Vietnam’s market economy leaves the poor behind

Bill Snyder, Chronicle Foreign Service

Monday, December 8, 2008

(12-08) 04:00 PST Ho Chi Minh City — At 16, Xuan Phuong left her home in central Vietnam to join the Viet Minh’s struggle against the French in 1946. She marched barefoot through the mountains, manufactured explosives and acted in propaganda plays for more than a decade before becoming a filmmaker covering the “American War” for North Vietnam.

Twenty years later, Doan Vinh left his wife and three children to join the National Liberation Front in the mountains near Da Nang to fight Americans. He too fought for a decade.

Both still live in what was once South Vietnam – Doan in Da Nang, Xuan Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon – and both are proud of their past struggles. But the lives of these war veterans could hardly be more dissimilar.

Now retired, Doan, 71, lives in a cramped, stucco house with a leaky roof. Rent and medical insurance for his ill wife consume well over half the family income – a pension of about $120 a month. Meanwhile, Xuan owns an art gallery, a resort on an island in the South China Sea and a number of other business ventures.

Market-based economy

Their lives reflect the stresses of Vietnam’s turn to a market-based economy. As opportunities for a new entrepreneurial class continue to grow, the safety net for the poor is fraying. Farmers and townspeople have been displaced by hotels and factories built by foreign investors; organized labor – where it exists – is impotent; health care is spotty; and traffic and air pollution in major cities have reached critical mass.

“My life,” said Doan’s wife, Mai Thi Kim, “is full of misery.” Even so, Doan’s framed Communist Party membership certificate hangs in the family living room.

Like many veterans of the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, Doan is reluctant to speak about the fighting, saying only that “the past is the past, and it’s now over.”

If there’s lingering bitterness toward his former adversaries, it’s well hidden, and his delight at hosting a gaggle of visiting Americans appears genuine.

Indeed, the war seems far from the minds of most Vietnamese – more than half of the nation’s 86 million inhabitants were born after 1975.

Of more immediate concern is Doan’s struggle to make ends meet. Last year, the family’s former home was destroyed by the monsoon rains that regularly flood central Vietnam. The government’s response? “A few bags of rice,” he said. If he stops paying health insurance premiums that consume 20 percent of his income, he would be unable to pay for his wife’s treatment. Medical care was free in Vietnam until 1989.

Even though the nation has averaged an annual economic growth rate of almost 7 percent between 1997 and 2004, annual per capita income is just $2,600. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that 36 percent of Vietnam’s inhabitants live on just $2 a day.

The turn to the free market began gradually in 1986, when the Communist Party initiated economic reform.

“The feeling was that socialism had made us poor,” said Gang Wells-Dang, co-director of Action for the City, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving life in Hanoi.

Wells-Dang, who is married to an American, says that the economic reforms didn’t pick up steam until the end of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994. Between 2001 and 2007, exports to the United States increased 900 percent, according to CIA data.

To be sure, the end of stringent controls on foreign investment injected billions of dollars into the economy and the pockets of many Vietnamese. Between 2000 and 2005, the gross domestic product more than doubled to $53 billion. The relative abundance of cash – for middle and upper classes, at least – is evidenced by the huge popularity of cheap motor scooters and small motorcycles imported from China.

Traffic and pollution

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are choked with scooter traffic that often overflows onto the crowded sidewalks. The air is so bad that many drivers, and even some pedestrians, wear surgical-style masks. It’s not uncommon to see two people squeezed onto the back of a scooter while the driver talks or sends text messages on another ubiquitous item – the cell phone. Scooters have largely replaced the bicycle, and chunky SUVs, while relatively rare, struggle to navigate the narrow, twisting streets of the capital’s old quarter.

Less obvious to a visitor is the complex of factories in a huge industrial park near Hanoi’s airport. Companies such as Sanyo, Canon, Daewoo and Panasonic formed joint ventures with the government and now employ thousands of people, including many refugees from the still-impoverished countryside.

Conditions in the factories are far from the socialist ideal. Many workers live in ugly shantytowns lining the airport road. Visitors are not permitted beyond the high fence that surrounds the industrial complex, but an underground video by independent filmmaker Tran Phuong Thao making the rounds in Hanoi tells their story.

One woman left the countryside at the behest of a recruiter. But on arriving in Hanoi, she found out the job was contingent on paying the recruiter a fee of $106, more than a month’s salary.

What’s more, the job only lasted a few months. Factories in the park tend to hire for relatively short stints and then force the workers to reapply for their positions, a tactic designed to weed out troublemakers. Those who lose their jobs have no unemployment benefits to fall back on, so the pressure to conform is enormous, says Wells.
Working class loses out

“We went from working-class heroes to cogs in the machine,” said an unidentified female worker in the film. She was later fired and now lives on the street, the filmmaker told a group of American visitors after a private screening in Hanoi.

It’s not surprising that a film critical of the system can only be shown privately, analysts say. The government has little tolerance for dissent by its citizens or reports by foreign reporters based in the country. Earlier this year, Ben Stocking, the chief of the Associated Press Hanoi bureau, was beaten by police while covering one of the capital’s rare demonstrations in which Catholics were demanding more religious freedoms. Tour guides who let their charges witness anti-government actions risk jail time.

When the war with the United States ended in 1975, Xuan Phuong spent time in Paris, where she managed to save a bit of money by working as a translator. She used her savings to buy Vietnamese art and eventually opened the Lotus Gallery in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s fancier neighborhoods. Later, she bought vacation homes on Con Son Island in the South China Sea and developed a small resort where prisoners of the South Vietnamese government once languished in infamous “tiger cages.”

Speaking out

Although her family connections and knowledge of French helped her build a comfortable life, Xuan’s status in the country has been somewhat precarious, she says. In part, her upper-class origins are a mark of suspicion, despite her past heroism.

Now 80, she has spoken out against the injustices of the government, some of which were outlined in her autobiography, “Ao Dai: My War, My Country, My Vietnam,” with the title referring to traditional garb worn by Vietnamese women. Originally written and published in France, the book has had limited distribution in Europe and the United States and has been labeled as “very harmful” by Hanoi. The government objected to her criticism of failed land-reform policies and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Like Doan, Phuong takes pride in Vietnam’s successful fight to become independent of the French and the Americans. But her pride is tinged with sadness over the increasing divide between rich and poor.

“After such a long life, it’s so sad to see so many things that have gone wrong,” she said.

E-mail Bill Snyder at


Education has become a means to make money, and Vietnam grows poorer

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Education in Vietnam has become a system for making money: there is no freedom of thought in the schools and universities, and the only concern is for making a profit, not for forming young people, and this is impoverishing the country.

Everyone is conditioned and guided by the policies of the communist party, so that the education system is taking on an important role of protecting the regime. The system has degenerated and creates “san pham dzom,” bad results for the country. It even produces liars who are harming the country.

Many private schools and universities, and even state universities, are turning education into a business. The heads of educational institutions are looking at profits, and are forgetting or even defying the traditional values of Vietnamese culture. They are losing the tradition of student formation. “We are hired as ‘useful’ professors, but not as ‘good’ ones,” says an economics professor at the Institute of Accounting and Business Management in Ho Chi Minh City. “We are able to teach and sell knowledge for their profits. The more they have students the more they have money. The leaders of the educational units can service the city because they have ‘o du’ – ‘umbrella organization’ from local authorities, and working for the city’s police office. So they are producing students who are not well educated. Even students of master of business administration and doctorate programs of business administration do not need to write thesis and dissertation when studying the training courses”.

The local authorities are corrupted by the educational system. They have allowed educational offices to turn their work into a business. Their education is all about doing business and making money. Teachers and students have no freedom of thought: everything is conditions and guided by government agents, by “education officials.” Than, an English teacher at Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, tells AsiaNews, “Now the university is competitive with other ones. So the university runs follow advertisement and marketing with the lack of truthfulness. Viet Nam’s educational system from nursery schools to universities with persons who do business in education make advertisement by use of untrue words. Before 1975, Catholic universities, high schools and even elementary schools never did deceitful things like that. It is clear that education has declined and ‘made a headache’ for society with many bad phenomena such as imitation degrees, rote learning, theories but not practice, learning one way of ideological thinking.”

All of this impoverishes the country, with a poverty that is economic, moral, and educational, and allows no freedom of thought.

Vietnam faces poverty threat

The United Nations has warned that double-digit inflation and shocks from the global financial turmoil are threatening to plunge Vietnamese households living on the margins, back into dire poverty.

UN resident coordinator, John Hendra, says many groups remain vulnerable to food shortages, especially landless farmers, the urban poor and ethnic minority groups..

He says global commodity and energy prices have dropped back from their peaks this year, but Vietnam’s inflation, still stood at almost 27 per cent this month.

He says the global financial crisis will likely impact Vietnam’s export-driven economy on top of the soaring consumer prices.

Vietnam faces poverty threat

Homeschool kids take on poverty in Vietnam

Three years ago if someone would have told the Journey homeschool co-op kids they would be buying shoes for Vietnamese children who had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, they may have scratched their heads, wondering what that person was talking about. And if the kids, who range from 2 to 12 years old, had been told they would put electricity in a school on the other side of the world, they might think that person was crazy.

But that is just what happened to this small group of kids in an area homeschool co-op that started with just five families. It was the beginning of a budding friendship between two groups of children, one large in numbers and very poor, and the other group small in size, but willing to do what they could to help meet the others’ need.

Stacy Manning of Zimmerman started Journey homeschool co-op in 2003. A year later she was driving home in a snow storm and listening to a radio interview. The young woman being interviewed, Annetta De Vet, was telling how she and her father, Chuck De Vet, started Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam (HSCV) after the two of them vacationed in Vietnam. They found a high degree of poverty in the northern part of the country, but no agency or organization that was reaching out to help meet the needs the people had.

When De Vet mentioned they had started a sister school program, Manning became even more interested. She does social work outside of homeschooling and the idea of helping the Vietnamese children through the context of school intrigued her. Manning saw the sister school concept as a great opportunity for the co-op kids to become more aware of the world at large, so she presented the idea to her co-op.

“I said, ‘You know, our kids can make a difference. We need to teach them that even though they’re kids from small town Elk River, Minn., or Otsego or Zimmerman, they can easily make a difference in a family’s life on the other side of the world,” Manning says.

The families were reluctant. At the time there were just five families in the co-op, but they decided to try it anyway.

drawing1.jpgChuck De Vet visited the co-op to tell the students about Vietnam, the children there and he brought farming implements to show the kids how Vietnamese farmers harvest rice.

“He told them how schools are run in Vietnam, and that the kids have to walk to school, many of them without shoes. By the time he was done,” Manning says, “all our kids were ready to put their shoes in a box and send them to Vietnam.”

De Vet’s presentation was eye-opening for the co-op kids in other ways, too.

The sister school, Tan Minh B, grades three through five, is located in Soc Son District which is the northernmost district of Hanoi, Vietnam. It is about the same place in the hemisphere as Minnesota, but on the other side of the world. It is also the poorest region in Vietnam.

The average monthly income for a family is between $3.14 and $6.28, depending on the quality of the rice harvest, Manning says. Sending a child to school costs $2 a month, but since education is such a high priority, parents will go without food in order to send their child to school. If there is more than one child in a poor family, parents must decide which one will go to school and who will have to miss out on an education.

One Vietnamese woman’s story was related to Manning by Annetta De Vet, who knows the woman. She says when the woman’s husband became disabled and could not work, she went to extreme measures to keep her children in school. In the early morning hours she would go into the streets of Hanoi before the city awoke to collect recyclable containers. She would then sell these to have money for school.

Winters are another harsh reality for the children of Soc Son District. Though winter temperatures are not as cold as in Minnesota, children are still forced to walk several miles in the mountainous region to school. Snow makes the barefoot walk even worse for many kids.

People do not have electricity, either, and Tan Minh B School is no exception. One Vietnamese student wrote to the kids in the co-op saying because they did not have electricity, they had to collect glow worms to put in eggshell containers so they could study.

And the school, which Manning says is not much more than a shell of walls, has no glass in any of its windows. During winter conditions, students can only stay at school a few hours because of the cold.

Manning says the co-op students got excited about helping the Vietnamese kids in their sister school after learningdrawing2.jpg more about their situation. To help alleviate some of the conditions the Vietnamese kids were faced with, the Journey homeschool kids began efforts to raise money for school supplies, food for families, and money to send more kids to school than what Vietnamese families could afford.

American funds can also provide a year’s worth of rice to a family for just $100. A Vietnamese child can go to school for a year on a $50 donation. And orthopedic problems caused by rampant malnutrition in the region can be corrected with surgery for as little as $250. Other key areas where American funds can intercept poverty in Vietnam is building a new home for $1,400, or helping someone get needed open heart surgery for $2,700.

The co-op, however, focuses on school-based needs and the kids in the Tan Minh B School. Last year the small group raised $900 from various fund raisers. One of those was a garage sale organized and manned by the homeschool students.

Parents were shocked, Manning says, at personal items their children gave toward the sale to raise money for their Vietnamese friends. She adds that the co-op kids raise or give money on their own. Funding help for the sister school does not come out of parents’ pockets. Manning says parents wanted the sister school project to rest squarely on their kids’ shoulders as a way to teach them empathy and compassion for others.

The homeschool kids promote the efforts because they believe they can help.

“I give my own money away,” 7-year-old Colin says, “and doing the garage sale. I’m glad we gave them money for lights (electricity). I would be scared if I didn’t have any lights.”

Some of that money last year was used to install electricity in part of Tan Minh B School. This year the co-op kids helped make a quilt which was auctioned off for $1,000. That should be enough to provide school supplies, food and other things like putting electricity in the rest of the school, and installing glass in all the school’s windows, according to Manning.

Helping their sister school is making an impact on the homeschool kids. Manning contends that the co-op students now have a bigger, more expansive world view than most kids their age. Sam is 11 years old and exemplifies Manning’s point.

“I help them in Vietnam because they need it more than I do, and I believe it’s right,” Sam says. “Everyone should help a little bit and the people in Vietnam would not be poor anymore.”

And 9-year-old Grace says people everywhere need help.

“We help as many people as we can find,” Grace says. “We’d help people from any country that we can because it’s the right thing to do.”

Students exchange letters, pictures they draw and a lot of goodwill toward each other. It is those small gestures of goodwill that are making a much bigger impact in the lives of those in need. Grace seems to have the right idea when she says, “it’s the right thing to do.”

To become involved in HSCV’s sister school program, or to become involved in other ways to help Vietnamese families, go to or <!– var prefix = ‘ma’ + ‘il’ + ‘to’; var path = ‘hr’ + ‘ef’ + ‘=’; var addy32279 = ‘’ + ‘@’; addy32279 = addy32279 + ‘hscv’ + ‘.’ + ‘org’ + ‘.’ + ”; document.write( ‘‘ ); document.write( addy32279 ); document.write( ” ); //–>\n