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The improvement of living conditions has consistently been one of Hanoi's most important but most elusive goals. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, food, housing, medicines, and consumer goods were chronically scarce as agriculture and industry slowly recovered from the effects of prolonged wartime disruptions, corrupt and inept management, and the cost of the military occupation of Cambodia. Consequently, the Hanoi government was under tremendous pressure to address social problems such as urban unemployment, vocational training, homelessness, the care of orphans, war veterans, and the disabled, the control of epidemics, and the rehabilitation of drug addicts and prostitutes. These problems were complicated by rapid population growth, which tested the limits of the food supply and increased the need to import grains.

In December 1985, Vo Van Kiet, chairman of the State Planning Commission, nevertheless reported that farmers' lives had generally improved and that people employed in other economic sectors were adequately supplied with the basic necessities. The standard of living remained low, however, because of acute economic problems that arose between 1981 and 1985, including unemployment. During the 1981-85 period, a total of about 7 million young people reached work age (age 18), but up to 85 percent remained jobless. Among the unemployed of all ages nationwide, 80 percent were unskilled, while in Ho Chi Minh City, the figure rose to 95 percent.

For most Vietnamese having to face soaring inflation and a rapid drop in purchasing power, austerity was an inescapable fact of life. In the mid-1980s no one was starving, but the average diet was highly deficient in protein and amounted to only 1,940 calories per day, 23 percent below the level required for manual labor. Moreover, as much as an estimated 80 percent of a worker's monthly wage was spent on food. A reader complained to a Ho Chi Minh City newspaper in 1986 that the monthly salary and price subsidies paid to an ordinary worker or civil servant were barely enough to support his family for part of the month. The writer also noted that an increasing number of workers and public officials had succumbed to the lure of "outside temptations" and were misusing their functions and power to get rich illegally. "Because life is so difficult," a 1986 article in the military daily, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, lamented, "even the most honest people must come up with schemes to earn a living and support the family."

In 1986 the standard of living was unstable, and cadres, manual workers, civil servants, armed forces personnel, and laborers experienced serious economic difficulties in their everyday lives. In March 1986, evidently as a stop-gap measure, the government reinstated rationing (discontinued since August 1985) in many parts of the country for such essential goods as rice, meat, sugar, and kerosene. In addition, the government granted more autonomy to commercial enterprises and even encouraged the development of small-scale private industry.

Although the state controlled the economy and most essential consumer goods, it lacked control of the free market, which accounted for more than 50 percent of retail trade volume (see Internal Commerce , ch. 3). In mid-1987 the free market flourished, although Vo Van Kiet had reported to the National Assembly in December 1986 that the government planned to "create conditions for stabilizing the market and prices step by step."

Meanwhile, Vo Van Kiet revealed that the new wage and allowance system put into effect in 1985 for state employees and members of the armed forces had failed to improve living conditions. Indexed to cost-of-living increases, the 1985 system had replaced the no-incentive egalitarianism of the past with a system that linked wages to productivity, quality, and efficiency of work performed.

Through the mid-1980s, the Vietnamese bureaucracy failed to act quickly enough to remedy the shortage of consumer goods in state shops. Shortages of raw materials and energy also continued, forcing manufacturing enterprises to operate at 50 percent of their production capacity. In 1987 it was hoped that the reform-minded leaders selected at the Sixth National Party Congress in December 1986 might begin to turn the economy around.

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Reliable and current information on Vietnamese society remains relatively scarce. Among the most useful sources of information are Indochina Chronology, a quarterly of the Institute of East Asian Studies, of the University of California at Berkeley, which gives an informative summary of events, literature, and personalities relating to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; and the Southeast Asia Report, of the Joint Publications Research Service, which contains translations of Vietnamese newspapers and periodicals. For a general understanding of the political and economic contexts in which Vietnamese society evolves, readers are advised to consult the annual summary articles on Vietnam contained in Asian Survey, Far Eastern Economic Review Asia Yearbook, and Southeast Asian Affairs. For official perceptions relating to various aspects of Vietnamese society, see Vietnam Courier, an English-language monthly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

William J. Duiker's Vietnam: Nation in Revolution offers useful, well-balanced overviews on various aspects of contemporary Vietnam, with a brief annotated bibliography. Also useful is Nguyen Van Canh's Vietnam Under Communism, 1975- 1982, which depicts life in post-1975 Vietnam as perceived and experienced by a number of Vietnamese expatriates. Hai Van: Life in a Vietnamese Commune by Francois Houtart and Genevieve Lemercinier provides a rare glimpse into the life of a Red River Delta commune in 1979; life in South Vietnamese rural communities in the early 1960s is given an excellent discussion in Gerald C. Hickey's Village in Vietnam. We the Vietnamese: Voices from Viet Nam, edited by Francois Sully, is useful for perspectives on various social aspects of South Vietnam in the 1960s. How Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City appeared to visiting Western journalists in 1985 is presented in Vietnam Ten Years After, edited by Robert Emmet Long.

Graeme Jackson's "An Assessment of Church Life in Vietnam" is a balanced account of religious life; Alexander Woodside offers an informative analysis on education in his "The Triumphs and Failures of Mass Education in Vietnam." In "Vietnam 1975-1982: The Cruel Peace," Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson present their findings on the question of whether there were political executions in the years after the communist takeover in 1975. Ethnic minorities are the subject of scholarly treatment in Hickey's Sons of the Mountains and Free in the Forest; in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, edited by Peter Kunstadter; and in Ronald Provencher's Mainland Southeast Asia: An Anthropological Perspective. John DeFrancis's Colonialism and Language Policy in Vietnam is a scholarly analysis of the evolution of the national writing system, quoc ngu; also informative is Language in Vietnamese Society: Some Articles by Nguyen DinhHoa , edited by Patricia Nguyen Thi My-Huong. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of December 1987

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Vietnam Table of Contents