Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia

Vietnam

Lonely Planet: Introducing Vietnam

The elongated state of Vietnam is slightly larger than Italy and about three times the size of the US state of Kentucky. In 2020 it was estimated to have a population of about ninety-seven million people. Sixty percent of the population is under age twenty-one. This indicates that the population was only about half its current size at the end of the Vietnam War. Vietnam has two main urban core areas: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and the capital, Hanoi, in the north.

Ho Chi Minh City traffic
Ho Chi Minh City traffic

Drag the map below to see both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.

The middle region of Vietnam is narrow, with higher elevation. Each core area is located along a major river delta. The Red River delta is located east of Hanoi in the north.

Red River
Red River

The mighty Mekong River delta is located next to Saigon in the south. These river deltas deposit silt from upstream and provide excellent farmland for growing multiple crops of rice and food grains per year.

Mekong River
Mekong River
90 Days in 90 Seconds: Life on the Mekong River | National Geographic

Vietnam has a tropical climate with a long coastline. Fishing provides protein to balance out nutritional needs.

Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay Is a Spectacular Garden of Islands | National Geographic

More than 55 percent of the population works in agriculture. Family size has dropped dramatically because of population growth and a trend toward urbanization. Rural-to-urban shift has caused the two main urban core cities to grow rapidly. Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam and has a port that can accommodate oceangoing vessels. Hanoi, the capital, is not a port city and is located inland from the nearest port of Haiphong on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Gulf of Tonkin
Gulf of Tonkin

Vietnam is one of twenty-five countries considered to possess a uniquely high level of biodiversity.

The saola was discovered in 1992. It's related to cattle, goats, and antelopes, and lives in the Annamite Mountain Range.
The saola was discovered in 1992. It’s related to cattle, goats, and antelopes, and lives in the Annamite Mountain Range.
Lar gibbons
Lar gibbons
Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs are raised for meat.
Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs are raised for meat.
Indochinese leopard
Indochinese leopard

Political Geography

An understanding of Vietnam is not complete without understanding the changes in political control the country of Vietnam has experienced. Different Chinese dynasties controlled Vietnam at different times. When France colonized Vietnam, it imposed the French language as the lingua franca and Christianity as the main religion. Both changes met resistance, but the religious persecution of Buddhism by the French colonizers created harsh adversarial conditions within the culture. The French domination started in 1858. The Japanese replaced it in 1940; this lasted until the end of World War II. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the French desired to regain control of Vietnam. The French aggressively pushed into the country, but met serious resistance and were finally defeated in 1954 with their loss at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Discovery UK: French Colonisation – The Vietnam War

In the mid-1950s, the Vietnamese began asserting their request for an independent country. The dynamics were similar to that of Korea. After 1954, Vietnam needed to establish a government for their independent country. They were not unified. The northern section rallied around Hanoi and was aligned with Communist ideology.

Who Was Ho Chi Minh? | History

The southern region organized around Saigon and aligned itself with capitalism and democratic reforms.

During the Cold War, the United States opposed Communism wherever it emerged. Vietnam was one such case. Supporting South Vietnam against the Communists in the north started not long after the defeat of France. By 1960, US advisors were working to bolster South Vietnam’s military power. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson had to make a choice to either pull out of Vietnam or push the US military to fully engage the Communists in North Vietnam.

Not wishing Vietnam and its neighbors to “go Communist” through a domino effect—where if one country fell to Communism its neighbors would follow—President Johnson decided to escalate the war in Vietnam.

Domino theory
Domino theory

By 1965, more than one half million US soldiers were on the ground in Vietnam. History has recorded the result. Just as Vietnam was divided by political and economic ideology, the Vietnam War also divided the US population. Protests were common on college campuses and public support for the war was often met with public opposition. You can read a couple of books from the Guest Hollow American History Year 2 Curriculum about Vietnam:

Most Dangerous – Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

From Steve Sheinkin, the award-winning author of The Port Chicago 50 and Newbery Honor Book Bomb comes a tense, narrative nonfiction account of what the Times deemed “the greatest story of the century”: how whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg transformed from obscure government analyst into “the most dangerous man in America,” and risked everything to expose years of government lies during the Nixon / Cold War era.

The Vietnam War – A Graphic History
“Through beautifully rendered artwork, The Vietnam War: A Graphic History depicts the course of the war from its initial expansion in the early 1960s through the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and what transpired at home, from the antiwar movement and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to the Watergate break-in and the resignation of a president.”



PragerU: Why Did America Fight the Vietnam War?

The US government, under President Richard Nixon, finally decided to pull all US troops out from Vietnam after a cease-fire was agreed upon in a Paris peace conference in 1973. More than fifty-seven thousand US soldiers had died in the Vietnam War. Two years later, in 1975, the North Vietnamese Communists invaded South Vietnam and took control of the entire country. Vietnam was unified under a Communist regime. More than two million people from South Vietnam escaped as refugees and fled to Hong Kong, the United States, or wherever they could go. Thousands were accepted by the United States, which caused ethnic rifts in US communities. The United States placed an embargo on Vietnam and refused to trade with them. The United States did not open diplomatic relations with Vietnam again until 1996. The Vietnam War devastated the infrastructure and economy of the country. Roads, bridges, and valuable distribution systems were destroyed. Vietnam could only turn to what it does best: growing rice and food for its people.

Modern Vietnam

For the past three decades, Vietnam has been recovering and slowly integrating itself with the outside world. Its population has doubled; most of the population was born after the Vietnam War. Their main goal is to seek out opportunities and advantages to provide for themselves and their families. Vietnam has been a rural agrarian society. The two main core cities, however, are now waking up to the outside world, and the outside world is discovering them. Looking for cheap labor and economic profits, economic tigers such as Taiwan are turning to Saigon to set up light manufacturing operations. People from rural areas are migrating to the cities looking for employment. Saigon has more than 8.5 million people and has a special economic zone (SEZ) located nearby. Rural-to-urban shift is kicking in. After 1975, the city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the victorious Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh. Many of the people who live there and who live in the United States still refer to it as Saigon.

Vietnam has been a relatively poor country but it still has been able to export rice and other agricultural products.

Terraced rice fields, Sa Pa, Vietnam
Terraced rice fields, Sa Pa, Vietnam

In recent years, the Communist government has implemented a series of reforms moving toward a market economy, which has encouraged economic development and international trade.

The national language of the country is Vietnamese, which is a tonal language.

NativLang: Sing like you mean it! – the Linguistics of Tonal Languages

Many educated Vietnamese speak French as a second language, especially among the older generation and those educated in the former South Vietnam (due to the French colonial rule).

The traditional focuses of Vietnamese culture are based on humanity and harmony in which family and community values are highly regarded. Many Vietnamese also believe in the supernatural and spiritualism where illness can be brought on by a curse or sorcery or caused by non-observance of a religious ethic. Traditional medical practitioners, amulets, and other forms of spiritual protection and religious practices may be employed to treat the ill person.

The main Vietnamese formal dress, the áo dài is worn for special occasions such as weddings and religious festivals. White áo dài is the required uniform for girls in many high schools across the country. 

Vietnamese traditional white school uniform for girls in the country, the áo dài with the addition of a conical hat.
Vietnamese traditional white school uniform for girls in the country, the áo dài with the addition of a conical hat.

Traditionally, Vietnamese cuisine is based around five fundamental taste “elements”: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). Common ingredients are fish sauce, shrimp paste, soy sauce, rice, and vegetables.

Deep fried spring rolls
Bánh khoái, a type of filled pancake
Bánh khoái, a type of filled pancake

Want to learn more about Vietnam’s culture?
The Land I Lost is a good book!

“Huynh Quang Nhuong grew up in the highlands of Vietnam, next to the jungle teeming with wildlife. Encounters with tigers, wild hogs, and deadly snakes were as much a part of his life as tending the rice fields while on the back of his pet water buffalo, Tank.”

Laos

Laos map
Laos map

The geography of Laos centers on the Mekong River basin and rugged mountain terrain. Laos is landlocked. Vietnam shields Laos from the South China Sea to the east and Cambodia to the south. It doesn’t have a port city to the outside world. The mountains reach up to 9,242 feet.

Luang Prabang is a mountain range straddling northwestern Laos and Northern Thailand.
 Luang Prabang is a mountain range straddling northwestern Laos and Northern Thailand.

The climate provides a rainy season and a dry season. The rains usually fall between May and November, followed by a dry season for the remainder of the year. The Mekong River flows through the land and provides fresh water, irrigation, and transportation. The country’s capital and largest city, Vientiane, is located on the Mekong River. Laos is about the same size in area as the US state of Utah.

Explore the Stunning Beauty of Laos’s Louangphrabang | National Geographic

The Lao Kingdom coalesced in the 1500s and was eventually absorbed by the Kingdom of Siam, which thrived during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. France muscled in during the colonial era and created a French Indochina. Laos received independence from France in 1949. Laos is a rural country with about 80 percent of the population working in agriculture. Globalization has not yet been established in this country and infrastructure is less developed. Electricity is not available on a consistent basis and transportation systems are quite basic. There aren’t any railroads and there are few paved roads. Clean water for human consumption is not always available. The economy is based on agriculture, with some outside investments in mining and natural resources.

About 80% of the Laotian population practices subsistence agriculture.
About 80% of the Laotian population practices subsistence agriculture.

The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice. The Lao eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world. It is a common belief within the Lao community that no matter where they are in the world, sticky rice will always be the glue that holds the Lao communities together, connecting them to their culture and to Laos. Often the Lao will refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, which can be translated as ‘children or descendants of sticky rice’.

Lao sticky rice, served in a traditional basket
Lao sticky rice, served in a traditional basket

Two-thirds of the people in Laos are Buddhists.

City of the Golden Buddha | National Geographic

Animist traditions and spirit worship have the next highest percentage of followers.

Muslims and Christians make up a small percentage of the population. Lao make up the largest ethnic group and 70 percent of the population. Other ethnicities include the Hmong and mountain tribal groups, which can be found in various remote regions of the country.

Hmong women at the market
Hmong women at the market
The Black Hmong of Lao Chai Village
Note: Lao Chai is Northern Vietnam’s Sapa region. The Hmong people live mainly in Southern China, Vietnam and Laos.

The remoteness and rural heritage of the many tribal people have started to attract tourism. Tourism has increased in recent years, partially due to the Chinese government allowing its citizens to travel outside their borders from China into Laos. Laos has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the historic town of Luang Prabang, and the southern site of Wat Phou (Vat Phu), which is an ancient Hindu temple complex.

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Inside the ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex of Wat Phou
Inside the ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex of Wat Phou

Laos is a poor country. It has fewer employment opportunities for its citizens than other developing countries have. The one-party Communist political system of the Cold War has been decentralizing control and working to encourage entrepreneurial activities. Foreign investments are increasing in the areas of mining, hydroelectric production, and major construction projects. The World Bank and other agencies have supported efforts to improve infrastructure and provide opportunities for the people of Laos. China has been partnering with the Laotian government to help build rail transport in the country. These efforts have assisted in reducing poverty and increasing the economic and physical health of the country.

Cambodia

Cambodia map
Cambodia map
Lonely Planet: Introducing Cambodia

A Notorious History

Cambodia is about the same size in area as the US state of Missouri. The population in 2020 was estimated at 16.6 million. The Khmers created the Angkor Empire, which reached its peak between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Preceding the colonial period, the Angkor Empire entered into a long era of decline.

National Geographic: How Water Built and Destroyed This Powerful Empire | National Geographic

France took control of the region in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Japan took control of the region before World War II and then relinquished it when they surrendered to end World War II. France regained control of Cambodia after the Japanese army was defeated. Cambodia finally received independence from France in 1953.

To understand Cambodia, one has to understand its recent history. This country has undergone some of the most extreme social transitions in modern times. The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, turned society upside down, giving the country a legacy that it will carry forward as integration continues into the world community.

Biography: Pol Pot – The Communist Leader of Khmer Rouge | Mini Bio | BIO
Note: There is some violence in this video.

Between 1969 and 1973, while the United States was fighting the Vietnam War, US forces bombed and briefly invaded Cambodia in an effort to disrupt the North Vietnamese military operations and oppose the Khmer Rouge. Millions of Cambodians were made refugees by the war, and many ended up in Phnom Penh. The number of casualties from the US bombing missions in Cambodia is unknown. The US war in Vietnam thus had spilled over into Laos and Cambodia and advanced the opportunities for the Khmer Rouge regime to gain power. Pol Pot’s Communist forces of the Khmer Rouge finally captured Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh in 1975. The Khmer Rouge evacuated all cities and towns and forced the people to move to the rural areas. The country’s name was changed to Democratic Kampuchea. China’s Great Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward disaster were influential for Pol Pot’s radical experiment. Since Vietnam was supported by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Khmer Rouge looked to China for arms and support.

Pol Pot was creating an agricultural model for a new country based on eleventh-century ideals. People in urban areas were forcibly marched off into the countryside for labor in agriculture. Anyone who resisted or even hinted at dissent was killed. All traces of Westernized ideas, technology, medical practice, religion, or books were destroyed. Thousands of people were systematically killed in an attempt to bring into being a rural agrarian utopian society. The thousands upon thousands who were systematically eliminated gave rise to the term Killing Fields, meaning fields where massive groups of people were forced to dig their own graves and then were killed. The mass killings were reminiscent of those carried out by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Pol Pot’s regime also targeted ethnic minority groups. Muslims and Chinese suffered serious purges. Professional, educated people, such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers, were also targeted for execution. According to some reports, the very act of wearing eyeglasses was a death sentence as it was a symbol of intellectualism. In a country of eight million in 1970, more than two million people were executed or died as a result of Pol Pot’s policies. The total number will never be known. Hundreds of thousands became refugees in neighboring countries.

TED: Sophal Ear: Escaping the Khmer Rouge

By 1978, the Khmer Rouge was isolated in the countryside. Vietnamese forces controlled the urban areas. A decade of civil war and unrest followed. Paris peace talks, cease-fires, United Nations–sponsored elections and coalition governments have since helped provide political stability. Pol Pot died under unclear circumstances in 1998 while being held under house arrest. As of 1999, the Khmer Rouge elements that were still in existence had surrendered or were arrested. Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders were charged with crimes against humanity by United Nations–sponsored tribunals.

You can read a book about a family’s escape from Cambodia in When Broken Glass Floats.

“In a mesmerizing story, Chanrithy Him vividly recounts her trek through the hell of the “killing fields.” She gives us a child’s-eye view of a Cambodia where rudimentary labor camps for both adults and children are the norm and modern technology no longer exists. Death becomes a companion in the camps, along with illness. Yet through the terror, the members of Chanrithy’s family remain loyal to one another, and she and her siblings who survive will find redeemed lives in America.”

Modern Cambodia

Cambodia is working to become a democratic and open country with established trade relationships with global markets. The people have struggled to create a stable society that can rebound from their legacy of turmoil and conflict. The country’s population is relatively young. More than half the population is under age twenty-five; one-third is under fifteen. The rural areas and the generations who remain there continue to lack the basic amenities of modern society. Education, electricity, and modern infrastructure are lacking. More than half the population works in agriculture. Since less than 25 percent of the population lives in cities, Cambodia is likely to experience a high rural-to-urban shift in its future.

People are returning to religious practices that were banned during the Pol Pot era. Buddhism is the dominant religion of about 95 percent of the population.

Pchum Ben, also known as "Ancestors Day", is an important religious festival celebrated by Khmer Buddhists.
Pchum Ben, also known as “Ancestors Day”, is an important religious festival celebrated by Khmer Buddhists.

Small percentages of the population also practice Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or tribal beliefs. There are at least twenty distinct hill tribes that hold to their own traditions and cultural ways. The country has historically been self-sufficient with food, but the rapid population growth, political instability, and lack of infrastructure are challenging the future of the country.

The cuisine of Cambodia contains tropical fruits, soups, and noodles. The country also boasts various distinct local street foods, such as fried spiders. French influence on Cambodian cuisine includes the Cambodian red curry with toasted baguette bread. The toasted baguette pieces are dipped in the curry and eaten.

Fried spiders
Fried spiders
Prahok is a salted and fermented fish paste.
Prahok is a salted and fermented fish paste.
Sam Khmer Noodles (Nom Banh Chok)
Samlar kakou is a traditional soup of Cambodia. It’s made from chicken or pork, vegetables, fish paste, and spices.

Agriculture has been the main economic activity, though textiles (clothing manufacturing) have increased in recent years because of the low cost of labor combined with an abundant workforce.

Cambodian farmers planting rice
Cambodian farmers planting rice

The international business sector has sought to exploit this opportunity, but multinational corporations are hesitant to invest in a country that suffers from political instability or a high level of corruption within the public and private sector.

Cambodia has been attempting to build a sustainable economy. The textile industry is the number one source of national wealth. Sweatshops and low-tech manufacturing have begun to take root in the expanding capital city of Phnom Penh.

Optional: SBS Dateline: Fashion Victims? A look at working conditions for Cambodia’s garment workers

Tourism is another sector that has experienced rapid growth. Though nonexistent in earlier decades, tourism has taken off. Cambodian tourism provides travelers with an experience that is more pristine and less commercialized. Tourism has been rated as the second-largest sector of the economy. One of the main sites that attract many visitors is the extraordinary ancient site of Angkor Wat (Angkor means “city” and Wat “temple”).

Buddhist monks in front of the reflection pool at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Buddhist monks in front of the reflection pool at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This site is one of the best-preserved showcases of Khmer architecture from its early empire years. Angkor Wat is being developed as a major tourist attraction. The twelfth-century complex was first a Hindu site dedicated to Vishnu, and then it was converted to a Buddhist site. Angkor Wat has become an international tourist destination. It is one of the largest temple complexes in existence in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city of Angkor has been estimated to have been the largest city in the world at its peak. As many as a thousand other temples and ancient structures have been recovered in the same area in recent years.

Before You Visit Angkor Wat, Here’s What You Need to Know | National Geographic

Cambodia has pressing environmental problems. The country has the notorious designation by the UN as the nation with the third-highest number of land mines on Earth. Since 1970, more than sixty thousand people have been killed, and many more injured or maimed because of unexploded land mines in rural areas. The growing population, attempting to recover from decades of devastation, has cut down the rainforest at one of the highest rates in the world. In 1970, rainforests covered about 70 percent of the country. Today there is only about 3 percent of the rainforest left. A rise in the need for resources, along with illegal timber activities, has devastated the forests, resulting in a high level of soil erosion and loss of habitat for indigenous species. The loss of natural resources is likely to hinder the country’s economic growth.

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Next: Thailand and Myanmar

Additional information and image credits:

Vietnam map Updated from map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – public domain
Domino theory CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2262607
Gulf of Tonkin By The original uploader was DanMS at English Wikipedia. – My original artwork based on a public domain map from the CIA World Factbook., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10340223
Ho Chi Minh traffic By Huỳnh Thanh Huy, 17th Annual Photo Contest. Đăng tải bởi Bảo Khương 1997, Đại học Kiến Trúc. – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/photocontest/detail/travel/rush-hour-in-ho-chi-minh-city/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82634498
Wildlife of Vietnam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_of_Vietnam
Vietnam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam
Saola By The original uploader was Silviculture at Vietnamese Wikipedia. – Originally from vi.wikipedia; description page is/was here, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29702662
Pot-bellied pigs By Alvesgaspar – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4565880
Lar Gibbon By User:MatthiasKabel – Own work at Zoo Salzburg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1493182
Leopard By Tomáš Najer – BioLib, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40929992
Rice fields By Pedro Alonso – Flickr: 20110917-DSC_0741, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17515946
Clothing By Участники nuocnga.net – nuocnga.net, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15365638
Vietnamese cuisine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_cuisine
Spring rolls By SauceSupreme – originally posted to Flickr as Cha Gio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7516889
bang khoai By Charles Haynes from Hobart, Australia – Banh Khoai, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63145499
Laos map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32296120
Laos mountains By ผู้สร้างสรรค์ผลงาน/ส่งข้อมูลเก็บในคลังข้อมูลเสรีวิกิมีเดียคอมมอนส์ – เทวประภาส มากคล้าย – Photo by User:Tevaprapas, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5640220
Hmong women By Brian Snelson from Hockley, Essex, England – Flower Hmong women, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5634941
Rice planting in Laos By I, Ondřej Žváček, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3146768
Luang Prabang By 松岡明芳 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15523957
Wat Phou By Basile Morin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86314047
Lao cuisine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lao_cuisine
Sticky rice By Thomas Wanhoff – https://www.flickr.com/photos/wanhoff/5074814028/sizes/o/in/set-72157624263626251/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30894810
Cambodia map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32296097
Angkor Wat By sam garza – originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7709377
Planting rice in cambodia By Brad Collis, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32167844
prayers By Maharaja45 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84097704
Fried spiders By A. www.viajar24h.com – https://www.flickr.com/photos/soschilds/375166267/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5816927
Sam Khmer Noodles By Thomas Wanhoff from Siem Reap, Vietnam – Scene from Siem Reap, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76258393
Prahok ktis By Louistrinh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65750956

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