On the first day of their victory, the communists changed Saigon’s name to Ho Chi Minh City.The fall of Saigon meant and the reunification of North and South Vietnam meant that for the first time Vietnam existed as an independent nation within its current borders. The sudden success of the 1975 advance on Saigon was so swift and unexpected that the government in North Vietnam had no real plan for reunification. North and South had very different social and economic systems. Plus, there were a lot of wounds that had to heal.

The victorious North Vietnam government was suddenly faced with task of reunifying and rebuilding a new country physically decimated and bitterly divided by war. There was bitterness and suspicion on both sides. The economy was in ruins. Damage from the war included villages and rice fields littered with mines fighting and large swath of the country poisoned by Agent Orange. On top of that you had a population—including an entire generation— bruised, exhausted and battered by war, that had more or less been going on non-stop since World War II. And as it would turn more conflict lay ahead in Cambodia and with China. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

In spite of intense fighting and heavy casualties sustained during the war, the population of Vietnam rose steadily a 3 percent through the 1960s. About 70 percent of the people living in Vietnam were born after the fall of Saigon. The loss of large numbers of men in the war still influences demographic figures today. As of the mid 2000s, there were only 97.6 men for every 100 women, one of the lowest ratios in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam was formally reunited under Communist rule in July 1976. After the Vietnam War, Vietnam became isolated from the world and ranked for many years as one of the world's poorest nations. Even though it sat on some of the richest agricultural land in the world, it had difficulty feeding itself. David Lamb wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In its revolutionary zeal, the party collectivized farms. Without incentives, productivity went down and Vietnam became a rice importer. The party confiscated property and wealth. Overnight, millionaires became paupers. Children of South Vietnamese soldiers were denied access to the best colleges and the good jobs, and the spirit of reconciliation withered. Newspapers disappeared, movie theaters closed, bank safe-deposit boxes were sealed. Ordinary Vietnamese were forbidden to have contact with foreigners. More than 400,000 South Vietnamese were sent off to reeducation camps, some to languish for years. [Source: David Lamb, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2005]

Pham Thi Hoai wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The Vietnam War was a complete victory for the communists. The war was the mother's milk, the school and the testing ground of Vietnamese communism. It provided historical justification for the leadership of the Communist Party, endowing it with the "Mandate of Heaven." To this day, the legitimacy earned is constantly reiterated, reaffirmed, validated and deified. War-era heroes continue to monopolize peacetime authority; war-era military leadership has been reborn as totalitarian control. The party knows that although many things can change, the myth of its "Mandate of Heaven" must remain intact because every other element of its ideology has been betrayed or revealed as bankrupt. [Source: Pham Thi Hoai, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2005. Pham Thi Hoai, born in Vietnam's Thanh Hoa province in 1960, is the author of the novel "The Crystal Messenger" (1991) and a collection of short stories, "Menu de Dimanche" (1997). This article, translated by Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Peter Zinoman, and appears in a longer form at ==]

"Vietnam had to overcome the severe consequences of 30 years of war and started rebuilding the country. After that it focused on economical development and is striving to raise the annual income per capita, solidify the economy. The first postwar decade was marked by a continuation of the wartime subsidy system, the regimentation of daily living and the same hard-line ideology that had reigned during the war. In the South, people were imprisoned, property was seized, intellectuals were purged. Careers -- and lives -- were ended. This period was also marked by military conflict on the western border with Cambodia and on the northern border with China. Our newly achieved national independence turned into international isolation and transformed our recently unified country into a territory riddled with poverty, backwardness and repression. I lived in Hanoi in those years, working as an archivist at the Institute for Religion. They were hard years; only after a decade was the "Doi Moi" policy of economic liberalization introduced. In 1994, the U.S. embargo on Vietnam was lifted and the normalization process between Vietnam and the United States began to accelerate. Today, for most Americans, the Vietnam War belongs to history. It is rarely raised, and usually only as a point of comparison with other wars the U.S. is fighting or ones it probably will fight in the future. ===

Vietnamese Government After the War

Between the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the formal reunification of Vietnam in July 1976, the South was ruled by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. The Communist Party did not trust the educated classes in the south and sent large numbers of Northern cadres to oversee the transition. Southerners who had supported the North at great risk to their own lives and worked against the Thieu government were bitter over being left out. To make matters worse the party decided on a rapid transition to socialism in the South , that totally crippled the economy. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

After the war Vietnam was ruled Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, Communist Party chief Do Moui and General Vo Nguyen Giap. But Giap—architect of the communist government's military victories over France and the United States—was dropped from the party leadership because of his opposition to the 1978 invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent border war with China. Ho Chi Minh had died in 1969. The main leaders through the 1960s, 1970s, 80s and 90s were Le Duan and Pham Van Dong.

Some of the policies of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) policies did not necessarily extend to the party’s peacetime nation-building plans. In a process called "northerization" by some historians, the Vietnamese government seized property and farmland in the south and collectivized agriculture. An effort was made to do something about the large number of prostitutes, drug addicts, illiterates and unemployed in the south. Some bar girls were forced to marry North Vietnamese soldiers that had been badly injured or maimed. For some, the fighting was not finished. Many Vietnamese were sent to Cambodia in 1978 to chase the Khmer Rouge to the mountains.

Hanoi's mismanagement brought near-famine, international isolation and poverty to all but the Communist Party elite. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, overthrowing the regime of dictator and mass murderer Pol Pot, then, in 1979, fought off invading Chinese troops in a month-long border war. Vietnam stayed in Cambodia until 1989. What many Vietnamese call the "Dark Years" lasted for 15 years until the Vietnamese left Cambodia and the “doi moi” economic reforms initiated in the mid 1980s began to take hold.

Boat People Flee Vietnam

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than a million people left Vietnam, about 5 percent of South Vietnam’s population, most of them by boat. Many were Chinese Vietnamese. Some didn’t make it to their final destinations. Some died. Most settled in the United States, which accepted political refugees but turned back economic refugees. Many of those who didn't make it were detained at camps in Hong Kong or the Philippines.

For this privilege of leaving Vietnam Chinese had to pay the Vietnamese government about US$2,000 a head in gold. At the time these fees were Vietnam's main source of hard currency. At that time the Chinese owned many businesses in Vietnam and there was a lot of hostility towards Chinese in Vietnam. China and Vietnam have long history of animosity. Many Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam at the time China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979. In the early 1970s there were about a half million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. In the early 1980s there were practically none. Vietnam made US$2 billion from the forced migration. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

Many of refugees crowded onto unseaworthy boats. Large ships with over 2,500 passengers were organized by Vietnamese racketeers. Smaller ships were purchased by people who pooled their money. Life savings were paid for a place on a boat. Families split up. Fat people were sometimes denied a spot because they took up as much room as two smaller people that paid as much.

People died of thirst, hunger, exposure. Some people who got very sick were pushed over the edge. Some boats had engines that conked out at sea. Some of the boats lost more than half their passengers to exposure, drowning, starvation and attacks from pirates.

About 90 percent of the boats didn't make it. Those who made it to Hong Kong, Thailand or Malaysia were often turned back, driven from shore or towed back to sea. In Hong Kong authorities tried to prevent the ships from landing. One ship was moored in Hong Kong harbor for 20 weeks until someone cut the anchor. When the boat drifted into shore hundreds of people jumped overboard and fled to the hills where they were later rounded up and placed in a camp.

See Separate Article on Boat People Under Minorities

Vietnamese Government After the Vietnam War

The VCP in the mid-1980s was in a state of transition and experimentation. It was a time when a number of party leaders, who had been contemporaries of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), were stepping down in favor of a younger generation of pragmatists and technocrats, and a time when the prolonged poor condition of the economy sparked discontent among grass-roots party organizations as well as open criticism of the party's domestic policy. The party's political ethos, which had once seemed to embody the traditional Vietnamese spirit of resistance to foreigners and which had known great success when the country was overwhelmingly dominated by war and the issues of national liberation and reunification, appeared to have changed after the fall of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in the spring of 1975 and the reunification of Vietnam in 1976. This ethos had been at the core of the VCP's rise to power during the struggles for independence and unification. To a large degree, the popularity of the communist movement remained tied to these causes; when victory over the South was achieved in 1975, it became apparent that some of the party's governing principles did not easily translate to peacetime conditions. In the absence of war, the ethos changed and the difference between what was communist and what was popular became increasingly noticeable. [Source: Library of Congress*]

Hanoi was apparently unprepared for the scale of its victory in the South, having anticipated that the path to complete power would require at the very least a transition period of shared power with the Southern communist infrastructure (the Provisional Revolutionary Government) and even elements of the incumbent order. Two separate governments in North and South Vietnam were planned until the surprisingly swift disintegration of the South Vietnamese government eliminated the need for a lengthy transition. Following the establishment of communist control in the South, the government immediately was placed under a Military Management Commission, directed by Senior Lieutenant General Tran Van Tra with the assistance of local People's Revolutionary Committees. At a reunification conference in November 1975, the Party's plans for uniting North and South were announced, and elections for a single National Assembly -- the highest state organ -- were held on April 26, 1976, the first anniversary of the Southern victory. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was formally named at the first session of the Sixth National Assembly (the "Unification Assembly"), which met from June 24 to July 2, 1976. *

After reunification, the focus of policy became more diffuse. Policy makers, absorbed with incorporating the South into the communist order as quickly as possible, were confronted with both dissension within the North's leadership and southern resistance to the proposed pace of change. The drive undertaken by party ideologues to eliminate all vestiges of capitalism and to collectivize the economy in the South was outlined in the Second Five-Year Plan (1976-80) and announced at the Fourth National Party Congress in December 1976. The plan, the first after reunification, stressed the development of agriculture and light industry, but it set unattainable high goals. The government expected that all industry and agriculture in the South would be state-controlled by the end of 1979. According to Vietnamese sources, however, only 66 percent of cultivated land and 72 percent of peasant households in the South had been organized into collectivized production by early 1985, and socialist transformation in private industry had led to decreased production, increased production costs, and decreased product quality. Meanwhile, the country's leaders were finding it necessary to divert their attention to a number of other equally pressing issues. Besides addressing the many problems of the country's newly unified economy, they also had to work out postwar relations with Cambodia, China, and the Soviet Union. The Sixth National Party Congress held in December 1986 was a watershed for party policy in the 1980s. The party's political mood was accurately reflected in the congress' candid acknowledgment of existing economic problems and in its seeming willingness to change in order to solve them. A new atmosphere of experimentation and reform, apparently reinforced by reforms initiated by the Soviet Union's new leadership, was introduced, setting the stage for a period of self-examination, the elimination of corrupt party officials, and new economic policies. *

While eagerly embracing capitalism and nurturing a middle class, Vietnam remains a one-party system where political dissent is sharply curtailed. The party, run largely by old-guard conservatives, shows no sign of abandoning its monopoly on power and has been urging new members to join. But the mere fact that the communist leadership is allowing youngsters to be exposed to Western ideas of democracy and free speech shows that the regime is loosening up. [Source: Margie Mason, Associated Press, April 25, 2005]

Problems with the Vietnamese Economy After the Vietnam War in 1975

After reunification in 1975, the economy of Vietnam has been plagued by enormous difficulties in production, imbalances in supply and demand, inefficiencies in distribution and circulation, soaring inflation rates, and rising debt problems. Vietnam was one of the few countries in modern history to experience a sharp economic deterioration in a postwar reconstruction period. Its peacetime economy was one of the poorest in the world and has shown a negative to very slow growth in total national output as well as in agricultural and industrial production.

Vietnam developed little during the war years; industry was nearly non-existent in both North and South and both countries were dependent on foreign donor countries. Worse, the country's critical agricultural infrastructure had been badly damaged. The South had roughly 20,000 bomb craters, 10 million refugees, 362,000 war invalids, 1,000,000 widows, 880,000 orphans, 250,000 drug addicts, 300,000 prostitutes and 3 million unemployed. [Source: Wikipedia]

Vietnam pursued isolationist policies while the United States worked hard to isolate Vietnam economically, all with disastrous results. Vietnam's economic problems were exacerbated by the costly and ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Cambodia in 1979. The 1979 war between China and Vietnam was also costly to Vietnam. It was started by China who was going to teach Vietnam a lesson for ousting the Khmer Rouge.

Post-1975 developments, including the establishment of new economic zones, did not eradicate distinctions between North and South.

Economic Policy After the Vietnam War

In an effort to socialize the economy the Vietnamese government followed the Chinese model. It closed thousands of small businesses and replaced them with a state trading network. Wealth and property were seized. Most landholdings were collectivized. Merchants and landowners were tossed into the streets, their assets were seized, and in some cases they were shipped off to "new economic zones."

Having won the war and defeated South Vietnam, the modd of Vietnam’s leader Le Duan in April 1975 was optimistic. As one Central Committee member put it, "Now nothing more can happen. The problems we face now are trifles compared to those in the past." Le Duan promised the Vietnamese people in 1976 that each family would own a radio set, refrigerator and TV within ten years; he seemed to believe he could easily integrate the South Vietnamese consumer society with agrarian North Vietnam. In 1976 the 4th National Congress declared Vietnam would complete its socialist transformation within twenty years. This optimism proved unfounded; instead Vietnam staggered from one economic crisis to another. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The main goals of the Second Five-Year Plan (1976–1980), which was initiated at the 4th National Congress, were as follows: 1) "Concentrate the forces of the whole country to achieve a leap forward in agriculture; vigorously develop light industry" 2) “Turn to full account existing heavy industry capacity and build many new industrial installations, especially in the machine industry, so as to support primary agriculture and light industry." 3) "Virtually complete socialist transformation in the South" +

The Vietnamese leadership expected to reach these targets with economic aid from the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and loans from international agencies of the capitalist world. The 4th National Congress made it clear that agriculture would be socialised; however, during the Second Five-Year Plan the socialisation measures went so badly that Võ Chí Công, a Politburo member and Chairman of the Committee for the Socialist Transformation of Agriculture, claimed it would be impossible to meet the targets set by the plan by 1980. An estimated 10,000 out of 13,246 socialist cooperatives, established during the plan, had collapsed in the South by 1980. Politburo member Lê Thanh Nghi. attacked lower-level cadres for the failure of the socialist agriculture transformation. The collectivisation process led to an abrupt drop in food production in 1977 and 1978, leading the 6th Plenum of the Central Committee to completely overhaul the Party's agricultural policies. +

With regard to heavy industry, the leadership's position was muddled. In his Fourth Political Report Le Duan stated that during the transition to socialism, priority would be given to heavy industry "on the basis of developing agriculture and light industry". In another section of the report, Le Duan stated that light industry would be prioritised ahead of heavy industry. The position of Pha.m Van Dong, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers (the head of government), was just as confused as Le Duan's. In practice Le Duan prioritised heavy industry: 21.4 percent of state investment was in heavy industry in the Second Five-Year Plan and 29.7 percent in the Third Five-Year Plan (1981–1985). Light industry only received 10.5 and 11.5, respectively. From 1976 to 1978 industry grew, but from 1979 to 1980 industrial production fell substantially. During the Second Five-Year Plan industry grew just 0.1 percent. The 6th Plenum of the Central Committee criticised the policy that the state had to own everything. +

Before the 5th Central Committee Plenum, Le Duan believed that Vietnam was in a perilous position, although no talk of reforms followed. Beginning in 1979, Le Duan acknowledged that economic policy mistakes had been made by the national Party and State leadership. Until the 6th plenum, the planners prevailed. That plenum condemned the old ways and promised that from then on the economy would be governed by "objective laws". The roles of the plan and the market were openly discussed for the first time and the roles of the family and the private economy were enhanced and certain market prices were officially supported by the Party. Le Duan endorsed the reforms at the 1982 5th National Congress. Le Duan talked about the need to strengthen both the central planned economy and the local economy at once. In his report Le Duan admitted that the Second Five-Year Plan had been a failure economically. +

Results of the Economic Policy After the Vietnam War

Le Duan promise of a television and refrigerator in every home in 10 years instead turned out to be "the 10 bad years." A craftsman told Stanley Karnow the Communist government "provided us with social welfare but they didn't understand the need for incentive. they saddled us with corrupt, incompetent managers.”

After the war, per capita income stood at $101; it decreased to $91 in 1980 and then increased to $99 by 1982, according to United Nations figures. Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong admitted that per capita income "had not increased compared to what it was ten years ago". Physical health declined and malnutrition increased under Le Duan, according to the Ministry of Health. According to the The International Herald Tribune, an estimated 6,000,000 Vietnamese were suffering from malnutrition, leading the government to request aid from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Le Duan's policies led to an abrupt decline in the standard of living; monthly per capita income in the North declined from $82 in 1976 to $58 in 1980.

The command economy strangled the commercial instincts of Vietnamese rice farmers. Even though Vietnam is one the world’s leading rice exporter today, by the early 1980s Vietnam was a rice importer. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine: "Encouraged by the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese government squandered vast sums on industrial projects like steel mills, rather than concentrating on agriculture and small factories. They suppressed private entrepreneurs and, by shunting peasants into collectives, sapped initiative and crippled farm production. They also interned as many as 300,000 vanquished South Vietnamese officials and army officers in brutal 'reeducation' camps."

From 1981–1984 agricultural production grew substantially, but the government did not use this opportunity to increase production of such crucial farm inputs as fertilizer, pesticides and fuel, nor of consumer goods. By the end of Le Duan's rule, in 1985–1986, inflation had reached over 100 percent annually, complicating economic policy-making.

Hard Times for South Vietnamese After the Vietnam War

After the war, the Communist government offered a general amnesty to all former South Vietnamese soldiers who dropped their weapons and turned themselves in. The majority did this within a few days, after which they were given three days re-education and then allowed to return to their families. After the war many former North Vietnamese soldiers became good friends with former South Vietnamese soldiers. While sitting next his best friend, a southerner, a northerner told Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post, "If I had found him" in the war "I would have shot him dead."

Having unified North and South politically the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) still had to integrate north and south socially and economically. In this task, VCP policy makers were confronted with the South’s resistance to communist transformation, as well as traditional animosities arising from cultural and historical differences between North and South. [Source: Library of Congress]

Southerners by the hundreds of thousands were sent to re-education camps or economic zones and forced to surrender their property and endure rigid communist indoctrination. When North Vietnamese took over the country, one southerner told National Geographic, "they were so afraid southerners had been contaminated by Western culture" that they purged even the hard-core communists from positions of power. Even South Vietnamese that had worked as spies and informers for the North Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps because it is believed that they had been polluted by their contact with the Americans.

Society in Vietnam After Reunification in 1975

The sudden collapse of Saigon in April 1975 set the stage for a new and uncertain chapter in the evolution of Vietnamese society. The Hanoi government had to confront directly what communists have long called the struggle between the two paths of socialism and capitalism. At issue was Hanoi's ability to translate its wartime success and socialist revolutionary experience into postwar rehabilitation and reconstruction, now that it controlled the South territorially. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Foremost among the regime's imperatives was that of restoring order and stability to the war-torn South. The critical question, however, was whether or not the northern conquerors could inspire the southern population to embrace communism. Initially, Hanoi appeared sanguine; the two zones had more similarities than dissimilarities, and the dissimilarities were expected to be eliminated as the South caught up with the North in socialist organization. *

The December 1975 Vietnam Courier, an official government publication, portrayed Vietnam as two distinct, incongruent societies. The South was reported to continue to suffer from what communists consider the neo-colonialist influences and feudal ideology of the United States, while the North was considered to serve as a progressive environment for growing numbers of a new kind of socialist human being, imbued with patriotism, proletarian internationalism, and socialist virtues. The class of social exploiter had been eliminated in the North, leaving the classes of workers collectivized peasant, and socialist intellectual, the last consisting of various groups. In contrast, the South was divided into a working class, peasantry, petit bourgeois, capitalist--or comprador--class, and the remnant of a feudal landlord class. *

In September 1976, Premier Pham Van Dong declared that his compatriots, North and South, were "translating the revolutionary heroism they [had] displayed in fighting into creative labor in the acquisition of wealth and strength." In the South particularly, the old society was undergoing active changes as the result of "stirring revolutionary movements" by the workers, peasants, youth, women, intellectuals, and other groups. In agriculture alone, "millions of people" participated in bringing hundreds of thousands more hectares under cultivation and in building or dredging thousands of kilometers of canals and ditches. *

Repression and Coercion and Changes in Vietnamese Society After 1975

From all indications, social changes in Vietnam occurred more through coercion than volition. In Dong's own words, the party had initiated "various policies aimed at eliminating the comprador capitalists as a class and doing away with all vestiges of feudal exploitation." These policies radically realigned the power elite so that the ruling machine was controlled collectively by the putative vanguard of the working class--the party--and by the senior cadres of the party who were mostly from the North. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In its quest for a new socialist order in the South, Hanoi relied on other techniques apart from socialist economic transformation and socialist education. These included thought reform, population resettlement, and internal exile, as well as surveillance and mass mobilization. Party-sponsored "study sessions" were obligatory for all adults. For the former elite of the Saigon regime, a more rigorous form of indoctrination was used; hundreds of thousands of former military officers, bureaucrats, politicians, religious and labor leaders, scholars, intellectuals, and lawyers, as well as critics of the new regime were ordered to "reeducation camps" for varying periods. In mid1985 , the Hanoi government conceded that it still held about 10,000 inmates in the reeducation camps, but the actual number was believed to be at least 40,000. In 1982 there were about 120,000 Vietnamese in these camps. According to a knowledgeable American observer, the inmates faced hard labor, but only rarely torture or execution. *

Population resettlement or redistribution, although heralded on economic grounds, turned out to be another instrument of social control in disguise. It was a means of defusing tensions in congested cities, which were burdened with unemployed and socially dislocated people even after most of the rural refugees had been repatriated to their native villages. These refugees had swelled the urban population to 45 percent of the southern total in 1975 (up from 33 percent in 1970). The authorities sought to address the problem of urban congestion by relocating many of the metropolitan jobless in the new economic zones hastily set up in virgin lands, often malaria-infested jungles, as part of a broader effort to boost agricultural output. In 1975 and 1976 alone, more than 600,000 people were moved from Ho Chi Minh City to these zones, in most instances, reportedly, against their will. Because of the barely tolerable living conditions in the new settlements, a considerable number of people escaped or bribed their way back to the city. The new economic zones came to be widely perceived as places of internal exile. In fact, the authorities were said to have used the threat of exile to such places against those who refused to obey party instructions or to participate in the activities of the mass organizations. *

Surveillance was a familiar tool of the regime, which was bent on purging all class enemies. Counterrevolutionaries, real and suspected, were summarily interned in reform camps or forced labor camps that were set up separately from the new economic zones in several border areas and other undeveloped regions. *

The Hanoi government has claimed that not a single political execution took place in the South after 1975, even in cases of grave war crimes. Generally, the foreign press corroborated this claim by reporting in 1975 that there seemed to be no overt indication of the blood bath that many Western observers had predicted would occur in the wake of the communist takeover. Some Western observers, however, have estimated that as many as 65,000 South Vietnamese may have been executed. *

Post-Vietnam-War Reeducation Camps

In spite of promises that all was forgiven and everybody was welcome in the new Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people who had ties to the South Vietnamese government—including businesspeople, intellectuals, artists, journalists, writers, union leaders and religious leaders— were rounded up and imprisoned without trial in forced-labor facilities called re-education camps.

A total of 400,000 South Vietnamese were sent to 40 re-education camps. Many were "puppets" associated with the Saigon government: soldiers or people with ties to the Americans of the Thieu regime. Most were sent for only a few days, but others, for one reason or another, spent up to 17 years in the camps, sometimes under horrible conditions.

For many, the time spent in the re-education camps consisted mainly of enduring long lectures about Marxism and little more than that. One man told the Los Angeles Times, "We’d get lectures in the morning, then in the afternoon, we’d write self criticism. But they didn’t want you to express any opinions, raise any questions. You could call it quite insulting intellectually." A guard who worked at one camp said, "We didn’t kill or knock down people. We just tried to persuade them how to make progress to become good people."

Pham Xuan An, the North Vietnamese spy who worked for Time magazine and worked with the CIA, told The New Yorker that in August, 1978, he was sent to Hanoi for ten months’ instruction at the Political Institute of the National Defense Department, a training camp in Marxist-Maoist thought for mid- and high-level cadres. "I had lived too long among the enemy," he says. "They sent me to be recycled."

Nguyen Hu Co, a major general in the South Vietnamese army told the Los Angeles Times he remembered raising vegetables, cutting firewood and enduring interminable political lectures during his 12 years in a re-education camp. "I was in the camp with 45 other generals, and the cadre asked us again and again to understand a communist regime compared with a capitalist regime. Frankly, I couldn't agree that communism was better than capitalism. But I could not say that. So I just listened and kept quiet." [Source: David Lamb, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2005]

Many of those who were sent to re-education camps were treated like outcasts when they got out and returned to Vietnamese society. They had difficult getting jobs and in some cases were shunned by their families.

Hardships at the Reeducation Camps

Some of the remote re-education camps were like prisons. People there had to perform backbreaking or dangerous works such as breaking rocks or clearing mine fields. There were also reports of torture and starvation rations. Some died under the harsh conditions.

In his book “South Wind Changing”, Jade Ngoc Huynh describes how he was thrown into a labor camp in the jungles near the Cambodian border for the crime of simply being a student. He described routine beating, the deaths of friends from malaria and malnutrition, and horrifying work conditions. Fed meager rations of cassava and rice, he kept from starving by stealing rice and catching rats and snakes.

Describing what happened after some hungry inmates saw a snake Huynh wrote: " The guards jerked their guns from their shoulders and trained them on us...'Sit down, now!' comrade Son yelled...[He] tensed like a tiger, his expression fierce, ready to strike. He shouted again but no one listened; he pulled out his K-54 Soviet-made rifle and pulled one of the inmates near him by the man's collar and shot into the air. Still we didn't listen; he pointed his gun at the middle of the prisoner's head and pulled the trigger. Blood splashed out everywhere. Son shot a few more bullets to make sure we heard his shooting. The prisoner died without a word. We froze and stood in silence while comrade Son dragged the dead prisoner across the ground in front of us until the man's shirt fell off. 'Is this the snake you are talking about?' comrade Son said. 'Where is there another?'"

On his feeling towards the commander, Huynh wrote: at first "I thought only of using him as means to spark a conflict among the guards; but he had touched something deeper in me, something more fundamental than any plot. I had come to understand that he was a victim, a human being caught in a stupid conflict of ideology, like myself, and I felt compassion for him."

Even the people who ran the labor camps suffered. A Vietnamese commander from the south who fought for 30 years against the French and Americans found himself working at the same camp where Huynh was kept, after 1975. "After the war ended," he told Huynh, 'we were supposed to run the government in the south as Uncle Ho had planned, but now all the northern comrades control the whole country. We have no voice, no power, and that's why I'm still here."

Life in Vietnam After the War

The end of war gave way to "ubiquitous secret police and profound cynicism." In Hanoi, energy was in such short supply that children gathered at night to study under outdoor gas lamps. Schools were like the re-education camps. One man told Stanley Karnow he left Vietnam for the U.S. because his children came "home from school singing Communist songs, but cannot add numbers. All Communist care about is politics, not science or math, just politics. So I decide to escape, even if my family die at sea."

After the War the American Embassy was taken over by the state-owned oil company, Petro Vietnam. In 1994 the Communist government ordered Petro Vietnam to vacate the premises to make way for the return of Americans, who had been given the building back. The dilapidated building was not used as an embassy. A nine-story building in Hanoi now fulfills that function.

North Vietnamese colonels received a pension of $72 a month, good in Vietnamese terms, and two-story house with garden.

Hunger and Queues in Hanoi

During the war, the electricity in North Vietnam was cut off to save energy. People kept cool with wet clothes and hand fans. Many people fled the cities to the relative safety of the countryside. Many necessities and food items were purchased with ration coupons. Milk and meat were in short supply and few could afford them. Some children went blind from lack of vitamin A. Countless others experienced stunted growth that has kept the whole population short and thin.

During the "hard times" of hunger in Hanoi from 1968 to 1989, people used rocks to keep their place in queues to collect water in communal water taps and buy a few ounces of food with state-issued ration coupons. "During the subsidy years, using a book to buy rice, scrambling to be the first buyer, or to buy a good bag of rice made a deep impression on me," Nguyen Ngoc Tien, a collector of memorabilia from the era, told Reuters. "Those who came late could not get food." [Source: By Grant McCool , Ho Binh Minh, Nguyen Van Vinh, Reuters, May 10, 2006 //\]

Reuters reported: "Queues started at 3 a.m., more than four hours before shops opened, said Tien. In his hands, he held what is his most valuable and symbolic item -- a large stone scratched with a name and house number that was used to secure a place in line." Other common items form the era included charcoal-heated clothes irons, chipped porcelain rice bowls, Soviet-made radios with incorrect Vietnamese-language labels, scale from Poland. Tien’s prize possession is a BMW motorbike used by a spy who was the director of a rubber plant. The collector explained that he wanted these possessions from people all over the country because "the period when Vietnam had its subsidy system was rare in the world's history." Vietnamese remember it for low costs for staple goods but dire shortages. //\

"During the decades of subsidized living, Vietnam was at war and isolated from the West. It depended on support -- food, machinery and raw materials -- from the former Soviet Union and other communist or socialist countries in Eastern Europe. The United States backed a South Vietnam regime in a war with the communist North and then imposed a trade embargo after the communists unified Vietnam in 1975. //\

Repression and New Economic Zones After the Vietnam War

The reunification of Vietnam was accompanied by widespread political repression. In southern Vietnam, the war gave way to an era of intimidating secret police and tough times. Merchants and landowners were tossed into the streets, and in some cases they were shipped off to "new economic zones." People with ties to South Vietnamese had their property seized and were imprisoned without trial. Many professionals on the South were prohibited from working in their profession after the war.

An anticapitalist campaign was launched in March 1978, seizing private property and businesses. Most of the victims were ethnic-Chinese – hundreds of thousands soon became refugees or ‘boat people’, and relations with China soured further. For years after the war there were arbitrary arrests and secret trials. Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were held for years in labor camps without fair trials. Doctors, intellectuals, monks, labor leaders and priests joined former South Vietnamese soldiers in the re-education camps.

A Vietnamese lawyer was sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for associating with an American aid group known as the Shoeshine Boys, which helped street children. A newspaper editor was fired for raising the possibility that Ho Chi Minh was married. A doctor named Nguyen Dan Que was given a 20 year prison sentence for publicly calling for democratic reforms. An English professor named Doan Viet Hoat was given 15 years for printing an underground newsletter. A former Communist party cadre was arrested writing an article calling for more freedom or expression. His family did not hear from him long after his arrest.

A women who ran a restaurant out of her backyard told the New York Times, "the police would come and confiscate all my pots...The government said it was a waste of good meat to operate a capitalist restaurant." The woman only sold her homemade soup to people she knew and trusted. Even then jealous neighbors snitched on her to police.

Between 1976 and 1990, 3.7 million people were forcibly resettled in "New Economic Zones" in the Central Highlands and the Mekong River Delta and forced to work on collectivized farms. Some suffered from starvation and extreme poverty. The conditions were so bad there that Vietnam faced a famine in 1986. This was a major reason for the economic reforms started in that year.

Harsh Economic Life in the late 1970s and Early 1980s

Describing Hanoi in 1980, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, it was "crushed between the petulant economic embargo of the losers and the ruinous attempt by the winners to impose the Communist economy the had fought for...By day the city seemed half asleep. Private commerce was banned and shops were shuttered. the grandest hotel was a dank, poorly lighted chamber of creekin floors, spiders and dust. The old French Hanoi General Department Store...offered little more than matches and soap on it nearly empty shelves...At night...electric power was cut to save costs."

"When I saw Hanoi in 1981," Karnow wrote, "not a needle or a bar of soap could be found in its empty shops. people spent hours foraging for a scrap of food or a stick of firewood. ragged families straggled into town from areas that suffered from actual famine. They begged in front of hotels, and huddled together for warmth on cold drizzly nights...Rats scurried around the lobby, where outmoded European leftists exchanged fatuous revolutionary jargon with Asian, African and Latin American insurgents then often trained in Vietnam."

College students can remember standing with their families in long lines, waiting to receive their ration of rice. Even when food was plentiful people were reluctant to buy it out of fear that they would draw attention to themselves for having money. One Saigon tailor told the Los Angeles Times, "In the bad years after the war when times were very, very tough we sold everything just to survive: the refrigerator, the radio, our clothing...Finally we had nothing left.

Army Says Errors Made after Vietnam Re-Unified

In 1999, Reuters reported: "Vietnam's powerful army, in a rare admission, said it made mistakes after defeating U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975 because soldiers were flushed with victory. Lieutenant-General Pham Thanh Ngan, head of the General Political Department of the People's Army, wrote that the army ignored the advice of Ho Chi Minh and was arrogant after beating its powerful adversary. "Before the spirit of Uncle Ho we can't hide the fact that during the past 30-year period since he left us, we sometimes made mistakes...'' Ngan wrote in the Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) newspaper. "After liberation of the south (we) did not thoroughly grasp Uncle Ho's words on 'not being arrogant after victory, not being discouraged by failure'." [Source: Reuters, September 1, 1999 =]

Ngan was vague about the army's mistakes and didn’t say how the military had been arrogant. Ngan did say his article was related to a two-year self criticism campaign within the ruling Communist Party that aimed to root out graft and ideologically depraved lifestyles. He said insufficient attention had been given to ideological work within the army and that occasional low vigilance and readiness for fighting had hurt the revolutionary nature and glorious tradition of the army. =

"The image of Uncle Ho's soldiers has sometimes faded, which led to a decline in people's confidence and love. That is a high-cost lesson that the army admits before the spirit of Uncle Ho,'' Ngan wrote. He added that the army— one of the world's largest with an estimated 492,000 personnel according to 1997 figures— remained steadfastly loyal to the party and would ward off any plots against the state. =

Vietnam’s Foreign Relations After the Vietnam War

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in 1978, liberating that country from the genocidal madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Though the invasion was an act of cold-blooded realism to blunt the strategic threat posed by the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge, it had a vast and profoundly positive humanitarian effect. Nevertheless, for this pivotal act of mercy, pro-Soviet Vietnam was embargoed by a pro-Chinese coalition that included the United States, which, ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, had tilted toward Beijing. In 1979, China itself invaded Vietnam, to keep Vietnam from marching through Cambodia to Thailand. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012]

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union never came to the aid of its client state. Vietnam was now diplomatically isolated, stuck in a quagmire in Cambodia and burdened by back-breaking poverty, largely as a result of its own militarism. The Vietnamese leaders of the 1970s, wrote Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in his 2000 memoir, were “insufferable,” priding themselves as the “Prussians of Southeast Asia.” But the arrogance, as Vietnamese leaders have told me, didn’t last. Severe food shortages and the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989–91 forced Vietnam to pull its troops out of Cambodia. Vietnam was now utterly friendless, its triumph over the Americans a distant memory. “The feeling of victory in that war was always muted,” a Vietnamese diplomat tells me, “because there was never a peace dividend.”

Vietnam and Cambodia

Compounding economic difficulties were new military challenges. In the late 1970s, two countries—Cambodia and China—posed threats to Vietnam. Clashes between Vietnamese and Cambodian communists on their common border began almost immediately after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. The fighting was prompted by repeated attacks on Vietnamese border villages by the Khmer Rouge. To neutralize the threat, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overran Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, driving out the incumbent Khmer Rouge communist regime and initiating a prolonged military occupation of the country.

Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978. They succeeded in driving the Khmer Rouge from power in January 1979. A pro-Hanoi regime was set up in Phnom Penh. The liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge yielded to a long occupation by the Vietnamese and a long civil war with the Khmer Rouge.

See Cambodia.

China-Vietnam Border War

In February 1979 the Chinese invaded Vietnam with a force of more that 500,000 men to "teach the Vietnamese a lesson." The countries fought a brief but intense 17-day war with Chinese foray quickly rebuffed. The war was an embarrassment for China's People's Liberation Army who were thoroughly trounced and suffered as many as 20,000 casualties in two weeks of fierce fighting. The Chinese were expected to roll over the Vietnamese but they got bogged down as a result of communications problems. Vietnamese general Vo van Kiet told Time magazine: "we won over China in the border war, not because of comparative advantage in military force. We won the war because we had the right to defend our country."

China mounted a "self-defense counterattack" along virtually the entire Sino-Vietnamese border in a limited campaign that involved ground forces only. The conflict ended on March 5, when Chinese leaders declared its "lesson" finished and announced that their objectives had been met, and proceeded to withdraw their forces. Despite the Chinese boast of having shattered the myth of Vietnam's invincibility, the invasion effected little more than the diversion of some Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. The bulk of the resistance reportedly was offered by local Vietnamese border units and regional forces. Outnumbered, they performed well, exposing significant weaknesses in Chinese tactics, strategy, logistics, equipment, and communications. In the final analysis, the results were far from conclusive. Peace negotiations were initiated following the disengagement of forces, but broke down several times before being discontinued in December 1979. [Source: Library of Congress]

The two-week campaign devastated northern Vietnam and briefly threatened Hanoi. Both China (40,000) and Vietnam (over 20,000) suffered heavy losses. Peace talks broke down in December 1979 and both China (400,000) and Vietnam (600,000) began a major build-up of forces along the border. Sporadic fighting on the border occurred throughout the 1980s and China threatened to force Vietnam's exit from Kampuchea.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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