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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 22, No. 4. April 27, 1959

South from China — The Democratic Republic of Vietnam

page 6

South from China

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam

The last lap of my China travels took me to Nanning, in the Chuang Autonomous Region of South China. The Chinese-Vietnam border lay only one hundred miles to the south and when the opportunity of a brief visit to North Vietnam was offered to me I eagerly accepted.

Few Western observers had visited the country since the restoration of peace.

Moreover, Vietnam was of major interest to me as a geographer because its great rice growing area in the Red River lowland is a classic example of the intensive agriculture of East Asia and because the country illustrates on a smaller scale the problems and difficulties China faced five or six years ago.

I boarded the train at Nanning at the uncomfortable hour of half past three in the morning and woke to find the train winding south through a sunlit landscape of tawny grass and low scrub, stippled with small villages and patches of cropland and broken by massive grey crags of limestone. At 10 a.m. I was on the southern frontier of China, changed trains, for there is a break of gauge at the frontier, and shortly after reached Langson, the first station in Vietnam.

A background of shrilling cicadas, of banana fronds, and tiny rice fields; on the platform slender dark-eyed children selling fruit and sugar cane; smart Polish and Indian officers and Canadian observers of the United Nation Control Commission; a small group of Russian technicians and their families; Vietnamese students returning from Peking and Moscow; in the distance a burnt out building and the ruins of a French pillbox . . .

All these things suggested the character and problems of life in Vietnam—its tropical climate and gentle peoples; its recent emergence from a bitter colonial war; its partition at the end of this war; the international supervision of the armistice by United Nations observers; the reconstruction of the country carried through with the help of technicians and funds from the Sino-Soviet block.

Red River Lowland

The rail line towards Hanoi had been destroyed in the war against France like so much of the material equipment of Vietnamese life. It had been restored only a few months ago and was now clearly a major artery between China and this newly emergent state.

The train crept southwards between high hills, covered with scrub and forest and dotted with small thatched villages, with tiny patches of rice and maize, of fruit trees and sugar cane.

It was an area obviously thinly peopled, inhabited mainly by tribal groups.

Photo of China-Vietnam workers

Then, as the afternoon drew on, the blue, forested hills receded into the distance and the great alluvial lowland of the Red River stretched to the horizon—mile after mile of green and pale gold rice fields, of fields newly ploughed or filmed with irrigation water, tiny fields bounded by dykes or ditches, fields which from the air give the effect of a design in green and gold cloisonne enamel.

This is the last of the series of articles by Professor K. M. Buchanan (professor of geography) on his recent visit to China and North Vietnam.

As we passed over the Red River into Hanoi children were leading the buffaloes down to the red mudladen waters, russet-clad peasants were working in the fields of sugar cane and vegetables, and the fishing boats were spreading their sails to the evening breeze and drifting seawards like clouds of butterflies.


Hanoi is a beautiful city—a city of wide tree-lined avenues and graceful French colonial architecture; of houses painted pastel yellow and pale green and pink, with spacious gardens and balconies.

It is a city of vivid colours and scents and sounds . . . the magenta and emerald green and white silk of the girls' tunics; the cascading scarlet of bougainvillea; the russet brown of the peasants' dress; the gold skins and blue-black long hair of the children; the scent of evening sunlight on the hot earth mingled with the scents of spices and cooking; the sounds of wooden clogs clip-clopping through the morning streets, the harsh cries of the street vendors and the soft swish of the street cleaners' brooms.

It is a city which is undergoing a major social and economic transformation.

Formerly, the most attractive quarters were occupied by European officials and by the European and Chinese commercial groups who flourished under the French colonial regime. Today, these groups have gone; their houses have been broken up into apartments for the working people of Hanoi—the clerks and the shop assistants and the mechanics—whose families and dependents spill out into temporary housing in the palm-shaded gardens.

In the past, as the administrative centre of a colonial regime, it was characterised by a great development of luxury trades and activities; it was a city largely parasitic on the countryside.

Today, it is the economic centre of a developing Asian state; the old luxury trades are vanishing and are being replaced by the workshops and factories turning out the consumer goods and capital equipment so desperately needed by the masses of Vietnam.

It is a city in which the old world and the new world struggling to be born are sharply juxtaposed—the new machine tool factory is full of gleaming Russian machinery, and in its grounds women carry the scrap iron in the traditional peasant baskets and cut the grass of the verges with the tiny peasant knife.

Parallel 17 North

North Vietnam has an area rather larger than that of the South Island and a population of 13 millions. It came into being after a savage and protracted colonial war, of which I saw glimpses in a Vietnamese film in Hanoi.

This war for colonial freedom became involved in the cold war politics of the great powers and brought the West to the brink of atomic intervention when the campaign began to swing decisively against the French.

It was terminated by the Geneva Agreement which shattered, temporarily at least, the unity of the Annamese or Vietnamese lands along the arbitrary line of the 17th parallel.

The Agreement provided for elections in 1956; these might have restored the unity of North and South but, largely owing to the opposition of the American-supported Diem regime in South Vietnam, they were never held.

Today, the 17th parallel is one of the most absolute barriers in the world; trade or movement across it is nonexistent and even postal contact between members of families divided by the boundary is restricted to prisoner-of-war type postcards.

Photo of (probably) K. M. Buchanan

The division shattered the economy of Vietnam leaving a food-deficit, mineral-rich North cut off from a food surplus mineral deficient South. The South subsequently evolved under American! control; the North aligned itself with the socialist camp and followed the Chinese pattern of agrarian reform and social transformation.

Emergence of New Society

Today, North Vietnam is at the stage of economic and social development reached by China in the early 1950s. When the French withdrew, the government took over the banks, the railways, most large scale enterprises and foreign trade.

A sizeable private sector still remains; at the end of 1957, for example, the private, non-socialist sector still accounted for four-fifths of the output value of industry and handicrafts, seventenths of the retail trade and almost one half of the wholesale trade.

The size of the state sector is, however, increasing as a result of the steady expansion of the lower forms of state capitalism; thus, many private firms process products for the state, or are sales agents for the state trading concerns.

Land reform, following the Chinese pattern, gave some 895,000 hectacres to the peasants and was followed by the development of agricultural co-operatives. By November, 1958, over half of the peasant households had joined co-operatives; they are small by comparison with those of China (one visited near Hanoi consisted of 28 households, cultivating 31 mow of land: a mow is 3,600 square metres) but, by pooling land, work animals and implements and thus overcoming the problems presented by the excessive fragmentation of holdings, they have made a significant contribution to expanding the agricultural output.

Reshaping Economy

The partition of the Vietnamese lands created a major food problem for the North. Tonkin the heart of North Vietnam, had always been a food-deficit area, its needs being supplied by the more sparsely people South. Partition made this northwards flow of rice page 7 impossible and in the first year or so of its existence the new state survived only as a result of food grains sent by China and the U.S.S.R.

Then agrarian reform, coupled with improved cropping techniques modelled on those of China, gradually boosted output.

The landlords had formerly taken one-quarter of the entire output; with the land reform these 625,0 tons of rice went to swell the peasants larder.

By 1957 rice production had increased sufficiently to meet the needs of the country's growing population; per capita consumption was one-third above that of 1939 and there was a small surplus for export. Output of other food crops—cassava, sweet potatoes and groundnuts—and of industrial crops such as cotton increased even more strikingly.

Meanwhile, large scale irrigation and flood control schemes are being undertaken. The most striking of these is the Bac Hung Hai scheme near Hanoi; this was planned by Chinese and Soviet experts and will be completed in the middle of 1959.

It covers an area of half a million acres, with a population of over one million peasants, and is being carried out almost entirely by the hand labour of 20,000 peasants and 12,000 soldiers of the Vietnamese Army.

This agricultural development is paralleled by industrial development. Under the French, industry, including handicrafts, represented only 10 per cent, of the total output value of the economy; by 1960 this will have risen to 35 per cent.

Industrial development is less advanced than in China but the foundations have been laid, not only in the shape of factories producing consumer goods such as cloth or matches, but also in more basic industries such as machine tool production.

The biggest enterprise visited was the Xuong Co Khi machine tool plant in Hanoi; this was built and equipped by the U.S.S.R. and now employs a thousand workers. It produces machine tools, lathes, planing machines and spare parts for other factories and its construction marks the beginning of heavy industry in North Vietnam.

The country has the resources—coal and metallic minerals—for a considerable development of heavy industry; at the present moment one of the major bottlenecks is the shortage of trained personnel, a shortage being overcome by sending local workers to other countries of the socialist camp for training or by means of local training schemes run by Soviet technicians.

Minority Groups

Like China, Vietnam is a country with many minority peoples. The major group—the Annamese—are rice - growing peoples living in the alluvial lowlands. There are, in addition, some 50-60 different tribal groups living in the hill areas which fringe the Red River lowlands. Many of these groups have languages, histories and social systems quite different to those of the Annamese and to weld them into a unified state without destroying their individuality poses major problems.

Vietnam's minority policy is based on that of China; it provides for full development of these peoples and recognises their individuality by granting a considerable measure of administrative autonomy to the larger and more compact groups.

Research into the history and social organisation of the tribal peoples is carried on by the School of National Minorities at Hanoi. Here new scripts are being developed for groups with no written language and minority students are trained to go back and work as administrators, teachers and technicians among their own people.

The school includes a large number of pupils from South Vietnam who, when unification of North and South comes, will provide a core of trained personnel for the tribal groups in the uplands of the South.

40 Years' Struggle

The new state has been created largely by the struggles of one man—Ho Chi Minh, known affectionately to the peasants as "Uncle Ho." Ho Chi Minh provided the leadership in the long struggle against French colonialism and forged a new unity of the Vietnamese people in the war-torn jungles and paddy fields of the North.

It was difficult to realise that this quietly - spoken scholar had spent 40 years of his life in either underground resistance work or open warfare against the Japanese and French.

In Vietnamese films of the resistance war I had seen, the President sharing the wartime sufferings of his people, the dedicated, infinitely patient, leader of an Asian revolution; meeting him in the early sunshne of a November morning I saw another aspect of his personality—a gentleness and warm humanity which rose above past bitterness and the narrowness of fanatical nationalism.

I left with the impression of a great man, who combined in his person the gentleness and warm-heartedness of these people and the toughness and determination which carried them through years of war and which sustains them in their long uphill struggle to rebuild their economy and reunite their divided country.