Socialist Republic of Vietnam

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Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Type of Government

A Communist state, Vietnam invests legislative authority in its elected National Assembly. From among its membership, the assembly selects a president to act as the nation’s chief executive for a term of five years. The president chooses a prime minister from among other National Assembly members. The prime minister leads a cabinet of government ministers appointed by the president and approved by a vote of the National Assembly. Judicial authority in Vietnam rests with the national Supreme People’s Court.


Located in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is bordered on the north by China, on the west by Laos and Cambodia, and on the south and east by the South China Sea. Its twentieth-century history included decades of warfare and political disruption, including struggles for independence and years of immersion in an internationally observed and controversial war between the nation’s north and south that involved the United States. Around the globe, Vietnam remains identified with its war-torn past, but its youthful and enterprising population is cultivating greater commercial and technological involvement in the world, despite living in a closely guarded society.

Ancestors of the modern-day Vietnamese settled in the vicinity of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam sometime during the first millennium BC. By the third century BC they had established the Kingdom of Van Lang, which was conquered by a Chinese military adventurer who incorporated the Red River Delta area into his own southern Chinese kingdom. A century later the expanding Chinese empire itself reached Vietnam and incorporated the Red River Delta. China ruled Vietnam for a thousand years, bringing significant change to Vietnamese society and introducing Chinese social and political institutions. Chinese architecture, art, and literature, as well as its written language, followed. In AD 939 Vietnamese rebels seized the opportunity presented by a period of imperial weakness and restored independence to Vietnam.

During several hundred years of independent rule, the Vietnamese Empire, known as Dai Viet, or “Great Viet,” expanded to the south while developing its own social and political institutions. Two great dynasties, the Ly (1009–1225) and the Tran (1225–1400), fended off repeated Chinese attempts to reincorporate Vietnam. Subsequent dynasties and further territorial expansion eventually brought the entire Mekong River Delta under Vietnamese rule during the seventeenth century. Vietnam’s first north-south division occurred when expansion inadvertently brought on civil war between two royal clans, the Trinh in the north of the country and the Nguyen in the south. The country eventually reunified under a third dynasty.

European colonial conquest reached Vietnam in the mid-nineteenth century. France succeeded in establishing a protectorate over central and northern Vietnam between 1858 and 1884. In 1895 Vietnam was included with the protectorates of Laos and Cambodia in the union of French Indochina.

Western-style nationalist movements opposed to French colonial rule began to appear after the end of World War I. They gained momentum when nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) formed the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. Following the collapse of the French government during World War II, Japan forced the French to accept a Japanese military occupation of Indochina. During this time the Japanese installed a puppet Vietnamese government with Bao Dai (1913–1997), the figurehead emperor of Vietnam, as head of state. After World War II, and the return of French rule, Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh movement waged a successful eight-year war, known as the First Indochina War, for Vietnamese independence from France. The French withdrew from the country in 1954 after sustained guerilla warfare and a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu. That same year, the Geneva Conference of world leaders divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel of latitude into separate northern and southern states. Vietnamese Communists held the north (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), while non-Communist and pro-French elements took the south (becoming the Republic of Vietnam). In 1957 future conflict became imminent when a Communist insurgency began in South Vietnam.

Fearful that a so-called “domino effect” might take hold in Southeast Asia, if more countries established Communist governments, the United States began pouring economic and military aid into sustaining the South Vietnamese government. Beginning in 1964, American bombing raids and troop deployments increased until planes averaged one hundred sorties per day and troops engaged on the ground numbered five hundred thousand. At the height of conflict, 1.25 million American and South Vietnamese troops were deployed in the war effort.

As American politicians lost the political will to continue the conflict, troops were gradually withdrawn and negotiated settlements were sought. The final withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1975 allowed North Vietnamese forces to overrun the South Vietnam and take the capital city of Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City. In July 1976 the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was officially proclaimed, and the country united under one government.

Government Structure

Elections for a new National Assembly were held just after reunification. Preoccupied with nationalization of industry and other economic and social changes, the National Assembly finally approved a new constitution for the country in December 1980. It declared Vietnam to be led by the Communist Party. The highest state authority was the unicameral, or one-chambered, National Assembly, whose members were elected to five-year terms by voters aged eighteen and older. The National Assembly appointed a cabinet of thirty-three ministers—the Council of Ministers—whose chairman acted as the country’s premier. The Council of State, made up of twelve members, acted as the country’s collective presidency. Its members were chosen from among the membership of the National Assembly and remained accountable to it.

In 1992 the Vietnamese National Assembly adopted the country’s present constitution. It reaffirmed the authority of the Communist Party but held that the party must be subject to the law. It expressed support for a free market economy and replaced the Council of State with a single president to be elected by the National Assembly from among its membership for a term of five years. The president could appoint a prime minister, also from among the National Assembly and subject to its approval. Legislative authority remained with the assembly, and its membership was calculated on the basis of one deputy for every ten thousand voters in urban areas and for every thirty thousand in rural areas. In theory, the National Assembly is Vietnam’s sovereign power. In reality, it functions as a rubber stamp to ratify decisions already reached by the Vietnamese Communist Party leadership and the executive branch of the government. In recent years, however, greater numbers of candidates have run for election to the Assembly, including some nonparty candidates approved by the party. Deputies take an increasingly greater role in decision making and selection of key government officials. The number of women deputies in the National Assembly is increasing.

Vietnam’s legal system is based on Communist legal theory and French civil law. Local courts are found throughout the country’s administrative districts. Military courts, and special courts created by the National Assembly, initially handle certain cases. Vietnam’s highest court is the Supreme People’s Court, whose judges are appointed for five-year terms by the National Assembly according to the recommendation of the president. Although the constitution of 1992 provides for an independent judiciary, the Vietnamese Communist Party exercises close control of the entire government, and the judicial selection process favors candidates supportive of the party.

Vietnam’s struggle with reunification included initial adherence to strict Communist economic strictures, including collectivization of agriculture. Elements of free enterprise and a market system began appearing in the 1980s, and a stock exchange opened in 2000. As of 2007, Vietnam’s largest trading partner was the United States.

Political Parties and Factions

Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. It was formally dissolved in 1945 but operated secretly until 1951, when it emerged as the Vietnamese Workers Party. It assumed its current identity as the Vietnamese Communist Party upon the country’s political reunification as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. A party central committee guides affairs and elects the politburo, the party’s highest policy-making body. The Vietnamese Communist Party remains the country’s only legal political party. Nonaligned, or “independent,” candidates may run for office but only with the party’s approval.

Viet Minh, also known as the League for the Independence of Vietnam, was a front organization set up by the Indochinese Communist Party at the suggestion of Ho Chi Minh. It was designed to win popular support for independence and social and economic reform. Active at the province, district, and village level, it also organized women, writers, peasants, students, workers, artists, and religious organizations into national-level associations. When forces aligned with the Indochinese Communist Party seized power in Vietnam in 1945 and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, they used the Viet Minh and its associated organizations to achieve broader support in their struggle for independence from the French. The Viet Minh was instrumental in the fight against the French and their allies in the First Indochina War, which is sometimes called the Franco–Viet Minh War.

The Fatherland Front, a successor to the Viet Minh, was formed in North Vietnam in 1955, also as a vehicle for mobilizing popular support. A similar organization was established among South Vietnamese Communists in 1960 and named the National Liberation Front. At the fall of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in 1975, the two organizations merged into one, still known as the Fatherland Front.

Major Events

Enactment of economic renovation policies in 1986, known as doi moi policies, has committed Vietnamese authorities to increased economic liberalization and the reform and modernization of the economy to allow for development of more competitive, export-driven industries. Chief Vietnamese exports include crude oil, marine products, rice, coffee, rubber, tea, garments, and shoes. While the doi moi policies remain controversial for some members of Vietnam’s older Communist elite, the country is home to one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia.

In 1995 Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which had first been established by Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia in 1967. Brunei joined in 1984, and during the 1990s Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar became members. ASEAN seeks to reduce tensions and increase collaboration among its member nations. Accelerating the region’s economic growth, cultural development, and social progress are among its aims. In 1999 ASEAN’s member nations agreed to pursue development of a free trade zone in Southeast Asia by eventually eliminating duties on most goods traded in the region. Estimated to take effect in the year 2010 or later, the proposed zone will be the world’s largest free trade zone, encompassing some 1.7 billion people and trade valued at $1.2 trillion. In May 2002 ASEAN’s ten member countries pledged to form a united front against terrorism in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. They established a regional security framework, including joint training programs, exchange of intelligence information, and the introduction of national laws governing arrest, investigation, and extradition of suspects.

Southeast Asian financial markets took a sudden, precipitous decline in 1997 when investors lost confidence in a number of Asian currencies and securities. The crisis highlighted problems in Vietnam’s economy and temporarily allowed opponents of economic reform to slow the process of liberalization and modernization. As the economic crisis subsided, however, reform continued, and Vietnam continued to improve its image among nations. In 2000 U.S. President Bill Clinton paid a three-day official visit to Vietnam, signaling the beginning of a new stage in the relationship between the two countries.

Twenty-First Century

Increasing crime rates in Vietnamese cities, plus endemic corruption and drug smuggling, are expected to continue challenging the resources of law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system. Despite longstanding efforts to crack down on illicit drug use, the government continues to face the problem of opium, heroin, and methamphetamine addiction among its people.

Vietnam has set the year 2020 as a goal for becoming a developed nation. Significant disparities in wealth between urban and rural Vietnamese remain and are a cause of concern for Communist Party leadership.

Human rights groups have spoken out against Vietnam’s suppression of political dissent and religious practice, which continues in the twenty-first century. The Ministry of Culture and Information controls the nation’s press and broadcast media. Internet cafés are popular but are required to register the personal details of customers. Several publications have been shut down for violating narrow limits on reporting. Hundreds of magazines and newspapers are available, but television is the dominant medium. In addition to the government station in Hanoi, which broadcasts nationwide, there are numerous provincial stations. Some foreign channels are available by cable. The state-run radio features programs in English, French, and Russian, as well as Vietnamese.

Ashwill, Mark, and Thai Ngoc Diep. Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads. Boston: Intercultural Press, 2004.

Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam: From Hong Bang to Tu Duc (Contributions in Asian Studies). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Duiker, William J. Vietnam since the Fall of Saigon (Monographs in International Studies). Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.

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Socialist Republic of Vietnam

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