistance. After more than a century of foreign domination and 21 years of war and division, Vietnam was finally a single, independent nation, free from external control and interference. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in honour of the revolutionary leader, who had died six years earlier. North Vietnam’s communist party, Lao Dong, merged with the People’s Revolutionary Party of South Vietnam to form the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). A new national constitution was adopted and on July 2nd 1976, North and South Vietnam were officially reunified. The new nation was formally called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a title it retains today.

The task of forging this new nation generated excitement among leaders of the CPV – but there were a number of problems and obstacles they had to overcome. The CPV’s long term plan was to mould the newly reunified Vietnam into a socialist state, in the image of North Vietnam. The most significant barrier to this was political opposition. Nguyen Van Thieu’s government and its American backers had left Vietnam – but they left behind millions of supporters, including former military personnel, bureaucrats, business owners and civilians. These loyalists had been subjected to American propaganda which suggested the communists would slaughter every one of them. This threat never eventuated, however, the CPV wanted to neutralise the risks posed by loyalists and other political opponents. If these dissidents remained they might flourish and grow into a counter-revolutionary insurgency (as one historian put it, a “reactionary Viet Cong”).

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Opponents of the new regime were sent to reeducation camps

The CPV set about purging elements of the old order. Its first target was South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) officers and soldiers, who were ordered to register and report for “reform and retraining”. Many were sent to the notorious reeducation camps (trai hoc tap cai tao) where they were later joined by former civil servants, capitalists, Catholic priests and other representatives of the old order. Camp inmates were given no criminal charge, trial or sentence. According to the CPV, reeducation would continue until the state was satisfied with rehabilitation. The camps were not Nazi-style death camps; summary executions were rare and even torture was uncommon – but they did impose hard labour, brutal discipline and dire conditions, coupled with the despair of never knowing if or when freedom would come. There is significant debate and disagreement about how many Vietnamese died in the regime’s reeducation camps, estimates ranging from 50,000 to 200,000. By 1982, seven years after the reunification of Vietnam, around 120,000 people were reportedly still detained. There were reports that reeducation was still continuing into the mid-1990s.

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Pham Van Dong served as prime minister of the new Vietnam, 1976 to 1987

The CPV government also faced a myriad of economic challenges. The Vietnam War had taken a severe toll on Vietnamese farmland, industry and infrastructure. Much of this was the result of sustained American bombing missions. In the north, 29 of the 30 provincial capitals had sustained heavy bombing damage, one-third of them almost utterly destroyed. In southern Vietnam, the local economy had been propped up with US aid and investment; consequently, there had been little in the way of development, indigenous investment, new industries or infrastructure. In the post-war south, at least three million civilians were unemployed, while several million took to the roads in search of food. Vietnam’s half a million prostitutes, who during the war made a living servicing US and ARVN soldiers, now had no customer base.

The CPV attempted to transform southern Vietnam using similar policies and methods used in the North during the 1950s. Vietnam became a one party socialist state with a centrally directed economic system. According to historian Van Canh Nguyen, the CPV’s economic program could be summarised in three points. The first was the eradication of private commerce and trade, what the party called “capitalist merchants and compradors”, and their replacement by state institutions established ‘from scratch’. The second was the nationalisation of industry, including French-owned coal mines and other foreign corporations in Vietnam. The third was land reform: the abolition of private ownership, the end of exploitation by landowners and the reorganisation of agricultural production along collective principles.

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Food rationing was a harsh feature of Vietnam in the late 1970s

Land reform became the CPV’s first priority – but land reform and collectivisation proved much more difficult in southern Vietnam than it had in the North. During the 1950s North Vietnam’s peasants had welcomed land reform: they had little land and were kept destitute by an exploitative landlord class. Peasants in the South, in contrast, tended to be better off. Many South Vietnamese had been given land as part of US-sponsored reform projects in the 1960s, so were unwilling to give it up. They had also heard horror stories, some exaggerated and some not, about land collectivisation and famine in the North. Large areas of southern Vietnam resisted the CPV’s land reform policies. The cadres sent to implement them encountered stubborn resistance, even hostility. In several southern provinces land reform took many years to achieve; in some areas, it failed altogether and was eventually abandoned.

Faced with the challenges of feeding a war ravaged nation of 58 million people, the new socialist government demanded moderate increases in the production of rice, corn, vegetables and grain crops. In return for this increased productivity, the CPV promised that each citizen would receive 17 kilograms of unprocessed rice per month. Even modest targets could not be met, however. In 1978 Vietnam fell 4.5 million tons short of its rice quota, while cereal production also fell well short of expectations. Production was disrupted by peasant resistance but the country was also critically short of seed, fertiliser, pesticides, farming tools and machinery. Adverse weather events, particularly floods in the late 1970s, only worsened these problems, as did a downturn in foreign trade and imports. The US and its allies refused to trade with Hanoi, in part because of disputes over missing American servicemen Washington claimed were still imprisoned in Vietnam. By 1979 civilians in Vietnamese cities were subject to food rationing; most received a paltry two kilograms of rice and 200 grams of meat each per month.

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School children in Hanoi, photographed in 1979

Vietnam was granted membership of the United Nations in 1977, however, for the first decade of its life, it was shunned by most Western nations. China cut all aid to Vietnam in 1978 but Hanoi retained close ties with the Soviet Union. The CPV relaxed its economic grip on Vietnam in the mid-1980s, allowing the operation of small factories, businesses and service industries for profit. These reforms, broadly called doi moi (‘renovation’), allowed for new development, an increase in growth and an improvement in living standards. They were not accompanied by political reforms, with Vietnam remaining a staunch one party socialist state. Since 1986 Vietnam has progressed in a similar fashion to China, its economic policies becoming increasingly capitalist and market oriented, though tempered by socialist controls. In 1989 Hanoi withdrew its troops from Cambodia, which allowed it to reenter the international fold. Since then Vietnam has sought and received foreign aid, as well as becoming a member-state of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam’s relationship with the United States began to thaw in the early 1990s, with Washington eventually lifting a trade embargo (1994) and restoring diplomatic relations (1995).

“Vietnam is now at a crossroads and must decide whether short term economic growth should take precedence over the long-term struggle to broaden the horizons of human freedom.”
William Duiker, historian

In recent years Vietnam has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It has become a significant agricultural exporter, the third largest oil producer in Asia and an important manufacturer of clothing, textiles and computer components. Vietnam’s population has grown rapidly and now exceeds 85 million people, more than double its population in 1965 (39 million). Vietnamese society contains considerable poverty and wide divisions in income and wealth, though this is slowly improving. In terms of government, Vietnam remains a one-party socialist state. The government is nominally democratic, however, the CPV exercises strict controls, with only party-approved organisations and candidates permitted to nominate for election. The state also monitors and censors both the media and the Internet (which is shielded by the controversial ‘bamboo firewall’) while religions are also regulated by the government.

1. North Vietnam’s invasion of the South in 1975 led to reunification and the formation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in July 1976. It has since been ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).
2. In the first years of its rule, the CPV created a one-party socialist state. It dealt with elements of the old order and political opponents by detaining them indefinitely in “re-education camps”.
3. The CPV also implemented a program of land reform and collectivisation in the late 1970s. This proved disastrous, encountering resistance in many areas, triggering production downturns and famine.
4. Internationally, Vietnam retained close ties with the Soviet Union but was shunned by most Western nations. This continued until economic reforms and liberalisation in the late 1980s.
5. Today Vietnam has a fast-growing mixed economy, with growing elements of capitalism, however, it remains a one-party socialist state and the CPV maintains a firm grip on politics and information.

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