For the Westerners Vietnam is mostly interesting as a side in the Vietnam war; after the end of the US participation in this conflict Vietnam just kind of ceases to exist. Which, of course, isn’t so – after the victory of the Northern Vietnam in the war the country had a rich and, for the most part, depressingly illustrative history.
After the reunification of the country the socialist regime started a massive campaign of collectivization and nationalization, which worked about as good as it usually does: inflation went sky-high, effectively devaluing the currency, the economy, which already was in shambles in the aftermath of the war, fell apart, rebuilding of the infrastructure almost stood still.
All these issues were addressed in a manner in which totalitarian states address most issues: about one million people were sent to ‘reeducation camps’, where at least the fifth of them died, the state went on a nationwide campaign of terror, killing more than a hundred thousand people and forcing millions to flee the country in any available manner, which resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe in this region and incredibly high death toll on those who unsuccessfully tried to cross the sea in makeshift boats.
Thus, for a decade since the reunification of Southern and Northern Vietnam the country stayed in constant state of poverty and economic chaos, until in 1986 the traditionalist Communist government was replaced by reformists who followed the example of the Soviet Union’s “Perestroika” and the Chinese economic reforms. Thus Vietnam entered the period of Doi Moi (Renovation).
The government started a series of economic and social reforms, aimed at gradually transferring the country from a completely planned economy to a ‘socialist-oriented market economy’ along the lines of modern China. Elements of free market and socio-economic liberalization were introduced into the country’s everyday life, while political life stayed firmly under control of the Communist party.
Efforts at collectivization were abandoned, private enterprises became first permitted and then encouraged to take part in the production of goods. The effect was not late in coming – after the introduction of natural market forces into the Vietnam’s economy the country that spent the last decade in the state of poverty and stagnation was almost immediately turned into a dynamic, competitive economy.
There is also a strong belief that the reason why new enterprises appeared en masse so swiftly was because a lot of them have been around for quite some time, but had to hide their existence from the state, thus creating a shadow economic system of small-time entrepreneurs, family-owned businesses and smugglers who supported the everyday existence of an average Vietnamese since 1975.
Today the Socialist Republic of Vietnam continues on its way of social and economic liberalization, on which it had achieved considerable success – right now it is one of the fastest-developing economies in the world, in 2007 it joined the World Trade Organization, which means its goods are more than commercially viable outside the state, and established relationships with most countries of the world.
Nevertheless, the past still holds Vietnam firmly in its clutches – despite all the economic and social progress made during the last thirty years, there is a long way to go: income disparity remains extremely high, malnutrition is still common, especially in more remote rural areas, health care isn’t universally accessible and political life is still strictly controlled by the state. No parties except the official Communist party are permitted, a lot of international organizations, such as Catholic Church, are seen as a threat to the government and banned.
But hopefully, Vietnam will continue along the chosen path.