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Vol. 10, No. 1, Shimojo Hisashi


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Local Politics in the Migration between Vietnam and Cambodia: Mobility in a Multiethnic Society in the Mekong Delta since 1975

Shimojo Hisashi*

*下條尚志, Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, Kobe University, 1-2-1, Tsurukabuto, Nada-ku, Kobe 657-8501, Japan
e-mail: shimojoenator[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_89

This paper examines the history of cross-border migration by (primarily) Khmer residents of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta since 1975. Using a multiethnic village as an example case, it follows the changes in migratory patterns and control of crossborder migration by the Vietnamese state, from the collectivization era to the early Đổi Mới reforms and into the post-Cold War era. In so doing, it demonstrates that while negotiations between border crossers and the state around the social acceptance (“licit-ness”) and illegality of cross-border migration were invisible during the 1980s and 1990s, they have come to the fore since the 2000s. Despite the border being legally closed in the 1980s and 1990s, undocumented migration as a livelihood strategy was rampant due to the porous nature of the border. In the 2000s, the border began to be officially opened to local people and simultaneously function as a political boundary to regulate belonging and identities. The changes in migratory patterns indicate that the mapping and establishment of a national border alone is not enough to etch it in the minds of people, especially minorities who have connections with people in the neighboring country. Rather, a border “hardens” through continuous negotiations between state actors, who become suspicious of influence from a foreign country, and cross-border migrants, who become dependent on the state for their needs.

Keywords: cross-border migration, licit-ness, illegality, collectivization era, post-Cold War era, Khmer, Vietnam, Cambodia


This paper examines the history of cross-border migration by (primarily) Khmer residents of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta since 1975. Using a multiethnic village in a coastal province of Vietnam as an example case, it follows the changes in migratory patterns and control of cross-border migration by the Vietnamese state, from the collectivization era (1975–86)1) to the early Đổi Mới (renovation) reform era (1986–mid-1990s) and into the post-Cold War era (from the late 1990s). In so doing, it demonstrates that although migrants have crossed the border to take advantage of political and economic differences between Cambodia and Vietnam as a livelihood strategy for decades, the Vietnam-Cambodia border has begun to effectively function as a political boundary to regulate their belonging and identities only since the early 2000s. This regulation of cross-border migration is a result of a new political calculus on the part of (1) local residents, who have become dependent on the Vietnamese state for economic and religious needs, (2) local governments in the delta, which are suspicious of human and information flows from Cambodia, and (3) the Vietnamese state, which officially protects ethnic Khmer.

Ambiguities and the political instability of the boundary between Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and Cambodia have abounded since before colonization. Nguyen Phuc Anh began to govern the delta at the end of the eighteenth century and eventually unified almost all provinces of today’s Vietnam under a single state, officially declaring the foundation of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802. The Nguyen Dynasty indirectly began to govern the Mekong Delta through local political leaders, but it lost control of many parts of the delta when Khmer rebellions against the centralization erupted in the 1830s (Kitagawa 2006, 182–183, 190, 221–222; Vũ Đức Liêm 2016, 89–91). As Vũ Đức Liêm observes, the Nguyen Dynasty attempted to demarcate boundaries (giới) by digging canals such as the Vinh Te canal, which is located not far from today’s national border, and to translate those physical markers into cartography. It did not, however, differentiate provincial boundaries from the national border when managing the “Khmer world” (Vũ Đức Liêm 2016, 93), and in that sense it can be said that the modern national border did not emerge during the Nguyen Dynasty. In the late nineteenth century, the delta and Cambodia were integrated into a federation of states known as French Indochina.2) Although the administrative line drawn between the two regions during the French era began to work as a national border in 1954, intensification of the Vietnam War during the 1960s, when several political forces collided,3) brought disorder to the borderland (Chandler 2008, 242–249). Even during wartime, people created many open-air marketplaces along the border in areas uncontrolled by the states (Lê Hương 1970, 10), and people migrated from Southern Vietnam to Cambodia to seek a higher Buddhist education or livelihood. However, as the Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia, notably in 1970—when the Norodom Sihanouk regime was overthrown in a coup by general Lon Nol, whose army units massacred hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians near Phnom Penh on the dubious grounds that they were allied with the Communists (Chandler 2008, 251)—a large number of Vietnamese citizens in Cambodia returned to Vietnam.4)

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, conflict between the unified Vietnamese government and the Khmer Rouge increased political tensions in the borderland. These tensions eased when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and established a pro-Vietnam government in Phnom Penh in 1979. Starting in 1975, the Vietnamese socialist economy stagnated, making it difficult for people to make a living. This, combined with the easing of border tensions, spurred people in the delta not only to flee Vietnam by sea as “boat people” but also to migrate overland to Cambodia and then to Thailand as refugees, laborers, or traders to access means of livelihood. Migration continued throughout the 1980s and increased in the early 1990s, when the economic boom in Phnom Penh under the governance of the United Nations offered promise in the face of the social dislocation and economic difficulty caused by Đổi Mới reforms and a new market-oriented economy in Vietnam.

According to Evan Gottesman (2003, 165–168), during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, the Vietnamese military established checkpoints along the border; and anyone from Vietnam who attempted to flee to Thailand via Cambodia was detained, disciplined, and forced to return to Vietnam. Gottesman also notes, however, that cross-border smuggling may have been secretly permitted by both the Hanoi and Phnom Penh governments during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Indeed, we know that Cambodian timber and rubber were smuggled into Vietnam, and beer and Vietnamese electric generators were smuggled into Cambodia (Gottesman 2003, 311–314). Research conducted for this paper confirms that from 1979 through the 1990s local migrants crossed the border using informal routes to avoid checkpoints, suggesting that border control was ineffective and undocumented migration occurred during that time.

It is generally assumed that the decollectivization and market liberalization stimulated by Đổi Mới reforms in 1986 eased economic difficulties in Vietnam on the whole, though there were still many poor in rural areas, especially areas with high ethnic minority populations, and the gap between the rich and the poor tended to widen (see Vo Tri Thanh and Pham Hoang Ha 2004, 83–84). According to Philip Taylor (2004), the result of decollectivization and land liberalization policies was that increasing numbers of Mekong Delta farmers had to sell their land and thus had—and still have—less access than ever to the profits from the delta’s agricultural economy.5) Taylor also mentions briefly that many farmers in the delta, especially Khmer people who missed out on many benefits of the liberal reforms, sought work in the urban centers of the delta, or in nearby cities such as Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (Taylor 2004, 237, 245, 252). Taking into consideration these arguments over Đổi Mới, this paper puts into focus the pattern of those who, failing to cope with the rapid penetration of the market economy, began to migrate to Cambodia in order to seek a livelihood.

Andrew Hardy observes, “at the heart of the Đổi Mới transition lay the process of land decollectivisation and it was this, above all, that undermined the state’s control over population mobility” (Hardy 2003a, 124). While Hardy’s (2003a; 2003b) research focuses mainly on the contemporary history of government-sponsored and spontaneous internal migration from the northern Red River Delta to Vietnam’s highlands, Iwai, Ono, and Ota analyze migrations from the Red River Delta to the floodplain of the southern Mekong Delta since the Đổi Mới reforms (Iwai et al. 2016). This paper deals with cross-border migration between Southern Vietnam and Cambodia as an extension of such internal migrations.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Vietnam gradually returned to international society, accelerating its market economy. Subsequent economic growth during the 2000s witnessed an explosion of industries around Ho Chi Minh City, which began to absorb the rural population. Reflecting this pattern, some people who had moved to Cambodia returned to their home in Vietnam due to its improving social and economic situation. In tandem with this phenomenon, control of migrants crossing the Vietnam-Cambodia border intensified and became more firmly institutionalized from the 2000s, as the government became more suspicious of the human and information flows from Cambodia.

One notable exception to this pattern is the regulation of Khmer monks from Vietnam crossing the border to study in Cambodia. This movement has been strictly regulated since 1975, due to Vietnam’s concern over those monks being influenced by the environment of anti-Vietnamese politics in Cambodia, as Taylor’s ethnographic studies observe (Taylor 2014, 59; 2016, 282–285).6) While Taylor’s research stresses Khmer monks’ migration to and from Cambodia, this paper focuses on the interaction between laypeople’s migration and state control, whose pattern is different from that of the monks.

Timothy Gorman and Alice Beban (2016) reveal that contemporary migrant workers from Vietnam cross the Cambodian border as farmers to cultivate shrimp, and Sango Mahanty (2019) analyzes traders circulating between Vietnam and Cambodia to buy and transport cassava. According to these studies, in order to mitigate their legally unstable position or to facilitate the transnational trade of cash crops, these border crossers voluntarily attempt to establish ties with state actors, such as border guards, military personnel, or local authorities.

Some migrants circulating between both countries today survive by making use of the social insurance provided to the poor in Vietnam and the economic boom of Cambodia’s borderlands. In so doing, they rely not only on the state’s insurance programs but also on middlemen in their homeland to arrange official documents such as passports and ID cards.

By explaining the historical changes in cross-border migration trends, this paper betters our understanding of why migrants from Vietnam have come to depend more on state actors since the 2000s. The paper is structured as follows. The first section presents an overview of the migration between Vietnam and Cambodia while reviewing some literature on borders and migration. After explaining the field site of P. village in the second section, the paper details the patterns of undocumented migration during Vietnam’s collectivization era (1975–86) in the third section, and during the early Đổi Mới reform era (1986–mid-1990s) in the fourth section. The fifth section discusses the circulation of migrants and Vietnamese regulation of the border and migrants in the post-Cold War era (from the late 1990s). In examining the changing migration trends and state regulations, this paper concludes that while interactions between border crossers and the state around the social acceptance (or “licit-ness”) and illegality of cross-border migration were invisible during the 1980s and 1990s (when undocumented migration was rampant despite the border being legally closed), they have come to the fore since the 2000s, when the border was institutionally opened to local people.

I Creation of a Border

In Southeast Asian historical studies, it is assumed that since the mapping and demarcation of modern national borders, the formation of the state and creation of nationhood have been actively pursued (Thongchai 1994). The border gradually emerges in people’s imagination of a nation through migration control policies such as exclusion or greater scrutiny (Osada 2011). Given this “hardening” of borders, some studies focus on how migrants strategically take advantage of social and economic differences on either side of the border, engaging in sophisticated cross-border smuggling using various, often corrupt, networks (Tagliacozzo 2005; Ishikawa 2010).

Itty Abraham and Willem van Schendel (2005) refer to the borderland as both a “licit” and an illegal space. They define licit activities not as permissible by law, but rather in contrast to the popular sense of “illicit” activities; in other words, licit activities are legally banned but socially sanctioned and protected. The borderland is a space formed by the intersection of multiple competing authorities and enforcements. Neighboring states often hold different views on both the law and licit-ness. As a result, what is considered licit, or what may be allowed on one side of the border, may be considered strictly illegal and not allowed on the other side. As people cross borders to work in sweatshops and brothels to avoid labor regulations or the vice police, strategic interactions or “border games” ensue between border enforcers and unauthorized border crossers (Abraham and Schendel 2005, 22–23).

In light of the border and migrant studies mentioned above, the case of P. village in Vietnam raises the question of how concretely migrants have etched the national border in their minds as a “boundary” to differentiate their own society from the society on the other side of the border. Many people in P. village migrated to Cambodia during the 1980s and 1990s to escape economic difficulty. This undocumented migration was not fully controlled by either of the two states, whose lax governments did not trace the mobility of border crossers after their initial border crossing or during long stays. This enabled the people in P. village to continue to recognize their own homeland and Cambodia as a mutually connected cultural and economic space, even after the establishment of the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Border crossing through informal routes was frequent at least until the 1990s, as border crossers relied on backstreets along the border, long-distance family or relative networks, personal experiences, and middlemen preparing land or sea transport. The cases from P. village demonstrate that the Vietnam-Cambodia border was not clearly “etched in the minds of people” as a boundary to regulate mobility or identities, and it did not strictly function as a political institution, as it was virtually porous and permeable until the late 1990s. Schendel (2005, 52) notes that the permeability of a border can differ along its length based on physical features, intensive policing of a particular section, cross-border agreements, and the varying degrees of physical or linguistic difference between borderlanders on either side. Due to a combination of these factors, the Vietnam-Cambodia border was very porous, and although not strictly legal, migration between the countries was habitual and licit, in that it was socially sanctioned among P. villagers and even overlooked and tolerated by the states.

However, the Vietnamese state has paid increasing attention to this undocumented migration and lack of border governance, especially since the early 2000s. Today the Vietnamese government pays particular attention to Khmer people crossing the border, due to the sensitivity of the territorial politics of the Mekong Delta, which in Cambodia is still called Lower Cambodia (Kampuchea Kr[a]om) and considered a territory taken by Vietnam. In the late 1970s, the Pol Pot regime raided the borderland on the Vietnam side with the aim of reclaiming the Mekong Delta (Chanda 1986, 96–98). However, the political presence of Khmer in the delta was temporarily forgotten when the pro-Vietnam government was installed in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Following Vietnam’s withdrawal of troops from Cambodia, the Vietnamese government lacked the ability to prevent local residents from crossing the border, and serious political problems relating to the border, migrants, and Khmer ethnicity did not surface until the late 1990s. However, since the early 2000s, as people, goods, and information from Cambodia have continued to flow into Vietnam, the Vietnamese government has become concerned that if the Khmer people have more contact with Cambodian society, previous political issues might resurface. The regulation of migrants from P. village, many of whom identify as ethnic Khmer, is closely connected with Vietnam-Cambodia border governance. As explained below, only since the 2000s have interactions between unauthorized migrants and territorial states around the licit-ness and illegality of cross-border migrations started to make themselves visible. This has happened even in P. village, which is located quite far from the border.

II Methodology and Field Site

This paper is based on oral histories and ethnographic data collected in P. village ()7) between December 2010 and March 2012. I lived and conducted fieldwork in the village for 15 months, collecting ethnographic data about society-state relations in everyday lives and oral histories of people’s survival strategies to avoid subsistence crises during wartime, the collectivization era, the early Đổi Mới reform era, and the post-Cold War era. I also conducted several one- to two-week research trips in the borderlands of Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as Phnom Penh, to gather information related to migration trends.

P. village is located 150 km from the Cambodian border on the east bank of the Bassac River in Soc Trang, a coastal province in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Soc Trang is home to many ethnic Khmer who have remained connected with Cambodian society through their language and Theravada Buddhism even after national border demarcation in the mid-twentieth century. The ethnic Khmer have lived together and intermarried with ethnic Chinese and Viets (ethnic Kinh, the majority in Vietnam).8)

According to Vietnamese government statistics from 2009, ethnic Viets (Kinh) are the largest ethnic group in the Mekong Delta, accounting for about 92 percent of the population; ethnic Khmer account for around 7 percent and ethnic Chinese just 1 percent (see Table 1). Within the delta, Soc Trang is ethnically diverse, with 64 percent of the population ethnic Viet, 31 percent Khmer, and 5 percent Chinese. The province is also recognized as having the largest Khmer population in Vietnam and the largest Chinese population in the delta. Within Soc Trang Province, P. village has a higher percentage of Khmer residents. Government statistics from 2011 show that 79 percent of P. village is ethnic Khmer, followed by ethnic Viet (19 percent) and ethnic Chinese (2 percent).9) In my survey, according to the ethnicity registered with the government, of the 395 people living in “Samrong ward (khu),”10) Q. hamlet (ấp), P. village, 390 were ethnic Khmer, 3 were Viet, and 2 were Chinese. However, 170 of the 390 people registered as Khmer had Chinese (154), Viet (13), or both Chinese and Viet (3) kinship ties among their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents on their father’s, mother’s, or both sides. Intermarriage between different ethnic groups is common, and as a result many villagers today identify themselves as ethnically mixed, or métis (in Vietnamese [VN], lai; in Khmer [KH], cat), and speak multiple languages.


Table 1 Populations of Vietnam, Mekong Delta, Soc Trang, and P. Village



Most residents of P. village maintain connections with Cambodian society through the Khmer language and Theravada Buddhism. Despite its distance from the Cambodian border, the village has two Khmer temples, from which monks, since at least the early twentieth century, have traveled to temples in Cambodia to undertake higher religious and secular education or to engage in meditation practices (Shimojo 2015, 24–33). The majority of villagers have relatives and acquaintances who travel to Cambodia for work, and many routinely cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

Examining changes in the local politics of P. villagers’ migration patterns enhances our understanding of the Vietnam-Cambodia border and cross-border migration for two reasons. First, the mobility of ethnic Khmer, who are the majority in P. village and in Cambodia, often leads the Vietnamese state to give importance to regulating the border and cross-border migration. Second, the village’s location far from the border exemplifies broader changes in migratory patterns in the Mekong Delta more accurately than a location on the border, reflecting which state (Cambodia or Vietnam) or which economic center (Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City) historically attracted people in the delta in response to the economic and political conditions of each era. Analysis of societies located in the borderlands, where people routinely cross the border for their economic and social needs, may not reveal such historical migratory patterns.

III Migration during the Collectivization Era (1975–86)

III-1 Refugee Migration

Refugees who fled Vietnam from 1975 to 1986 during collectivization were generally regarded as “boat people” who crossed the ocean (vượt biển). However, many migrants in P. village evacuated over land, relying on their local knowledge of Cambodian society to move from Vietnam to Thailand via Cambodia. The number of such people from P. village increased after early 1979.

Following the reunification of North and South Vietnam, the socialist regimes of Vietnam, China, and Cambodia entered a new phase in their interrelations, shifting from an outward “fraternal” cooperation (in support of Communist revolutionary movements) during the Vietnam War era to “fratricidal” conflict in the post-Vietnam War era. The Pol Pot regime spread anti-Vietnam sentiments, insisted on claiming territorial rights to the Mekong Delta, and frequently collided with Vietnamese military personnel stationed in the borderlands. Ultimately, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and occupied Phnom Penh in January 1979. To support the Pol Pot regime, China invaded Vietnam in February 1979, fighting in the Sino-Vietnam borderland (Elliott 1981, 8–10; Evans and Rowley 1984, 39, 45–57; Chanda 1986, 231–262; Kimura 1996, 76–90).

Due to the two international wars, ethnic Khmer and Chinese, and métis Khmer- and Chinese-Viets in P. village—whose loyalty to Vietnam was now suspect—were placed in a politically sensitive situation. In addition to the worsening of China-Vietnam state relations, most had lost their livelihoods due to the Communist government’s promotion of collective farming and redistribution of land, its direct purchase of food, and its establishment of a rationing system. Landlords, rice merchants, millers, and shopkeepers who had engaged in the production and distribution of exported rice were forced to close their businesses.

In response to the political and economic situation, some people decided to flee by land. Com (a Chinese-métis Khmer), a family member of a once-rich landlord in P. village, described the journeys of his younger brother and sister:

In Vietnam at that time, people were forced to participate in labor service [VN: công tác, KH: polakam], but they had no work of their own and no way to earn money. My younger brother crossed the Cambodia border and arrived in Thailand in 1979. He moved from Thailand to the Philippines by boat, and in the end he migrated to Canada. My younger sister and her husband arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand via Cambodia and migrated to Canada. Her husband had been engaged in the “revolution’s work,” but he had a difficult life.11)

As Com’s brother-in-law’s case reveals, the refugees included those who had participated in the “revolution’s work” as cadres of the new government, indicating that economic difficulty was a more serious factor than political positions when deciding to flee. Having local knowledge of Cambodia was also an important factor for those choosing to flee by land. Com’s eldest stepsister, Sang (an ethnic Khmer), pointed out that her younger brother had been sent to Phnom Penh as a South Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War, and therefore he was familiar with the city.12)

Upon Vietnam’s successful invasion of Cambodia, tensions in the borderlands caused by the international conflict rapidly eased and more people fled overland, defying the border and making use of their own language and past experiences.

III-2 Circulating Migration

Beginning in 1979, migrant workers and traders as well as refugees repeatedly passed thorough the porous border. Some people in P. village circulated repeatedly between Vietnam and Cambodia. Rat, an ethnic Khmer, said:

After the liberation, I didn’t engage in collective farming because it was troublesome. After the Pol Pot regime collapsed in 1979, I traveled every two weeks between Phnom Penh and P. village as a ku roup [painter]. I sold pictures for 5,000 riel each until I stopped going to Phnom Penh one year later. In Vietnam fertilizer and agricultural chemicals were scarce and the land was not fertile, but business was free in Cambodia. I passed through Kompot in Cambodia via Ha Tien by car to go to Phnom Penh. I didn’t cross the formal border but entered Cambodia by an informal route.13)

Although ku roup in Khmer means “painter,” strictly speaking Rat was not a painter. To earn money in Cambodia, he collected pictures of deceased people from bereaved families and brought those pictures to a painter in P. village. The painter created portraits of the deceased, and Rat then returned to Cambodia to sell them to the bereaved families.

Rat went to Cambodia not only because the restrictions on private activities in the black economy there were comparatively lax, but also because he was accustomed to Cambodian society. He had been to Phnom Penh as a monk to study Pali at Unalom Temple for a year in the late 1960s, as many Khmer monks in the delta had in the past. Rat could also take advantage of the informal car route connecting P. village with Phnom Penh via Ha Tien and Kompot (see Fig. 1) that was being created at the time. Rat’s narrative shows that repeated border crossing was possible because of the porous border.



Fig. 1 Mekong Delta and Vietnam-Cambodia Border

Source: Esri, GEBCO, DeLorme, NaturalVue | Esri, GEBCO, IHO-IOC GEBCO, DeLorme, NGS.


In the mid-1980s, some people even migrated to Thailand via Cambodia to engage in undocumented work. Han said:

I went to Thailand by car without a passport to work as a laborer [KH: kammakor], from 1986 to 1992. First I stayed in Phnom Penh for half a month, and after that I moved to Thailand. I did physical labor like loading and earned about 20 baht per day. The pay was a little bit better in Cambodia than in Vietnam at that time. Both Vietnam and Cambodia were under Communist rule, but Thailand was a liberal country. I stayed in Surin Province, Thailand, and I worked on a cassava farm for 20 baht per day. I could understand 80 percent of the Surin Khmer dialect. I don’t know which road I used to cross the border, because I just went along with others and got into a car. I was a manual laborer [KH: si chhunual ke]. Vietnam was very poor, and furthermore, we were obligated to participate in labor service for one month per year. Although I had farmland in 1985, we only produced one annual rice crop, which was not profitable.14)

It was possible for P. villagers, many of whom could speak Khmer, to work not only in Cambodia but also in Surin Province, Thailand, where many ethnic Khmer resided. Han’s narrative reveals that groups of migrant workers from Vietnam crossed the border via informal routes with the help of mediators who prepared transportation for workers’ groups to Cambodia and Thailand.

The two narratives above show that people from Vietnam went to Cambodia seeking less intervention in their lives and a freer economic space. After the Pol Pot regime was driven out of Phnom Penh in 1979, many people in the delta, especially Khmer speakers, crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border to escape difficulties in their lives brought about by state policies. Migration from Vietnam to Cambodia and Thailand during collectivization, not only to escape the political situation but also to partake in cross-border trade and migrant work, was possible because in the face of political chaos, the state powers could not control the porous border and the human flows searching for informal routes and work. During this time, although cross-border and internal migration was legally banned or restricted, it was socially licit in P. village and carried on across informal routes stretching from the village to Cambodia and on to Thailand. In that sense, the Vietnam-Cambodia border at the time did not function as a political apparatus to regulate interactions between migrants and the state or to functionally regulate the licit-ness or illegality of migrations.

IV Migration during the Early Đổi Mới Era (1986–mid-1990s)

IV-1 Withdrawal of the Vietnamese Military from Cambodia

At the beginning of the 1990s, the political situation in Cambodia began to change, prompted by the withdrawal of the Vietnamese military from that country. For a decade, Vietnam and the pro-Vietnam government in Cambodia (the Cambodian People’s Party) had fought with Pol Pot’s guerrillas and other anti-Vietnam forces that were supported by China and several Western countries. However, after mediation by the Soviet Union, which hoped to normalize its relations with China, Vietnam began to withdraw its military from Cambodia in June 1988, completing its withdrawal in September 1989 (Kimura 1996, 222–232; Gottesman 2003, 336–350). After the withdrawal, the political situation in Cambodia began to rapidly and drastically change. In 1991 the pro-Vietnam government and anti-Vietnam forces in Cambodia concluded the Paris Peace Accords. In 1993 the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) implemented a parliamentary election, which resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia and major changes in the country’s politics and economy. By 1989 the Cambodian People’s Party government had all but abandoned the socialist economic system, and in 1993 the new Kingdom of Cambodia government officially introduced a market economy system (Gottesman 2003, 280–300; Amakawa 2004, 4–14).

The change in the military power balance, political pluralization, and the introduction of a market economy in the early 1990s further motivated people in P. village to attempt to cross the border to escape economic difficulties.

IV-2 Undocumented Migration of the Poor into Cambodia

During the period of political change in Cambodia, the number of migrant workers from P. village seeking to escape economic difficulties increased to levels higher than the 1980s. The villagers I interviewed said that in the early 1990s the Cambodian economy was better than the Vietnamese economy, and that a significant number of Vietnamese citizens lived in Phnom Penh. In Samrong ward, Q. hamlet of P. village, the number of migrants going to Phnom Penh to work was markedly increased from 1992 to 2002 (see Table 2). To determine how and why people went to Phnom Penh, I analyzed the oral histories of several people in P. village who had made border crossings.


Table 2 Reasons for Migrating to Phnom Penh from Samrong Ward, 1979–2011 (unit: one person)



The main reason why people migrated to Cambodia was their inability to cope with the rapid development of the market economy in Vietnam after the initiation of Đổi Mới in 1986. Đổi Mới reforms brought private economic activities that had been part of the black economy during the Collectivization Era out into the open. As people began to engage in a wider range of crop productions, commercial production was diversified. In P. village, the cultivation of watermelon was popular at the end of the 1980s. According to an official monograph published by the communist party in Soc Trang province in 1988, trucks from Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho would gather at P. village just before Tet (the lunar new year), and merchants would purchase watermelon produced in the village (Vũ Lân et al. 1988, 61).

Than, a Khmer-métis Chinese villager who lived in Samrong ward, Q. hamlet of P. village, told me that he cultivated watermelons from 1988 to 1990. He and his wife transported the harvest by bus to sell in Ho Chi Minh City. The variety of watermelon he grew was large but did not taste very good, so he could sell the fruit only as decoration for the Tet celebration. Since he could harvest only once per year, Than found it increasingly difficult to make sufficient profit from this endeavor and eventually stopped. After that he mortgaged his farmland to Hang, who was also a resident of Samrong ward, for 100 kg of rice at twofold interest before going to Phnom Penh (rice was desired because it was a valuable currency during the economic dislocation of the time).15) Although some people, such as Than, attempted to produce new agricultural products, they did not receive any state support in the form of technical assistance, investments, loans, etc. Thus, they were at high risk of failure or becoming dependent on private moneylenders such as Hang, who often charged high interest rates.

Than said that he went to Phnom Penh for a year and a half from 1991 to 1992 with his wife and youngest daughter. Without a passport, he crossed the border not through a border gate but via an informal route. He worked as a traveling wharf laborer in a town near Phnom Penh, loading commodities onto a ship and traveling on the ship to Saigon, where he unloaded the items, and then repeating the cycle.16)

People moved to Cambodia also to be closer to relatives. According to Than, his adopted brother (his parents’ adopted child) had lived in Phnom Penh since 1982, so Than went to Phnom Penh relying on his relationship with his brother. His brother earned enough to live on, working in a factory manufacturing bottle lids. Than said that when he lived in Phnom Penh, he met many ethnic Viets who had migrated from Vietnam.17)

Don, another P. villager, went to Phnom Penh with his family to work during the 1990s due to food shortages, insufficient profit from agriculture, and lack of agricultural expertise. He explained that he had sold all of his land because his wife was sick and his five children were very young.18) According to his acquaintance, Don sold his land because, like many other villagers, he had failed in his watermelon cultivation enterprise.19)

Thus, Don went to Phnom Penh to escape the economic difficulties experienced by farmers in rural villages in the Mekong Delta and to take advantage of the economic boom in Cambodia. Under UNTAC, Phnom Penh offered a significant economic incentive that attracted poor wage laborers: US dollars were used by the foreign militaries stationed there, and the value of the US dollar was much more stable than that of Vietnamese đồng or Cambodian riel.

Don’s wife said that during the 1990s only agricultural wage labor such as rice harvesting was available in Vietnam. The average daily wage of a manual laborer in Cambodia was 5,000 riel for a woman and 8,000 riel for a man, but it was just 4,000 riel in Vietnam.20) In Phnom Penh, Don’s wife took care of housework while Don worked as a carpenter for 150,000 đồng per day.21) According to Don’s wife, the potential earnings in Phnom Penh meant that not only Khmer people born in Vietnam, but also many ethnic Viets, lived in Cambodia.22)

The final reason why Don’s family chose to go to Phnom Penh was that Don’s older sister had moved there before the Pol Pot regime was established,23) although, according to Don,24) she died during the Pol Pot era. Don’s wife explained that one reason they chose not to go to Ho Chi Minh City was because they had no acquaintances there. Thus, Don’s family chose to go to Phnom Penh to work because the city was not an unknown place. The experience of Don and others highlights the importance of family or acquaintance networks in choosing the routes migrants traveled along and their destinations.

During the 1990s, like the 1980s, circulating migrants traded commodities and worked in the borderlands of the two countries. Con, who lived in P. village, told me that in the early 1990s there was no work in Vietnam and wages were extremely low, even in Ho Chi Minh City. To earn money, he traveled repeatedly between Cambodia and Vietnam from 1992 to 1993. His father, Rat, as mentioned above, also repeatedly crossed between Cambodia and Vietnam as a ku roup (painter) around 1979, after the collapse of the Pol Pot regime. Con said that he also went twice a month to Takeo Province in Cambodia, near the Vietnam-Cambodia border, by local bus (xe đò) and collected pictures of deceased people by going door to door. Without a passport, he crossed the border either near Cam Mountain in Tinh Bien District or Sam Mountain in Chau Doc city in An Giang Province (see Fig. 1). His maternal uncle had migrated to Cambodia in the 1980s and worked as a goldsmith in Takeo Province.25) Con stayed at his uncle’s house.

The photographs in Fig. 2 are of the area surrounding a rice packaging factory located near the border in Tinh Bien District, An Giang Province in Vietnam, which is adjacent to Takeo Province in Cambodia. The borderland is located in a vast floodplain area, which is often inundated during the rainy season. The photographs show that there is no natural geography or official facilities to prevent people from crossing the border. In terms of intensive policing (Schendel 2005, 52), the Vietnam-Cambodia border, notably the Tinh Bien-Takeo borderlands, was more porous and permeable for people in P. village during the early Đổi Mới era than during the collectivization era. In addition, because internal migration was tolerated by the government after Đổi Mới, more and more people relied on informal and licit routes that had been continuously developed in several places since pre-Đổi Mới times, and where licit middlemen and networks prepared ships or land vehicles to enable cross-border migration.26)



Fig. 2 Landscape of the Vietnam-Cambodia Borderland Visible from Tinh Bien District, An Giang Province

Sources: Left: Satellite photo obtained from DigitalGlobe, Earthstar Geographics | NOSTRA, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS.
Right: Photograph looking toward the Vietnam-Cambodia border taken by the author at the location of the white spot in the photograph on the left.


IV-3 Economic Attraction of Phnom Penh in the Early 1990s

Whereas some people, such as Than, Don, and Con, relied on connections with family or relatives to go to Cambodia, others went based on their own experiences. For example, Thu, a Chinese-métis Khmer woman from P. village, had lived in Phnom Penh with her late husband from 1968 to 1973 or 1974, during the Vietnam War. After the initiation of Đổi Mới she was too poor to keep her land, so she sold it and returned with her five children to Phnom Penh, where she lived from 1992 to 2010. Without passports, Thu’s family took a local bus with what little money they had and crossed the border via an informal route in Tinh Bien District. When the family arrived in Phnom Penh, Thu found that all of her husband’s brothers had died during the Pol Pot era, and therefore she had no acquaintances left in the city. According to Thu, the prices of commodities in Cambodia in the 1990s were higher than those in Vietnam, but wages were better because Cambodia was economically more liberal. In 1993, when the United Nations established UNTAC, US currency became widely used in Cambodia. Thu opened a kiosk and sold food, while her children worked as laborers. She said that many ethnic Viets lived in Phnom Penh at that time. According to her, ethnic Viets, who comprised a larger population than Kampuchea Krom (Khmer born in Vietnam),27) spoke the Khmer language fluently and operated street stalls in the city.28)

During the early 1990s, people migrated to Cambodia because it offered better economic opportunities (including relatively higher wages). Although economically motivated, such migration relied on long-distance family or relative networks and personal experiences. The number of people crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia increased sharply in the early 1990s due to the rural economic depression in the Mekong Delta and political and economic transformation in Cambodia. Finally, undocumented border crossings were not fully controlled by the government because border governance at that time had not been sufficiently developed, and people noticed that many points along the border were still porous, especially in Tinh Bien District. Depending on family and other networks, and past memories and experiences connecting the two countries, people created informal and socially licit routes stretching out from their village toward the border and beyond.

V Migrants and Border Control in the Post-Cold War Era (from the Late 1990s)

V-1 People Circulating Legally between Vietnam and Cambodia

As mentioned above, the political and economic situation in Vietnam began to change in the 1990s. Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995, resulting in the removal of an embargo on external assistance, trade, investment, and loans entering the country. The main reasons for this change were the United States beginning to lift its economic sanctions on Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, the lifting of the US embargo on Vietnam in February 1994, and the US normalizing its diplomatic relations with Vietnam two weeks after the latter joined ASEAN (Kimura 1996, 283–285; Elliott 2012, 147–155). Vietnam became increasingly accessible to international society, and it became easier for Vietnamese who had moved overseas to return home to live.

The flow of people from P. village changed in line with the transformation in international politics. The major destination for people from P. village gradually changed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, the economic center of Vietnam, as the economic lure of Phnom Penh weakened. As shown in Table 3, the number of workers from Samrong ward migrating to Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding suburbs was markedly increased between 2001 and 2011. Many of the migrants found work at timber- or fruit-processing companies, industries that were growing rapidly around Ho Chi Minh City. In contrast, the number of workers migrating to Phnom Penh was low between 2003 and 2011 (see Table 2). However, the number of people traveling to Phnom Penh to visit family members increased between 2001 and 2010, suggesting that although the transnational relationship between P. village and Phnom Penh remained, the number of people moving to Phnom Penh for economic purposes was decreasing.


Table 3 Migrant Workers from Samrong Ward in Ho Chi Minh City and Its Suburbs by Type of Work, 1997–2011 (unit: one person)



In P. village, I often saw middle-aged or elderly people staying in the village for a few days or months but then suddenly leaving without notice. They would come from Cambodia and spend their time at a coffee shop engaging in enthusiastic chitchat with villagers regarding current news and rumors from Cambodia. They stayed with their children who lived in the village.

Some P. villagers earned enough to live in both countries by making strategic use of each country’s unique political and economic situation. For example, Son, who was staying temporarily in P. village in August 2011, told me:

From 1978 to 1979 I worked as a laborer in Ho Chi Minh City, but from 1983 to 1990 I migrated to Cambodia to work. In Cambodia, I sold bread as a day laborer. After that I returned to Vietnam, but even today I go to Cambodia every four or five months. At the moment I am staying in P. village for three or four days until my passport is renewed, and then I plan to return to Cambodia. Every time I cross the border, I do so in Tinh Bien District. There are three casinos in Ratanakiri [Cambodia]. One of them is managed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The casino’s customers come mostly from Vietnam, so my daughter works there because she can speak Vietnamese. I have no land in Vietnam, but I have 20–30 công (2.6–3.9 ha) of land in Ratanakiri.29) There are rubber tree plantations, and some foreigners are mining for gold there. In Vietnam, I can use medical services for free because I am recognized as a “poor household” by the government. Every time I get sick, I come back to Vietnam. When I have spent all of my money, I call my daughter and ask her to send me USD200–300.30)

Son survives thanks to the social insurance for the poor in Vietnam and the economic boom in the Cambodian borderlands. He went to Cambodia and worked as a laborer in an undocumented way at least until the 1990s, as did many villagers. As he recently verified his Vietnamese citizenship by getting a passport, he now simultaneously uses the preferential treatment for poor households in Vietnam while depending for money on his daughter who works at a casino near the border in Cambodia. Only foreigners are permitted to gamble at casinos in Vietnam, so many casinos have been built in the borderland on the Cambodian side, catering to customers from Vietnam.

V-2 Government Suspicion of Khmer Cross-border Migrants

Why is Son recognized by the Vietnamese government as belonging to a poor household, and how can he use the Vietnamese social insurance system? Starting in 2001, Vietnam’s government implemented policies to eliminate poor households, especially among ethnic minorities in the Mekong Delta.31) Today the local government in P. village gives high priority to social insurance policies for poor Khmer households. The government exempts these households from school expenses and provides housing or assistance for their living expenses.32) However, this special status is based on stereotypes and suspicion against Khmer within the Vietnamese government and society, which have historically considered Khmer to be poor. An official 1991 Communist Party document reports that ethnic Khmer do not receive enough of an education; therefore, some ethnic Khmer Communist Party members violate national policies because they do not understand the meaning of the ethnic and religious policies of the Party-state. The document also notes that the matter has had a negative impact on society, the economy, sentiment, thought, and politics.33) Therefore, the government now focuses on Khmer people in order to avoid such negative impacts. The document continues:

We must fight against the plots and means of the hostile forces who make use of historical issues, religious ethnic problems, and trifling mistakes, and distort plans, cause splits, stir up ethnic animosity, spread nasty rumors, and disrupt the implementation of the advocacies and policies of the Party-state.
 We organize and support ethnic Khmer in Southern Vietnam who hope to cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border to visit their relatives and acquaintances based on state laws, while restricting border crossings between the two countries. That is, we take people’s convenience into consideration while protecting public order in both our country and our neighboring country.34)

Thus, the Vietnamese government constructed a social insurance system for ethnic Khmer in Vietnam, a border control system, and a system to regulate migrants in order to eliminate negative impacts on the Party-state. In addition, the government, which was not stable enough to realize its political and economic policies until the 1990s, has attempted since the turn of the twenty-first century to integrate ethnic Khmer into the nation-state and cut off influence from Cambodia with the provision of social insurance.

One day in 2011, while staying in Soc Trang, I interviewed an official who recounted the following incident:

In 2009, before you came to Soc Trang, Khmer monks launched a protest against the government in Soc Trang Province. The protest broke out when traffic police arrested two monks for the violation of riding on the backseat of a motorbike. That affair was distorted and spread by evil people, who manipulated the monks into starting the protest. This incident is referred to as the “August Affair” among police.35)

Informants mentioned that the Vietnamese authorities were wary of “evil people,” or members of political organizations formed by Khmer going from Vietnam to Cambodia who identified themselves as “Khmer Kampuchea Krom (Khmer of Lower Cambodia).” Using various forms of media, such organizations accuse the Vietnamese Communist government of ignoring historical problems, human rights violations, and religious oppression of ethnic Khmer in Vietnam.

Taylor analyzes the contesting narratives as follows:

Although these contesting claims on the Khmers of Lower Cambodia/the Khmer minority of Vietnam are held with equal passion, each is coloured by deep ambivalence. Many Cambodians suspect that the Khmer Krom have been subject to Vietnamese assimilatory rule for so long that they are no longer fully Khmer. For their part, Vietnamese officials lament the recalcitrance of a minority group whom they label pejoratively as backward, insular and marginal, and whose continuing identification with Khmer nationalist mythology threatens the integrity of the Vietnamese nation. (Taylor 2014, 252)

How do these nationwide contestations affect local politics? The government has begun implementing conciliatory policies toward ethnic Khmer as it has become more cautious of them. For example, according to residents in P. village, although the government formerly fixed the date of Kathen—a Khmer festival after the end of the rainy season in which laypeople offer donations such as new robes to temples—since 2009 the authorities have allowed each temple to decide its own date on which to hold the festival.36) Also, during my stay in P. village, Communist Party members at the village, district, province, and even central government levels often visited Khmer temples during ritual ceremonies to donate large amounts of money.37)

While Vietnam’s government emphasizes that it is considerate of the Khmer ethnicity and religion in Vietnam, it remains extremely cautious, even when people try to import items for religious activities from Cambodia. A good example is the process of importing books of the Buddhist Pali canon (the representative Buddhist scripture). Theravada Buddhist temples have imported the canon from Cambodia for a long time. Even today, there is no publisher that can print the canon in the Khmer language in Vietnam, so temple representatives must go to Cambodia to buy the books themselves. However, bringing any books into Vietnam is a complicated process and requires support from a local official. Ke, who works as chairman of the Buon Temple Committee in P. village, recalled that in 2006 or 2007 he was able to buy the canon, but:

It took a total of two months to get my passport and complete the procedure. Than [a P. village policeman] offered to help me. It was necessary to get permission from the district committee to start the procedure. If we had imported the Pali canon without permission, it could have been confiscated. My wife and I hired a car and went to Phnom Penh with another policeman, the wife of the Party secretary in the village, and two monks. Although I invited Than, he was too busy with work to come with us. We bought about 100 volumes in a large building in Phnom Penh.38)

V-3 Role of Middlemen in Negotiating between the Local Community and the State

From 1998 to 2008, Than worked as a policeman and then as a member of the village people’s committee, and he has been a clerk for the Buon Temple Committee for a long time. He was a monk in the Buon Temple from 1971 to 1975 and can read and write both Khmer and Vietnamese, so he was responsible for the exchange of documents between the temple and the local government. Because he had experience dealing with affairs of public order and administration, he was the temple’s go-to person for government matters. He was also the preferred person for the temple to negotiate with the local government to obtain permission for religious activities and economic support from the secular authority. Than may be regarded as a middleman between his religious community and the secular authority.

Dealing with religious affairs was not his only work. As a sideline, he also instructed others on how to obtain official documents such as passports and ID cards. When I lived in P. village, people returning from or migrating to Cambodia would visit Than’s house and ask him to arrange the documents they needed. Than said that his monthly salary from the village people’s committee was only 830,000 đồng (USD41 in 2011) but he earned no less than USD50 per month through his side business.39)

The reason why Than could earn so much through this sideline is that the rate of literacy in the Vietnamese language among the villagers is very low, so most people are unable to deal with administrative procedures. The older people are, the more likely it is that they have received no public education.40) To avoid problems when dealing with administrative procedures, people are dependent on Than, who studied to junior high school level and is now a government official.

Than also has knowledge of administrative procedures relating to people who crossed the border without documents, such as those who moved to Cambodia from 1979 to the early 1990s without a passport or ID card and recently returned home. For example, Thu said that although she returned to Vietnam in 2010 after crossing the border without a passport in the early 1990s, she still had not received her Vietnamese citizen ID card as of 2012.41)

Although it seems that Thu does not have any intention of returning to Cambodia, many people still travel back and forth between the two countries. Because the local government exerts strict control over those crossing the border, migrants depend on middlemen such as Than who can help them obtain a passport and ID card. In fact, Than himself had been to Phnom Penh to work without possessing a passport in the early 1990s, and so he had a good understanding of the migrant’s situation.

Both the local community and the state need middlemen like Than. If the Vietnamese government attempts to excessively restrict the flow of migrants, singling out the movement of Khmer people across the border, the state’s legitimacy may be questioned, as it officially claims to be a multiethnic state that treats each of its 54 ethnicities equally. Excessive restrictions may upset residents who have historically been connected with Cambodian society though Theravada Buddhism. Mediated by local middlemen, cross-border migrants and the local government now negotiate over their belonging and identities regulated by the national border. In other words, after migrants and the state started to negotiate around the licit-ness and illegality of cross-border migrations, people had no choice but to be conscious of the border’s existence and their nationalities.


Cross-border movement has long been accepted as a licit (formally illegal but socially acceptable) (Abraham and Schendel 2005, 22–23) activity by the local community in P. village and overlooked by both the Vietnamese and Cambodian states. Even after the Vietnam War ended and North and South Vietnam were unified, state power was too limited to control the flow of refugees and migrant workers across the border, mainly because political control in the borderlands became lax with the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in 1979. The Đổi Mới reforms prompted the development of a market-oriented economy and a marked political transformation in both countries from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. However, the process of rapid market liberalization coupled with the lack of social insurance policies in Vietnam also sent many peasants in Vietnam into economic difficulty. They fled life in Vietnam, traveling without a passport or documents via informal routes and across the porous border to Cambodia, where political changes and the rise of the market economy were more intense, to find work. Licit middlemen and transnational human networks facilitated their movement by preparing sea or land vehicles along these routes, which had developed and adapted since the pre-Đổi Mới era. Although it is generally assumed that the Đổi Mới reforms drastically improved people’s livelihoods, this paper suggests the contrary. Without any official state support, people who decided to migrate due to the rural economic depression in Vietnam and the political and economic transformation in Cambodia had no choice but to rely on local moneylenders, family networks, and past experiences to secure livelihoods.

The situation changed in the early 2000s. Vietnam had joined ASEAN, accelerating its return to international society and the removal of many restrictions on the entry of foreign assistance into the country in the late 1990s. As a result, it experienced rapid economic development in the 2000s. Some people in P. village began to return to Vietnam from Cambodia due to the improving social and economic situation; others circulated between the two countries, taking advantage of better economic opportunities in Cambodia and the social insurance that the Vietnamese government began to provide. However, the establishment of greater political stability and a borderless market-oriented economy made Vietnam’s government recognize the importance of ensuring control of the border.

To this day, many of those who returned from Cambodia do not possess passports or official ID cards because they crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border during the 1980s and 1990s in an undocumented way. Local authorities in Vietnam continue their efforts to confirm the citizenship of these returnees, particularly because of the government’s concern that Khmer nationalists in Cambodia might instigate unrest among ethnic Khmer in Vietnam. Increasing amounts of information about Cambodia are reaching local communities in Vietnam through these returnees. Therefore, the Vietnamese government has recently attempted to regulate people’s movements and improve their recognition of the state’s territory by confirming citizenship and controlling the flow of information. At the same time, it is implementing insurance policies and conciliatory actions to appease ethnic Khmer.

These policies cut both ways. To deny the ethnicity and religion of the Khmer would call into question the legitimacy of the multiethnic state and produce discontent. Therefore, the government has no choice but to respect the ethnicity of Khmer in Vietnam while simultaneously denying the historical social ties between Khmer in Vietnam and Cambodia. For their part, local people are seeking out information and commodities from Cambodia and crossing the border as part of their everyday lives. The struggle between society and state reveals itself through middlemen who mitigate the concerns of both sides.

The situation in P. village reveals a dichotomy of social acceptance (licit-ness) and illegality with regard to migrants crossing the border. This dichotomy has recently become a political issue: as Vietnam’s government intensifies its control of Khmer migrants who cross the border, the contradiction of the Vietnamese state territory and the principles underlying the government’s ethnic and religious policies becomes more visible. Although the Vietnamese government has attempted to restrict the flow of migrants across the border and integrate them into the nation-state as an “ethnic minority,” excessive regulation of migration would reveal the contradiction with the state principle to equally protect ethnic minority cultures, and in turn create discontent in society. On the other hand, local people must increasingly depend on state actors in order to make strategic use of the social and economic differences between Cambodia and Vietnam while avoiding excessive state control.

Today the Vietnamese state and border crossers continue subtle negotiations over the latter’s belonging and identities, the duality of which has been socially sanctioned (licit) but is now becoming regulated by the national border, particularly through middlemen who meditate between the local government and migrants. Such negotiation was not visible during the 1980s and 1990s, when the border between the two countries was virtually porous despite being legally closed; it has become visible only since the early 2000s, when the political and economic situation of each country began to stabilize and mobility between the two countries was openly institutionalized and legalized. The changes in migratory patterns indicate that the national border, despite being mapped and officially established, is not always etched in the minds of people. This is especially true of minorities who have connections with people in the neighboring country. Rather, the national border begins to be etched through everyday and continuous interactions between state actors, who become suspicious of influence from a foreign country, and cross-border migrants, who become dependent on the state for their needs.

Accepted: August 4, 2020


I began writing this paper based on an earlier paper published in Japanese (Shimojo 2018), but thanks to the constructive criticism by anonymous reviewers, I was able to submit a completely revised version. I would like to thank the reviewers for their assistance related to previous studies and conceptualizations related to migration and borders, and editorial suggestions. In addition, I would like to thank my excellent copy editor, Jackie Imamura, who repeatedly proofread my unclear paper. All errors remain mine.


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Vũ Đức Liêm. 2016. Vietnam at the Khmer Frontier: Boundary Politics, 1802–1847. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 20: 75–101.

Vũ Lân (Chủ Biên); Phương Hạnh; and Bạch Mai. 1988. Xã P, Đất nước Con người [P Village (or Commune), Country, and People]. Hậu Giang: Ban Chấp hành Đảng bộ và Ủy ban nhân dân Huyện Mỹ Tú – Hậu Giang [Committee of the communist party and people’s committee of My Tu district, Hau Giang].

Unpublished Sources
Công văn UBND Xã P [People’s committee of the P village (or commune)], Bảng Tổng hợp toàn số, khẩu [Table / Data for total population], 2011.

Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, Ban Chấp hành Trung ương [The central committee of the communist party of Vietnam], Số: 68CT/TW, Chỉ thị về Công tác ở Vùng Đồng bào Dân tộc Khơ-mer [No. 68 CT/TW, directive on mission in Ethnic Khmer Regions], April 18, 1991.

Thủ tướng Chính phủ [Prime Minister], Số: 74/2008/QĐ-TTg, Quyết định về Một số Chính sách Hỗ trợ giải quyết đất ở, đất sản xuất và Giải quyết việc làm cho Đồng bào dân Tộc thiếu số nghèo, đời sống khó khăn vùng Đồng bằng sống Cửu Long Giai đoạn 2008–2010 [No. 74/2008/QĐ-TTg, decision on compensation, support upon living land and manufacturing land, and employment solving for poor ethics groups in the Mekong Delta from 2008–2010], June 9, 2008.

Usuki Sayaka 薄さやか. 2013. Kambojia kingendaishi ni okeru ningen shudan bunrui gainen カンボジア近現代史における人間集団分類概念 [People-Grouping concepts in the modern history of Cambodia]. Master’s thesis, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.

DigitalGlobe, Earthstar Geographics | NOSTRA, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS., accessed June 8, 2020.

Esri, GEBCO, DeLorme, NaturalVue | Esri, GEBCO, IHO-IOC GEBCO, DeLorme, NGS., accessed June 8, 2020.

1) The naming of the era is based on local naming practices; those in my field site call the era thời tập đoàn (collectivization era), rarely using the term thời bao cấp (rationing era), which is generally much better known.

2) On the migration between French Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam today) and the Protectorate of Cambodia by Khmer monks, see my paper in Japanese (Shimojo 2015).

3) These were the South Vietnamese and Cambodian governments, the United States, the National Liberation Front, and the Khmer Rouge.

4) The official number of Vietnamese citizens in Cambodia decreased from 400,000 in 1969 to 210,000 in 1970 (VNCHBKHPTQG 1973, 387).

5) In Khanh Hau village, Long An Province in the Mekong Delta, where several Japanese scholars conducted intensive fieldwork in the late 1990s, the farmland shared by the agricultural collectivization was returned to the former owners by Đổi Mới reforms, resulting in large numbers of landless households. Among them, not only the original landless households but also some others became landless because the process of land inheritance between generations did not catch up with the rapid population growth over 40 years (Iwai 2001, 121).

6) When Buddhist and secular educational institutions were revived and restructured in the 1990s in Cambodia, many Khmer monks from Vietnam resumed undocumented travel to Cambodia for study, but the Vietnamese government attempted to restrict them from going (Taylor 2016).

7) Although is often translated as “commune,” this paper translates as village, because the people in P. village do not distinguish between the terms làng (natural village) and (the smallest administrative unit), treating both as the same.

8) The people in P. village use the term “Viet” rather than “Kinh.” Based on the local context, I use “Viet” in this paper.

9) Công văn UBND Xã P, Bảng Tổng hợp toàn số, khẩu, 2011.

10) Samrong ward, which is located in Q. hamlet (ấp) of P. village, is the focus of this study. Although it is not an official place name, in my fieldwork I used this name for convenience of explanation. Q. hamlet is officially separated into three wards. Samrong ward encompasses most of ward 2 and part of ward 3. At the time of my household survey (December 2011–January 2012), Samrong ward had 663 residents (713 including people traveling to work outside of the ward). I lived in an area known in the Khmer language as “Phno (dunes) located on the fringe of the Samrong trees.” Thus, I named the study area “Samrong ward.”

11) Interview with Com (born 1950), male, Chinese-métis Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, March 6, 2012.

12) Interview with Sang (born 1936), female, Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, January 12, 2012.

13) Interview with Rat (born 1948), male, Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, February 28, 2012.

14) Interview with Han (born 1951), male, Chinese-métis Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, February 22, 2012.

15) At that time, Hang had enlarged his farmland by claiming the land of another debtor who was unable to repay his debt. Interview with Than (born 1955), male, Khmer-métis Chinese, member of P. village people’s committee, living in P. village, February 22, 2012.

16) Interview with Than, February 22, 2012.

17) Interview with Than, March 1, 2012.

18) Interview with Don (born 1953), male, Khmer, carpenter, living in P. village, September 9, 2011.

19) Interview with Than, February 22, 2012.

20) The exchange rate at the end of December 1992 was USD1 = 2,310 riel (Tomiyama 1993).

21) The exchange rate at the end of December 1992 was USD1 = 10,505 đồng (Murano 1993).

22) Interview with Don’s wife (born 1954), female, Chinese-métis Khmer, homemaker, living in P. village, February 29, 2012.

23) Interview with Don’s wife, February 29, 2012.

24) Interview with Don, March 4, 2012.

25) Interview with Con (born 1973), male, Khmer, guard at a junior high school, living in P. village, March 4, 2012.

26) The people whom I have interviewed so far mentioned Tinh Bien (a vast floodplain, see Fig. 2), Ha Tien (a port city on the Gulf of Siam), and Long Binh (a city along the Bassac and Binh Di Rivers) as popular informal border crossing areas during the 1980s and 1990s. These areas today have official border gates through which almost all people can cross with a passport.

27) In 1970, when the Cambodian civil war broke out, the number of “Vietnamese citizens” in Cambodia decreased sharply from 400,000 to 210,000 (VNCHBKHPTQG 1973, 387). The number of “Vietnamese” was just 8,200 in 1981, when the Vietnamese military invaded, but had increased to 95,600 by 1995 (Usuki 2013, 26–28). It is unclear whether “Vietnamese” in some of the surveys conducted at that time referred to ethnic “Viets” or “Vietnamese citizens,” including ethnic Khmer born in Vietnam. Furthermore, it is unclear whether people who migrated from Vietnam without possessing passports were counted in these statistics. However, what is certain is that the number of people classified as “Vietnamese” was increasing.

28) Interview with Thu (born 1947), female, Chinese-métis Khmer, seller of cheap candy, living in P. village, February 24 and March 3, 2012. In 2010 Thu moved back to P. village, where she set up a small business selling candy.

29) Công is the local unit for measuring land; 1 công is about 0.13 ha.

30) Interview with Son (born 1952), male, Khmer (his father was born in Cambodia), wage laborer, living in P. village and Ratanakiri, August 11, 2011.

31) Thủ tướng Chính phủ, Số: 74/2008/QĐ-TTg, Quyết định về Một số Chính sách Hỗ trợ giải quyết đất ở, đất sản xuất và Giải quyết việc làm cho Đồng bào dân Tộc thiếu số nghèo, đời sống khó khăn vùng Đồng bằng sống Cửu Long Giai đoạn 2008–2010, June 9, 2008.

32) Interviews with Than, January 13, 2011 and 7 March 7, 2012; Son, August 11, 2011; Cang (born 1950), male, Khmer, traditional medical practitioner, living in P. village, August 18, 2011.

33) Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, Ban Chấp hành Trung ương, Số: 68CT/TW, Chỉ thị về Công tác ở Vùng Đồng bào Dân tộc Khơ-mer, April 18, 1991.

34) Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, Ban Chấp hành Trung ương, Số: 68CT/TW, Chỉ thị về Công tác ở Vùng Đồng bào Dân tộc Khơ-mer, April 18, 1991.

35) Interview conducted on September 7, 2011. I have anonymized the interviewee in order to protect the interviewee from political persecution.

36) Interview with Pho (born 1971), male, Chinese-métis Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, October 16, 2011.

37) Author’s field notes, September 26–27, 2011.

38) Interview with Ke (born 1940), male, Khmer, farmer, March 6, 2012. It can be assumed that Ke bought the Pali canon at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh.

39) Interview with Than, February 8, 2012.

40) In Samrong ward, P. village, of the 419 people over 20 years old, 89 had never studied at a public school, 172 had studied in a primary school, and 111 had studied in a secondary school. Thus, the majority had never studied in a public school or had studied only up to primary school level (based on the author’s survey conducted from November 2011 to January 2012).

41) Interview with Thu, March 3, 2012.


Vol. 6, No. 1, NGUYEN Thi Thanh Binh


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Multiple Reactions to Land Confiscations in a Hanoi Peri-urban Village

Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh*

* Institute of Anthropology, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, 10th Floor, No 1, Lieu Giai Street, Ba Dinh district, Hanoi, Vietnam
e-mail: nguyenttbinh[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_953

This article examines the impact of urban expansion on a peri-urban village of Hanoi. It seeks to understand how villagers reacted to the decision by Hanoi city to take their agricultural land for urban projects. By exploring the forms of land protest adopted in this community and the diverse factors that shaped reactions in this particular case, the article contributes to the literature on responses to land confiscation in Vietnam and elsewhere. The paper shows a community divided over recent land confiscations and the complexity of the politics of resistance in land disputes in modern-day Vietnam.

Keywords: urbanization, rural transformation, land appropriation, land protest, Vietnam

In the decades since the economic reforms of the 1980s, Vietnam’s urban and rural landscapes have changed dramatically as the country experiences a rapid rise of industrialization and modernization. For many years, an invisible urbanization had been taking place in rural areas based on intensified agriculture, expansion and development of handicrafts, and migration for employment by farming households (DiGregorio 2011). With the urban development strategy launched in the 1990s of “infilling and expansion,” urbanization by “administrative integration,” and the expansion of industrial parks, many new urban areas and industrial zones have been established in what once were primarily wet-rice-growing peripheries of major cities such as Hanoi. By applying the state’s right to allocate and appropriate land for the purpose of “national defense, security, national interest, public interest, and economic development,” local governments have reallocated agricultural land to developers. The government has negotiated with farming households in project areas and compensated the households for the reallocated land on a fixed-rate basis. From 2001 to 2005 the state appropriated 366,400 hectares of agricultural land; by 2010 the total rose to roughly 745,000 hectares, affecting some nine million farming people, or about 10 percent of the country’s population (Kerkvliet 2014, 20). In Hanoi alone, from 2000 to 2004 the city converted 5,496 hectares of land for 957 projects; this had critical consequences for the living and working conditions of 138,291 households, among them 41,000 classified as agricultural households (Hồng Minh 2005). In that context, rural communities, especially peri-urban villages, have been facing both opportunities and challenges to develop and better themselves.

Research on urbanization in Vietnam has highlighted a set of problems that have become manifest as the urbanization process extends into the peri-urban landscape. These problems include land degradation, chaotic land use practices, growing income inequalities, dispossessed farmers unable to find jobs in the urban economy, and land disputes (Nguyen Duy Thang 2004; Tran Duc Vien et al. 2005; Vu Hong Phong 2006; Trần Thị Hồng Yến 2013; Labbé 2014; Nguyễn Văn Sửu 2014). Inspired by violent standoffs between farmers and the local government during land disputes in 2012,1) some studies on land protests in Vietnam have explored disputes in rural settings by focusing on factors that instigate conflict, and the modes and contexts in which it occurs (Gillespie 2014; Kerkvliet 2014; Taylor 2014). While those works identify patterns in how and why recent land-related protests arose and analyze the discourses that guide and control disputes, they do not capture all the complexities of land disputes. The main reason is these studies focus more on the political implications of land conflicts than on land protests in a social context. In these studies, land protests are shown as dispossessed farmers’ responses to land expropriations, which do not reflect the complexity of rural communities’ reactions; nor do the studies examine all the processes by which the disputes have been formed and transformed.

To date, little attention has focused on the important issue of internal village conflicts over land confiscations for urbanization. In her case study in a Hanoi peri-urban village named Hoa Muc, Danielle Labbé (2011) describes the reaction of people in that village during several periods of land grabs. The case study examines the role of elderly people in opposing the local government’s project to build a cultural house in front of the village communal house. The study gives some indication of the social division among villagers and suggests the complication of the politics of resistance in contemporary Vietnam. Nevertheless, more can be said about the complexity of local reactions to land expropriation in the current era.

This article shows how both urbanization and land conflict bring to light differences among villagers’ reactions to land confiscation in a peri-urban village of Hanoi. Drawing upon recent fieldwork, the study seeks to understand how villagers of different ages, genders, and occupations have reacted to the decision of Hanoi city authorities to take their agricultural land for urban projects. It provides an in-depth anthropological study of the dynamics of the land appropriation process and the responses of farmers faced by great changes in land use and livelihoods. The study shows how and why the community has been divided over land confiscations, which has been exacerbated by villagers’ protests. It demonstrates that despite most farming households not wanting to lose their agricultural land or accept low compensation, not all of them participated in the land protest. Illustrating the contestatory nature of land conflicts in contemporary Vietnam, this paper aims to bring more evidence to the complexity of the politics of resistance in land disputes in today’s Vietnam. Like Labbé (2011) and Benedict Kerkvliet (2014), I try to contribute to the literature on responses to land confiscation in Vietnam and elsewhere by investigating forms of land protest in this community besides the “rightful resistance” (O’Brìen 1996) approach and uncovering the diverse factors that shaped those reactions in this particular case.

Rightful Resistance Theory and Land Protests in Vietnam

Over the last three decades, Southeast Asian countries have experienced a dramatic change in land use and social relations around land. Economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization have led to the conversion of large amounts of agricultural land to urban use as well as various commercial and industrial purposes (Hall et al. 2011, 1). In India, during the last decade Special Economic Zones have become centers of “land wars” as farmers across the country have resisted the state’s use of eminent domain to transfer their land. In the case of China, between 1987 and 2003 urban expansion transformed 10 million to 12 million hectares, about one-tenth of the country’s total area, from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Together, between 1990 and 2007, farmland conversion and inner-city redevelopment displaced between 60 million and 75 million people in both urban and rural areas (Hsing 2010, 2). Throughout the region, this urban expansion seemed to be based on the logic of dispossession (Hsing 2010; Levien 2012) or the “powers of exclusion” (Hall et al. 2011), which triggered increasingly explosive and widespread social unrest.

While reactions to land grabs have occurred in various countries in the region, significant explorations and discussions on the nature of this phenomenon concentrate mostly on China, where the number of land protests has been increasing since the late 1990s. In that context, the theory of rightful resistance, which was first explained by Kevin O’Brien (1996) and later elaborated by Kevin J. O’Brien and Li Lianjiang (2006), has been influential. According to this theory, rightful resistance is a form of popular contention against the state in which groups of weak peasants use nonviolent methods, make use of institutionalized channels to press their claims locally, and then entreat higher-level officials to help. The nature of rightful resistance is peaceful; however, rightful resisters actively seek the attention of the elites, and their protests are public and open. People make use of the state’s own laws, policies, or rhetoric in framing their protests.

Vietnam for a long time has been a fertile land for studies on peasant resistance in which theories of moral economy, the rational peasant, or the power of the weak2) are introduced or elaborated. Against a background of increasing land disputes in recent times, scholarly works on protests over land in rural Vietnam undergoing urban expansion “have moved beyond the everyday resistance model, which used to be fruitful to study politics in rural Vietnam, to focus on a contestatory mode of politics” (Taylor 2014, 4). Labbé applied a rightful resistance approach to examine resistance to land redevelopment projects and found that “groups of villagers relied on a strategy of ‘rightful resistance’ embedded in the official discourse of deference, inasmuch as they based their claims on official policies and ethical pronouncements by the Vietnamese party-state itself” (Labbé 2011, 453). The core of resisters’ discourse of rightful resistance to preserve their village communal house is “a sense of place and of social justice drawn from history, geography and tradition. People claim for their right to safeguard values they hold in common” (ibid.). In another recent investigation drawing upon more than 60 case studies of land dispute in Vietnam, Kerkvliet (2014) found that the predominant pattern for how Vietnamese today protest about land issues resonates with rightful resistance theory. In this form of resistance, “people in the same community peacefully demand that national officials make local authorities abide by the law” (Kerkvliet 2014, 26). However, some Vietnamese villagers’ demonstrations do not fit this pattern and theory, such as when “angry villagers have collaborated with land protesters in other parts of the nation, and their protests, despite usually being non-violent, have not always been so” (ibid., 40). According to the author, in most cases the reason why people’s protest exceeds rightful resistance theory is that “Vietnamese people frequently challenge existing laws pertinent to their grievances and assert rights that go beyond those officially recognized” (ibid., 21). For instance, some people refuse to surrender their land-use rights based on the notion that it is unjust to take land against the will of families who have served the Vietnamese nation (Kerkvliet 2014).

In this study, I also apply rightful resistance theory to analyze why and how Lụa villagers protest. Like Kerkvliet (2014), I find that the reasons Lụa people reacted and did not accept land appropriation at the beginning go beyond the explanation provided by rightful resistance theory. Since the collective village protest ended, some villagers have been continuing their own protest, which sometimes has involved violence, as they have tried to resist the local government’s decisions. By examining the protest in process, I found that activists in the village community used some tactics that commonly have been associated with Vietnam’s tradition of peasant revolutionary politics to mobilize their co-villagers to join their protest activities or to exert more pressure on local authorities to support their claim or meet their demands. Like Labbé (2011), I found that the village community was divided during the protest; but I will elaborate in more detail how the land confiscation impacted on the cohesiveness of this community. The paper aims to make a deeper contribution to what is already known about the reaction of local Vietnamese to land appropriation in a context of rapid urbanization.

Research Method and Research Site

This paper is drawn from field research conducted in Lụa3) village in 2014. The research was carried out using both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. For the quantitative component, 200 household questionnaires were surveyed to determine the socioeconomic situations of households. Information was collected on landownership and transfer, other personal and productive assets, income, and consumption expenditure. In this article, the quantitative survey results are not presented and are used only to understand the social context of the village. For the qualitative component, which represents the core of this paper, 60 semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals in the village. Half of these individuals were identified from the quantitative questionnaires, while the remainder were selected to ensure a broad representation of the village by age, gender, educational background, occupation, marital status, and economic status. The interview included open-ended questions on informants’ personal information and their families’ socioeconomic situation. Villagers were free to share their opinions, feelings, and thoughts on urbanization and land appropriation. In order to gain an understanding of the villagers’ reaction to land appropriation, we posed questions on this topic to some villagers who we believed played an important role or were directly involved in the protest, including both ordinary villagers and local authorities. Based on information provided by respondents, we tried to meet and interview other villagers who were involved in the incidents. Questions were raised on the responses of people and their participation in the village protest.

Located to the west of Hanoi, Lụa village is well known for its craft tradition. Despite experiencing various administrative changes in the late colonial and revolutionary periods, prior to 2006 Lụa village belonged to one of the lowest administrative units (a commune) of Hoài Ðức District, Hà Tây Province.4) Rice cultivation and silk weaving were the two main livelihoods of villagers for as long as can be remembered. After the August revolution of 1945, traditional weaving died out.

Immediately after the decollectivization of local agriculture in the late 1980s, Lụa people diversified their economic activities, aided by their close geographical position to Hanoi. Prior to 2009, approximately 70 percent of over 2,000 households in the village were agricultural households that also engaged in petty trade, hired labor, food processing, or small service industries. Thirty percent of households were non-agricultural. The majority of these were traders at markets in the city as well as entrepreneurs who owned weaving and cloth dying workshops in the village. The remainder ran a variety of businesses ranging from wood workshops to garment workshops, tobacco trade, food shops, and the like. The dynamics of Lụa village trade can be seen as a continuation of the craft village tradition. It is possible to say that the 30 percent trading and craft households were also ranked as wealthy people in the village. The other 70 percent of households had a relatively stable livelihood created by intensifying their cash crops, peach tree flowers, and petty trade. Compared to other surrounding villages, Lụa was considered one of the well-off villages in the region and one that had the internal capability to develop itself.

Under the urban growth policy in the region, on March 1, 2006 the commune to which Lụa village belonged was assigned to Hà Ðông town (Hà Tây Province). In June 2009, soon after Hà Tây merged with Hanoi city, Lụa village became an urban administrative unit belonging to Hà Ðông District. Given its convenient location, Hà Ðông District urbanized rapidly: between 2005 and 2010, new roads and housing projects were quickly implemented. Two major roads were opened and cut through Lụa village in 2006 and 2007.

In 2008, the local government developed a plan to take most of the village land for new urban projects. Accordingly, more than 300 hectares of agricultural land in Lụa and another village in the same ward (more than 90 percent of the total agricultural land of Lụa) were appropriated for 13 projects. The biggest project was Ha Dong New Urban Centre5) (Khu Ðô thị mới), which has an area of 197 hectares. It consists of a service complex, a shopping center, hotels, offices, high-end housing, and a hospital. Besides these, there are several other housing projects and one international school.

The Village Protest

Although Lụa villagers had realized for some years that urbanization of their communities was inevitable, many of them were quite shocked when it actually happened. In 2006, when a major road opened and cut Lụa village in two, some households lost their cultivated land to the road expansion, but nobody protested. People accepted the compensation even though it was lower than that paid to villagers later for other mega projects,6) because they understood it as a public works project that served the needs of the state for building infrastructure.

In early 2008, there was a rumor that most of the village land would be appropriated for road construction and housing projects with a compensation of about VND86 million per sào (about USD4,000 for 360 m2) plus 10 percent of the reclassified land, referred to as “service land.”7) An old farmer in the village recalled his feeling at that time:

“I felt dizzy at the rumor. I myself had 13.7 thước8) [314 m2]. My children had their own portions. If I lost all the land, I would receive about VND80 million plus about 18 m2 service land. But to have that 18 m2 I would have to pay almost VND40 million for infrastructure fees. If I had no more land to grow peach trees, how would I earn a living? Each year, on average, I need over VND10 million for my own expenditure. With VND40 million left, I could live for three years. After that I might have to sell the 18 m2 service land to live on. As I am old, who would give me work? I was really dizzy.” (Mr. Ngọ, 60 years old)

Hiền, a 40-year-old man in the village, recalled a similar sentiment: “When I heard about the land appropriation, I could not sleep for several nights. I was lying here, thinking and worrying about what I would do after losing the land.”

In this atmosphere of apprehension, villagers grouped together to discuss the rumor. At first people thought that their land was going to be taken for state projects, so they mostly discussed compensation. Later, they discovered that it was to be taken by private companies and corporations. People discussed the state’s compensation policies (Kim 2011) at length: the government would give back 10 percent of service land plus VND201,600 per square meter and financial compensation for lost income from crops.9) Compensation was also to be offered for job training services. Villagers received VND86 million (more than USD4,000 in 2008) per sào (360 m2) in compensation. They began comparing Lụa to their neighboring village of Ngòi,10) where for the same project VND97 million per sào was paid. Ngòi village was already a ward of Hà Ðông town, while Lụa village, being part of a larger commune, was still a rural village commune in a peri-urban environment. The land values of urban and rural areas were thus considered different.

In the eyes of the state authorities, standard levels of compensation, based on location and land area, are calculated on the principle that farmers have only usage rights, not property rights, over land (Asia Foundation et al. 2014). However, Lụa villagers wanted a higher amount of compensation—not only because their land was adjacent to Ngòi village, but, as they pointed out, Ngòi’s rice land was less valuable than the land that Lụa villagers were using to produce cash crops. The village is known as the “peach tree village” for its peach trees and flowers (đào), which generate high incomes (SGGP Special Report 2008), especially during the Tết season. This comparison of land value is common in other rural communities where farmers intensify some high-value crops, such as Van Giang (Kerkvliet 2014, 35).

Another bone of contention was that in Lụa village just 6.2 percent of land was offered as compensation in the form of service land (đất dịch vụ) instead of the 10 percent that was given elsewhere.11) For reasons that remain unclear, the road construction was counted as urban infrastructure and its 3.8 percent was deducted from the promised 10 percent. Concrete offers to provide jobs as replacement for the loss of land remained vague. From March 2008 onward, many villagers gathered at different places in the village to discuss matters. They decided not to cede agricultural land to the project in return for compensation.

Like the predominant pattern of land protest in Vietnam, Lụa people started their protest by collectively complaining to local authorities in the pattern of rightful resistance (ibid., 26). Meetings were held in each hamlet, in which most representatives of households expressed their disagreement on land appropriation. Reports of these meetings were sent to the local government. In these events, the community was already divided. Most villagers wanted to retain the land so as to maintain their livelihood, while some agreed to leave but only in exchange for fair compensation. Local authorities, Communist Party members, and people from families benefiting from the preferential treatment policy12) (gia đình chính sách)—who accepted the land appropriation—often remained loyal to state policies.

Besides holding official meetings and submitting petitions, villagers sometimes publicly reacted to sudden events relating to land appropriation. Whilst their actions were usually non-violent, on some occasions angry people crossed the threshold. For instance, on March 14, 2008, many people came to the rice fields to drive away district committee staff who were mapping the village’s land area. Villagers even destroyed some machines belonging to the Nam Cường company that were being used to build the project manager’s house. On March 17, 2008, a thousand villagers came to the People’s Committee office after an announcement regarding land appropriation was made on the commune’s public broadcast system. Deliberations took place between the local authorities and a delegation of three villagers who were assigned as representatives. The answers provided by the local authorities did not satisfy the villagers, so they kept returning to the offices to protest. Villagers accused local cadres of receiving money from the estate developing company, which was investing in the area, to sell their land. Some villagers even said local cadres had “sold people” (bán đứng dân) for the enterprise. There was widespread mistrust among the protesters about the involvement of local party cadres in the affair. Rumors that commune leaders had been promised better land—and offered gifts and even outright bribes—became the talk of the day. Protesters threw bricks, stones, and even feces at the houses of key leaders of the commune, such as the secretary of the Party, two vice chairmen, and the head of the land administration department. As the chairman was seriously ill at the time, one of the vice chairmen was believed to have had the most important role in the land-taking decision. Protesters burned incense and established a kind of altar table in front of his home’s gate (this meant that in their eyes, he had died).

Behind rightful resistance methods to press their claims, such as sending petitions and questioning local cadres, Lụa resisters understood that their protest could be successful only if they could prevent local cadres and opponents in the village from receiving compensation. It is interesting that in this situation, some tactics that protesters used and the atmosphere of protesting that villagers recalled are often depicted in Vietnamese peasant revolutions of the old days. Drums were used widely in this period of protest as a sign to call for participation of villagers in significant events. Sometimes the protesters organized drum beating to protest. A delegation of about a hundred people marched around the village with a big drum, then stopped at the house of one key leader and beat the drum constantly from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. From March to May 2008, almost every day, from morning till night, many villagers—especially elderly and disabled people—were mobilized to surround the office building in protest, to question and criticize local cadres. People criticized and scolded local cadres behind their backs but also to their faces, both inside and outside the meetings. With the exception of key leaders who attended the office daily, most of the personnel of the social organizations in the commune were unable to work for several months. If any social organization held a meeting to implement any activity higher-level authorities requested of them, villagers took over the meeting to focus on the land compensation question. Local government was paralyzed through the entire year of 2008. Whilst resisters did not break the law by removing and taking over the power of local government, their actions disturbed and caused difficulties for local authorities.

People were very interested in the details of the protests (phong trào đấu tranh) (even if they did not call them by that name). In the evening, groups met at some points of the village road or at villagers’ houses. Each month, every hamlet had several meetings held by the head of the hamlet or by people themselves. Active protesters from other hamlets were able to participate in these meetings to get an update on the situation or raise their questions. On normal days, people continued to surround the People’s Committee building. On days the commune had a meeting or received a visit from high-level authorities, villagers informed each other and called for the participation of the crowd. People used slogans such as “No taking land when people have not agreed,” “Long live the Vietnamese Communist Party,” and “Long live Ho Chi Minh.” These are still the most popular mobilizational slogans used by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the state. People used these aspects of the state’s rhetoric to show that they still believed in and followed the Party while claiming their rights.

The most significant event occurred when a high-ranking leader of Hà Tây Province came to work at the village on April 30, 2008. Thousands of Lụa villagers surrounded the office of the People’s Committee to question the provincial authority. After being detained for over a day, the leader in question could leave the village only after promising that the project would commence if the majority of villagers agreed, and that jobs would be provided for people after their land was taken. The impetus of the villagers in land protests was so great that sometimes people actually felt that they could succeed in keeping their land.

After the local government had been questioned for some months, the protest extended to the provincial capital, Ha Dong, and even to Hanoi. Hundreds of villagers went several times to Hà Ðông town and Hanoi to submit petitions. Every week, on the day the city received people’s petitions, a group of villagers consisting of several dozen people went to question and argue about their affairs. On special occasions, when it was necessary to mobilize the crowd, the delegation would phone people at the village to come to town to join them. On June 11, 2008, hundreds of villagers went to the office of the Provincial Party in Hà Ðông town to protest. As protesters clashed with police, five people were arrested. Two of them were later jailed for two years. From June 2008 to the end of 2009, the protest of Lụa villagers was described as “some days quiet, some days effervescent” in both the village and the city.

One of the main reasons Lụa villagers could keep the protest going for over a year was the situation of being “caught in between” local cadres (Pham 2004). In early 2009 a new chairman was sent to the village from Hà Ðông town to replace the previous chairman, who had died due to cancer. With the more direct and stronger leadership from the district level, local government in the village was reinforced. All leaders and Party members at the village came to a consensus to give up land, even though some of them did not agree or sympathize with the villagers. Therefore, in the first half of 2009, local cadres were the first to give up their land and receive compensation. However, since villagers were still protesting, most of them did it discreetly or even in secret.

Meanwhile, the estate company also applied tactics to divide villagers and induce them to accept compensation. From October to December 2009 some strangers, posing as brokers, came to the village to buy service land despite villagers having not yet been given any such land as compensation, and the decision of the city on service land for local people having not yet been issued. Thus, people called this transaction of buying and selling service land “steam” (dịch vụ hơi). Later on, Lụa villagers thought that those strangers were being sent by the Nam Cường company to induce them to accept compensation. They first came to poor families, especially those whose offspring were involved in gambling and had debts. They paid a high price, ranging from VND500 million to 600 million for a portion of service land (about 18 m2). This large amount of money caused some villagers to give land, receive compensation, and sell their service land. As the local government saw the change in a number of villagers, local authorities asked for permission from the city to implement the service land policy in the village. By the end of 2009, some villagers had sporadically opted to receive money. This caused tension in certain families because some wives did not want to receive money but their husbands, under pressure or due to advice, decided to do it. In some cases, the father did not want to accept money but his son went to receive it.

By the end of 2009, there was an announcement that the government would pay only during a one-week period, and if people did not present themselves the money would be transferred to the state’s treasury, where it eventually could be claimed. This was not an exceptional event, because the same strategy was used in other villages around Hà Ðông (e.g., in Ðồng Mai commune). There were also suggestions that anyone who accepted compensation would receive the allocated service land in a good location. All these factors caused villagers to join a crowd to demand money from the hamlet’s chief. The village collective protest ended. Many villagers recalled the situation as a “broken battle” (vỡ trận).

It apparently worked, because by 2010 only 36 households had not yet accepted money. These people, mostly women, continued their protest together with over 200 households in their neighboring village. However, the 36 protesting households were divided into two groups. One group consisted of 30 households in Lụa village who called themselves the “red T-shirt group” (phe áo đỏ). They reduced their demands to 10 percent service land (instead of the 6.2 percent that their co-villagers had accepted). Meanwhile, six other households joined with protesters in the neighboring village, named the “white T-shirt group” (phe áo trắng), and maintained their demand to not lose their land at all. As at the time of writing, these protesters are still sending petitions to different government offices, and visiting offices in Hanoi once a week. They have even established blogs on the Internet and call themselves the “Lụa land lost peasants.” In addition, they are always prepared to fight with the local government whenever the ward organizes a coercive land takeover of one among those households. Their fights sometimes are recorded and posted on the Internet, shown as “social dramas” to outsiders.

A Divided Community

According to many interviewees, right from beginning, around 50 percent of villagers were very concerned about their livelihood if they lost their land. This group of people did not want their land to be taken away. About 25 percent of people wanted their land to be appropriated. These were mainly old people and people no longer practicing agriculture. Most of them wanted the compensation for savings, paying debts, or investing in non-farm work. The remaining 25 percent of people were unsure. Many of them were already engaged in trading or other non-agricultural activities. For them, it was not a matter of accepting land compensation or continuing to cultivate crops. Their interest in the compensation scheme was minimal. Some of them were farmers. They also wanted to keep the land but were not interested in protesting or any collective activity. From this group’s point of view, they let local government and the majority in the village make whatever decision they wanted regarding the land. They kept quiet when most of the villagers expressed their uneasiness over the compensation scheme.

Villagers who had participated in the protest referred to what happened as a “struggle movement to preserve land” (phong trào đấu tranh giữ đất). Meanwhile, other villagers called it a “protesting faction.” According to villagers who considered themselves in between, right after the land-taking decision was announced, the “protesting faction” (phe đấu tranh) was formed. It went against the local government faction (phe chính quyền), which comprised local authorities and people who supported the land appropriation. As the impetus of the first faction was stronger at the beginning, about 60 percent of households looked favorably on the protest. It is significant that this number included both villagers who participated directly in the protest activities and those who supported the protest but did not show up. Interview results also reveal that some villagers had no land to keep but also participated in the land protest. Several respondents believed that some of their co-villagers just responded to the land protest for their own aims, such as to show their discontent to the local cadres. In reality, only about 10 percent of households in the village were active protesters. They were enthusiastic about all activities of the movement. The 36 households that are still protesting belong to this number. Some of them were enthusiastic and referred to as “people prepared for the fight” in the first days. Some small enterprises in the village that were built on agricultural land that might have been cleared for the project also supported financing the protest.

The movement in each hamlet13) was different. People in Quang Minh, Hoàng Văn Thụ, and Hòa Bình hamlets were more enthusiastic about the protest than people in Vinh Quang, Quyết Tâm, and Ðoàn Kết hamlets. Villagers explained that the main reason for this difference was that people in Quang Minh, Hoàng Văn Thụ, and Hòa Bình had intensified their cash crops long before. Those villagers’ land was worth more to them in value and sources of livelihood than it would have been had the land been used mainly for rice crops. At the time of land appropriation, most of the peach tree area of the village was cultivated by those hamlets, while the other hamlets grew mainly rice, which produced less income than cash crops. Also, people in Vinh Quang, Quyết Tâm, and Ðoàn Kết preferred to practice petty trade or other economic activities rather than engage in intensive cash crop farming. In the case of Vinh Quang hamlet, many households had already sold their use rights to other villagers or outsiders in order to obtain spending money or to build new houses. As a result, almost no reaction occurred in this hamlet. People in this hamlet were the first to receive compensation.

During the protests, women and old people were the most active participants. This was similar to other land disputes in Vietnam, given that women are the most concerned about their families’ interests while men are more hesitant to confront the police or government (Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh 2010; Nguyễn Thị Tình 2013). Young people were not interested in land appropriation since they did not have to worry about their families’ livelihood, and agriculture is no longer an occupational choice for many.

When recalling their participation in the protest, many villagers said that with the exception of the 10 percent households enthusiastic about the protest (including the 36 households that are still protesting), most of them just participated in meetings and big events at the village and several times went to town to submit petitions and protest. They were hesitant to protest in town. One reason was it took up time; the other was that some of them felt embarrassed to protest there.

“I felt embarrassed when sitting in the park in Hanoi to protest, as people around looked at us curiously. Someone even criticized us for making trouble.” (Mrs. Giang, 50 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

“Whenever people called each other and me to go to town, I just said ‘Yes, yes’. But I just stood at my house’s gate, waited for everyone to pass, and then went back into the house and went to work. Once, I went to Ha Dong with people, but I just stood far away. I felt hesitant to be a protester.” (Mr. Hiền, 40 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

However, many people did respond to the protest by contributing money for the delegation’s lunch or helping families who had protesters in jail (on several occasions, each time about 100 or several hundred thousand đồng). Understanding that the movement aimed to represent the common interest, many households tried to contribute something toward it.

“I have two brothers and one sister all living in this hamlet. I myself and my two brothers no longer do agriculture. We are busy with business outside the village. My parents are retired cadres, so they could not join the protest [state officials are not allowed to go against the state and Party’s policies]. Only my eldest sister is staying at home to do agriculture. Therefore, she had to be the representative of the family to join the movement.” (Mr. Hải, 39 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

Sometimes people decided to join the protest because they had empathy (nể nang) for other villagers. Someone commented that women in the village called each other to join the protest, like in other group events. This means that relatives or friends often called each other to join them. Thus, some women joined in the protest due to their respect for friends or relatives.

“Those who stood up often had relatives, friends enticing each other to become part of a faction. If I did not join, I felt sorry for that (ngại).” (Mrs. Hồng, 42 years old, Hòa Bình hamlet)

In fact, enthusiastic protesters were often sharp-tongued and critical. They tended to criticize and complain about those who did not go to meetings or submit petitions. In some hamlets, enthusiastic protesters even issued a resolution (nghị quyết)14) of the hamlet to those villagers who would not join the protest or accept compensation, saying that they could no longer count on support when their families encountered difficulties due to funerals. That was the reason why many villagers, with the exception of cadre members’ families or people working for the government, tried to show their participation.

“When someone at the hamlet came back from the meeting or protest, passed my house, and saw me at home, she would say: How can you always stay at home while people go to the meeting? You cannot receive land that people claim back from the project. My husband also told me sometimes: ‘You should go, otherwise my ears will get hurt because of people complaining about our family’s absence’. We just followed the crowd.” (Mrs. Giang, 50 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

During times of protest, villagers were divided and rifts developed in relationships between villagers and cadres as well as among villagers themselves. When attending weddings, funerals, or formal meetings, or socially in tea shops, people often argued with each other over land appropriation. As the protest faction gained the upper hand, anyone expressing their opinion by saying things such as “Land belongs to the state; people should take the money; it is better not doing agriculture anymore” would readily be criticized by others.

In the village market or at wedding parties, people in the hamlet enthusiastic over land protest would publicly criticize people from other hamlets who had not joined the protest. Relatives of local cadres also criticized or even questioned them about corruption relating to their support for land taking, either openly or behind their backs. There was a story circulating in the village at that time: The chairman of the commune who signed the agreement for land appropriation attended a wedding party. When he had just sat down at a table, people at that table stood up and left, openly embarrassing him. The mother-in-law of a village authority cadre also suspected her son-in-law of accepting bribes from some companies involved in the taking of land. One active female protester even criticized and scolded her brother-in-law who was deputy secretary of the Commune Communist Party. This broke their relationship. One elderly man in Lụa village commented:

“The protesters only scold local authorities, but the relationship among villagers was no longer like before. This can be referred to as ‘stories of society’, ‘quarrel outside society’, or ‘a difference of opinion’, but the consequence was that people in the village kept a distance from each other, became isolated from each other.” (Mr. Du, 78 years old)

Nowadays, some years after the protest, relationships among villagers have mostly returned to normal—but in some cases the rift has not healed. Especially for those 36 households who continue their protest, the relationship with local authorities is not harmonious. In spite of threatening these households with social exclusion, most of the other Lụa villagers have accepted their right to protest. They still maintain social exchanges with them during weddings or funerals. However, the protesters themselves feel they are different, and they are frustrated. It is clear that most of the protesting households are living in old, small houses, as they have not accepted compensation. For some families, their economic situation has worsened, since they spend more time and money on attempting to claim their rights. The critical attitude of local authorities and some villagers to these protesters makes them hesitant to join communal activities, especially those organized by the local government. This feeling of alienation in the village community has pushed them to seek support and cooperation from outside. No one knows exactly who supports them, but their knowledge on law has improved. On their Internet blog, it is easy to see their meetings and cooperation with land protesters in other communities.


What happened in Lụa village was a spontaneous response to the government’s land appropriation policy. About half the villagers tried to hold the line by declaring they were determined to keep the land. Once a few people in the early days said they were “prepared for the fight,” others joined the struggle. There was no leader. The protesters relied on their own resources. They did not seek assistance from intellectuals, lawyers, or others who knew the law better than they did. Their strength was in their numbers and their ability to argue and quarrel with local authorities and anyone who opposed them. They were strong enough to give pause to local cadres and some opponents. In the end, however, they could not prevail.

However, the protest dynamics were more complicated than outsiders can imagine. Their reason for protesting was not only rooted in the fear of losing land (and consequently their livelihood) but also a principle of fairness in compensation. The compensation in their village, the residents insisted, should be consistent with the amount paid to people in surrounding villages and with the real value of the land being taken from them. Second, it was not a clear or comprehensive policy. The project took over 90 percent of people’s land. Some people have not lost one square meter of land, but they suffered from changes in the land situation in the area affected by the irrigation system. Meanwhile, they have no money from compensation, like other villagers, to improve their lives.

Although about half the Lụa villagers shared these arguments and concerns, others did not or had other doubts about the protest efforts. Like most villages in Vietnam, Lụa was not homogeneous on this land issue or other matters (Kleinen 1999). The government’s land confiscation efforts brought about different reactions among residents, depending in large part on their occupations and social groups. Residents who depended on agriculture and petty trade were the most vulnerable in that process. However, farmers in hamlets with a tradition of agricultural intensification reacted more strongly than others—not only because they wanted to maintain their livelihood but also because of their stronger character. Therefore, it is significant to emphasize that it was not a protest by the Lụa village community. Urbanization and land appropriation were not a tragedy for all villagers (Labbé 2015).

We can see many similarities in the pattern of the Lụa village protest and recent land protests elsewhere in Vietnam. During the first two years, people just complained to local authorities and then sent petitions to higher levels. They claimed local officials abused their authority and were corrupt. They also claimed that local government and enterprises took land without consulting their views and without considering the impact on their livelihoods. Such actions, villagers contended, went against state regulations governing land use reallocation. The protests in Lụa were also largely peaceful. Like the predominant pattern of many contemporary land disputes in Vietnam, these reasons and grounds for collective protest in Lụa village resonate with rightful resistance theory (Kerkvliet 2014). Yet, like other land protests in Vietnam in recent years, Lụa villagers went further by rejecting the state’s authority to unilaterally claim their cultivated land. They did it by showing their disagreement on land appropriation, demanding to retain the land to maintain their livelihood, or not allowing the taking of land when most people had not agreed. Their appeals to retain their farmland or get better compensation were based mostly on moral sentiments and unwritten norms about justice and fairness, and sometimes on the contribution and services that local villagers had provided to the country (Taylor 2014, 4).

Moreover, going beyond what we know about rightful resistance methods, in the case of Lụa village we can see the application of traditional Vietnamese patterns of rural protest. The beating of the drum, a symbol of traditional community strength, was done by enthusiastic protesters to mobilize people and send an intimidating message to local authorities. Many villagers recalled what happened as a “movement,” recalling the rhetoric of revolutionary mobilization campaigns. Other tactics and slogans reminiscent of village-based resistance during the revolutionary period, such as referring to the protests as a “struggle” or a “battle” or the issuing of village “resolutions,” were applied in the protest. As factions formed in the village, several villagers even disrespectfully referred to local authorities as a “faction.” Some protesters, especially in the 36 households who continue to oppose the government project, violently confronted the police. When villagers’ emotions were running high, people dared to criticize, abuse, and even terrorize local cadres. Although protesters had no aim to take over the local authority, their demonstrations paralyzed local government for a short period. Together the findings from Lua village illustrate the internal dynamics of a village protest and the complexity of the politics of resistance in contemporary Vietnam.

Accepted: January 6, 2017


This article is drawn from my individual research project on urbanization and sustainable development in Hanoi peri-urban communities, funded by the International Foundation for Science. I would like to express my gratitude to the foundation for financially supporting my research, and to colleagues at the Institute of Anthropology, VASS, for supporting my fieldwork, especially Nguyen Thu Quynh and Le Thi Mui. Prof. Ben Kerkvliet, Dr. Philip Taylor, and three anonymous referees gave useful comments on this article. I would especially like to thank Alasdair Paterson and Michael Palmer for their kind help in editing this paper.


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1) In 2012 the fish farmer Ðoàn Văn Vươn and his brothers in Hải Phòng city laid homemade mines and discharged shotguns against the police who came to confiscate their farmland. The same year, hundreds of farmers in Văn Giang District, Hưng Yên Province, faced security agents and police in a violent confrontation to keep their land from appropriation for urban expansion.

2) See Scott (1976); Popkin (1979); Kerkvliet (2005).

3) This is a pseudonym to protect my informants.

4) In 2008 Hà Tây was merged into Hanoi city after 17 years of being a province.

5) This is a pseudonym. However, the main developer of this project is the Nam Cường group.

6) At that time the compensation was VND47 million per sào, around half the amount people received from mega projects later.

7) In addition to financial compensation, the province also allows farmers to retain 10 percent of the reclassified land, referred to as service land, for use or sale.

8) One thước equals 24 m2.

9) At that time the compensation for Agricultural Land Use Rights in the village of Phú Ðiền in 2007 was as follows (Nguyen Van Suu 2009). A total of VND171,000 could be obtained per square meter: agricultural land use rights, VND108,000; vegetables and other annual fruit on the land, VND35,000; compensation for changing jobs, VND25,000; reward for acting quickly, VND3,000.

10) This is a pseudonym.

11) According to Nguyen Van Suu (2009), the compensation increased as farmers felt that prior to the negotiations they could show that cash crops and perennial trees were already planted. The expression is ăn đền (eat the compensation). Suu gives the example of villagers who doubled their compensation by changing from vegetables and other annual fruit such as rice and morning glory (rau muống), to annual crops such as willows (liễu) and guava (ổi).

12) These are families that benefited from government policies. Families that contributed to the 1945 revolution and the several wars that Vietnam engaged in (martyrs and wounded soldiers as well as other contributors) receive preferential treatment from state policies (in the form of a monthly salary, gifts during special occasions, etc.). During the land appropriation, these families were the first to follow the land-taking policy of the local government given their status and relationship with the government.

13) Traditionally, Vietnamese villages were divided into subdivisions or hamlets (Kleinen 1999, 14). These were neighborhood organizations. Men aged over 18 had to join them to fulfill their obligation to the community as well as enjoy communal activities. In the old days, Lụa village had 20 hamlets. The (Sino-Vietnamese) names of the hamlets were taken from directions as seen within the village. Each hamlet had a head of hamlet. After the 1945 revolution the village was divided into 10 hamlets with new names that have revolutionary meanings.

14) This is a revolutionary term as decisions of the Communist Party were often made through collective meetings and thus needed to be implemented.


Vol. 5, No. 2, Ken MACLEAN

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

History Reformatted: Vietnam’s Great Famine (1944–45) in Archival Form

Ken MacLean*

* Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 950 Main Street, Clark University, Worcester MA, 01610, USA

e-mail: kmaclean[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.2_187

The number and types of memory projects in Vietnam have proliferated rapidly since the mid-1990s. These projects, most of them intensely local in focus, reconfigure selective aspects of different “pasts” for strategic use in the present. Government-approved memory projects exhibit similar patterns. However, some of them openly diverge from official narratives of patriotic resistance. The project featured in this essay—the creation of an archive to document the Great Famine (1944–45) by a joint Vietnamese-Japanese research commission—is such an example. Close attention to the methodological procedures used to assemble this archive, which is highly unorthodox in form and content, provides insights into how historical evidence is fashioned rather than found in the Vietnamese context. The details reveal partial silences in four thematic areas: (1) the allocation of blame, (2) the suppression of sentiment in oral form, (3) the depersonalization of suffering in visual form, and (4) the comparative absence of organized resistance. Close attention to these elisions explains why the Great Famine and the hungry ghosts it produced continue to resist incorporation into state-approved histories of the “exceptional dead,” who sacrificed their lives to defend the “nation” from foreign aggressors.

Keywords: history, memory, commemoration, archive, famine, Vietnam

We primarily see the archive as storehouse of memory and fact, as the place from whence history issues forth. However, the archive is much more than this; it is . . . a place of trauma and pain. It is a place of sorrow and loss for many, where unpacified ghosts with unfinished business await, yielding stories and letters different from expectation, a site where loss is localized and realized. (Murphy 2011, 481)

Many Vietnamese present ritual offerings to wandering spirits during Tết Trung Nguyên, a popular festival that occurs on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Participants recite prayers and then light seven sticks of incense to appease these spirits, who cannot become benevolent ancestors due to the unjust and often violent nature of their deaths. People pour small portions of boiled sweet potato, cassava, roasted corn, hard rice pancakes, and porridge—foods commonly eaten during periods of scarcity—into cones made of leaves from banyan trees. They then place the offerings outside in bushes, small shrines, and other hidden spaces for these “ontological refugees” (Kwon 2008, 16), who are neither fully dead nor alive, to dine upon. The festival’s primary purpose, several Vietnamese explained to me, is to absolve the hungry ghosts of any harm they may have caused the living, such as misfortune or serious illness, over the past year. Several of them told me that the offerings also function as insurance against future problems because the offerings are meant to keep the hungry ghosts satiated for the next 12 months. The explanations are not mutually exclusive, and since the early 1990s growing numbers of people have used the festival to commemorate the victims of the Great Famine of 1944–45 (Nạn đói Ất Dậu).

Official Vietnamese estimates, first put forward in a famous speech by Hồ Chí Minh and then reiterated with little empirical support until recently, place the number of people who died within the space of six months at approximately two million (Nguyễn Khắc Đạm 1988; Văn Tạo and Nguyễn Khắc Đạm 1988; Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam 2008, 921; Gunn 2014, 259n1). Given the vast number of hungry ghosts this famine reportedly produced, the gradual inclusion of its victims, as part of this festival, is not surprising.1) The Great Famine affected 32 provinces across colonial Tonkin and Annam, reducing the population of what is now northern and central Vietnam by an estimated 15 percent (Dương Trung Quốc 2005). Yet, despite the size and scale of loss, no national monument exists to collectively memorialize the deaths. Instead, commemorative practices remain decidedly local in nature and revolve around the mass graves that can still be found across the countryside, usually in close proximity to villages where death rates were particularly high. “Ghost graves” (cồn ma) and “hunger tombs” (mả đói), as they are colloquially known, typically consist of a small mound of earth or a pile of carefully arranged bricks. These sites become visible to nonresidents only when famine survivors and their descendants visit them during the festival to appease the hungry ghosts.

A three-meter-high concrete memorial, once part of a “charity cemetery” (nghĩa trang hợp thiện) in Hanoi, is an exception to these informal practices. The remains of thousands of people who fled the countryside to seek refuge in the city but perished shortly after their arrival are interred beneath it. Residents of Hanoi raised funds to construct the memorial, which was completed in April 1951. Photographs, displayed in a small room adjacent to the memorial, indicate that people visited the site year-round for the next several years. But the memorial fell into disrepair by the time the Second Indochina War (1954–75) began. In September 2001, the People’s Committee of Hanoi announced that it would rectify this situation by providing funds to renovate the long-neglected memorial. The announcement, which appeared as a small sidebar in local newspapers, stated that the renovations would be completed by 2005, in time to mark the 60th anniversary of the Great Famine.

The decision to renovate the memorial was not an isolated one. By the late 1990s, the number and types of memory projects were increasing so rapidly that Hue-Tam Ho Tai coined the phrase “commemorative fever” to capture the country’s mood (2001, 1–17). These projects, most of them local in focus, reconfigure selective aspects of different “pasts” for strategic use in the present (MacLean 2013, 176–204). Government-approved memory projects exhibit similar patterns. However, some of them openly diverge from official narratives of patriotic resistance and heroic sacrifice in defense of the “nation.” The project featured in this essay—a research effort led by the state-sponsored Institute of History to document aspects of the Great Famine—is one such example. I focus primarily on the unorthodox report that resulted from it, Nạn đói 1945 ở Việt Nam: Những chứng tích lịch sử (The Famine of 1945 in Vietnam: Some historical evidence), edited by Văn Tạo and Motoo Furuta (1995).

Close attention to the decisions the researchers made with regard to the project’s design, the methodology employed, and the representational strategies used provides insights into how historical evidence regarding the Great Famine is fashioned rather than found. This essay does not provide a comprehensive overview of the Great Famine or the Vietnamese literature published prior to this study as a result. An extensive, though still incomplete, list of sources can be found in the volume’s bibliography (ibid., 704–722) and in Geoffrey Gunn’s recent Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power (2014). The focus here is instead on the ways the researchers from the Institute of History and their Japanese counterparts from the University of Tokyo reformatted micro-histories of the Great Famine into a larger archival form.

It should be noted at the outset that the Institute of History has since published two expanded versions of the report, one in 2005 and another in 2011. I restrict my analysis to the original 1995 version for several reasons. First, the publication of the 1995 edition coincided with the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. In Vietnam, such anniversaries provide opportunities for political and intellectual elites “to restructure and reshape collective memory through rituals of commemoration” (Pelley 2002, 164). The 1995 version thus marks the first of what would become several efforts to accomplish this goal. Second, the 1995 publication was available when I began my fieldwork. I conducted ethnographic and archival research on mass campaigns to eradicate hunger and to reduce poverty in the northern Vietnamese countryside during 2000–02. The Great Famine was my temporal starting point. I draw upon this material to destabilize the standard assumption that historical “evidence” emerges out of the closeness of fit between the records used and the event described. Instead, I take the position that primary sources do not possess an inherent “truth” value; rather, their evidentiary force—and thus credibility—arises out of the “very processes that treat and use records as evidence” (Trouillot 1995; Meehan 2009, 160). Jennifer Meehan’s argument serves as the point of departure for my own, hence my decision to focus on the first version, as it serves as the archival foundation for the subsequent editions. Finally, the 2005 and 2011 editions do not differ significantly in form or content from the one published in 1995. The continued accumulation of empirical data and personal testimonies they contain does shed light on a paradox that I revisit in the essay’s concluding section, however. Commemorative activities fix selected aspects of “the past” and then re-present them, often in ritualized form, to specific audiences. The Great Famine, as an “event,” remains an archive in formation, as the expanded editions and periodic academic conferences regarding the tragedy attest. Yet, the efforts to institutionalize the commemoration of the Great Famine nationally continue to generate disagreements that, to date, have prevented the outcome desired.

The essay is structured as follows. The first section provides background on the conflicting narratives regarding the Great Famine, particularly the question of whether the tragedy helped or hindered the August Revolution of 1945. I then present details about the research project itself, which culminated in the publication of the 1995 edition. Subsequent sections focus upon the report. Interspersed throughout are personal accounts from “eyewitnesses” to the Great Famine I gathered during field research in the Red River Delta, as well as selected historical documents, memoirs, and literary works relevant to the inquiry—some well known, others not. When put into “conversation” with one another, four unexpected themes emerge regarding: (1) the partial allocation of blame, (2) the suppression of sentiment in oral form, (3) the depersonalization of suffering in visual form, and (4) the comparative absence of organized resistance. Close attention to how each of these partial silences shapes the terms of the others reveals why what occurred during the Great Famine remains largely disconnected in historiographic terms from what happened in its aftermath—the struggle for national independence. The essay concludes with a brief overview of recent discussions about the disaster and what needs to be done to reconfigure the place of the Great Famine within the historical imagination.

Conflicting Narratives

Symbolic reconfigurations often coincide with physical transformations. These are the dynamics that prompted me to visit the neglected memorial to the famine victims in Hanoi before the planned renovations transformed it. Finding the memorial proved much harder than expected. It required nearly a half-dozen trips to Vĩnh Tuy, a poor working-class area of the capital, before I was able to locate it. Much of my difficulty lay in the fact that the charity cemetery no longer existed. Successive waves of postwar housing construction had transformed the once-rural area on the southeastern edge of Hanoi into a densely packed urban one connected by a chaotic network of narrow lanes, many of them barely 1.5 meters wide. Indeed, the ongoing process of urban encroachment was such that very few of the ward’s residents I encountered during my search believed the memorial still existed. It did, as I discovered quite by accident on my fifth trip. But the site was surrounded on all sides by multistoried row houses that towered above the memorial. This situation clarified why Hoàng Văn Nghiên, then the chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, suddenly declared in December of 2001 that the memorial was a “vestige” (di tích) of historical and cultural significance. This bureaucratic upgrade in status granted a measure of protection to the memorial, but it did not result in any immediate changes. In fact, no major changes occurred until 2005, the 60th anniversary of the Great Famine, when I again visited the site.

The slow pace was surprising given the unusual prominence of sites that are linked to the struggle for independence. Indeed, many of the officials I met while conducting research in Vietnam over the past 15 years expressed genuine disappointment that the monument remained so difficult to locate. Nearly all of them regarded the tragic famine as a catalyst for the August Revolution and Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945. Three quotes, all of them from former commune-level cadres in three different provinces in the Red River Delta who had survived the Great Famine, follow.

Vỹ, for example, pointed out there were three different but interlinked forms of oppression during the conflict: “Japanese fascism, French colonialism, and the feudal system of the Vietnamese themselves.” Taken together, he explained, “It was inevitable that by twisting the worm,” by which he meant the suffering brought about by the Great Famine, “you would cause [us] to rise up” (con giun xéo lắm phải quần).

Khoa, another cadre, explained: “We could not stand it anymore; we had nothing left to lose, and the famine was simply the drop of water that caused a full glass to overflow” (giót nước cuối cùng làm trần cốc).

A third, Phong, was more succinct. “The famine was part of a long historical process; we had no choice but to rebel.”

Not everyone agrees with these assessments. Trần Văn Giàu, one of Vietnam’s most eminent historians, placed less emphasis on the Great Famine as a key cause of the August Revolution. He instead stressed the many problems the famine subsequently posed. In his view, the Great Famine constituted a major obstacle to revolutionary activities, as the immense death toll “drained its power” (1962, 621; see also Hoàng Văn Đức 1946). Nguyễn Thế Anh, another highly respected historian, similarly argued it would be a fundamental error to conclude the Great Famine was the primary cause of the political instability that enabled the August Revolution to succeed. However, he maintained that the impact of the catastrophe was undeniable and that widespread fears that another large-scale famine might reoccur helped maintain the Party’s political standing (1985, 98).

These views of the Great Famine differ in detail; nevertheless, all of them recognize the importance of this tragedy. Yet, the famine receives little attention today. For example, an official university textbook, published after the 50th anniversary of the Great Famine, devotes only a single paragraph to it (Lê Mậu Hãn et al. 2000, 11), while another textbook solely emphasizes the famine’s statistical dimensions: the number of deaths and the material assistance the Provisional Revolutionary Government provided (Hoàng Phương 2015). Because the famine had such a tremendous impact on Vietnamese social life, culture, and economic issues (Hoàng Văn Đức 1946, 16–17), it should have been treated more comprehensively. The situation has not significantly changed, however. The Communist Party’s annual yearbook devotes only four pages to the famine (Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam 2008, 921–925), nearly all of it concerning the precipitating causes.

What accounts for the marginal place of the famine in the historical imagination in these representations of the past? While no single cause explains the famine’s diminutive role in contemporary historiography, the Communist Party’s manipulation of statistical evidence is surely implicated. Of course, such manipulation is not limited to the Great Famine. Statistics have long formed a key component of the Communist Party’s efforts to centralize all forms of representation through itself by claiming to be the primary, if not exclusive, agent of unity as well as moral and economic progress (MacLean 2013). The Party’s representational strategies have diversified somewhat in recent years. But the focus here is on how bureaucratic categories and practices affect the form and content of what can be remembered about the Great Famine. With this goal in mind, the remainder of the essay examines a highly unusual state-sponsored documentation project and the archive that has resulted from it. The details provide a common point of departure for ongoing debates regarding how the Great Famine and the hungry ghosts it created should be properly memorialized and commemorated. These debates, although notable in their own right, also reflect broader tensions concerning two closely related matters. First, which tragedies of the past still need to be afforded a place in the present given the government’s heavy emphasis on the socioeconomic development targets it has set for the future? (The current goal, according to the official slogan, is to build “a strong, independent, prosperous and democratic country.”) And who should retain primary control over how these commemorative spaces are used—government officials or ordinary citizens?

Formatting an Archive

The Joint Vietnam-Japan Cooperation Committee for Researching the Famine of 1945 grew out of a larger study, begun in 1986, to jointly examine the effects of the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War II. The massive 728-page study, titled Nạn đói 1945 Vit Nam: Những chứng tích lịch sử (The Famine of 1945 in Vietnam: Some historical evidence), was one result of this collaborative project (hereafter the Joint Committee). The study, compiled by researchers from the Vietnamese Institute of History in Hanoi and their counterparts from the University of Tokyo in Japan, collected oral histories from hundreds of famine survivors in three phases during the early 1990s. Excerpts from 157 of these “eyewitnesses” (nhân chứng) are featured in the volume and constitute its evidentiary core. A number of other semiotic technologies play an important supporting role as well. The most notable of these technologies include several hundred pages of “inquest reference tables” (bảng tra cứu). The tables provide annotated statistical breakdowns of local mortality rates, hand-drawn maps that depict the location of unmarked mass graves, and 42 photographs of famine victims. The result is an ethnographically detailed, though fragmentary and geographically uneven, depiction of the Great Famine as it unfolded in 23 different locations across what is now northern and central Vietnam. It also constitutes one of the most unusual memory projects ever undertaken by a Vietnamese state research institute.

The study, officially framed as an impartial and objective inquiry, thus invites a number of questions: first and foremost, why? What gaps were thought to exist in the historical record? How are the materials it contains—especially the first-person testimonies, which are normally excluded from official accounts of the past—supposed to fill them? My overarching discussion centers on what is imperfectly remembered in this multi-sited “history from below,” a genre that is itself quite rare in Vietnam, to explore these questions. My intent here is not to read the survivors’ accounts “against the grain” in order to fashion a critical counter-narrative that challenges the evidentiary claims the subaltern memories are used to make in the study. Such an exercise is questionable in most instances (Stoler 2009). Nor will I argue that the Vietnamese historians involved deliberately excluded material related to the Great Famine that diverged from dominant narratives regarding the period, although this may have in fact been the case. (I requested but did not receive permission to review the interview transcripts kept in the Institute of History’s archive.) Instead, I wish to take seriously Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s claim that relations of power introduce “silences” at different moments in the process of historical production through the making of sources, the organization of archives, and the crafting of narratives (1995, 26–30, 82–83). Trouillot argues that these silences permit some accounts of the past—but not others—to appear plausible. Drawing on his insights, I explore the extent to which the procedures of the Joint Committee both produced and silenced certain kinds of evidence and thereby determined which aspects of the Great Famine could be memorialized and commemorated.

I should point out that a long-running and complex dispute between the governments of Japan and Vietnam over reparations and development aid prompted the formation of the Joint Committee and its study of the famine. A brief summary of the dispute follows, as the 1995 volume contains quite limited information on it (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 28–42). Forty-eight nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan on September 18, 1951. Less than two weeks later, Bảo Đại, the State of Vietnam’s head of state, informed the Japanese government of his intent to request US$2 billion in war reparations. But no records indicate that he pursued the matter. Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm, who declared himself president of the newly created Republic of Vietnam (RoV) following a rigged election in 1955, renewed the issue of reparations. His foreign minister, Vũ Mạnh Mâu, submitted an aide-memoire (memorandum) to Ambassador Akira Konagaya on September 18, 1956, requesting US$1 billion in paiements de bouche (reparations) for the people who died during 1945 due to Japan’s military food policies and rice seizures by its troops (Gunn 2011, 7).2) President Ngô Đình Diệm further asserted that Japanese military forces had caused US$2 billion in war damages but limited the official request to US$250 million. The Japanese government declared the total costs Diệm put forward as being “fantastically excessive and absolutely unjustified” (ibid., 6). Following 18 months of negotiations, the RoV foreign minister reduced the claim to US$200 million, but the Japanese ambassador refused to consider any figure higher than US$50 million (ibid.).

The disagreement proved to be a significant obstacle to normalizing trade negotiations for several more years. Eventually, the focus of the negotiations shifted from the issue of war reparations to development aid, which resulted in a bilateral agreement, signed on May 13, 1959 (ibid., 7–8).3) (Most of the aid requested was earmarked for the construction of the Đa Nhim hydroelectric project, which would become the RoV’s first such dam.) The need for further aid and the intensification of the Second Indochina War during the mid-1960s meant that subsequent discussions concerning famine-related compensation did not occur. Similar dynamics shaped post-treaty negotiations between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and Japan. Discussions also revolved around grant aid, and DRV representatives did not raise the issue of famine deaths during them. The monetary award was also much the same. The DRV received US$39 million, approximately the same amount of aid that Japan granted to the RoV (Shiraishi and Furuta 1992, 18; Minami Yoshizawa, cited in Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 18–19).

Katsuichi Honda, a reporter best known for his books on the atrocities Japanese troops committed against civilians in China during World War II, especially the Nanjing Massacre, raised the issue of accountability a decade later. In 1973 he published an article in Japan’s leading daily, Asahi Shimbun, in which he asserted that nearly a quarter of a million people starved to death in Thái Bình Province during the Great Famine, and his estimates from nearby Nam Định Province were even higher (Cao Văn Biền 1990, 451). Honda’s controversial claims prompted the Institute of History in Hanoi to conduct further field and archival research in both provinces during 1992. The initial findings appeared to confirm Honda’s findings, which inspired a joint team of Vietnamese and Japanese historians to carry out a more systematic study.

The efforts to resolve the disagreements concerning the actual number of deaths were more complicated than anticipated, due not only to the amount of time that had elapsed but to the uneven nature of the extant source material. The Joint Committee’s report divided the sources into three separate categories—material evidence, written documents, and oral accounts—as a way to manage these problems (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 19–27, 704–722). Lists in Vietnam, however, implicitly rank various kinds of evidence in a way that privileges physical remains over historical records and these, in turn, over individual memories. Nevertheless, the three categories all belong to the same analytical field, as the information derived from one source helps define the others. From this perspective, the boundaries that delineate the three kinds of evidence are thus less clear than one might assume.

This blurring of boundaries is most evident in the organization of the written documents. The researchers did not consistently distinguish primary sources from secondary ones or works drawn from vastly different genres such as memoirs and statistical atlases. Instead, other considerations shaped the “section” (phần) into which researchers placed them. Section one, for example, contains more than half of the known sources relevant to the Great Famine, collectively labeled “contemporaneous sources” (đương thời) documents. The period, although not explicitly defined, includes a diverse array of materials from 1941 to 1945. The significance of this temporal frame is twofold. Most obviously, the dates reflect the primary concern of the inquiry, which was to document the effects of French and Japanese policies through the enumeration of the dead in different locales. But the dates also illustrate how ideological assumptions influence the categorization of sources—in this case, along a political continuum. The editors grouped the reports by French colonial officials, Japanese military staff, and Vietnamese administrative personnel under the same heading, “lackeys” (chính quyền tay sai), despite important differences in their form, content, and communicative purpose. Articles that appeared in popular Vietnamese-language newspapers, such as Thanh Nghị (Public Opinion) and Bình Minh (Dawn), were placed in a separate group, presumably because French and Japanese officials censored them prior to publication. Documents prepared by the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) and the Việt Minh, however, as well as articles that appeared in their clandestine publications, especially Cứu Quốc (Save the Nation) and Cờ Giải Phóng (The Flag of Liberation), constituted the final group. By contrast, section three, which forms the next largest collection of written documents, includes administrative records that Communist Party cells and mass mobilization committees in 15 different provinces produced both prior to and shortly after the 1945 August Revolution.

At first glance, these records appear misplaced; however, the report’s authors justified their separate categorization on the grounds that the documents were primarily bureaucratic rather than political in nature. In most cases, these records languished in back rooms for decades until it became fashionable for low-level officials to compile some of the information they contained into amateur histories that highlighted district-level, but more often provincial-level, contributions to the revolutionary struggle. This trend, which began during the 1990s, helped precipitate the diverse range of official memory projects that followed. The collection of oral testimonies, such as the ones featured in the report on the Great Famine, is an important but understudied aspect of this trend. The testimonies, due in part to the procedures used to recover them, evince considerable similarities across the different locales studied; thus, they provide the basis of recasting local experiences as “national” ones.

Constructing Objectivity

Due to the continued dispute over the death toll, researchers were preoccupied with gathering evidence they believed would finally document the “true” scale of the Great Famine, hence the empirical nature of the questions that oriented the inquiry as a whole. Where did the famine originate? Which places experienced the most deaths?4) Which socioeconomic classes were most affected and why? Since the Great Famine left some areas untouched and decimated others, the researchers limited their site selection to locations that had experienced “average” death rates, which they defined as between 30 percent and 70 percent of the total local population (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 684–685). The researchers then collected oral histories from famine survivors in these locations with the assistance of local officials. To help further ensure the findings would be as representative as possible, the researchers also privileged what they regarded to be “typical” accounts rather than “extraordinary” ones in the report.

Taken together, these oral histories form the evidentiary core of the report. Yet, despite the crucial role these accounts play in it, no standard format was created to present the information they contain in a uniform manner. All of the eyewitnesses are named. However, some entries include other biographical details such as their age, place of residence, and/or occupation, while others do not. Similar variation marks the use of photographs, which accompanied approximately two-thirds of the eyewitnesses. Most of the images mimic, in both size and style, those that appear on national identity cards—a simple head-and-shoulder shot of the person who stares directly back at the camera with no visible sign of emotion. But in other cases, the eyewitness is depicted in action, pointing out a mass grave or discussing the Great Famine with the researchers. Each entry also includes a “statement” (lời, literally a “speech” or “address”), which consists of an excerpt taken from a longer first-person account that researchers elicited from survivors. These too vary in terms of length, detail, and narrative style. But nearly all of them exhibit a peculiar mix of anecdotes and statistics concerning family, hamlet, and/or village mortality rates:

Trần Đình Khả, 76 years old (Hải Dương Province)

I was 26 years old in 1945, and I am able to “testify” (chứng kiến) that the famine was terrible. [It is] something I will remember forever. My paternal uncle’s family was too hungry, so they had to head off toward the bridge in order to beg for food. I don’t know if they died of starvation. Dạo’s family had five people; all five of them died of hunger. Diền’s family had four people, and all four died. Phương, five people died of hunger, the entire household. Mạc, Nhiêu Lãn, and Bồng died of hunger. There were no reed mats to bundle them in. Their deaths were utterly tragic, their corpses only bones enclosed in skin. [They] died at the head of the road at the corner of the market. To look at them was truly horrible. (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 393–394)

The excerpt, which is representative of the majority of those found throughout the report, exemplifies how fact and affect intermingle uneasily with one another in the memories of those who “witnessed” the Great Famine, at least as they appear here in written form. I explore this tension in greater detail later, but I note them here to raise a broader question: specifically, what effect does the “content of the form” have upon historical representations of the Great Famine (White 1987, 26–28)? In other words, how does the content of stories we wish to tell shape the form the narrative takes? This effect is most apparent in the pairing of the photograph with the excerpts taken from the famine survivors. These visual and textual elements, when combined, create the appearance of peasants and laborers speaking about their personal experiences as distinct individuals, which is quite rare in histories officially approved for publication in Vietnam.

The process by which memories were “individually” recalled also remains somewhat unclear. Researchers sought out informants who had not only survived the Great Famine but were also old enough to understand what they saw unfold around them, which meant the vast majority were between 75 and 85 years of age when interviewed. Of these survivors, researchers gave greater weight to those who held positions in local Party cells or mass organizations or otherwise “served the people” (phục vụ nhân dân) during the struggle to achieve national independence. The researchers did so on the grounds that their official positions afforded them greater access to information, which explains why more than one-quarter of all the survivors were members of this category. The preference for these survivors also reflects the widely held belief among older Vietnamese that individuals who participated in the struggle for independence did so for entirely selfless reasons. “Purity” (sự trong sạch) and “honesty” (thật thà) are two commonly used adjectives to describe them—hence the assumption that such individuals can provide accurate, factual accounts of what happened in specific locales as well.

These observations are not intended to suggest that the effort to identify “objective” sources was a disingenuous one designed to obscure the agendas of those who conducted the inquiry. Rather, the point is to draw attention to some of the assumptions that made the category of “objectivity” possible in this context. Doing so is important given the highly “situated knowledge” (Haraway 1991) of the survivors and the methodology researchers used to elicit information about the Great Famine. For example, a casual glance at the report reveals that hearsay, rumor, and other kinds of factually suspect information permeate many of the eyewitness accounts. Other factors, such as the passage of time, the existence of cultural scripts for recounting hardship and suffering, and the use of standardized questionnaires to elicit information from famine survivors affected what could be remembered about the Great Famine. Admittedly, Vietnamese state historians rarely explicitly discuss such concerns, in part because they raise difficult questions concerning the authority of any narrative to provide a “found” rather than constructed account of what happened (White 1987, 20–21). But these concerns are further marginalized here as a consequence of the stated purpose of the inquiry: to elicit memories that would help enumerate the dead.

Interestingly, efforts to extract targeted forms of recollection from the survivors produced two dramatically different “statements” about the Great Famine. The first consisted of vignettes that provided powerful “snapshots” of what conditions were like, often in disturbing detail. Đỗ Mạnh Đích, who was a blacksmith at the time, provides a representative example. In it, he recalls what happened when residents from a nearby village traveled to his town to beg for food at the local market after Japanese troops had uprooted all of their rice seedlings. Since rice stocks were nearly exhausted, none of the traders wanted to give away any of the bran—a by-product of the milling process—they had left to sell, which led to this desperate scene:

. . . People would pilfer the bran by thrusting their hand into it and eating it off their fingers. The vendors took their shoulder-poles and lashed them as they ran by. As one person got lashed, another person would run up and grab some bran to eat. The situation was the same along the sewers. People sat down, and groped around in the water looking for some seeds or grain to eat . . . (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 542–543)

By contrast, the second kind of “statement” took the form of “memory-data,” i.e., highly detailed statistical lists that provided figures on the number of fatalities a particular family, hamlet, or village suffered. Nguyễn Khinh, who was the secretary in a commune-level People’s Council during the Great Famine, provides just such a statement:

Compared with other patrilineages the Nguyễn experienced the fewest deaths. Approximately half the Tô lineage died. The entire Lê lineage died, except for Khoa, who was 18 years old that year. Half the Hoàng lineage also died. The Đặng lineage had three taxpayers [but] 15 household members died, leaving only two. Compared with the Tây Bắc Hamlet, in which two-thirds died, the Nam Thị Hamlet had more deaths. Adding up the entire village of Hiên, two-thirds died. Hoàng Mạnh Tiếp’s family had eight members . . . and they all died . . . (ibid., 77)

Since the primary goal of the study was to document the scale of the Great Famine as accurately as possible, the preoccupation with the facticity of the information extracted from the survivors is not entirely unexpected. However, the relentless focus on what was remembered at the expense of how it was recalled signals an ethnographic refusal (Ortner 1995), one that continually resists rather than incorporates the meaning of the survivors’ experiences and their aftereffects. Consequently, the report sheds surprisingly little light on how the Great Famine affected the survivors personally, the communities in which they lived, and Vietnamese society as a whole.

Allocating Blame

A relatively small number of examples of popular verse describing the hardships of life under French-Japanese rule during World War II have survived to make the transition into published form. Not surprisingly, much of it centers on food (Vũ Ngọc Phan 2000, 596–598). Some poems lament wartime policies that forced people off land where their ancestors were buried, whereas others assert that it was better to be reduced to eating roasted manioc and boiled sweet potatoes—two crops commonly fed to swine—year-round than to become “quislings” (Việt gian). During interviews with elderly Vietnamese in the Red River Delta, I frequently asked whether they recalled any examples from their youth. Three examples, because of their overlapping content and their broader relevance to the allocation of blame and thus moral accountability, are included here:

Version 1

Nhật cười, Tây khóc, Tàu lo
Việt Nam Độc lập chết co đầy đường.
 The Japanese laugh, the French weep, the Chinese worry
 The Vietnamese, independent, curl up and die all on the streets.

Version 2

Tàu cười, Tây khóc, Nhật no
Việt Nam hết gạo chết co đầy đường.
 The Chinese smile, Westerners weep, the Japanese are full
 Vietnam is out of rice, [they] curl up and die in the streets.

Version 3

Mấy năm thiếu thóc các vì ai?
Làm dân ta chết hơn hai triệu người,
Ta thì khóc, no thì cười.
 How many years [have we had] to pay extra paddy and on account of whom?
 [They] made our people die, more than two million people,
 We cry, while the full smile.

The ditties are reminiscent of satirical folk narratives () common to northern and central Vietnam. Although are far longer and follow a four-syllable rhyme scheme rather than the six-eight form used here, they serve a similar purpose—namely, to pass judgment on people who transgressed the boundaries of morally acceptable conduct (unseemly family quarrels, households that beat their servants, etc.) by singing their stories out loud, but where no one could see them. But in other cases, the narratives commented on historical incidents, such as the heroic, though typically unsuccessful, struggles by ordinary peasants and scholar-mandarins to hold abusive and corrupt officials accountable for their actions (Vũ Ngọc Phan 2000). Since the poetic forms themselves are quite flexible, the content could be modified to suit the particular circumstances in which they were sung, which meant multiple versions were often in circulation simultaneously, as is the case here. In each instance, the emotional response of the different nationalities to the Great Famine varies. However, no clear reason is offered as to why one will “smile” while the others will alternately “weep,” “worry,” or “be full.” Additionally, without any particles to indicate tense, it is impossible to tell whether these affective states are real or imagined reactions to the Japanese occupation (the past), the Great Famine itself (present), or what the prospective end of World War II will bring (the future). Unfortunately, my efforts to obtain further details on the ditties from the survivors I spoke with were met with a strikingly similar response: “That is what I heard.”

Nonetheless, several constants emerged. The first is the repetition of the verb cười, which is rich in its varied meanings and occupies the ambiguous space between “to smile” or “to laugh,” on the one hand, and “to laugh at” or “to mock,” on the other. Without other lexical elements, it is not entirely clear which of the two was intended. However, the verb “to cry/weep” (khóc) offers a further clue since it is closely paired with cười in the adjacent clause in each of the three examples that I collected. What kind of smile, but a false one, is elicited by the sound of someone weeping? The same theme reappears in the last line of each of the three versions, which all share a common conclusion: independence is empty when there is no rice in one’s belly.

By contrast, the eyewitnesses in the Joint Committee’s report commonly speak of the joint French-Japanese regime. Sometimes the order is reversed, but the hyphen always remains, which suggests the average famine survivor saw little to differentiate them, even though underground Việt Minh publications during the period in question carefully distinguished the evils of French colonialism from those of Japanese fascism. When pressed, most of the people I interviewed identified the Japanese and their “policy of stealing paddy” via French and Vietnamese intermediaries as the primary cause of the Great Famine, which a combination of floods, pests, and the bitterly cold weather compounded (Trần Văn Giàu 1962, 122–123; Bose 1990; Phạm Quang Trung, 1990). The Comité pour le Commerce et L’Exportation des paddys, riz et dérivés (CODIRIZ) was the most visible symbol of this policy; it also serves as the primary point of departure for debates regarding the proper allocation of blame. The following details focus on blame, as a detailed discussion of French and Japanese food policies is available elsewhere (Gunn 2014, 135–164).

A joint Franco-Japanese agreement established CODIRIZ in May 1941 to subsidize the cost of the occupation and, later, the war effort more generally. The managers of CODIRIZ instituted a compulsory rice purchase program shortly afterward. The impact upon rural households in Tonkin and Annam was immediate and dramatic, as a majority of them already lacked sufficient land to meet their dietary needs. The program required all rural households to sell a fixed percentage of the paddy harvested on each mẫu (3,600 square meters) of land they owned at well below market rates to its agents. Japanese regulations also forbade people from accumulating or dealing in cereals (Nguyễn Quyết 1980, 9). Policymakers incorrectly assumed that each mẫu of land could produce between four and five tons of paddy per year. Actual yields were much lower and further varied from place to place; consequently, the purchase program consumed 50 percent to 80 percent of the actual annual rice harvest (Trần Văn Giàu 1962, 122–123; Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 204; Hội Nông Dân Việt Nam 1998, 124). The quota system was thus crucially dependent upon village elites. They collaborated with the much-hated and feared rice unions (liên đoàn thóc gạo) that CODIRIZ outsourced to collect paddy. Yet, there are almost no references to them in the report. Where references do occur—fewer than five in the entire volume—eyewitnesses mention them in dispassionate terms. Indeed, they focus on isolated incidents where an unnamed landlord or wealthy peasant refused to help neighbors in need rather than the systemic nature of the exploitation.

The relative silence is striking since the violence and corruption associated with these organizations, which operated with the full consent of French and Japanese officials, was well known and widely documented in the press at the time. According to Việt Nông, a journalist who wrote for the Sunday edition of Trung Bắc, rice unions took advantage of their positions in every province to extort “small gifts” (vi thiềng), i.e., bribes, and to illegally confiscate paddy stockpiled as a safeguard against famine, which they consumed and/or sold at a huge profit on the black market (Bùi Minh Dũng 1995, 615; Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 619–620). Nguyễn Phúc Lộc, a journalist with Trí Tân, reached the same conclusion, and he noted that the program had “created a gang of thieves that was reducing the people of the North to starvation” (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 611–612). In response, peasants with sufficient land to produce a surplus employed a number of tactics to limit how much paddy they were forced to sell to the rice unions. Some reduced production levels to meet their subsistence needs in addition to the required quota, which rapidly led demand to outstrip available supply. Others abandoned nearby fields to secretly cultivate distant ones. Still others illegally transferred arable land to economically less fortunate households, who were often kin, to work for them in exchange for a portion of their harvests (Marr 1995, 97n103).

These everyday forms of resistance, in conjunction with inclement weather, contributed to a 15 percent decline in the amount of paddy produced between 1941 and 1944, even though the total area under cultivation remained approximately the same (Shiraishi and Furuta 1992; Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 583–600; Nguyễn Sinh Cúc and Nguyễn Văn Tiêm 1996, 13, Table 2). The decline prompted French officials, who were likely pressured by Japanese ones, to take more decisive action; however, their decision to further raise quotas, raid private granaries, and sharply restrict the import of paddy from Cochin-china to compel compliance only served to exacerbate existing food shortages. These shortages rapidly gave way to widespread famine during the summer of 1944.

Food shortages were not limited to the countryside. In Hanoi, monthly food rations declined dramatically between late 1943 and early 1945 from 15 to 7 kilograms of paddy per person. Much of that paddy was either stale or moldy and heavily cut with rice husks and bran, according to the survivors I spoke with in Hanoi. The steady decline in size and quality of the rations fed fears that existing stockpiles were approaching exhaustion. The fear led the black market price for paddy to rise dramatically from 57 to 700–800 VNĐ/kilogram over this period. The price eventually peaked at 2,400 VNĐ in July of 1945 (Đặng Phong 2002, 71). Vietnamese-language newspapers, although subject to censorship prior to publication, also carried regular reports and, later, photographs of the worsening famine as well. Several poets hauntingly conveyed in verse what it was like to helplessly watch thousands of men, women, and children collapse and die of starvation in the streets of the city on a daily basis (e.g., Vũ Khiêu 1945; Bàng Bá Lân [1957] 1985; Tố Hữu [1945] 2003). Yet, high-ranking French and Japanese officials remained largely silent, at least publicly, on the mounting crisis (Marr 1995, 96–107).

In recent decades, a limited number of memoirs written by former high-ranking French officials have appeared, but these accounts either minimize or overlook the significance of the Great Famine entirely. By contrast, Japanese memoirs, although equally small in number, offer a somewhat more accurate description, perhaps because low-ranking soldiers authored them. These autobiographical accounts notwithstanding, no persuasive new evidence has emerged to counter Vietnamese claims that neither French nor Japanese officials took any decisive action to curtail the famine; instead, representatives of both sides attributed the disaster to the policies and incompetent personnel of the other (Huỳnh Kim Khánh 1986, 301; Bùi Minh Dũng 1995; Marr 1995, 105n140). But to this day, many elderly Vietnamese I spoke with continue to assert that although the Japanese were primarily responsible for the conditions that gave rise to the Great Famine, it was the French who sought to exploit the tragedy as a means to delay Vietnam’s independence. However, the authors of the Joint Committee’s report, as well as the famine survivors featured in it, are mute on the question of blame and how it should be properly apportioned. The excerpts included in the report contain minimal descriptions of Japanese soldiers and their conduct, and almost none that pertain to French ones. Ethnic Chinese, who figured in two of the three ditties described earlier, are completely absent, even though they played a crucial role in the rural economy as moneylenders and rice mill owners. So, too, did Vietnamese who actively collaborated with the French-Japanese regime, such as members of the rice unions. This silence reflects the lack of sentiment expressed in the report more generally.

Suppressing Sentiment

At first glance, the heavy emphasis on personal testimonies of the eyewitnesses would appear to undercut the broader goal of collecting and presenting “objective” data on the Great Famine. But the members of the Joint Committee repeatedly justified the inclusion of the oral accounts by claiming that their recollections made the report more “penetrating” (sâu sắc), “truthful” (chân thực), and “appalling” (rùng rợn). The intended effect was to convey the “terrible” (khủng khiếp) nature of the event. Yet, the reader is confronted with a persistent flatness in the oral testimonies that leaves one strangely unmoved. The flatness is particularly striking when juxtaposed against the highly emotional accounts, excerpted at the end of the same report, from Vietnamese writers and journalists who survived the Great Famine, the report’s editors among them (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 610–679).

To a certain extent, the form conditions the content. Many of the testimonies, for example, reproduce a style of oral expression that I have repeatedly heard when ordinary people are requested by government officials to express their views on a particular topic. Typically, such orations begin with the stock phrase: “I request permission to express . . .” (xin phép phát biểu . . .). Then, after specifying which issue(s) are to be addressed, the speaker locates himself or herself in bureaucratic space and time, as is the case below:

I am Hoàng Hái Nam, 68 years old, residing in Pác Gà Village, Nhượng Bạn Commune [now in Bế Triêu Commune], Hoà An District, Cao Bằng [Province]. My family during the period 1944–45 had five people; we had 10 pùng [5,000 square meters] of land and were considered to be a middle peasant household. When the French colonialists built the farm and stables in Bê-na, they stole one-third of the land . . . (ibid., 279)

Visually reinforcing the flatness of such accounts are the “inquest reference tables” (bảng tra cứu), which consume more than one-third of the 728-page study. The tables always precede the oral accounts of the eyewitnesses and offer a quite different sense of the Great Famine. Unlike the accounts, the information included on these charts, which mimics the form used today for detailing local land tenure patterns, varied considerably. Typically, the charts were organized in hierarchically descending order by village, hamlet, lineage, and then household. Some of them merely recorded the names, number of people within the household, and the household’s economic situation (i.e., amount of land, draft animals, and type of house—either wood or bamboo) at the time of the Great Famine. Others included the number of deaths within the household and their kinship status (son, mother, etc.). Still others, more elaborate in design, stated the primary occupation of the household members, age at the time of death, current location of surviving members if known, and detailed statistical breakdowns of death rates by hamlet.

Again, no explanation is provided for this idiosyncratic presentation, which may simply reflect the disparate interests of individual members on the research team and/or the level of detail available in different locales. But regardless of the answer, the same question remains: what evidentiary weight should be given to these decontextualized fragments of people’s lives that fill the tables, especially as the report contains few methodological details on the circumstances of their collection? Were the statistics derived from the memories of the survivors and their descendants? Or were local documents and the revolutionary histories they later informed crucial to this effort as well? Alternatively, were the tables used as memory aids to prompt the recollections of the eyewitnesses, as I often witnessed during my fieldwork? If so, does this help explain why detailed mortality statistics are so firmly embedded within their oral accounts?

Close attention to the respective content of both forms of evidence suggests that each helped fashion the contours of the other. Access to arable land, for example, clearly emerged as an important site for knowledge production. Stage I of the research project narrowly focused on the impact of the Great Famine on one commune, Tây Lương, in Thái Bình Province. While overall mortality rates were severe throughout the area (over 66 percent of the inhabitants perished), households that had access to some private land in addition to the communal fields not surprisingly reported lower death rates (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 120). Questions regarding landholdings became progressively more detailed during Stages II and III of the project. Interestingly, the data collected on this topic resulted in dozens of inquest tables that noted in precise detail what portion of a sào (360 square meters) a household cultivated, but not the “class status” that was commonly associated with its inhabitants (ibid., 444–447). The omission is interesting for several reasons. Bureaucrats employed such “Marx-ish” categories from the 1950s onward to label people in ideological terms (Pelley 2002, 9). The designation given had a determining effect on one’s life chances, as well as those of one’s children (MacLean 2013, 31–53). These designations are rarely employed in everyday speech today. But scholars and local officials routinely project them back in time to describe colonial-era class relations and to justify the postcolonial campaigns in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to abolish the material basis of “feudal” and “capitalist” forms of exploitation in the countryside (ibid., 54–110). Consequently, one would expect that class terminology would permeate the testimonies of the eyewitnesses, especially as more than half of them were low-level cadres who “served the people” during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, this is not the case.

A few scattered references to a landlord or a collaborator (almost always anonymous) can be found in the report, but almost none of the witnesses openly or directly blamed other Vietnamese. Two tragic examples from Tây Lương Commune in Thái Bình Province follow. Nguyễn Văn Tư sold all his rice to buy his neighbors’ precious heirlooms, and then died of starvation when his food supplies ran out and no one was willing to buy back these goods. Nguyễn Văn Lý made the same wager and similarly lost. Of the 16 people in the Lý household, 15 died (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 689).

However, vast areas of productive land were abandoned or sold for a song as the owners, both French and Vietnamese, fled or died of starvation and the cholera that quickly followed. Conditions were reputedly so severe in nine provinces in Tonkin that approximately 50 percent of the arable land was temporarily abandoned during the winter of 1945 (HNDVN 1998, 154). Landlords, at least those with better luck than either Tư or Lý, reportedly bought much of this abandoned land at prices a mere fraction of their market value, which became a major point of contention when land reforms began in the mid-1950s (Trần Phương 1968, 56–84). But again, no one mentions these practices in the study.

Nowhere is this silencing of affect and, by extension, blame more apparent than in the accounts of what people ate during the famine. Individual recollections typically take the form of lists that convey both the passage of time and the steady decline of viable food sources, but not the terror this experience must have evoked when family members began to die in great numbers. Cổ Kim Thành offers a typical example: “During that time in my house, we first ate gruel, after that rice bran with pennywort [and] sweet potato vines. After that was gone, we ate roasted rice bran, with a little bit of salt, which caused bad heartburn and extreme constipation” (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 488). By contrast, famine survivors I spoke with in Hưng Yên and Hải Dương, as well as other written accounts I gathered over the years, vividly describe the taste, textures, and smells of what they were able to eat as the sources available to them became increasingly scarce.

The first to disappear were sources of protein, they explained. Meat, never common, disappeared quickly as people consumed all their chickens and ducks and then the frogs, snakes, salted fish, and field rats; after that, they ate their own dogs, cats, and songbirds. Bad weather and poor storage facilities meant that stale, musty rice, though widely despised, remained the staple food, at least during the early months of the Great Famine. When cooked, it produced a sour smell that caused most people to lose their appetite. To help fool themselves, survivors told me, they mixed stale rice with water to produce a weak gruel to which small bits of whatever was still on hand could be added. Water spinach and sweet potato vines were common, as were other fast-growing vegetables, such as bitter melons and mustard greens. Aubergines and salt, according to one survivor, made the gruel more palatable because “they went together perfectly, like the moon loves the color white.” But even these vegetables, which form the cornerstone of the everyday diet of the rural poor, began to disappear as peasants became too weak to grow them. This left pennywort leaves, since their sharp, acrid smell helped counterbalance the gruel’s insipidity, as well as banana and potato peels, soybean dregs, rice bran, and corn stalks. But these scraps, which Vietnamese normally fed to their pigs, quickly became scarce as neighbors “began to steal from one another to eat,” one survivor confessed. When this swill was exhausted, those who sought to stay alive turned to edible grasses and plants, such as dayflower and duckweed, which traditionally served as meals of last resort whenever crops failed.

But perhaps the most tragic aspect of the famine concerned those people who died from “being full” (chết no). Famine victims require the careful reintroduction of foods in small quantities, due to the deterioration of the digestive system and to correct for multiple nutritional deficiencies brought about by chronic malnutrition or the complete absence of food. Many people were either unaware of this need or, more likely, simply could not control themselves when they finally got access to some food, especially during the spring harvest of 1945. By this point, the Great Famine had already lasted six months in most places. According to Nguyễn Thị Chúng, people in her hamlet went out to the drought-stricken fields in March, just prior to the harvest, where they ate the immature rice grains raw. Many of them, she noted, promptly died from intestinal blockages (ibid., 326). In other places, people were able to wait until April, when the rice was ready for harvest. But again, their patience proved insufficient. Trần Văn Sử lost four of his relatives, including his maternal grandmother, when the smell of partially steamed rice overcame them. According to Sử, they ate the contents of the pot before the rice had completely cooked and died a short time afterward (ibid., 454–455). Nguyễn Duy Nhi also watched his paternal uncle eat four small bowls of rice and then die (ibid., 259).

Similar examples are scattered throughout the text. Yet, the circumstances are again described in strikingly unemotional terms and frequently appear almost incidental due to the prominence eyewitnesses gave in their “testimonies” to enumerating the dead. One startling exception to this pattern appears in the report. Nguyễn Thị Chúng, quoted above, was 10 years old when the Great Famine began. When asked by the research team what she remembered, Chúng responded in “double-seven six eight” (song thật lục bát) verse. Chúng noted that the rhyme scheme, which is typically used in Vietnam to chant lengthy elegies and ballads, helped preserve the events in her mind. An excerpt from her 75-line poem follows:

People appear like underworld ghosts,
Wearing torn ill-matched clothing,
Peering at you for a long while without showing their eyes.
Eating pennywort leaves, clusters of figs and amaranth
Banana tubers boiled with a side plate of salt
Eat hoping to ward off our hungry stomachs.
Dry cakes pretending that they are rice dumplings filled with green bean paste.
People slit open sweet potatoes and smeared them with ancient bran dregs
To keep from wilting like swine.
Ponder how depressing and miserably wretched this is and then
Judge those watching outside the store
What reason is there for their misery? (ibid., 325–326)

What I find most distinctive in this poem is the open recognition of misery and depression, especially when one compares it to the emotional flatness of the other eyewitness reports. But it is the issue of non-judgment, upon which the excerpt ends, that foregrounds these differences most clearly. In Chúng’s view, the starving were already little more than hungry ghosts. For this reason, they should be forgiven—if not entirely absolved—for the shameful acts they frequently committed in the effort to remain alive.

Depersonalizing Suffering

Võ An Ninh captured on film what Chúng conveyed through verse. Ninh was a young photographer when the Great Famine began, and he traveled throughout Tonkin on assignment to document the tragedy as it happened. His photographs were first published in the Việt Minh’s Cứu Quốc (Save the Nation) magazine (No. 133, January 3, 1946) and then quickly reprinted elsewhere. Forty-two plates of his black-and-white photographs are reproduced at the end of the Joint Committee’s report, and their content forms a stark contrast with the rest of the report. The report’s authors state that they included them because Ninh’s photographs “note the truthfulness [of what happened], and call on us to remember, with deep grief and resentment, what can never be forgotten” (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 673). In a later interview, Ninh said his photo-“reportage” (phóng s) constituted a visual denunciation of the French and Japanese crimes but added that what struck him the most was the inescapable smell of the dead and of those about to die (ibid., 679). These sentiments, which stand in marked contrast to the subdued tone of the Joint Committee’s report as a whole, are embedded in the images themselves, but in a manner that depersonalizes the victims, hence the additional attention they receive here.

Vietnamese reportage first appeared in 1932. The genre was modeled after investigative French reportage, which itself was derived from the literary tradition of social realism. But the Vietnamese word for reportage carried an additional connotation. Phóng sự means “to blow up” or “to magnify events” and conveyed the popular understanding that it was acceptable, if not required, for the writer to enlarge the facts to achieve a desired aesthetic and/or political effect (Lockhart 1996, 27). By using this term, Ninh is signaling that the “truth” of the Great Famine requires something more than “facts” to fully represent the tragedy to people who did not personally endure it. Ninh achieves his desired effect in several ways. Most of his photos are hand-signed on the front (though without the requisite diacritics) rather than the back, as if to evoke Western-style paintings and other artworks. The lengthy captions, with their liberal use of exclamation points, also move beyond simply factual descriptions to create short, almost cinematic stills that dictate what we are to conclude from the presented image. Photograph No. 18, for instance, is a close-up shot (head and shoulders) of a male corpse lying on the ground, with disheveled hair, and severely sunken eyes staring blankly upward. The caption reads, “Dead and unable to shut [his] eyes! The rancor and bitterness are spent here!”

The emotional power of the photographs arises not simply from their content, which is often disturbing in its own right, but through their juxtaposition with the “testimonies” in the report, as previously mentioned. Photos of the nearly dead in Thái Bình and Nam Định Provinces show small groups of emaciated women and children standing, squatting, or lying down on the ground. The subjects are either dressed in filthy rags or completely naked. Their gaze is aimed in every direction, often directly at the camera lens, but only rarely at each other. The recently dead, by contrast, appear in great numbers and take the form of corpses piled on wagon carts and the back of flatbed trucks or in great stacks at impromptu graveyards. Still others are shown wrapped in mats made of sedge—normally used in rural areas as a dining surface—and then placed in shallow graves in rice fields. The differences in formal composition aside, all of the individuals portrayed in Ninh’s photographs are depicted as nameless victims whose anonymity is further reinforced by the captions that accompany them (see also Campbell 2012). These captions offer little to contextualize the scenes Ninh captured on film. Instead, the captions instruct viewers on how to respond emotionally to their visual content, compassion for those “near the earth and far from heaven” (gần đất xa trời), and outrage on behalf of the already dead.

The instructions provide a useful reminder of a broader dilemma people faced at the time: namely, what should be done with the corpses, especially given the dangers they presented to the people who handled them? Ironically, professional gravediggers were often the first to die because they had no arable land of their own and thus no reliable sources of income and food. As the speed with which people died accelerated, others had to find ways to dispose of their kith and kin to avoid cholera outbreaks. In rural areas, the most common solution was the creation of “ghost graves” and “hunger tombs,” such as the ones described at the outset of the essay, which were normally placed apart from those used for one’s ancestors. This problem was further compounded in urban areas due to the sheer number of people who arrived in cities each day in desperate search of food but perished shortly afterward. Since there were no known relatives to take responsibility for their unidentified remains, tens of thousands of corpses were placed in hastily constructed mass graves, typically in close proximity to the bus stations and markets where they collapsed.

In 1950 residents of Hanoi raised funds to exhume, wash, and then rebury some of the remains in the city’s charity cemetery, according to the caretaker of the famine memorial whom I met. The reburial effort was unusual for several reasons, the least of which was that it occurred during the middle of the First Indochina War (1946–54). Funerary practices in north and central Vietnam commonly require two burials, the first in special containers located at geomantically auspicious locations in one’s own rice fields or near bodies of water. The remains are generally exhumed after two years, when they are carefully cleaned with alcohol, counted, and then re-interred by a ritual specialist, as an incomplete skeleton can result in serious problems for the living as well as the dead. However, the mass burials made this impossible, which perhaps explains the decision made in 1951 to further violate normal mortuary practices and collectively entomb the remains inside the memorial that was erected on the grounds of the charity cemetery. Ninh’s photos of the reburial, although not published until five years after the process was completed, showed the culturally unthinkable: piles of skulls three meters deep, rows of femurs stacked like kindling, and jumbled masses of ribs. An elderly woman, Nhung, who lived next to the memorial and regularly encountered the spirits of the famine victims, told me the collective reburial was nonetheless a marked improvement. Before 1951, she explained, it was not unusual to see bits of exposed bone lying on the ground among the weeds; however, the decision to place all of the disarticulated remains in a large ossuary under the memorial ensured, in her opinion, that the “thirsty and hungry victims of injustice” (oan hồn đói khát) would never be fully at peace.

Missing Resistance

Rural Vietnamese employed a range of strategies with mixed success to survive the famine. Theft was an obvious choice, as was buying and selling rice on the black market while supplies lasted. However, most turned to begging, but the scale of the famine was so terrible that it was impossible. “The markets,” the former assistant chairman for Thái Bình Province, Bùi Thọ Tỵ, recalled, were too crowded with people “who were nothing but skin and bones” (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 85). Nguyễn Văn Đảng similarly remembers how Vũ Thị Ang (sic), who was 12 years old at the time, went to the local market to beg after her grandmother, Bà Măn, collapsed. “She was too hungry to ask for food, so she lay down at the corner of the market and died . . .” (ibid., 387). The comparatively better off sold their property and clothing, piece by piece until there was nothing, and then they sold their homes. Once the money from that was gone, they sold whatever family heirlooms remained. But even that, according to Nguyễn Thanh Vân, the former president of Thái Bình Province’s historical research council, was often not enough. “When everything was gone [sold],” he explained, “you would still die, impoverished, of starvation” (ibid., 87–88). The only other option, according to Chu Bá Hoan, was to leave for the mountains in the far north, where rumor had it food could be had if one joined the Việt Minh (ibid., 232).

There were, of course, more active forms of everyday resistance prior to the Great Famine. Rural households, as I noted earlier, sought to hide the true extent of their landholdings and to harvest crops in secret to limit what the rice unions and others could seize from them. Fields officially designated by Japanese officials for the production of cash crops (e.g., peanuts, cotton, and jute) needed to supply the war effort commonly went under-planted and thus reduced the amount of materials available to them. In several isolated instances, mobs “borrowed” (i.e., seized) paddy from landlords and Japanese-managed granaries as well (ibid., 86). But these isolated actions were not coordinated (ibid., 626–629); moreover, they appear to have largely ceased by August 1943, months before the Great Famine began (ibid., 124–131, 626–629). The apparent lack of organized action is significant, again by contrast. Peasant uprisings hold a conspicuous place in the new histories of the national past written after the creation of the DRV in 1954. Details regarding them are routinely cited as proof of two things: (1) the revolutionary potential of Vietnamese peasants, and (2) the concomitant need for the Communist Party to guide their actions in an effective manner (Vũ Huy Phúc 1979, 387; Pelley 1995).

The lack of large-scale, organized resistance on the eve of the Great Famine helps explain the peculiar position of the tragedy within historical accounts of the period. Slump famines are generally associated with a sudden and unexpected drop in the economy or one of its sub-sectors, which produces catastrophic mortality rates—even though sufficient food exists to prevent it. The sudden onset of the crisis instead leads to loss of a household’s substantive ability to establish ownership over an adequate amount of food to preserve life, either by growing it or by purchasing it. But in this particular instance, there was no sudden economic downturn, only an inexorable decline that began in 1930 (Nguyễn Thế Anh 1987; Bùi Minh Dũng 1995, 580; Gunn 2014, 75–105). By the eve of the famine’s beginnings, there was no fat left on the land—or, for that matter, on Vietnamese bodies. So, within a very short period of time, people were too weak to do anything.

For many of those who witnessed the Great Famine, their survival cannot be separated from intense personal feelings of shame. Their shame has several causes, many of which fall under the generic heading of selfish acts committed in the name of self-preservation, such as the abandonment of families, sale of children, theft of food and clothes from others who were weaker, and cannibalism (Tô Hoài 1994, 58–70; Marr 1995, 106n144; Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 638, 649). “A hungry belly renders the ears deaf,” (bụng đói thì tai điếc) one survivor in Hanoi told me, by which he meant being momentarily indifferent to the needs of others. But the crime that appears to haunt survivors the most was a ritual one. As conditions worsened, it became impossible to present daily offerings to one’s ancestors, much less to bury family members properly when everything of value was sold to purchase food:

An offence against Heaven has been committed
The antiques are brought out
Everything belonging to the Grandparents is sold
The [lesser] lines of descent are also sold
Now, on this day, even the ancestors are sold.

This lullaby and the shame it describes alludes to another obstacle to state-sponsored commemorations of the Great Famine. The Communist Party justifies its monopoly on political power by placing itself at the head of a long line of “ancestors” that defended the “nation” against “foreign aggressors” (Pelley 1995). The Great Famine did not contribute to any well-known acts of heroic sacrifice, however. Consequently, the accounts of individual suffering and passive nature of their deaths have little historical significance, except in statistical form as a means to validate Vietnamese claims regarding the scale of the tragedy. When viewed from this perspective, the Great Famine constitutes an example of suffering without “sacrifice,” a point Ninh’s photographs continually reemphasize.

The absence of any mention of “sacrifice” in the oral testimonies is a further reminder that not all deaths are equal. Since the victims of the Great Famine did not die in defense of the “nation,” they cannot be interred in the “martyrs’ cemeteries” (nghĩa trạng liệt sĩ) the government has constructed throughout the country to honor individuals who sacrificed their lives to achieve its political goals. While the millions of hungry ghosts produced from the First, Second, and Third Indochina Wars can be converted into martyrs once their physical remains are located (typically with the assistance of spirit mediums) and properly buried, victims of the Great Famine cannot be similarly transformed. The ontological status of these hungry ghosts remains ambiguous, as no officially approved ritualized procedures have emerged to change them into either benevolent ancestors or the “exceptional dead” (Malarney 2007, 521), whose sacrifices are worthy of emulation by others.

Partial Reincorporation

Despite the Joint Committee’s findings, the Great Famine remains a non-event, at least within official histories of the revolutionary struggle. The tragedy produced no heroes, a point that Văn Tạo, senior historian and co-editor of the volume, stated in the report’s concluding section. He painfully noted that the indignities Vietnamese suffered and the shame they carried from what they had to do to survive made people “lose their humanness” (Văn Tạo and Furuta 1995, 693). As time passes, therefore, the Great Famine becomes increasingly marginal in depictions of the national past.

That said, restoration work on the 1951 memorial to the famine victims, which began in 2001 under the direction of faculty at Hanoi Architectural University, updated its existing features using historical sources, and added some new ones. The result was a modestly sized “zone of recollection” (khu tưởng niệm) on what remained of the former charity cemetery. Sturdy cement walls and a padlocked gate now protect the zone, poetically named “the sleeping place of a thousand years” (nơi an giấc ngàn thu), from further encroachment by the private homes that surround it on all sides. Once inside the zone, a curved pathway bordered by decorative trees and potted flowers leads visitors around the monument, which was fully restored and repainted in the same colors as the national flag. Two further elements were added in 2003. The first was a large polished black granite slab that features the full text of the 114-line poem by Vũ Khiêu, a famine survivor and former vice-director of the Institute of History. (He composed the poem in March 1945 to honor its victims.) The second was a small two-story structure built a few meters to the left of the memorial. The top floor contains reproductions of the photographs Võ An Ninh took of the Great Famine on its walls, while the bottom one houses a large altar for visitors. Thắng, the part-time caretaker of the zone, informed me that visitors are largely limited to government officials and Japanese dignitaries, who periodically come to “recall” (tưởng niệm) the dead with a ritual prayer, incense, and small offerings, especially during the festival to appease the wandering souls of the dead.

The zone was not simply about honoring the famine victims, however. The funds the People’s Committee allocated for it were drawn from a much larger item in the city’s budget. Funds were earmarked for the restoration of other sites of historical and cultural significance, then scheduled for completion prior to September of 2010, when nationwide celebrations would mark the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. The restoration thus prompted renewed discussions among the historians who participated in the research project. The topic was whether the memorial, in its new form, should serve as the national “site of memory” (Nora 1989) for all victims of the Great Famine. These informal discussions gained strength prior to the 60th anniversary of the tragedy—a date that carried additional cosmological significance. The year 2005 marked the completion of the sexagenary calendar, which in Vietnam is used not only to predict the future, but to account for the moral character of the past as well.

The historians organized a number of public events that year to mark this anniversary, which included the release of a revised and expanded version of the Joint Committee’s 1995 report. But the most notable of these events was the symposium held in May 2005. The event brought together scholars from the Institute of History, many of whom had participated in the inquiry in 1995, assorted government officials, reporters, and several eyewitnesses. Dr. Vũ Khiêu opened the event by tearfully reciting his well-known poem regarding the event. The discussion then turned to the question of how to prevent further ritual marginalization of the victims.

Professor Văn Tạo, the co-author of the 1995 report and a famine survivor as well, argued that this outcome could best be forestalled through the establishment of “one death anniversary and one shrine” (một ngày giỗmột bàn thờ) to commemorate the victims. Not everyone agreed with his proposal, however. Some participants noted that it would require the adoption of a national standard, which would reduce and possibly eradicate the diverse array of commemorative practices that now exist. For example, one person pointed out that at least four different dates were currently used to present offerings to the Great Famine’s victims: (1) September 3, when Hồ Chí Minh announced that a mass movement would be organized “to raise production to resist famine”; (2) October 11, when he provided concrete details on how to implement the campaign; (3) the full moon in March, when death rates reached their peak in 1945; and (4) the full moon of the seventh lunar month, when all hungry ghosts annually emerge (Quang Thiện 2005).

The tensions over whether the death anniversary should coincide with the political or religious calendar also resurfaced around the question of whether a national monument was needed. Most felt that the restored memorial, which also included the remains of individuals killed during the 1946 bombing of Hanoi that marked the start of the First Indochina War, was too small and difficult to find to serve this purpose. But there was sharp disagreement over where a new one should be erected, especially since a substantial number of the dead were also buried at the Phúc Thiện Cemetery, near the zoo. Some proposed other sites in Hanoi where large numbers of people perished, such as the Hàng Da Market in the Old Quarter or the Giáp Bát Bus Station on the southern outskirts of the capital. Others argued that a national monument should be placed in Thái Bình Province, where more than a quarter of a million people died. Advocates of this site wanted to place it next to the road marker three kilometers north of the provincial seat on Highway One in honor of the famous photograph Võ An Ninh took there of two young male victims. Participants from Thanh Hóa, a province farther south, claimed it experienced a higher death toll and should host the monument. Still other participants expressed concern that a national monument would encourage the mass graves scattered across the countryside to gradually “fall into oblivion” (ibid.).

These debates over how the hungry ghosts should be recalled and ritually “cared for” (chăm sóc), as one participant in the symposium put it, remain unresolved despite ongoing efforts to establish a larger place for the Great Famine in the historical imagination, including public exhibitions of the photographs in the Museum of Vietnamese History and university textbooks (Hoàng Phương 2015; Thanh Nien News 2015). They remain unresolved because the archive that resulted from the Joint Committee’s inquiry documents features the unmaking of an entire population rather than its productive management toward officially desired ends: the struggle for revolutionary independence prior to and immediately after the August Revolution. And it is primarily for this reason that the Great Famine and the hungry ghosts it produced continue to resist incorporation into official narratives about the “exceptional dead,” who sacrificed their lives to defend the “nation” from foreign aggressors.

Accepted: August 31, 2015


I would like to thank both reviewers for their constructive criticism, assistance with technical issues related to Japanese-Vietnamese relations, and editorial suggestions. All errors remain mine.


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1) Similar beliefs about hungry ghosts are widespread throughout Southeast and East Asia.

2) On the differences between “reparations” and “grant aid” from Japanese perspectives, see Asomura (2013, 138–191, 228–328).

3) An internal study reportedly conducted as the negotiations were taking place rejected the commonly cited figure of two million deaths as Vietnamese Communist Party propaganda. Instead, the authors of the official report allegedly concluded that no more than 300,000 Vietnamese died during the famine, a figure significantly lower than earlier French estimates of 600,000–700,000. Reviewer B contacted the director of the 1st Southeast Asian Division in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to verify the existence of the internal study and its conclusion; however, the director’s office has yet to respond. Interestingly, Văn Tạo maintains that 1.97 million died at a minimum, whereas Motoo Furuta believes that the research done to date is not sufficient to “fix the total,” as reported by Reviewer B.

4) Thái Bình Province, in northern Vietnam, and Thanh Hóa Province, in central Vietnam, are thought to have suffered the greatest number of deaths (Bùi Minh Dũng 1995, 574; Quang Thiện 2005).


Vol. 3, No. 3, Trinh Ly Khanh

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference: Evidence from Vietnam

Trinh Ly Khanh*

* Trịnh Khánh Ly, Department of Criminology, Criminal Law and Social Law, Ghent University, 4 9000 Gent, Belgium

e-mail: lykhanh.trinh[at]

In recent years, Vietnamese trade unions have made considerable strides in trade union organizing. However, studies show that workplace trade unions are generally dominated and controlled by employers. Increasing labor unrest, particularly in the private sector, reveals the failure of trade union organizing and operation in Vietnam. This article aims to provide a picture of trade union organizing as conducted by the communist Vietnamese trade union system in the private sector, particularly trade union organizing that is free from employers’ interference. It also examines whether the new legal framework may contribute to this form of trade union organizing in the near future.

Keywords: Party-led trade unions, trade union organizing, employers’ interference, anti-unionism, Vietnam


The reforms (doi moi) initiated in 1986 by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to transform a centrally planned economy to a socialist market economy has created significant changes in the Vietnamese labor market. Before the innovation most people of working age were employed in state agencies or state-owned enterprises. Today, the majority of the employed population works for the private sector (approximately 41 million persons are employed in local enterprises and approximately 1.6 million persons are employed in foreign-invested enterprises) (Vietnam, General Statistics Office [GSO] 2010). Vietnam still has a socialist political system and trade union policy: the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) is the only trade union. Workplace trade unions (công đoàn cơ sở), immediate upper-level trade unions (công đoàn cấp trên trực tiếp cơ sở), and other trade unions of different levels must follow the Statute of VGCL. Workers from different sectors have the right to voluntarily form, join, or participate in trade unions in accordance with the law. The trade unions are open to Vietnamese salaried workers and self-employed Vietnamese,1) irrespective of their occupation, gender, or religious belief. However, they are only entitled to form, join, or participate in trade unions affiliated with the VGCL2) since independent trade unions operating outside the umbrella of the VGCL are not legally recognized.3) The change in labor structure has led to a shift in the VGCL’s focus regarding union organizing in the private sector, dominated (97 percent) by small and medium enterprises (Tự Cường 2012). In 2003, the VGCL set a target to gain 1 million new trade union members in the period 2003–08 and 1.5 million new trade union members in the period 2008–13. Accordingly, by the end of 2013, workplace trade unions should be established in 70 percent of the eligible enterprises under the provisions of the VGCL Statute, gathering at least 60 percent of the workers (Nguyễn Duy Vũ 2012). By the end of 2011, the number of new trade union members had increased by over 1.3 million. This brought the total number of trade union members in the whole country to over 7.5 million, scattered over 111,319 workplace trade unions, of which the private sector accounts for 74.2 percent (ibid.).

Despite the sharp rise in trade union memberships and trade union organizing, there has been a constant increase in wildcat strikes4) since the enforcement of the first Labour Code of 1994, which came into effect on January 1, 1995.5) According to VGCL’s statistics, in the period 1995–2010, there were 3,402 wildcat strikes (Vietnam, VGCL 2011b, 32). The global economic recession led to thousands of workers losing their jobs in 2011. The number of wildcat strikes that year (978 cases) was double that of 2010, concentrated in foreign-invested enterprises in the key economic provinces and cities in the south (Quang Chính and Việt Lâm 2012). The percentage of wildcat strikes occurring in organized enterprises is high, for example, 70.99 percent in 2010 (ibid., 36). Current practices of trade union organizing is one of the major causes of wildcat strikes. Despite the increase of workplace trade unions over the years, several established workplace trade unions are in fact “yellow unions,” formed and influenced by the management of the enterprises in order to serve the employers’ interests (see the following sections for more details). In the face of increasing wildcat strikes, the VGCL has attempted to conduct trade union organizing free from employers’ interference in the private sector. This effort, which is seen as a pilot initiative, has been carried out in a small number of targeted private-sector enterprises in Hai Phong city, Binh Duong province and Ho Chi Minh City since 2011.6) These are representative localities in terms of a high concentration of private-sector enterprises, a large workforce, and a high percentage of wildcat strikes. The aim of this effort is to establish trade unions with democratic participation of workers, based on a bottom-up principle of organizing and minimal influence of employers in the process.

On the one hand, from a structural perspective, the VGCL faces the challenge of reforming its organizational structure in order to gain greater operating independence and better adapt to the global situation of trade unions and the trade union movement. During the revision process of the Trade Union Law of 1990, initiated since 2009, it was proposed that the Communist Party’s leadership in the trade union movement be removed, as clearly mentioned in draft 10 of the proposal of April 30, 2012. However, Article 1 of the current Trade Union Law of 2012 reaffirms the leadership of the Communist Party over Vietnamese trade unions. On the other hand, Vietnamese trade unions have gained more benefits from the Trade Union Law of 2012, for example: legal protection for trade union officers; intervention of immediate upper-level trade unions in non-unionized enterprises; increase of trade union contributions from employers, etc. (see infra).

This article explores how the VGCL conducts trade union organizing in the contemporary Vietnamese industrial context. It explains how employers are able to influence trade union organizing and operations at the workplace level, and outlines the organizational challenges faced by trade unions in implementing reform. Using the example of a few cases where trade union organizing is free from employers’ interference, the difficulties of operating such trade unions is discussed. The article also reflects the changes and potential impact of the new Labour Code of 2012 and the Trade Union Law of 2012 on trade union organizing.

This article is derived from the personal observations of the author garnered after years of involvement in the operation of the VGCL and its initiatives in independent trade union organizing, as well as participation in different seminars and group discussions among trade unions of different levels and other stakeholders such as the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), etc. The article also draws on documentation on relevant policies and legal acts.

Current Trade Union Organizing Practices

Traditional Practices of Trade Union Organizing

It is immediate upper-level trade unions instead of rank-and-file workers that take the initiative in establishing workplace trade unions. According to a survey conducted by the VGCL, more than 99 percent of workplace trade unions are established by upper-level trade unions (Vietnam, VGCL and International Labour Organization [ILO] Industrial Relations Project 2012, 16). This usually takes one to three months (45.5 percent) or three to six months (32.7 percent) (ibid., 13).

The immediate upper-level trade union first conducts surveys on the situation of enterprises and workers in the target areas in order to identify enterprises suitable for union organizing. These surveys are conducted in coordination with the relevant authorities: planning and investment departments, labor departments, invalids and social affairs departments, tax departments, management committees of industrial zones, etc. (ibid., 25). As soon as the surveys are completed, the immediate upper-level trade union contacts the employers in writing to propose a meeting. If the enterprises do not respond, the union sends another letter or tries to make direct contact (ibid.). If the union’s proposal is not accepted by the employers, trade union officers cannot access the enterprises and workers cannot leave the production site to meet them (Nguyễn Ngọc Trung 2012). If the enterprises agree with the proposal, an official response is sent and a meeting is arranged at the companies’ premises (ibid., 16).

During the meeting, trade union officers meet the workers and expound the necessity and benefits of joining trade unions. They instruct the workers on how to apply for membership and nominate members of the temporary executive committees of the workplace trade unions after discussion with the enterprise’s directors. Next the enterprise management, together with the upper-level trade union and the temporary executive committee, prepares and organizes a ceremony for member admission and creation of the trade union (ibid., 25–26). The decision on forming a workplace trade union and the nomination of its temporary executive committee, issued by the upper-level trade union, is based on the employer’s recommendation (Nguyễn Văn Bình 2011, 13).

How Employers Interfere in Trade Union Organizing

As analyzed above, upper-level trade unions are too dependent on the goodwill of employers in the organization of workplace trade unions. If employers deny the upper-level trade unions access to their premises to conduct a campaign for their workers, the trade union organizing is considered a failure. Moreover, there has been a misinterpretation for many years now of the VGCL’s procedure concerning the application dossiers for starting workplace trade unions. The VGCL does not require the employers’ signature in the application dossier submitted to the immediate upper-level trade unions. In practice, however, the unions often request the enterprises and workers to provide the employer’s signature in the application letter, which includes the recommended list of the temporary executive committees of the workplace trade unions.7) This signature is taken as proof of the employers’ commitment to create favorable conditions for the operation of trade unions in their enterprises (Nguyễn Văn Bình 2011, 15).

Trade union activity is still heavily influenced by the centrally planned economy period where there was no conflict of interests between the employers and workers in state-owned enterprises. The VGCL does not prohibit the management of a company from joining its trade union or from holding leadership positions in the union, for example, as president or members of the executive committee. The VGCL has taken measures to correct this anomaly. On May 6, 2009, the Presidium of VGCL promulgated Guidance No. 703/HD-TLD, Item 1.2, Chapter I, banning the owner(s), president, and/or deputy president of the governing board; general director and/or deputy general director; directors and/or deputy directors of a private-sector enterprise from joining its trade union. However, this ban does not apply to other persons from the management, notably, heads and/or deputy heads of functional departments and production workshops, etc. Indeed, a survey shows that 60–70 percent of workplace trade union presidents hold managerial positions within the company (ibid.).

Members of the management who became trade union members before the promulgation of Guidance No. 703/HD-TLD automatically lose their trade union membership status, but the VGCL has no regulation preventing them from becoming honorary trade union members and participating in trade union activities.8) Consequently, this allows employers to continue participating in trade union activities and monitoring and influencing its operation. Moreover, employers are statutorily required to make a financial contribution to the trade union on a monthly basis. This requirement was equal to 2 percent of the workers’ salary fund, which is used as the basis for social insurance contribution, and was applied in both state-owned and in private-sector enterprises. In foreign-invested enterprises, this amount was equivalent to 1 percent of the total wage budget.9) Since January 1, 2013 this amount has been amended to 2 percent of the total workers’ salary fund for all organizations and enterprises of both the public and private sector.10) This legal provision formally creates room for the employers to dominate and control workplace trade unions, which is inconsistent with Article 2 of the ILO Convention No. 98, to which Vietnam is not a signatory.

Before the formulation of the Labour Code of 2012 and the Trade Union Law of 2012, the Vietnamese government carried out a study on the compatibility of Vietnamese laws with Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining of the International Labour Organization. The study showed that parts of Vietnamese laws were incompatible with the Convention, particularly provisions on the independence of trade unions (Vietnam, MOLISA 2012, 48). With the promulgation of the Trade Union Law of 2012, which restricts the independence of trade unions, the possibility of joining Convention No. 98 is vague in the near future.

Another reason the trade union system facilitates employers’ interference in trade union organizing arises from the VGCL’s target of developing trade union membership. There have been numerous cases where the principle of voluntary participation of workers has been ignored during the process of workplace trade union establishment, as acknowledged by VGCL (Vietnam, VGCL 2010, 16). Moreover, due to the shortage of upper-level trade union officers with experience in leading the organizing process in private-sector enterprises, the process does not always match the enterprises’ needs, and the methods and contents of the campaigns do not leave the workers convinced.11)

Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference

Since 2011 the VGCL has initiated innovative ways of organizing trade unions in the private sector in the localities mentioned above. What is new is that the trade union organizing is conducted by the immediate upper-level trade unions outside the enterprises’ premises and outside working hours. Officers of immediate upper-level trade unions approach workers of targeted enterprises in order to learn about their working conditions (the total number of workers, wages, issues with management, etc.). The officers try at the same time to select focal workers who can influence the other workers to join the trade unions.12) Leaflets about trade unions and the rights and obligations of trade union members are distributed to the workers. Other services such as legal aid, sports and entertainment activities, etc. are organized to improve the relations between immediate upper-level trade unions and the workers (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 8).

Once it receives the application letters of at least five workers, the immediate upper-level trade union issues a decision to admit the workers into the trade union. Members of the temporary executive committee for the new trade union are voted in directly by the trade union members and officers help to organize meetings for members on trade union operation. Only after all this has been put in place are the employers informed (ibid., 9, 10).

Trade Union Responses to Employers’ Interference

Case 1: Company K (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 21–22)13)

In 2007, Ms L, a staff of the human resources department was elected as the union president. The management asked her not to approach workers at the workplace; instead, they suggested that the workers go and see her at the human resource department if needed. Ms L did not agree and continued meeting workers at their workplace when necessary. In early 2011, as the trade union was preparing for its congress in the new term, the management opposed Ms L’s occupation of the position of trade union president and prepared a list nominating members of the executive committee—excluding Ms L. She was then forced by the management to put the stamp of the executive committee on this document. When the upper-level union learnt about this case, it issued a decision to cancel the congress and reorganize another one.

Case 2: Dong A Vina Company (Đức Minh 2012)14)

Dong A Vina is a 100 percent foreign-invested company in Binh Duong industrial zone, Di An, Binh Duong province, employing 530 workers. Mr Tran Van Sy, head of the production section, was elected as a member of the company trade union’s executive committee at the trade union congress.

After his election, Mr Sy went on leave. When he came back to work, the human resource department launched a procedure to dismiss him on the grounds that he had returned to work a few days late without a valid reason. To protest against this unjust decision, 512 workers of the company went on strike on July 12, 2012, demanding that Mr Sy be reinstated and that the officers of the human resource department responsible for this decision be dismissed instead.

Representatives of the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones and the management board of Binh Duong industrial zone (the local authority) came to the company to try to resolve the dispute. On July 23–24, 2012, approximately 30 representatives of the workers, including the executive committees of the workplace trade unions and heads of the production groups and production lines, were invited to attend a conciliation meeting with the company management. The company agreed to pay Mr Sy benefits if his dismissal was found to be illegal. The workers’ demands that the staff of the human resources department involved be dismissed and that the strikers be paid 70 percent of their wages for the days they did not work were denied by the company.

At the end of the meeting, the representative of the workplace trade union promised to encourage the workers to come back to work on July 25, 2012. However, the workers refused and stuck by their earlier demands. The company then dismissed all 512 workers on the grounds that they had been absent from work for over five days without valid reasons.

The above examples show a commitment from certain immediate upper-level trade unions to prevent employers’ interference in the organizing of non-“yellow” trade unions in the workplace. It demonstrates that not all workplace trade unions in the private sector are “yellow unions” and that not all upper-level trade unions ignore the problems faced by workplace trade unions. It also shows that effective linkage and communication between the upper-level and workplace trade unions can be effective in limiting employers’ interference.

At the central level, in order to counter anti-unionism by employers, the VGCL has implemented some measures, including the establishment of a fund to support workplace trade union delegates (presidents, deputy presidents, executive committee members) who are victims of anti-union actions by their employers. This applies to delegates who have been illegally dismissed or transferred to a position that does not meet their skill level or one that pays 30 percent less than their current salary. Concretely, this support entails the following:15)

• Financial support, equal to the minimum wage, for two months immediately after the termination of the labor contract.

• Monthly support, equivalent to the minimum wage, for 1.5 months during the period of unemployment, not exceeding 6 months.

• When a labor dispute between a trade union delegate and the enterprise’s management is brought to court, the fund will cover 50–100 percent of the delegate’s court fees, to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Key Challenges for Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference

Challenges within the Trade Union System

The traditional method of union organizing, whereby workplace trade unions are dependent on employers, has been carried out for years. This has become ingrained in upper-level union officers and is hard to change (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 33).

In addition, trade union organizing free from employers’ interference requires considerable effort in terms of policy commitment, time, human resources, and finance. The first challenge for upper-level trade unions is the imbalance in staff and workload. As communist trade unions, the VGCL and its affiliated trade unions are tasked with many jobs that are not directly related to the function of trade unions, as compared with conventional trade unions in other countries. These include involvement in politics and the organization of socio-cultural, humanitarian, sports, and recreational activities. Yet they face a shortage of officers, particularly qualified officers, because they do not have a free hand in deciding the number of trade union officers (see infra) .

On average, immediate upper-level trade unions comprise two or three full-time trade union officers. Trade unions in industrial zones generally comprise four full-time trade union officers (ibid., 1, 3). The number may increase for some trade unions in the industrial zones of key economic localities. Table 1 shows the number of trade union officers in three economic hubs in South Vietnam: Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Ho Chi Minh City (ILO 2012, 14).

Table 1 reveals the disproportionate division of work between the technical officers, who are directly responsible for trade union organizing, and the administrative officers. For example, there are 3 technical officers versus 6 administrative staff in the trade union of the industrial zones of Binh Duong; 12 technical officers versus 6 administrative staff for Ho Chi Minh City; and 5 technical officers versus 7 administrative staff for Dong Nai province.


Table 1 The Number of Trade Union Officers in Three Economic Hubs in South Vietnam



Table 1 also shows the huge workload shouldered by the technical officers, given the big number of enterprises, workplace trade unions, and trade union members under their charge. Furthermore, it also shows up the imbalance in workload among the technical officers of the three localities. In Binh Duong, there are only three officers for 490 enterprises, 318 workplace trade unions, and 120,000 trade union members (this equates to one officer taking charge of 163 enterprises, 106 workplace trade unions, and 40,000 trade union members). Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, 12 officers are responsible for 800 enterprises, 724 workplace trade unions, and 179,000 trade union members (or one officer for 66 enterprises, 60 workplace trade unions, and 14,916 trade union members). In Dong Nai province, five officers are allocated for 369 enterprises, 350 workplace trade unions, and 130,000 trade union members (that is, one officer for 74 enterprises, 70 workplace trade unions, and 26,000 trade union members).

As mentioned above, the tasks of these trade union officers include many non-traditional activities. This work accounts for 14.18 percent of their workload (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 14). This is in addition to participation in political affairs not directly related to trade union activities, for example, with the Party, state authorities (People’s Councils and People’s Committees), Women’s Union, Veterans’ Union, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, which account for 14.74 percent of their workload, according to a survey conducted by the VGCL (ibid., 10, 14).

As shown in the case studies above, there is evidence of anti-unionism committed by employers against workplace trade union delegates. However, a survey by the VGCL (ibid., 13) shows that this is not taken into serious consideration by upper-level trade union officers. This exposes the weakness of the trade union system in protecting their union officers. In the case of the Dong A Vina Company above, no systematic measures were put in place by the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones to protect the workplace trade union officer. The company very clearly interfered in the operations of the trade union by victimizing the trade union officer. Yet his dismissal was not handled any differently than an ordinary case of dismissal and no special measure was taken to counter these acts of discrimination. Moreover, all the workers who went on strike to show their support for Mr Sy and their dissatisfaction with the company were “persuaded” by the company to sign an agreement terminating their contracts. This constituted a major anti-union act targeting the trade union members, yet the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones did not put up any opposition.

Challenges from the Workers’ Side

Reports show that young workers account for the majority of the private-sector workforce. Most of them are unskilled workers, with unskilled workers who have not received any vocational training accounting for 83.54 percent (Ban Mai 2013). A large number are also migrant workers who work for enterprises in industrial zones and processing zones, for example, 30 percent of the workforce in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the biggest industrial hubs in Vietnam with approximately eight million inhabitants, is made up of migrants from other provinces and cities (Vietnam, Centre for Industrial Relations Development [CIRD] 2012, 3).

A survey by the Binh Duong trade union of 38 enterprises in industrial zones shows that workers’ wages are often too low: 76.8 percent has a monthly income of VND 2,000,000–3,000,000 (equivalent to EUR 66–100 or USD 94–142), which is insufficient for a living; and 76.6 percent of workers has no savings at all (91.7 percent of them cannot afford a house and must rent an apartment). A large number of workers must work overtime16)—up to 50 hours/month (66 percent) or 50–100 hours (31 percent) (Lê Nho Lượng 2011).17)

The situation is similar in Hanoi city. Most workers in the Hanoi industrial zones have to work overtime because of low wages (Phong Cầm 2011). As such, they do not have much time for trade union organizing. Some are also reluctant to join for fear of being discriminated against by their employers. Yet others do not join because they constantly change work in search of higher salaries and better working conditions (ibid., 18).

Challenges from the Employers’ Side

Case 1: Yoneda Vietnam Company (Phong Cầm 2011, 3–6)18)

Yoneda Vietnam is a Japanese company producing stationery products in Hai Phong city. It employs 225 workers. In 2007 an unlawful trade union was formed by the employer in the name of the workers and “trade union dues” were deducted from the workers’ wages. This came to an end in November 2010, after intervention by the trade union of Hai Phong Economic Zones.

The trade union of Hai Phong Economic Zones approached the workers outside the company’s premises, and four core workers’ groups based on common interests were formed: sports, home fellows, age, and living quarters. Trade union activities were gradually introduced to the meetings of these groups.

Currently, some 243–277 workers have applied to join the trade union and 5 workers have been selected for the temporary executive committee. To prepare for the establishment of the grassroots trade union, the trade union of Hai Phong Economic Zones attempted to approach the company director but was turned down. The company director tried instead to divide the workers, instigating them not to join the trade union and putting pressure on influential workers. The contracts of a few of the workers who are members of the core workers’ groups have not been renewed upon expiry.

Case 2: Sonics Company (ibid., 9–10)19)

Sonics International Limited Liability is a Taiwanese company producing bicycle parts in Binh Duong province. It employs 120 workers.

After the launch of a new initiative on trade union organizing, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones approached workers outside the company’s premises to obtain more information on the company’s situation. A core workers’ group was then formed, which included three influential workers from the company selected by the trade union. The workers’ group is headed by an officer of the trade union. Members received training on trade union organization, labor law, trade union law, occupational safety, health, etc. This group is responsible for encouraging other workers in the company to join the trade union.

In March 2011, a trade union recruitment ceremony was conducted and 70 workers were recruited. The company director has, however, repeatedly opposed the formation of the trade union. A few months later, in July, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones issued a decision declaring the establishment of the trade union of Sonics International Limited Liability. Four members of the formal trade union executive committee were also elected.

The company trade union has been hampered in its operations by the uncooperativeness of the company director, despite numerous meetings arranged by the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones. On September 15, 2011, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones wrote to the management board regarding 11 cases of labor law violations committed by the company and requested an inspection of the company. On October 13 an inspection team led by the management board of the industrial zones made its way to the company. The trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones nominated its officer to join the inspection team. Via this inspection, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones formally notified the company of the establishment of the enterprise trade union and asked for its cooperation.

However, until now no effort has been made by the company to comply with labor law. No improvement has been made with regards to the trade union activities. The trade union is facing even greater difficulties in running its activities. Trade union meetings have been forbidden within the company’s premises, including meetings outside working hours. The number of members has been reduced by 42 because some workers have left the company, while others have withdrawn their membership because of the pressure exerted by the company. The executive committee of the trade union has been similarly affected—three members have left, including one who resigned due to the opposition by the company. The executive committee has managed to keep up with its regular meetings; however, other activities, such as recruitment of new members, have been neglected.

Case 3: S. C. Johnson & Son Company (ibid., 7–8)20)

A producer of cosmetics, shower gels, etc., S. C. Johnson & Son Company operates in Song Than I industrial zone, Binh Duong province and currently employs 300 workers. Johnson Mutual Benefit Association (JMBA) was formed by the company to promote the welfare of the workers as well as strengthen industrial relations in the company, in keeping with regulations of S. C. Johnson & Son Corporation. The company has therefore rejected the formation of a company trade union. It has even issued a rule that JMBA will provide monthly financial support for each worker—on the condition that he/she does not join the trade union. Those who wish to join the trade union will lose access to different benefits by the company. As a result, workers in the company do not want to join the trade union. Another obstacle is that the workers are members of other labor-leasing companies. Meanwhile, many of the workers in the company are office workers who live in Ho Chi Minh City and travel to work by company transport. This has made it impossible for the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones to approach the workers in S. C. Johnson & Son Company.

Case 4: F.C. Company (ibid., 20–21)

Ms TT. Ch. was elected in October 2008 as president of the workplace union in F.C. Company (a foreign-invested company). The company director threatened that she would not receive her monthly responsibility allowance as a production group leader, amounting to VND 150,000 (equivalent to around EUR 5.8/USD 7), unless she resigned from her position as president of the trade union. According to the director, Ms TT. Ch. could not fulfil her production group leader duties if she were to undertake the trade union activities; therefore she was not entitled to her allowance.

Ms Ch. was forced to comply and held her union position from October 2008 to the end of April 2009. During this period, the company management kept an eye on her and threatened her with disciplinary action should she be found lacking in her duties.

In May 2009, Ms Ch. resigned from her union position. Only then was she able to recover her responsibility allowance and only then did the monitoring and threats of sanctioning end.

Case 5: Company F (ibid., 24)

Mr NN. H, who worked as a warehouse assistant, was elected as the president of his company union in March 2007. Mr H organized trade union activities well, winning members’ trust. However, due to active trade union activities, he was discriminated against by the management. In 2009, he lost his position as warehouse assistant and was transferred to a rank-and-file worker position.

The above examples illustrate the general behavior of employers towards independent trade unions. These employers attempt to control the trade unions through ploys such as promising workplace trade union officers financial benefits and promotions; exerting pressure on part-time trade union officers in their normal work; transferring these officers to lower-grade and/or lower-pay positions; excluding trade union members from certain benefits enjoyed by non-unionized workers in the company, etc.

Enactment of the New Legal Framework: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The fact that no labor case related to the right to organize, join, and participate in trade union activities has ever been settled by the competent courts (Vietnam, VGCL 2011b, 8), speaks volumes of the authorities’ failure to deal with anti-unionism. Moreover, workplace trade unions established and operating outside companies’ premises are not regulated by the Trade Union Statute or any other relevant regulation,21) leading to the denial of their legal status by relevant stakeholders, including the authorities. This issue remains unresolved by the new Trade Union Law of 2012 or the Labour Code of 2012.

As for staffing, there has been no change between the old Trade Union Law and the Trade Union Law of 2012. Full-time trade union officers who work at upper-level trade unions are still public cadres and civil servants.22) The VGCL does not have full autonomy in deciding the number and positions of trade union officers. While it may develop the organizational structure of the trade union and positions within, this is still submitted to the competent authority,23) which has the ultimate say on the positions and workload of full-time trade union officers.24) As a result, the disproportionate distribution of workload among full-time trade union officers in upper-level trade unions remains unresolved.

Nonetheless, there are some positive changes in the new legal framework concerning trade union organizing. In order to prevent anti-union practices among employers, the Trade Union Law of 2012 prohibits the use of economic measures and other methods to interfere in the establishment and operation of trade unions. The Trade Union Law of 2012 also reaffirms the former Trade Union Law of 1990 in prohibiting acts that prevent or cause difficulties to the establishment and operation of trade unions, and which discriminate against or disadvantage workers in the establishing or joining of trade unions or the undertaking of trade union activities.25) The new Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP imposes stricter sanctions against anti-unionism acts. The fine for employers who prevent or hamper employees from forming or joining trade unions, or carrying out trade union activities, has been increased from VND 10,000,000 to 15,000,000 (EUR 350–524 or USD 473–710).26) A fine of VND 5,000,000–10,000,000 (around EUR 175–349 or USD 237–473) is also imposed on other types of discriminatory acts in the form of working hours, wages, etc.27)

The new legal framework reaffirms the role of immediate upper-level trade unions in trade union organizing,28) but acknowledges for the first time their rights and responsibilities to approach workers in enterprises.29) This legal acknowledgment was necessitated by cases in the past years of employers preventing upper-level trade unions officers from accessing their premises, as we have seen above. Henceforth the act of preventing trade union officers from entering company premises is liable to a fine ranging from VND 5,000,000–10,000,000 (around EUR 175–349 or USD 237–473).30)

There is another encouraging change in the VGCL’s policy, reflecting signs of decentralization in union organizing. In addition to the role of the immediate upper-level trade unions as mentioned above, the amended VGCL Statute also recognizes the role of rank-and-file workers in trade union organizing. Accordingly, workers may establish an organizing committee at the workplace, responsible for conducting campaigns, receiving workers’ application letters to join the trade union, and preparing for the congress for the establishment of the trade union when a sufficient number of members, as prescribed by the VGCL’s Statute, has been reached. Nonetheless, the establishment and operation of the workplace trade union still requires the acknowledgment of the immediate upper-level trade union in order to be considered lawful.31)

The new law also entitles immediate upper-level trade unions to represent and protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers in non-unionized enterprises at the workers’ request.32) The Vietnamese government has promulgated a new decree in this regard. Accordingly, the role of immediate upper-level trade unions in representing and protecting the rights and interests of workers in non-unionized enterprises includes: consulting workers on employment contracts; representing the workers’ collective to implement collective bargaining and monitoring the implementation of concluded collective bargaining agreements; partnering enterprises to develop and monitor the implementation of wage scales, wage tables, labor norms, wage payment regulations, bonus payment regulations, and work regulations; conducting dialogues with enterprises to settle issues concerning the lawful rights and interests of the workers; working with relevant organizations to guarantee labor dispute settlements in accordance with law; requesting settlement by the competent authority when the lawful rights and interests of the workers/workers’ collective are violated; representing the workers/workers’ collective to request for a settlement in court when these rights and interests are violated; representing the workers’ collective in legal proceedings in labor, administrative and/or bankruptcy cases; and organizing and leading strikes.33) Part-time trade union officers are granted minimum working hours for performing trade union activities. Presidents and/or vice-presidents of workplace unions are entitled to at least 24 working hours per month; part-time trade union representatives who are members of workplace unions’ executive committees, heads, and deputy heads of trade union groups in charge of trade union activities are entitled to at least 12 working hours/month.34)

In addition, the act of preventing part-time trade union officers from using their working hours to undertake trade union activities; not paying them for the time they spend on trade union activities; and excluding full-time trade union officers from benefits enjoyed by other workers, is now liable to a fine ranging from VND 5,000,000–10,000,000 (around EUR 175–349 or USD 237–473).35) The new law also provides a better protection mechanism for workers who are working as part-time workplace trade union officers. In the event that a part-time trade union officer’s employment contract expires while he/she is still serving the trade union term, the officer is entitled to prolong his/her contract until the end of the trade union term.36) And for the first time, employers will be fined VND 10,000,000–15,000,000 (around EUR 350–524 or USD 473–710) for not extending the expired employment contracts in such an event.37) Finally, if part-time trade union officers are illegally dismissed, trade unions can request for intervention by competent authorities, taking the case to court if necessary. In the meantime, the unlawfully dismissed officers will be supported by the trade unions in their search for new jobs and will be provided with allowances.38)

Concluding Remarks

Despite high trade union density in Vietnam, the formalistic operations of workplace trade unions are one of the main causes of increased labor unrest in recent years. Trade union organizing free from employers’ interference is the decisive factor in enabling workplace trade unions to function effectively. Recently, the VGCL implemented initiatives in this direction, which served as input for revising the Trade Union Law of 2012 and the Labour Code of 2012. The new legal framework will create more opportunities for immediate upper-level trade unions in dealing with enterprises.

However, there are challenges ahead, one of which is the heavy workload of full-time trade union officers. Not only are they burdened by tasks irrelevant to trade union operations, as a consequence of the VGCL being an affiliated organization to the CPV, there is also a severe imbalance in the number of full-time trade union officers compared with the number of enterprises, workplace trade unions, and trade union members.

The new legal framework imposes stricter sanctions against anti-unionism acts committed by the employers and regulates the protection of part-time trade union officers at the workplace. However, whether the new legal provisions will be strictly enforced in practice very much depends on the commitment of relevant authorities—the VGCL and its immediate upper-level trade unions—in identifying anti-unionism acts committed by the employers.

Another challenge lies within the VGCL itself. A synchronous understanding and coherent interpretation of the VGCL’s policies among the upper-level trade unions is necessary if the involvement of employers in the establishment of the workplace trade unions is to be avoided. Officers of the VGCL and its trade unions also need to be more open and ready to apply different, innovative ways of trade union organizing.

Accepted: May 27, 2013


The author would like to express her gratitude to the autonomous referees for their valuable comments in the previous draft of the article. My thanks also go to Ms Narumi Shitara for her effective facilitation and instruction, and to Ms Wee Wong for her editorial assistance. I wish too to thank my colleagues Thu Huong and Van Binh at the Industrial Relations Project, ILO office in Hanoi for their support in documentation and material-gathering. Any errors contained herein are mine.


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―. 2009. Sẽ có cán bộ công đoàn chuyên trách [There will be full-time trade union officers]. Tien Phong Newspaper, October 19, 2012, accessed March 10, 2013,

International Labour Organization (ILO). 2012. Context Analysis Needs Assessment and Recommendations for Phase 2 of Apheda Project. Hanoi.

Lê Nho Lượng. 2011. Minutes of Tripartite Conference on Industrial Relations in Binh Duong Industrial Zones. Tripartite conference on industrial relations in Binh Duong industrial zones, Binh Duong province, July 22.

Lê Trường Sơn. 2010. Cán bộ công đoàn như lính cứu hộ [Trade union officers are like firefighters]. Lao Dong Newspaper, August 5, 2010, accessed March 27, 2013,

Nguyễn Duy Vũ. 2012. Công tác phát triển đoàn viên, thành lập CĐCS sau hơn nửa nhiệm kỳ thực hiện Nghị quyết Đại hội X Công đoàn Việt Nam [Trade union membership development and workplace trade unions establishment after more than halfway through the process of implementing the Resolution of Vietnamese Trade Union Congress, meeting session X]. Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), January 16, 2012.

Nguyễn Ngọc Trung. 2012. Vai trò của công đoàn cấp trên trực tiếp cơ sở tại các doanh nghiệp chưa có tổ chức công đoàn [The role of immediate upper-level trade unions in non-unionized enterprises]. Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), January 13, 2012.

Nguyễn Văn Bình. 2011. Tăng cường và bảo đảm tính độc lập, đại diện của công đoàn để tham gia một cách thực chất, hiệu quả vào các quá trình của quan hệ lao động [Strengthening and guaranteeing the independence and representativeness of trade unions in order to participate truly and effectively in industrial relations processes]. Hanoi: International Labour Organization (ILO).

Phong Cầm. 2011. Đình công nhiều vì lương tối thiểu quá bèo [Too many strikes due to overly low minimum wage]. Tien Phong Online, July 7, 2011, accessed March 27, 2013,

Quang Chính; and Việt Lâm. 2012. Cần phấn đấu giảm 50% số vụ đình công [It is important to strive to reduce strikes by 50%]. Lao Dong Newspaper, February 22, 2012, accessed March 15, 2013,

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―. 2008. Tập trung vào vấn đề bảo vệ người lao động [Focusing on the protection of workers]. Lao Dong Newspaper, November 5, 2008.

Tự Cường. 2012. Doanh nghiệp vừa và nhỏ vẫn khó tiếp cận vốn [Small and medium enterprises face difficulties in accessing capital]. Daibieunhandan, October 5, 2012, accessed March 15, 2013,

Vietnam, Centre for Industrial Relations Development (CIRD). 2012. Kế hoạch phát triển quan hệ lao động tại thành phố Hồ Chí Minh trong giai đoạn 2013–2020 [Master plan for industrial relations development in Ho Chi Minh City in the period 2013–2020]. Hanoi.

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Vietnam, Trade Union of Binh Duong Industrial Zones. 2010. Báo cáo khảo sát về hoạt động của công đoàn cơ sở và mối quan hệ với công đoàn cấp trên cơ sở [Report on the survey of operations of local-level trade unions and relationships with upper-level trade unions]. Binh Duong province.

Vietnam, Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL). 2011a. Báo cáo đánh giá hoạt động thí điểm đổi mới cách thức tổ chức đoàn viên, thành lập tổ chức công đoàn và tăng cường mối liên kết giữa công đoàn cấp trên với công đoàn cơ sở và người lao động từ tháng 11/2010 đến tháng 12/2011 [Evaluation report on the pilot program: Strengthening representational capacity of the trade union through innovative ways in union organizing, establishing workers’ representative organizations and improving the linkage between upper-level trade unions and grassroots unions and workers from November 2010–December 2011]. Hanoi.

―. 2011b. Báo cáo về ngừng việc tập thể và đình công từ năm 2006 đến tháng 4 năm 2011 [Report on collective work stoppage and strike from 2006–April 2011]. Hanoi.

―. 2010. Báo cáo khảo sát về phát triển đoàn viên và thành lập công đoàn cơ sở [Report of survey and research on organizing and recruiting members at enterprise level]. Hanoi.

Vietnam, Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) and International Labour Organization (ILO) Industrial Relations Project. 2012. VGCL Initiatives. Hanoi.

―. 2011. Research Report on Membership Development, Workplace Union Organizing and Collective Bargaining. Hanoi.

1) During the revision process of the Trade Union Law of 1990, a proposal was submitted to enable foreign workers working in Vietnam to join trade unions affiliated to the VGCL, as mentioned in Article 5 of the latest draft 10 of the Trade Union Law proposal of April 30, 2012. However, this proposal was not accepted and the Trade Union Law of 2012 still excludes the right to trade unions of foreign workers in Vietnam.

2) Article 5 of the Trade Union Law of 2012 and Article 1 of the VGCL Statute amended in 2013.

3) Article 4, Section 1, Section 2; and Article 7 of the Trade Union Law of 2012, approved by the National Assembly on June 20, 2012 and effective from January 1, 2013, replacing the Trade Union Law of 1990.

4) This refers to strikes that are not organized and led by workplace trade unions and which are carried out without respecting legal procedures.

5) The Labour Code of 1994 has been replaced by the Labour Code of 2012, which was approved by the National Assembly on June 18, 2012 and took effect from May 1, 2013.

6) This initiative was regulated by Decision No. 953/QD, dated July 20, 2010 of the Presidium of VGCL on the creation of pilot working groups to innovate trade union organizing and the establishment of trade unions, and to improve the linkage between upper-level trade unions and workplace trade unions and workers; comprehensive Plan No. 2202/KH-TLD, dated December 27, 2010 of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour on the implementation of the pilot program to innovate trade union organizing and improve the linkage between upper-level trade unions and workplace trade unions. This initiative was implemented in Binh Duong province on December 31, 2012, as mentioned in Plan No. 13/KH-TLD, June 22, 2012 of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour.

7) See the instructions (in Vietnamese) of immediate upper-level trade unions, e.g., Federation of Labour of District 1, Ho Chi Minh City: (accessed October 3, 2013); Federation of Labour of Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City: (accessed October 3, 2013); Trade Union of the Industrial Zones of Ha Nam province: ChannelId=39&articleID=60 (accessed October 3, 2013), etc. for more details of the procedures for establishing workplace trade unions.

8) Items 1.3 and 1.4 of Guidance No. 703/HD-TLD prohibit honorary trade union members from voting in meetings and congresses or from holding leadership positions at any level.

9) Article 2b of Circular No. 76/1999/TTLT/BTC-TLDLDVN and Section 3a of Circular No. 17/2009/TT-BTC.

10) Article 26, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

11) Section 1, Resolution No. 07/NQ-TLD, dated July 18, 2008 on development and strengthening the capacity of trade unions in small and medium enterprises.

12) This is a summary of the innovative organizing approach implemented by trade unions in the economic zones of Hai Phong city; the industrial zones and processing zones of Binh Duong province, and the Federation of Labour of District 12, Ho Chi Minh City in 2011. The author has participated in these activities alongside the trade unions.

13) Summarized by the author.

14) Summarized by the author.

15) Article 7, Article 8, and Article 19 of Decision No. 1521/QD-TLD, dated September 29, 2006 of the VGCL Presidium, regulating the establishment, organization, and operation management of the workplace trade union delegate support fund.

16) Article 106, Section 2b of the Labour Code of 2012 provides that supplementary working hours of the workers shall not exceed 50 percent of the normal working hours in a day. Regulation for weekly work provides that the sum of normal working hours and overtime working hours shall not exceed 12 hours per day, and the sum of overtime working hours shall not exceed 30 hours per month and 200 hours per year. In special cases, this can be extended to but not exceed 300 hours per year.

17) Workers may enter into employment contracts with multiple employers as prescribed in Article 30, Section 3 of the Labour Code of 1994 amended and supplemented. However, this issue was regulated in neither the Labour Code of 1994 amended and supplemented nor in Decree No. 44/2003/ND-CP, dated May 9, 2003, detailing and guiding the implementation of a number of articles of the Labour Code on employment contracts. Things have changed with the promulgation of the Labour Code of 2012. The Vietnamese government has promulgated Decree No. 44/2013/ND-CP of the Government dated May 10, 2013, which has taken effect since July 1, 2013. This decree specifies the employees’ participation in social insurance and health insurance, and occupational health and safety issues when entering into employment contracts with multiple employers as prescribed in Article 4 and Article 5. It is hoped that the new legal framework will create more opportunities for workers to work at different jobs at the same time in order to improve their income situation.

18) Summarized by the author.

19) Summarized by the author.

20) Summarized by the author.

21) This is the case of a workplace trade union with 27 members drawn from different small enterprises in Tan Thoi Nhat ward, formed by the Federation of Labour of district 12, Ho Chi Minh City in 2011. It operates under the direct management of the Federation of Labour of district 12, Ho Chi Minh City.

22) Article 4, Section 1, Section 2; and Article 70, Section 2 Law on public cadres and civil servants.

23) The competent authority here refers to the CPV as mentioned in Article 66, Section 6 of the Law on public cadres and civil servants approved by the National Assembly, dated November 13, 2008 and taking effect from January 1, 2010.

24) Article 23, Section 2 and 3 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

25) Article 9, Section 1, 2 and 3 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

26) Article 24, Section 3 of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP of the government, dated August 22, 2013, on administrative sanctioning in the field of labor, social insurance, and sending Vietnamese workers abroad to perform work under the contracts. This has been in effect since October 10, 2013 and replaced Decree No. 47/2010/ND-CP dated May 6, 2010, Decree No. 86/2010/ND-CP dated August 13, 2010 and Decree No. 144/2007/ND-CP dated September 10, 2007.

27) Article 24, Section 2c of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

28) Article 16, Section 1 of the Trade Union Law of 2012, and Article 189, Section 2 of the Labour Code of 2012.

29) Article 16, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

30) Article 24, Section 2dd of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

31) Article 2, Section 1b and Article 17, Section 1a, b, and dd of the amended VGCL’s Statute of 2013; and Article 5, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

32) Article 17 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

33) Article 13, Section 1 of Decree No. 43/2013/ND-CP dated May 10, 2013, in effect since July 1, 2013, spelling out Article 10 of the Trade Union Law on rights and responsibilities of trade unions in representing and protecting the lawful and legitimate rights and interests of workers.

34) Article 24, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

35) Article 24, Section 2a, 2b and 2d of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

36) Article 25, Section 1 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

37) Article 24, Section 3d of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

38) Article 25, Section 3 of the Trade Union Law of 2012. This regulation refers to Decision No. 1521/QD-TLD dated September 29, 2006 of the VGCL Presidium, mentioned above, which provides a regulation on the establishment, organization, and operation of the fund for workplace trade union delegate support.


Vol. 3, No. 3, Simon Benedikter

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Extending the Hydraulic Paradigm: Reunification, State Consolidation, and Water Control in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta after 1975

Simon Benedikter*

* Previously Center for Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany. Presently, the author is based in Hanoi where he works as a policy advisor in the field of environment and natural resources.

e-mail: simon.benedikter[at]

As vividly depicted by James Scott (1998), environmental transformation and the utilization of natural resources for development have, in modern human history, often been driven by the high-modernist world views of (authoritarian) governments. In this context, environmental historians ascribe a powerful role to (hydraulic) engineers as agents of ecological and social transformation. With their epistemic power arising from their association with rational-modern science and technology development, engineers emerged as protagonists of large-scale landscape engineering and water control ventures coordinated by the nation state in the light of modernization. Against this historical background, this paper traces the post-reunification hydraulic mission in the Mekong Delta (1975–90) and highlights the strategic role that state-led water control efforts guided by hydraulic engineers have played in economic recovery, nation building, and state consolidation under socialism. It is argued that water resources development in the Mekong Delta is deeply embedded in the country’s historical trajectory, which is framed by national division, the struggle for independence, and the subsequent reunification under the Vietnam Communist Party’s leadership. The socialist hydraulic bureaucracy, which arose in the 1950s in North Vietnam, capitalized on the opportune moment of reunification of North and South and systematically expanded its control over the southern waterscape. In this context, the paper presents a historical perspective on how water development strategies and institutional arrangements evolved when North Vietnamese engineers took over water resources management in the Mekong Delta. These past developments still have far-reaching implications for present-day water management dynamics in Vietnam’s largest river estuary.

Keywords: Mekong Delta, Vietnam, water resources development, modernization, hydraulic mission, state engineers, water bureaucracy

I Introduction

Surrounded by the sea to the east and south, and topographically shaped by the interplay of mighty rivers, mountains, deltas, and coastal plains, water is omnipresent in Vietnam. From ancient times, the economic basis of Vietnam’s civilization was grounded in intensive irrigated rice production, an activity that requires sophisticated knowledge, skills, and technology in water control. The Vietnamese people can look back at a long history and grand tradition of managing water flows. The origin and cradle of Vietnamese civilization is in the Red River basin where floods, typhoons, and droughts occur frequently and in disastrous magnitude. Ensuring survival in this harsh and unpredictable environment has always required collective efforts in developing flood protection infrastructure and managing irrigation. Unsurprisingly, hydraulic management emerged as important function of the royal state administration in pre-colonial Vietnam. Protecting the nation and people from natural disasters was politically critical, since peasant rebellions and social unrests often arose in the aftermath of famines brought on by severe flooding and droughts (Smith 2002, 77; Tessier 2010, 264). Etymologically, the Vietnamese word thủy lợi,1) a term of Chinese origin and best understood as hydraulics in the sense of water control and the utilization of nature by human, comprises connotations of water management that traditionally derive from the above mentioned utilitarian and technical orientation of human-nature relation.

Compared to the Red River Delta, where human settlement and hydraulic interventions into the deltaic landscape go back as far as the beginning of the Christian era2) (Tessier 2010, 264; Tuan Pham Anh and Shannon n.d., 2), the making of the modern Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s largest river estuary located in the Southwest of the country, commenced far later, but has been similarly bound up in the idea of humans striving for dominion over the natural world. Structural interventions imposed on the deltaic ecology, and the resulting environmental change, have been among the major contributors to the profound transformation of the Mekong Delta in modern history. In essence, the Delta’s history can be divided into two epochs characterized by divergent human-society relations: first, people’s adaptation to the Delta’s complex hydro-ecology; second, people’s efforts to tame and control the Delta’s natural forces with the use of rational science and modern technology. The latter feature has prevailed over the past 200 years, as comprehensively traced by Biggs (2010). Particularly in the past 30 years, the need for regulating water flows in the light of flooding, salinity, and droughts, has modified profoundly the Delta’s physical shape. Hydraulic engineers and planners played a critical role in this socio-ecological transformation of the modern Delta, where water management nowadays, is performed at a large scale through a dense system of water control infrastructure consisting of dikes, embankments, sluices, and partly pumping stations (Evers and Benedikter 2009a). With reference to Wittfogel’s (1957) concept of hydraulic society, the delta’s march toward total hydro-management has transformed the delta society from a traditional river-water civilization,3) which used to live in tune with nature, into a modern hydraulic society4) which strives to exert control over the natural environment in which it is embedded (Evers and Benedikter 2009b).

Along the path to total hydro-management, various intersections of water control, politics, and nation building were at the heart of the Delta’s modern transformation. Similar to Swyngedouw’s (1999; 2007) portray of Spain’s departure from feudalism to modernity, a process driven by technological progress in water control, the Mekong Delta’s changing socio-nature and transformation into a predominately human-made landscape can best be understood as part of hydro-social modernization.5) In this, technological progress in water control is given a critical role in the process of transforming a once sparsely populated and human-hostile waterscape into a highly regulated, standardized, manageable, and productive economic and social space (Käkönen 2008; Biggs et al. 2009). Irrespective of the political regimes that ruled over the Delta in different epochs, water control was the key paradigm referenced in exploiting the Delta’s abundant land and water resources, and mitigating negative impacts caused by nature. Related to what Scott (1998) conceptualized as high-modernism, it was the boundless faith in modern science, technology and the firm belief in state management capacity that triggered consecutive hydraulic engineering ventures to tame the Delta’s complex hydro-ecology. Covering the period from the end of Vietnam War (1975) to the promulgation of what became known as Renovation policy (1986), or Đổi mới in Vietnamese, this paper follows on the hydraulic history of Mekong Delta by Biggs (2010), which ends in 1975, and traces the hydraulic mission6) subsequently launched by the socialist regime.

Based on exhaustive literature review, archival work, and empirical research conducted in Vietnam from 2008 to 2011 in context of an international research project,7) this paper explores water resources development over the past 40 years. Landscape engineering, water control, and environmental change are viewed as part of a historical process embedded in Vietnam’s national reunification and state building efforts guided by the socialist government. Against this background, the paper traces the conquest of the Mekong Delta by Vietnam’s national hydraulic bureaucracy and how this process has shaped institutional arrangements, power structures, and ideologies associated with water resources management in past and present. Particular attention is devoted to the corps of state engineers, their role in hydro-social modernization, and how they benefited from this process.

II The Hydraulic Paradigm and the Global Rise of Engineers

Before turning our attention to Vietnam, a brief journey through modern water history and its protagonists, namely the guild of hydraulic engineers and bureaucrats, provides the conceptual gateway into this paper. Water control and landscape engineering have been crucial ingredients of modernization and development over the past centuries of human history. Modern water sciences, hydrology, and engineering technologies have facilitated large-scale structural interventions that have made possible the regulation of water flows and the modification of waterscapes over large parcels of geographical land. As emphasized by Molle (2006, 4), harnessing water through complex hydraulic installations became a crucial precondition for the Industrial Revolution, modern irrigated agriculture, or energy production through hydropower.

The implementation of large-scale water control efforts required heavy investment, and the scale and technological complexity of many hydraulic installations, such as hydropower, irrigation, or flood control schemes, needed centralized coordination and management. This cohesion has created firm state monopolies in water resources development and management, and in the related activities of planning, design, construction, and rehabilitation of water infrastructure. The monopolization of water control under the state favored the rise of powerful hydraulic bureaucracies (hydrocracies) around the world (Molle et al. 2009; Treffner et al. 2010, 254). This somehow mirrors pre-modern types of state coordination of water management referred to in Wittfogel’s (1957) conceptualization of hydraulic society, namely: ancient polities that rose from state-coordinated collective efforts in water control and hydraulic agriculture. However, in fact, it was only in the nineteenth century with the rise of modern sciences that large-scale water control technology advanced fundamentally. Molle (2006) points to the importance of advanced knowledge in physics, topography, geology, and hydrology that provided the basis for an improved description of the water cycle, the marshalling of the hydraulic power of rivers for industrial development and modern irrigated agriculture.

In a broader sense captured in political ecology, the paradigm of human mastery over nature became a driver of modernity and nation building, manifesting in regional water control plans and ambitious landscape engineering ventures. Hydraulic works, such as huge dams, reservoirs, and irrigation grids emerged as icons of modernity created by ultimate state power (Molle et al. 2009, 334). These projects did not only transform natural features such as river valleys, marshlands, or coastlines, but also rearranged human habitats such as settlement structures, the organization of land use, and access to natural resources in specific parcels of geographical space (Blackbourn 2006, 5). Rational-scientific planning and technological progress entails the involvement of specialized knowledge. The triumphal march of engineer-biased water science laid the foundation for a new and powerful professional group to emerge as protagonist of the great work of nation building and social transformation: the guild of engineers. Their modern science-based epistemic monopoly on hydrology, geology, geography, cartography, and other related disciplines legitimized their avant-garde role in society (Scott 1998, 96; Blackbourn 2006, 7).

The vital role that hydraulic engineers played for such ambitious ventures is documented by environmental historians such as Worster (1985), who highlighted the role played by engineers in the colonization of California and the grand mission of damming and diverting rivers to irrigate the arid land of the American West. Another example is Blackbourn’s (2006) work about the making of modern Germany as being a conquest over nature, whereby state engineers drained marshes, modified coastlines, and straightened rivers such as in the Upper Rhine Valley. The hydraulic paradigm of water control did not only stand for modernization and prosperity. In a wider sense, national hydraulic efforts became means to achieve political ends such as nation and state building. Development through large-scale water control projects unified countries and legitimated political regimes, as vividly described by Wester et al. (2009) on Mexico’s revolutionary irrigation movement, or by Swyngedouw (2007) for the case of Franco’s hydro-social dream of harvesting every drop of surface water flowing across Spain’s waterscape.

In the early twentieth century, in many parts of the world, development of centralized water infrastructure at basin, regional, and national scale called for the creation of professional and central state agencies to plan, construct, and manage water infrastructure on behalf of the nation state. The need for centralized coordination of water control efforts resulted in the emergence of powerful water bureaucracies embedded in the modern state machinery (Molle et al. 2009). The establishment of the Confederaciones Sindicales Hidrográficas in Spain in 1879 (Swyngedouw 1999, 459), the Department of Canals in Thailand (Siam) in 1902 (Riggs 1966, 125), and the Comisión Nacional de Irrigación in Mexico in 1926 (Wester et al. 2009, 397) are a few manifestations of the global rise of powerful hydrocracies consisting of technical and economics-oriented engineers. In this, one observes how the guild of hydraulic engineers endowed itself with bureaucratic and even political power, thereby becoming part of political elite. From the post-enlightenment period in Europe, the hydraulic paradigm spread around the world as a scientific-technocratic engineering mission, including in the colonies, where “subduing nature and marshalling water became part of the mission of Western countries” of bringing civilization to the world (Molle 2006, 4). The Vietnamese Mekong Delta is a classical illustration of such, whereby large-scale interventions initiated by the colonial regime were perpetuated by post-colonial regimes.

III The Vietnamese Mekong Delta: A Hydraulic Engineering Laboratory

The Deltaic Landscape: Hydro-Ecological Complexities

After a 4,800 km-long journey from the Tibetan Plateau in China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, the Mekong River reaches its estuary located at the southern tip of Vietnam, where the river empties into the South China Sea. The deltaic topography is characterized by the extreme flatness of a vast plain (with an average elevation of 0.5 to 1.2 meters), where paddy fields, fruit orchards, and villages are arranged along countless courses of rivers, canals, and creeks branching out into open space. Blessed with fruitful alluvial soils and abundant water resources, the Mekong Delta is one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the world. Not less than 40 percent of the national food output of Vietnam originates from there, most notably export items such as rice, aquaculture, and fruits (Käkönen 2008). The dense network of over 30,000 km of waterways crosscutting the waterscape is the fundamental characteristic of the delta region, acting as the lifeline and infrastructural backbone of the Delta’s agro-economy.



Fig. 1 Map of the Mekong Delta River and Canal Network

Source: Amir Hosseinpour (ZEF).


Unsurprisingly, the region is characterized by an extremely complex hydro-ecology. Physically, the Mekong Delta has been formed by the interplay of powerful natural forces. Over thousands of years, gigantic amounts of suspended sediments,8) traveling in the Mekong River, have been deposited in the estuary and then redistributed by waves, tides, and currents according to the rhythm of seasonal flooding and the daily ebb and flow. Located in the humid tropics of Southeast Asia, the Delta’s hydrological cycle is shaped by the monsoon. Saline intrusion is most intensive during the dry season in April, when the river discharge is low and the tidal fluctuation is strong. Consequently, seasonal droughts and water scarcity constrain agricultural production in the coastal belt. The flood season coincides with the wet season, reaching its peak in November. During this period, the overflow from the major distributaries and the influx of floodwater from Cambodia merge. Unlike the other river basins in Vietnam, like the Red River Delta, where floods can appear suddenly and with destructive power, the Mekong Delta’s flood regime is calm and prolonged. Inundation levels rise and withdraw very slowly over several weeks. The highest flood levels and duration occur in flood plains in the upstream delta to about three meters, and in extreme flood seasons up to five meters (Hashimoto 2001, 6–20; Vo Khac Tri 2012, 51–62).

Pre-socialist Hydraulic Efforts and the Making of the Modern Mekong Delta

Since ancient times, the complex hydro-ecology was considered a potential resource for agriculture, but also a major obstacle to development and economic growth. This viewpoint emerged as the driving force in human efforts to modify the deltaic landscape in order to optimize the use of water and land resources, and curb negative impacts caused by nature. When modern hydraulic technology reached the Delta at the end of the nineteenth century, it became a laboratory for ambitious hydraulic engineering projects and technical interventions coordinated within the frame of modern state structures.

Landscape engineering and water management, to a limited extent, had already commenced in the early Funan period of the mid-third century, when the precursors of what would later become the powerful Khmer empire excavated an artificial water grid around the ancient capital of Oc Eo (Bourdonneau 2013). Much later, throughout Vietnamese colonization beginning in the seventeenth century, a number of new canal projects were carried out under the Nguyễn administration. Canal projects, such as the Vĩnh Tế Canal, which nowadays demarcates a boundary between Vietnam and Cambodia, were strategically critical infrastructure for improving logistics and communication across the new frontier land of the Vietnamese empire in the deep Southwest, and for protecting it from Siamese and Khmer invasion (Biggs 2010, 65). Thereafter, the French conquest and annexation of Cochinchina,9) which commenced in 1860, led to a rapid intensification of technical interventions and modifications of the deltaic landscape. French colonial planners and engineers brought along modern knowledge, technology, and heavy equipment from Europe which permitted them to carry out large-scale infrastructural interventions. Beginning in the late 1880s, the colonial administration systematically opened up the Delta by crafting a canal grid on its surface which served as the main communication and transportation network, and along which the colonial state reclaimed land for colonization and the establishments of large-scale rice estates. Much of the rice land was owned by big landlords who demised small plots of their land to tenant farmers for cultivation. As in other parts of the colonial world, water control drove the Delta’s transformation into an export-oriented plantation economy based on capitalist principles for rural production (Brocheux 1995, 17–40; Biggs 2010, 34–51). This artificial water grid was the precondition for the Delta’s colonization and became the hallmark of its settlement structure, determining people’s access to land and water. The early man-made canal and river network constituted the first layer of high-modernist space upon which ensuing regimes built.

As vividly shown by Biggs (2010), although infrastructural interventions have helped to convert wild swamps into manageable and productive land, in a wider context of environmental change, these man-made manipulations have resulted in unanticipated hydro-ecological problems. As in an infinite loop, the unpredictable and often destructive side effects of technical progress have required ever expanding engineering and structural solutions. The sheer size of the Delta, its complexity, ecological dynamics, and growing human interference have made it almost impossible to predict how nature will respond to any modification of the landscape. Trial and error, therefore, emerged as the modus operandi of colonial engineers on the waterscape. Canal dredging works planned by French engineers did not only transform the waterscape, but represented feats of social engineering. With each newly dredged canal, new settlers, plantation owners, and the colonial administration moved deeper into formerly isolated areas. Landscape engineering was pushed forward by the shared interests of a powerful coalition comprising colonial administrators, landlords, public-works engineers, and dredging enterprises (ibid., 47). Embedded in the colonial Department of Public Works, French hydraulic engineers emerged as protagonists in the making of the modern delta.

After the communist victory over the French at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, Vietnam was divided into two different political regimes. The subsequent French withdrawal from Indochina was followed by the American military engagement, which lasted until the mid-1970s. Apart from sending soldiers and military advisers, the Americans launched aid programs, which were meant to drive back the communist insurgency in the Mekong Delta. In the 1960s, modeled after the Tennessee Valley Scheme, the Americans initiated delta-wide water resources development plans as part of a political mission to pacify the Delta by boosting rural development and starting a Green Revolution to improve socio-economic conditions (Miller 2003, 184–188). A coalition of US-American advisers, engineers, and hydraulic construction companies seamlessly replaced the French Department of Public Works. Beyond the strategic goals of geopolitics, money making interest sustained and fueled the cycle of hydraulic planning, investment, and construction from which they collectively gained (Biggs et al. 2009, 214–215, 221). The escalating conflict, however, thwarted these ambitious water resources and infrastructure plans. Ultimately, landscaping engineering efforts petered out in the wake of the US-American withdrawal from South Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 and the Vietnamization of the conflict.

IV The Modern Hydraulic State: Bureaucratic Rule over Land, Water, and People

North-South Antagonism and the Quest for National Unity

When in 1975 the Vietnam War came to an end, and the victorious socialist government seized power in the South, the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hà Nội faced the immense problem of economic recovery in the context of North-South reunification. One of the most urgent challenges was to overcome disquiet and resentment that had grown between the two sides after 30 years of national division. The other was about how to consolidate socialism across the southern territories and integrate the South into the socialist state and the command economy model that had been in place in North Vietnam since 1954. With peasants making up the majority of South Vietnam’s population, and an abundance of potential for agricultural development, agrarian modernization was considered critical for stimulating economic growth in the South. In essence, the development and modernization of rural areas, from where the revolutionary struggle for independence and unification received most of its backing, became a key part of efforts in state consolidation and nation building in the South (Miller 2003, 189).

While Hà Nội and the Southern resistance movement were unified in the struggle for national independence, disharmony emerged over the question of precisely how to reunite the country, the pace of reunification and which economic system and policy the country exactly should follow. Moreover, tensions emerged due to Northern domination and Hà Nội’s posturing about being in the position to bring up and educate the liberated South (Porter 1993, 28–30; Vasavakul 1995, 272). The North considered itself victor over imperialism and as the cradle of socialist modernity and traditional Vietnamese nationalism. After decades of national division into contrary ideological regimes, the North regarded the South as poisoned by Western capitalist values. Putting the South back on the right course justified Northern claims to leadership within the unified Vietnamese nation:

During the war, the party had vehemently denied the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) regime’s seizure of the mantle of Vietnamese modernity. After unification, the locus for the articulation of Vietnamese identity for Vietnamese south of the 17th parallel shifted dramatically northwards to the new national capital, Hanoi. The former Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) became the template for the reforms prosecuted in the South in the post-war years. (Taylor 2001, 26)

North and South officially reunified in 1976 when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed with Hà Nội as its capital. In the following years, it became crucial for the national leadership to yield quick socioeconomic success to consolidate its political control and legitimacy in the South.

The Mekong Delta’s Strategic Role in National Reunification and State Consolidation

In the early years following reunification, economic policies focused on rural areas and agriculture development, as emphasized by the General Party Secretary Lê Duẩn in his 1976 speech at the National Assembly (Turley 1977, 46). The fertile land and abundant water resources of the Mekong Delta became strategically important in this context (To Trung Nghia 2001, 101). Referring to earlier water resource plans compiled by the US-Americans, the new regime identified the Mekong Delta as most promising for agrarian modernization and achieving national food security as precondition for political stability and growth. Developing the Mekong Delta’s water resources thus emerged as a strategic goal that served higher political ends and, after years of stagnation, triggered a new hydraulic mission in South Vietnam.

Indeed, in the Mekong Delta, the development of water resources slowed down and even came to a complete stop with the escalation of the military conflict in the late 1960s and 1970s (Biggs 2010, 203). This gave the Northern government an opportunity to point to the failures of the French administration and the coalition of the United States and Saigon Regime in water control and agrarian modernization prior to national reunification under socialism. In a commemorative publication celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Hồ Chí Minh City Association of Water Resources, North Vietnamese state engineers assessed the effectiveness of water control and utilization in the Mekong Delta prior to 1975 as obsolete:

Thinking back to the first days after liberation of the South, this was a time when the North already undergone 20 years of building up of socialism (including 10 years of national struggle against the aggressive and destructive United States) and was able to keep up pace in the development of water resources at a level equal to other countries in the region. The South, in contrast, had been lagging behind since 1945. . . . Each time the Mekong Delta is discussed, much attention is paid to the great efforts made by the French in excavating new canals. However, in reality, water allocation in those days was sluggish and the bulk of agricultural land remained with only one harvest on average, not exceeding 1.5 tons per hectare per year. (Association of Water Resources of Hồ Chí Minh City 2006, 7)10)

The Ministry of Water in Hà Nội diagnosed the South as having a deficit of modern scientific knowledge and expertise (To Trung Nghia 2001, 101). They viewed the adaptive nature of water-society relations and agriculture production in the South as outdated. In response, modernizing water resources utilization was formulated a priority goal for the South:

Local people in the Delta had no awareness of the role of water resources for development. Thus, the development of water resources in South Vietnam was among the most urgent priorities defined by the party and the state [after reunification]. (Association of Water Resources of Hồ Chí Minh City 2006, 7)11)

Reunification and the Political Economy of Water Control and Agrarian Modernization

A brief review of the historical events illustrates the different trajectories of development that took place in North and South prior to national reunification, spelling out why engineers from North Vietnam labeled water management in South as backward. After the Geneva Peace Agreement (1954) and the subsequent national division of Vietnam, the Democratic Republic in the North, with the goal of agrarian modernization, made significant efforts to regulate and harness water flows in the Red River basin. Being cut off from Southern rice surpluses produced in the Mekong Delta, the Northern government declared the development of water resources for a Green Revolution a national affair of the highest priority. In the late 1950s, the Northern government established the Ministry of Water.12) Embedded in the socialist state machinery, the water management bureaucracy comprised water-related state agencies and state-owned engineering companies at every administrative level to ensure systematic top-down operations. The socialist state mobilized masses of manual labor to dig canals and upgrade dikes as part of public irrigation campaigns. Advisers from the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union provided funds and technical advice on how to expand and modernize the hydraulic infrastructure. Moreover, water resources management became centralized under the planned economy and was implemented as an integrated part of agrarian collectivization, as explicitly shown by Smith (2002, 195–280). After 1975, to catch up with the North, the political leadership in Hà Nội emphasized the need for a comparable policy in the Mekong Delta:

. . . without timely cooperativization it is impossible to develop irrigation, impossible to dig the network of canals and ditches such as we now have in the North. Without irrigation double cropping in rice is impossible, development of production is impossible. . . . Irrigation works cannot be performed by individual families on individual plots of land. They must be carried out in each region of the entire delta of the southern region where cooperativization has been completed. (Hoang Tung, a secretary to the Central Committee, in 1978; quoted in Ngo Vinh Long 1988, 163)

Such views reveal the synergies the party state believed to have found in the nexus of water control and the creation of new rural (socialist) institutions, in particular agrarian collectivization. In a speech delivered to young cadres during political training, the party secretary of Hậu Giang Province, one of the Mekong Delta provinces in those days, emphatically pointed out the vital role water resources development was assigned in this process:

The development of hydraulic infrastructure and progress in rural development must go hand in hand. On the one hand, water resources must serve cropping, while agriculture at the same time must foster the development of collective groups, collective production units, agricultural cooperatives, and state farms. On the other hand, we have to rely on these organizations to develop our water resources for increased productivity, and this will automatically foster and consolidate all state-run and collective organizations. (Hậu Giang Newspaper, February 10, 1982)13)

In this sense, it was not only water management that came under state control, but also agricultural land and, consequently, the land use planning. Private property was largely prohibited under the new regime. Farmers in the Mekong Delta were requested to join collectively organized and state-run production units. Due to fierce peasant resistance, however, agrarian collectivization in form of agricultural cooperatives14) (as implemented in the North after 1954) fell short of expectations in the South. By 1986, only 6 percent of the Delta’s farmers were organized in forms of collective production (Vo Tong Xuan 1995, 187).

Nevertheless, despite its failure in the South, agrarian collectivization had profound impacts on the Mekong Delta and its population. Having recognized that rigid cooperativization,15) as enforced in the North 20 years earlier, was politically unfeasible in the South, the regime opted for a less invasive version that encouraged the Delta’s peasantry to get organized in so-called solidarity production groups16) or production collectives.17) By integrating farming households in these relatively loosely structured organizations, the new regime hoped to quickly integrate the Delta farmers into the central planning economy (Ngo Vinh Long 1988, 164). Consequently, the situation in the South evolved differently than in the North, such that farmers in the South remained the primary managers of their land, but had to produce according to central directives. Also new in the South were communal efforts in land preparation, irrigation, and threshing, which arose because the individual ownership of the scarce tractors, rototillers, threshers, and irrigation pumps was largely abolished under the new regime.18) Such devices, required in modern agriculture, were only available through state-run distribution systems. The same applied to agro-chemicals, specifically pesticides and artificial fertilizers (Vo Tong Xuan 1995, 187–188). In addition, a strict rice collection policy obliged farmers to sell rice surpluses to government agents at fixed prices (Kono 2001, 77). Growing state interventionism into rural production shifted key aspects of decision making from on-farm (individual) levels to the commune and district level. This also holds true for water management, which increasingly shifted away from the individual household scale toward more collective modes of regulating water flows (Miller 2003, 189). This was facilitated by increasing physical changes imposed on the waterscape and water control infrastructure (Nguyen Duy Can et al. 2007, 77).

Water Control Efforts and the Mobilizing State

Although the policy of collectivization largely deviated from its strictest form, collective efforts and mass mobilization in the style of state corporatism or mobilizational authoritarianism19) (as denoted by Kerkvliet) was a central feature of state-society relations in those days (2003, 30), and also played a vital role in the development of water infrastructure, particularly in the years immediately after reunification. Indeed, as financial resources and technical equipment were too scarce to fully mechanize interventions in response, accomplishing the state-directed hydraulic mission inevitably had to rely on intensive labor input similar to what was practiced in the early years of French colonial rule from 1860 until the end of the nineteenth century (Biggs 2010, 23–34).

During three decades of military conflict and insurgency in the Mekong Delta (1945–75), hydraulic infrastructure development gradually dwindled and canal maintenance was neglected. As a result, nature took back what humans once created over decades. Many canals were silted to such an extent that water levels were too shallow to perform proper irrigation and drainage functions and could no longer be navigated by boat (ibid., 203; Kono 2001, 78). Canal dredging was therefore urgently needed to restore irrigation and drainage capacity. Furthermore, there was an urgent need to enlarge the canal grid for new land reclamation projects and to expand irrigated land with a concurrent shift towards high yielding rice varieties, which required intensive water regulation and input of agro-chemicals (Nguyen Duy Can et al. 2007, 77; Käkönen 2008, 206–208). Across the entire Delta, thus, thousands of farmers, soldiers and cadres were mobilized to manually dig and construct hydraulic works under the supervision of local state agencies (Fig. 2).



Fig. 2 Irrigation Campaign: Digging a New Canal under the Red Banner and Yellow Star

Source: Hâu Giang Newspaper, April 27, 1977.


In theory, every healthy male between the age of 18 and 45 and every woman between 18 and 30 was requested to contribute 30 days of public labor20) per year for canal digging/dredging (Le Meur et al. 2005, 32). One of the first public irrigation campaigns undertaken by the new regime commenced in 1976 in Long Phú district,21) where more than 450,000 laborers, including 115,000 women, were mobilized to dig canals and ditches for washing out acidic soil, draining saline waters and provide fresh water for irrigation (Hậu Giang Newspaper, April 19, 1978).

Public irrigation campaigns intensified in the wake of the Rice Everywhere Campaign for the Mekong Delta, which required infrastructural support to enlarge the area under multiple cropping (Biggs et al. 2009, 210). Expanding the secondary and tertiary canal grid and the dike systems became an infrastructural necessity for promoting agrarian modernization (Käkönen 2008, 206). In Cần Thơ Province, for instance, a great deal of the secondary and tertiary canal network, and a number of primary canals, were excavated after reunification in the 1980s and the early 1990s (Kono 2001, 78; SIWRP 2007, 32). Apart from improved irrigation and drainage infrastructure, the construction of earth dikes along canal banks was meant to either protect fields from flood waters or to prevent saline intrusion.

V The Irrigation Front: Revolutionary Rhetoric, Water Control, and State Consolidation

While state engineers designed water control infrastructure, local dwellers were mobilized to build it, and, finally, the socialist state used it as icon of modernity and progress to legitimate its claim to rule. The newly established mass organizations took over the role of mobilizing the rural population for collective efforts in public irrigation campaigns. It was in particular the Youth Union22) that became active in this field, but also the Farmer’s Associations23) and Women’s Union.24) Under a system referred to as mono-organizational socialism by Thayer (1995), in which civil society was integrated into the one-party state system, the socialist regime hoped to mobilize all parts of the local population, whether female or male, young or old, peasant or soldier, Buddhist or Catholic, Khmer or Kinh25) for collective efforts in water control and agrarian modernization.

In the early years after reunification, progress in hydraulic engineering and the development of water resources made weekly appearances in local newspapers. These front-page headlines enthusiastically glorified the achievements made in water control that socialism had enabled. The nexus of technological modernization, economic development, and the guiding role of the new regime were systematically reproduced by the state-controlled mass media. The communist party-state praised itself as the tamer of nature and the modernizer of society, bringing prosperity to the Delta’s population:

Long Phú is a coastal district with lots of potential for agriculture and aquaculture. Prior to liberation [of the South], however, there were no irrigation works, and the bulk of land was exposed to salinity and acidic water. . . . After reunification, agriculture moved forward and the first task to be accomplished was to develop water resources and build hydraulic infrastructure. The Long Phú Party Committee facilitated the compilation of a plan for controlling salinity, increasing the availability of freshwater, and providing irrigation and drainage for the entire region. (Hậu Giang Newspaper, March 19, 1980)26)

The hydraulic mission turned into a mission of state and nation building, supplying political legitimacy and facilitating state consolidation in an authoritarian context of governance. In socialist Vietnam, this phenomenon occurred under the state credo state of the people, by the people, and for the people.27) The media praised the state-run public irrigation campaign as an effort of great unity of the entire people28) and the Party (Hậu Giang Newspaper, March 16, 1977).



Fig. 3 Banner Inscription: “The Women of Thơi An Commune Dug an Irrigation Canal to Accompany the Second Party Congress of the Province”

Source: Hậu Giang Newspaper, April 6, 1977.


The type of language exploited by the state to spread this propaganda and mobilize society was embedded with metaphors that had been used during the war years. It made use of rhetorical devices that invoked martial symbols seamlessly transferred from an era of armed struggle to one of economic recovery, where it lived on in mass mobilization campaigns. The state appealed to the people’s revolutionary spirit to serve the nation at the irrigation front.29) During the war, the enemy was embodied in imperialistic forces, whereas after liberation and reunification, the Delta’s challenging waterscape and hydro-ecology emerged as the new frontline along which the party and the people jointly fought against floods, salinity, and socioeconomic backwardness:

The impression we get from today’s irrigation project sites [collective digging] reminds us of those army brigades that marched forward to liberate our fatherland some years ago, but nowadays they liberate the land from salinity and free people from poverty. (Hậu Giang Newspaper, March 22, 1977)30)

Those who engaged in digging and dredging were celebrated as the new irrigation heroes31) and irrigation veterans.32) The state-controlled mass media helped to glorify water control in order to create the myth of the revolutionary irrigation movement,33) which served to bring the revolutionary spirit to the fields to boost rural production (Hậu Giang Newspaper, April 19, 1978).

Each digging campaign and each completed irrigation scheme in the various districts was celebrated in the manner of military victories. New canals were named after important revolutionary events such as the Liberation Day of Saigon34) or the founding date of the Vietnamese Communist Party.35) Likewise, inaugurations of newly built hydraulic works were scheduled for specific occasions that were meaningful in terms of the revolution and struggle for independence. The opening ceremony of Hậu Giang’s first electric pumping station, for example, which coincided with Uncle Ho’s birthday (Fig. 4), nicely shows to which extent the socialist state tried to harness progress in water control for political ends such as national building:

In these days, when the entire nation competes for the most impressive present one can devote to Hồ Chí Minh on occasion of his 88th birthday, this morning (May 19, 1978) the Hậu Giang Department of Water inaugurated the first electric pumping station in the province. . . . Among the distinguished guests were comrade Lê Phước Thọ, member of the Central Party Committee and General Secretary of Hậu Giang Province, comrade Lê Tính, Deputy Minister of Water. . . . (Hậu Giang Newspaper, May 24, 1978)36)



Fig. 4 Inauguration of the First Electric Pumping Station at Hậu Giang Province

Source: Hậu Giang Newspaper, May 24, 1978.


VI Northern Domination: Crafting a Hydraulic Bureaucracy for South Vietnam

Bureaucratizing and Centralizing Water Resources Management

As described above, during the 1950s and 1960s, the socialist regime poured all of its energy into developing water resources and agriculture in the Red River Delta (Smith 2002, 195–280). After reunification, the hydraulic mission was gradually shifted southwards into the Mekong Delta, the new agricultural frontier of Vietnam, as Nguyễn Cảnh Dinh, the former Minister of Water recapped 30 years later:

. . . The Ministry of Water changed the direction of the entire sector towards a focus on the development of water resources in the South, specifically the Mekong Delta. (Nguyễn Cảnh Dinh37) 2006, 22)38)

The hydraulic bureaucracy of the socialist North identified the Mekong Delta as a new physical space for expanding its power over regional water resources planning, infrastructure development, and the corresponding investment decisions. In order to modernize water management in the South, it understood as necessary to transfer to the South all the knowledge and experiences, as well as the technology developed over two decades of developing water resources in the North:

Making use of the excellent experience that all our organisations in the hydraulic management apparatus had gained in the North over many years was a useful asset for developing water resources in the Mekong Delta quickly, solidly, and in a tightly coordinated manner—without wasting opportunities and resources. (ibid.)

Historically, therefore, the socialist hydraulic mission in the Mekong Delta has its origin in the North. What had been rapidly achieved in the Red River Delta 15 years earlier in terms of water control and agriculture modernization was intended to be replicated in the South.39) Hence, immediately after the war had ended the Ministry of Water began moving south:

With regard to the establishment of organisational structures, the ministry [Ministry of Water] took immediate action and set up a representative office in Hồ Chí Minh City. Comrades Lê Tính, Vũ Khắc Mẫn, Đinh Gia Khánh, Nguyễn Giới, and leading officials of the ministry regularly were present in the South, particularly the Mekong Delta. (ibid.)

The office functioned as a satellite of the Ministry of Water in Hà Nội and was assigned to facilitate the creation of state management structures in the Southern territories. The rescaling of water management and infrastructure development along parameters of central planning led to coordination with a hierarchical architecture. Financial and administrative authority over the management of water resources, including the planning and construction of infrastructure, became highly centralized following a Leninist fashion. As hydraulic technicians and their expertise were short in the South, the majority of the human resources simply were transferred from the North:

The prompt foundation of agencies for planning, surveying, engineering, dredging, and construction under the ministry followed demand in the Mekong Delta. The Ministry [of Water] focused on its guiding role by coordinating with the Northern provinces for the provision of forces to train, educate, and promote local cadres, so as to set up and consolidate the hydraulic-bureaucratic apparatus in all provinces and districts of the Mekong Delta. (ibid.)

Thus, it was the hydraulic engineers from the Northern part of Vietnam who planned and implemented the post-reunification hydraulic mission in the South. Many of them were trained at the Water Resources University in Hà Nội at a time Vietnam was divided into two regimes and due to this gained their technical knowledge and practical experiences from the river basins of North and North Central Vietnam, in particular the Red River Delta. Immediately after the war ended, hundreds of hydraulic experts, planners, and bureaucrats made their way to the South, and together with them came the knowledge and technology from the North (Nguyễn Ân Niên and Lê Sâm 2006, 32). Apart from transferring knowledge and technology, sending state engineers from the North allowed the central government to fill strategically important leadership positions in the Southern water administration with loyal Northerners, rather than having to rely on untested candidates from the South. Relocated into a new and strange environment, Northern engineers were meant to act as nodes for sustaining relationships with Hà Nội, consolidating both political control, and ensuring strict enforcement of the national policies formulated in the capital.

In this connection, the Ministry of Water began establishing a range of special regional agencies. These agencies were also meant to represent the will of the ministry in the Southern localities and to become reliable enclaves of Northern engineers. Even nowadays, more than 30 years after their establishment, engineers from the North with educational backgrounds from the Water Resources University are predominant in all central water management agencies in the South of Vietnam (Benedikter 2014). With the founding of the Hydraulic Construction Project Management Board No. 1040) in Cần Thơ in 1976, the first of these regional bodies took shape as a central-level project management board directly subordinated to the ministry, and charged with the coordination of infrastructure construction. One year later, in 1977, the ministry established the Sub-Institute of Water Resources Planning41) in Hồ Chí Minh City, which was mandated to plan and develop water resources at the regional (basin level) scale, including hydraulic infrastructure for the entire South. An interview with a senior staff member is suggestive of the hegemony of Northern Vietnamese engineers in this and other central water organizations:

After the war, one-third of our staff was sent to the South to remain there indefinitely for the development of water resources activities, and only returned to the North after 1985. Others stayed with the Southern Sub-Institute of Water Resources Planning in Hồ Chí Minh City. I myself spent several years in Cần Thơ. (interview, Hà Nội, April 14, 2009)

To strengthen research capacity, generate new knowledge on the Delta’s peculiar water-ecology and to develop tailor-made hydro-management solutions, in 1978, the Southern Sub-Institute of Water Resources Research was set up in Hồ Chí Minh City as a branch of the National Institute of Water Resources Research42) headquartered in Hà Nội. This was followed by the Southeast Vietnam Survey Association and the Southern Hydraulic Design Association. Both of these had been operational in the South since 1975, staffed with a few hundred engineers who were sent by the ministry. In 1983 they were merged into a single institute: the Southern Sub-Institute for Water Resources Survey and Design,43) with its head office in Hồ Chí Minh City. All of these central organizations have played, and are still currently playing, a prominent role in the development of water resources in the Mekong Delta and the South in general.

To ensure effectiveness in implementing the hydraulic mission in the South, there was a need to build up a system of local satellites in the Southern provinces apart from the central agencies mentioned above. Integrated in the centralized state administration, specialized local state agencies were established in each locality to connect the central part of the apparatus with the grassroots level. Structurally, the local hydraulic-bureaucratic apparatus followed the overall administrative system as it had been organized in the North since 1954. Accordingly, Departments of Water44) were established in each province of the Mekong Delta. These departments were subordinated to their respective local People’s Committees but were also governed directly by the Ministry of Water in Hà Nội. Subordinated to these provincial departments were district Offices of Water,45) which instructed irrigation cadres in each commune. While district and commune personnel were locally recruited, leadership positions in the newly established provincial Departments of Water were largely staffed with engineers sent from the North. During an interview (June 12, 2009),46) hydraulic bureaucrats from Cà Mau Province spoke representatively for most other provinces of the Mekong Delta when they said that previously the composition of the Department of Water was almost entirely engineers from the North.

Re-mechanization and the Rise of State-Owned Engineering Companies

Due to the empty state coffers, the mobilization of manual labor to dig and dredge was crucial in the early years of the hydraulic mission from 1975. At the same time, the new regime also made initial attempts to re-mechanize water control. Soon after liberation, specialized state-owned and military-owned hydraulic engineering and construction companies equipped with dredges, barges, and other heavy equipment cropped up in different localities of the Delta and Hồ Chí Minh City. Following the rationale of a socialist planned economy, these engineering companies were integrated into the hydraulic state apparatus. They existed either as centrally-controlled business units under the Ministry of Water or as local state companies under the Department of Water in each province.

One of the first centrally-managed hydraulic engineering and construction companies established by the ministry in the South was Construction Company No. 10 (ICCO 40).47) It was established in 1975 with the head office in Hậu Giang Province, right in the heart of the Delta and in proximity to the Investment and Hydraulic Construction Project Management Board No. 10. One year later, the ministry established the Hydraulic Engineering, Investment and Construction Company48) (DRECO II) in Hồ Chí Minh City. In 1979, the Ministry of Agriculture founded the Agriculture Engineering and Construction Company, which in 1984 was renamed Company 62249) and has since remained under the control of the Ministry of Defence. Situated in Cần Thơ City, Company 622 was involved in almost all large-scale dredging ventures carried out in Military Zone No. 9,50) which administratively encompasses all of the Mekong Delta provinces (People’s Army of Vietnam 2004, 545–549). Furthermore, the Ministry of Transport set up two other large state firms in Cần Thơ that became involved in canal construction and dredging. Apart from construction works, the hydraulic mission urgently required heavy machinery and equipment, such as engines and technical devices to build up pumping stations and sluices. In 1976, the Ministry of Water therefore set up the Hydraulic Mechanical Engineering Company 27651) in Hồ Chí Minh City, which was assigned to develop and manufacture heavy water control equipment and technical systems, including pumps, weirs, and sluices (interviews with companies, 2009; Trần Tuấn Bửu 2006, 40).

In parallel, the provincial governments established local water engineering and dredging companies that came under the auspices of the newly established provincial Departments of Water in Minh Hải52) (1977), Đồng Tháp (1978), Hậu Giang53) (1979), and Tiền Giang54) provinces (1981) (interviews with companies, 2009). Similar to the central and provincial state agencies, hydraulic construction companies were dominated by North Vietnamese engineers who moved to the South after reunification:

Many other engineer colleagues and I were sent to the South immediately after reunification in 1976 to take up positions in the newly established local administration of water management in the Mekong Delta. Many of those who came with me had studied at the Hà Nội Water Resources University. (interviews with company director, Cần Thơ City, 2008)

This type of career path, as well as others captured in interviews, point to a tight interlocking between state management agencies, planning units, and state-owned businesses. Together they represented Vietnam’s hydraulic bureaucracy in the South. State enterprises and state agencies were not only bound together in the sense that they were unified under the Ministry of Water but also in terms of personalized connections. Especially those in leadership positions shared features of an elite group with a strong collective identity based on a common background in terms of education, career, and regional provenance. Many had studied together at the Water Resources University in Hà Nội, the most elite educational facility in water management, before starting a career with the Ministry of Water in either a state agency or state-owned engineering company. Since each university class was small in those days and access to the university limited to the political elite, students could easily form groups, networks, and a strong esprit de corps. Because bureaucracy and business were unified within the socialist state system and central planning, cadres in state agencies and state companies frequently exchanged their positions by moving seamlessly between state management and state business. Hundreds of state engineers moved from the North to the South, thereby contributing to the expansion of tight networks of North Vietnamese engineers in the South. As state engineers and cadres they greatly benefited from predictable and stable careers, modest but regular incomes, coupled with privileged access to health services, housing, and education for their families (Porter 1993, 62). Young graduates from the Water Resources University in Hà Nội particularly gained from the organizational expansion into the South, where water engineers were in great demand to fill vacancies. In line with this, student enrolment at the Water Resources University increased by 70 percent in the years following reunification (1975–1978).55)

VII Modernization with Side-Effects: Northern Blueprints and Technology Transfer

Ignoring the Local Conditions: Technology Transfer under Central Planning

The hegemony of Northern engineers had far-reaching consequences with regard to the development of hydraulic infrastructure in the Mekong Delta. After a century of foreign domination by French colonial engineers and American advisers, the Mekong Delta again came under the tutelage of a non-local power when the Northern engineers took over responsibility for planning and developing water resources in the South. As with their predecessors in colonial times and during the war, water engineers from the North brought along hydrological knowledge and technical blueprints from their native regions. At the same time, due to the long period of national division, engineers from the North lacked local knowledge and experiences about the South’s distinctive hydro-ecological conditions.

In each region of Vietnam, topographies and climatic conditions have very distinctive characteristics. Accordingly, water regimes in the sub-tropical North and the tropical South differ fundamentally from each other. This has profoundly shaped people’s relation to, and notions of how, to manage water in North and South. In contrast to the Mekong Delta’s hydrology, which is characterized by the flatness of the land and a rather calm and predictable water flow regime, the Red River basin’s hydrology is largely determined by the interplay of mountains and plains. Hence, in the valleys and plains of North and North-central Vietnam, sudden floods pose the greatest threat to the people’s life and assets. During typhoons and prolonged downpours, water levels in the Northern river basins can rise suddenly from one to four meters within only a few hours. Masses of water then often cascade from higher terrain through river valleys into the plains in the form of flash floods, destroying settlements and damaging harvests (Tuan Pham Anh and Shannon n.d., 2; Pruszak et al. 2005, 373).

Regionally different water regimes have shaped different perceptions towards water, particularly with regard to flooding. Whereas people in the North traditionally associate flooding with disaster, local dwellers in the Mekong Delta consider the flood waters of the Mekong River an essential development resource. Every year the flood seasons brings along fertile alluvial soils to spread over the fields as well as aquatic products that are critical for local livelihoods. These divergent perceptions manifest in different terms used to denote flooding. stands for flood in the North and refers to the destructive force of water. Mùa nước nỗi, which means water-moving season, is the term prevalent in the Mekong Delta, referring to the naturally calm nature of the local flood regime. As perceptions of water management differ significantly in North and South, infrastructural interventions and technology would also involve different objectives. Water control infrastructure in the North predominantly aims at protecting settlements and fields from sudden and extreme flooding. Dike polders equipped with irrigation and drainage canals and massive pumping systems, some of which are being combined with multi-purpose reservoirs to bridge dry periods, constitute a great deal of what characterizes water control infrastructure in North Vietnam. In the Mekong Delta, in contrast, water management used to be performed more flexibly in adaption to the rhythm of the seasons. Flood waters, for instance, are only temporarily kept away from fields until harvest. Then earth dikes are consciously opened to inundate rice fields to benefit from fertile alluvial sediments and collect aquatic products carried in by the flood during the flood season (Ehlert 2012, 35–73).

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the military conflict in the South thwarted the implementation of large-scale infrastructure development in the Mekong Delta for a long time and people thus lived adapted to the natural ecology. Therefore, when North Vietnamese engineers arrived in the South in 1975 they found themselves in a deltaic environment that was largely unregulated (Miller 2003, 189–216), because infrastructure such as dikes, sluices, or pumping stations existed only in isolated pilot sites. To them, these conditions were backward and underdeveloped and suggested immediate action to improve hydro-management, similar as in the highly regulated Red River Delta.

Large-scale pumping stations were installed in the Red River Delta56) during the 1950s and 1960s when hydraulic engineering efforts reached an apogee in the socialist North (Smith 2002, 195–280). There, pumping stations well served their purpose of irrigation and drainage management in a physical setting characterized by massive dike polders for flood protection (Fontenelle 2001, 11–17). In contrast, irrigation and drainage based on large polder equipped with large-scale pumping stations as commonly found in the Red River Delta did not exist in the Mekong Delta in those days, which was appraised technologically ineffective by engineers sent from the North. What functioned in the northern delta could not be bad for the southern delta, they reasoned. Consequently, as mentioned earlier, it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the Ministry of Water initiated an investment program to build a network of electric pumping stations across the Mekong Delta based on blueprints transferred from the Red River Delta. Ultimately, however, the pumping station program turned out to be a misguided undertaking and failed. This is captured in an interview with local irrigation cadres from a district in Cần Thơ, who, in recollecting on the centrally-mandated hydraulic mission, suggest that water engineering programs derived from Northern schemes and state engineers more or less blindly followed trial and error approaches as colonial engineers57) had earlier done:

In 1979, there were official guidelines [by the central government] for building large-scale pumping stations commanding dyke-protected land with the objective to foster agricultural production and control flood waters. The Department of Water invested in the construction and delegated the management responsibility to the districts until 1985. The pumping scheme had the capacity to irrigate 2,500 ha and drain 600 ha of agricultural land. However, the pumping station failed for several reasons. One problem was that the command area was too large for proper management and operation. Related to this, the uneven ground did not allow for even water level management. When water was pumped into the scheme, lower areas were inundated, while in upper areas the water level remained shallow. (interview, October 27, 2008)

The failure and the subsequent closure of the pumping station in Vĩnh Thạnh (Fig. 4) was not an exception, but representative more broadly the failure of centralized water management approaches that ignored the local conditions, as national hydrocrats admitted retrospectively more than 20 years later:

In the beginning [after 1975], the use of hydraulic engineering technologies that were successfully applied in the North . . . made evident deficiencies and required further research to develop more adequate technical solutions suitable for the southern rivers. Hence, the 100 medium and large-scale irrigation pumping stations did not succeed. The pumping stations turned out to be ineffective and thus were shut down again. . . . (Nguyễn Ân Niên and Lê Sâm 2006, 32)58)

Apparently, the deltaic environment of the South was alien to Northern state engineers, who had problems reading the local conditions. After 25 years of national division, they found themselves for the first time operating in the South—a place they were not familiar with. In response to the failure, new hydraulic plans for the Delta temporarily relinquished the use of large-scale pumping station,59) but increasingly relied on sluices instead.

Large-Scale Operations

Over the years of growing hydraulic efforts, water resources planning60) became more systematic under the Ministry of Water. Based on new knowledge of local hydrological cycles, soil quality, and local flood and salinity regimes generated by the ministerial research institutes, it was in the late 1970s that the Sub-Institute of Water Resources Planning in Hồ Chí Minh City began to outline the hydraulic planning regions for the Mekong Delta. In principle, as shown in Fig. 5, four major planning regions were identified, namely: the Long Xuyên Quadrangle,61) the Plain of Reeds,62) the area between Bassac (Hậu River) and the Trans-Bassac (Tiền River),63) and the Cà Mau Peninsular.64) Simultaneously, for more systematic and standardized planning of space, land and water resources, each of the four water resources regions was subdivided into smaller water resources areas,65) which were then further subdivided into even smaller units called water resources zones66) (Vũ Văn Vĩnh 2006, 54). Based on these units, national-level engineers and planners decomposed the southern waterscape into singular fragments in order to reconstruct it on the drawing board as a fully human-regulated and manageable landscape. The generation of new knowledge on the Delta was facilitated also because the socialist party state rapidly expanded its physical presence and control throughout the Delta. Rigid top-down command and bottom-up reporting mechanisms provided the organizational infrastructure to systematically conduct surveys and collect all kinds of data required to plan large-scale water resources development in the context of centralized state planning. As a result, this inevitably induced an administrative rescaling of water management, lifting water resources planning from the local to the regional level and even the national level, where the spatial control over water flows became increasingly centralized in the hands of hydraulic bureaucrats and engineers.



Fig. 5 Water Resources Planning Regions of the Mekong Delta

Source: Amir Hosseinpour (ZEF).


Based on these plans, state-owned engineering and construction companies carried out the first large-scale engineering operations using heavy equipment such as dredges, sluices, and partly large-scale pumping equipment. Despite of numerous setbacks as described for the pumping-station program, the number of large-scale infrastructure projects has steadily increased. The influx of capital investment gained further momentum after Đổi mới (1986), when government revenues began to recover and increase as a result of economic liberalization and international integration. Renovation policy stimulated growth and convinced the Western donor community to resume its financial assistance to Vietnam after years of absence. Finally, renovation policy opened up new financial resources for large-scale infrastructure development (Ministry of Water 1994, 68–71; Biggs et al. 2009, 210).

The initial post-1975 infrastructural interventions were primarily concentrated in the Long Xuyên Quadrangle and the Plain of Reeds, where water resources and agricultural development were less intensive during the French rule and, subsequently, during the Southern Republic period (1954–75). The complex natural conditions in this area, a combination of acidic sulphate soils and extreme flooding, coupled to some extent with saline intrusion, made water resources development a difficult and costly venture. Challenging in terms of its particular natural conditions and sparsely populated, yet characterized by a strong revolutionary past, the socialist regime identified the potential of this region as the new agricultural frontier for land reclamation, resettlement, and rural development (Nguyen Van Sanh et al. 1998, 34; Miller 2003, 399). The absence of major canals was regarded as a major obstacle to water conservancy development, particularly in places situated far from the big rivers and natural creeks. Expanding the canal grid for improved irrigation, draining floodwaters more effectively, and washing out acidic soils were considered the major targets in the development of the Plain of Reeds and other flood-prone areas in the upper Delta. At the same time, sweetening67) programs were initiated in downstream coastal areas to improve salinity control and channel freshwater into dike-protected areas (SIWRP 2011, 7).

Public labor campaigns and manual digging lost intensity in the late 1980s, and then almost vanished in the mid-1990s, as infrastructure development became increasingly mechanized in the transition to large-scale engineering projects. Table 1 provides an overview of the large-scale projects financed by the central government that stood out most prominently in the first 20 years after reunification. Most of these projects ran for several years and provided a stable income for engineering companies and their staff. Centrally-managed companies under the direct subordination of the ministry, such as ICCO 40, DRECO II, or the military-owned Company 622, were involved in almost all larger hydraulic infrastructure projects implemented across the delta region. These included canal excavation and dredging works in the upper delta, most notably the Hồng Ngự Canal Project in the Plain of Reeds (1977–87), which still is considered a milestone by Vietnam’s national hydrocrats (Cao Đức Phát68) 2006, 15). The post-reunification hydraulic mission in the South did not only spur mechanization but also nurtured a domestic water engineering industry embedded in the command economy, alongside of which the corps of state engineers could further expanded its influence (interviews with state agencies and engineering companies, 2009; Hậu Giang Newspaper, May 29, 1985).


Table 1 Hydraulic Work Projects in the Mekong Delta from the National Budget (1976–90)



The question of how to operate and financially maintain a steadily growing array of infrastructure became pressing in the late 1980s. In response, a second wave of water control mechanization followed, which centralized the power over water management in the hands of state engineers. Based on the nascent ideas about water pricing and service fees arising in tandem with economic liberalization, the first irrigation and drainage management companies (IDMC)69) were set up by the mid-1980s at the local level. They were assigned to operate and maintain main canals and headworks such as irrigation and drainage sluices, as well as larger dikes (Barker et al. 2004, 27). Established as financially self-sufficient public utility providers, the IDMCs were entitled to collect irrigation service fees70) from farmers. The revenue generated from this levy was used to cover the overheads of IDMCs (e.g. salaries and equipment), with the rest being reinvested in infrastructure maintenance to ensure the performance of hydraulic works (interviews, 2008/09). As in the state-owned engineering companies, IDMCs provided employment and career opportunities for engineers. And in general, this second wave of mechanization expanded the socialist hydrocracy’s power in terms of the scope of its mandate, and through the accumulation of financial resources and personnel.

As a result of the hydraulic mission, agricultural land in the Mekong Delta expanded by 20 percent from 1975 to the 1990s, in particular irrigated paddy land (Le Anh Tuan et al. 2007, 22). Nevertheless, as illustrated in Fig. 6, due to the lack of economic incentives under state-imposed agrarian collectivization and the failures of central planning rice output fell far short of expectations in the beginning (Nguyen Van Sanh et al. 1998, 47). From 1976 to 1979, paddy output even declined. It was only in the mid-1980s, when de-collectivization fully re-established household-based production and economic liberalization under Đổi mới unleashed market forces, that the water regulation infrastructure laid earlier yielded rapidly growing output (Vo Tong Xuan 1995, 188). Whereas water control technology and technical know-how traveled from the North to the South after 1975, the shift from central planning to a market-based economy originated in the South, most notably in the Mekong Delta. Early attempts at deviating from the planned economy commenced already by the end of the 1970s, famously becoming known as fence-breaking (Porter 1993, 118–127).71) In the context of Đổi mới, the hydraulic paradigm from the North combined with economic liberalization in the late 1980s in the South to produce an agro-economic upswing in the Mekong Delta.



Fig. 6 Annual Rice Output in the Mekong Delta (1975–2007)

Source: Figure by the author, data from the General Statistic Office of Vietnam (GSO).


VIII Recent Developments towards Total Hydro-Management

The actual boom gained pace in the 1990s, when the central government and the international donor community revisited older plans for Delta-wide water resources development aimed at rural development and poverty reduction. Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, Vietnamese and foreign engineers and planners under the overall coordination of NEDECO,72) a Dutch water engineering consultancy group, developed the NEDECO Mekong Delta Master Plan in 1993. As summarized in Table 2, by proposing large-scale, multi-purpose water control schemes, including flood management measures, salinity control, irrigation, and drainage functions, the Master Plan heralded a new era of hydraulic engineering and water control in the Mekong Delta. Based on results of more than 50 different scientific consultancy reports, this particular plan is considered the first multi-purpose and multi-sector planning document for the delta, though the focus clearly remained on water and agriculture (Waibel et al. 2012, 169). Subsequently, huge investment was channeled into large-scale water control and irrigation scheme development from the mid-1990s to promote agrarian modernization, rural development, and poverty reduction.


Table 2 Large-Scale Water Control Systems Developed in the Mekong Delta from 1995 to 2010



There is little doubt that these technically complex interventions have indeed boosted growth, modernized agriculture, and improved livelihoods in the Mekong Delta, but they have also spawned unintended side-effects for nature and society. As it has occurred so often as part of large-scale interventions into nature, the recent expansion of water control barriers and other regulatory infrastructure significantly changed the natural water regime. As a result, water quality depreciation within closed and fully flood-protected irrigation and drainage schemes increased, biodiversity and aquatic resources diminished, flood waters shifted to formerly flood-free areas, river bank erosion intensified, and canal silting accelerated, just to mention some of the impacts (Le Thi Viet Hoa et al., 2007; 2008; Hashimoto 2001). Even so, water resources management continues to adhere to utilitarian notions inherent in thủy lợi, which is entrenched in rigid top-down and centralized management regimes. Critical (local) voices pointing to the social and environmental impacts resulting from large-scale engineering projects implemented by the central government and often based on inappropriate technologies and designs have largely fallen on deaf ears. Seeing themselves being largely excluded from decision-making and planning processes of large-scale water control structures, and pointing to the failure of national level planners, local officials and experts cynically refer to them as Red River Delta design projects. This view manifests mounting tension between central-state hydraulic engineers and local communities, which increasingly have contested central state interventions (Benedikter 2014).

Thirty years after reunification and 25 years after the promulgation of Renovation (Đổi mới), engineers from North Vietnam still dominate Vietnam’s national hydraulic bureaucracy. They are most powerful because they still enjoy unlimited control over central-level state agencies, planning institutes, and the above mentioned engineering companies, most of which have been (semi-)privatized in the wake of state-owned enterprise reforms. Their elite networks, which are typically based on cronyism, kinship, and patronage—many of which still stem from the Hà Nội Water Resources University—have persisted to the present day. These networks began strategically capturing the hydraulic engineering industry that has become increasingly deregulated in light of Đổi mới over the past 20 years (Evers and Benedikter 2009a). The self-serving interests inherent in these resources networks, coupled with a strong adherence to state-planning and notions of a developmental state, still prevail as critical factors shaping water resources development in the Mekong Delta. Despite ongoing administrative and fiscal decentralization, large-scale water control efforts initiated after 1995, the majority of which involve significant amounts of donor money and funds from the state coffers, remain centrally managed by the ministry in Hà Nội, its satellites in Hồ Chí Minh City, and formerly state-owned engineering companies (Benedikter 2014).

Embedded in these power structures and their underlying vested interests, the water resources and infrastructure development initiatives have consistently failed to provide space for local communities in the Mekong Delta to participate in spatial planning and water management at large scale. North Vietnamese engineers and their networks within the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), which replaced the former Ministry of Water in 1996 in the light of administration reforms, dominate planning procedures. Off the record, local state agencies in the Delta blame the ministry in Hà Nội for neglecting the local conditions and perceptions, while carrying out central-state operations from afar (interviews, 2009). Meanwhile, the role of local state agencies and communities is restricted to providing funding for operation and maintenance. The Water Resources Development Project for the Mekong Delta (1999–2009),73) based on the NEDECO Master Plan funded by the World Bank and implemented by MARD, exemplifies how the interests of national hydrocrats and their networks dominate and co-opt water management approaches, thereby preventing participatory, decentralized, integrative, and polycentric water management reforms from unfolding their effects in real life (Benedikter 2014). Just like in former times, also nowadays in the era of renovation, technocratic and centralized birds-eye planning coupled with a trial-and-error orientation remain the guiding principles of waterscape engineering as part of the Mekong Delta’s path towards total hydro-management.

IX Conclusion

To sum up, this paper illuminated the vital role water control and hydraulic engineers have played for the modernization and development of the Mekong Delta subsequent to reunification of North and South. Subduing the Delta’s hydro-ecology and exploiting its maximum potential of land and water resources was not only critical in terms of economic growth and modernization. Dominion over the waterscape was also symbolically important for the socialist regime to serve political ends such as nation building, state consolidation, and bolstering of its political legitimacy in the South. Environmental and social transformation after 1975 was akin to what Scott defines as high-modernism, which manifests in “self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature . . .” (1998, 4).

The state-directed mission of development planned in Hà Nội sought to bring socialist modernity to the Southern population, freeing the delta from its backward mode of water management and rural production, which would ensure the nation’s food security. Authoritarian one-party rule, economic nationalization, and the incapacitation of civil society under mono-organizational socialism leveled the social terrain for an exclusively state-directed and top-down technocratic hydro-social modernization process. Spatially the socialist hydraulic mission followed the closing off plans conceived by American advisers and engineering companies in the 1960s (Käkönen 2008, 206; Miller 2003, 182–225), while technologically it drew on the water control models that had been implemented in the Red River Delta and other places in the North a decade earlier by the socialist state and its hydraulic bureaucracy.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in general, functioned as development template for the South. In this context, the desire to modernize water utilization and agricultural production in the South, paved the way for a replication of the hydraulic efforts made one decades earlier in the North. The new regime’s diagnosis that knowledge, technology, and expertise was lacking in the South opened up opportunities for hydraulic engineers and planners form the North to dominate water resources planning and development in the Southern region. Water resources development was rescaled as a central state mission directed from Hà Nội and implemented in a rigid top-down manner through a hierarchical apparatus. Under Soviet-style central planning and the corresponding political economy, state management and engineering businesses functioned as an inseparable unit integrated in the Ministry of Water. Hydraulic engineers and bureaucrats from the North took the place of US-American advisers and engineers. They appeared to be the new designers and implementers of the hydraulic mission and, thus, acted as the vehicle along which the hydraulic paradigm traveled from the North to the South. National reunification under Northern guidance in tandem with the hydraulic mission provided spatial and institutional space for the socialist hydraulic bureaucracy to expand southwards, its power and sphere of influence based on enlarged organizational structures, numbers of followers, control over physical space and the flows of water, and access to financial resources devoted to capital-intensive structural interventions. Subsequently, in the wake of gradual mechanization and the growing complexity of water control infrastructure, state engineers and hydraulic bureaucrats were able to further strengthen their power base in the Mekong Delta.

The specific trajectory shaped by the historical events, from which the hydraulic mission evolved after 1975 in the South, has far-reaching implications for present water resources management dynamics in the Mekong Delta. With the hydraulic mission in the Mekong Delta receiving its direction from distant Hà Nội, the development of water resources and infrastructure again was, and still is, dominated by external ideas rather than local notions. The peculiar power structures that emerged after 1975 in the South continue to have an effect on contemporary water management dynamics in the Mekong Delta. What has changed in comparison to the post-unification years, however, is that against the background of administrative decentralization and other reforms, central state projects more often than in the past are subject to contestation arising from the local community’s discontent regarding the social and ecological costs of such projects, but so far only with moderate success. The strategic coalition of water bureaucracy and hydraulic business, in which North Vietnamese engineers are most powerful, remains the dominant discourse elite, pushing forward its own agenda and interests.

In essence, as indicative in recent large-scale hydraulic landscaping projects, more than 30 years after national reunification, and 20 years after the promulgation of Renovation Policy (Đổi mới), a high-modernist worldview prevails. This comes along with three major issues: the problems for hydrocrats in Hà Nội to read the local conditions; second, the defectiveness of centralized water resources planning because of its inflexibly to adjust policies and technologies to the peculiar local conditions; and third, that policy formulation in hydraulic management and infrastructure development has often been derived from the North’s hydro-ecological and infrastructural conditions, whereas the local conditions in the Mekong Delta have been largely ignored. As the national corps of engineers remains overly powerful and local stakeholder involvement is insufficiently considered in decision and planning procedures, trial and error prevails as the principle modus operandi along which Vietnam’s hydrocracy is developing water resources in the Mekong Delta in a technocratic manner.

Accepted: March 7, 2014


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1) While thủy means water, lợi means beneficial or useful.

2) Due to early population pressure in the Red River Delta, the royal court was forced to continuously develop new technological innovations in hydraulic engineering for land reclamation, flood protection, and increased agricultural productivity.

3) Văn minh sông nước

4) Xã hội thủy lợi hiện đại

5) According to Swyngedouw, hydro-social modernization defines social, political, and economic transformation on the basis of state-directed water control. It highlights the importance of water engineering and waterscape modification as the key factor for modernization and changing socio-nature.

6) The term hydraulic mission refers to top-down, state-directed, and state-monopolized development of water resources and water infrastructure for the promotion of growth, modernization, and prosperity (Molle et al. 2009; Treffner et al. 2010, 253).

7) “Water-related Information System for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam” (2007–13) funded by the Federal German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST).

8) The sediment load of the Mekong Delta is estimated at 160 million tons per year (Hashimoto 2001, 20).

9) Refers to the southern part of Vietnam, which encompasses the Mekong Delta and Southeast Vietnam.

10) Translation by the author

11) Translation by the author

12) Bộ Thủy lợi

13) Translation by the author

14) Hợp tác xã

15) Hợp tác hóa

16) Tổ đoàn kết sản xuất

17) Tập đoàn sản xuất

18) Modern irrigation and agriculture equipment already appeared in the 1950s under the French, and then expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, partly distributed through American aid programs (Biggs 2010, 153–226).

19) Kerkvliet distinguishes between three different concepts that are commonly used to describe state-society relations in Vietnam. One of these is state corporatism or mobilizational authoritarianism, which refers to the party-state organization’s ability to mobilize the masses to support certain programs and policies (Kerkvliet 2003, 30–31).

20) Lao động công ích

21) The district currently belongs to Sóc Trăng Province.

22) Đoàn Thanh niên

23) Hội Nông dân

24) Hội Phụ nữ

25) The three largest ethnic groups in the Delta are the Vietnamese (Kinh), the Chinese (Hoa), and the Khmer. For a rich illustration of their relationships, which are traditionally fraught with tension, see Brocheux (1995).

26) Translation by the author

27) According to the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, there is a “state of the people, by the people, for the people. All State power belongs to the people . . .” (Article 2, Constitution of Vietnam, 1992).

28) Đại đoàn kết nhân dân

29) Mặt trận thủy lợi

30) Translation by the author

31) Anh hùng thủy lợi

32) Kiến tượng thủy lợi

33) Phong trào thủy lợi

34) The Second Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975 with the liberation of Saigon. Since then this day has been celebrated as a public holiday.

35) The Communist Party of Vietnam was formally established on February 3, 1930, in Hong Kong.

36) Translation by the author

37) Apart from his function as Minister of Water, Nguyễn Cảnh Dinh was a member of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party in the 1980s and 1990s.

38) Translation by the author

39) The big leap forward in water control in the North was achieved from 1961–65, the period in which the socialist state channeled massive investment into hydraulic infrastructure to modernize agriculture (To Trung Nghia 2001, 100). In the 1960s, more than 80 percent of state direct investments were dedicated to water control, in particular the construction of dike polders and large-scale pumping stations to regulate water outflow and intake (Tuan Pham Anh and Shannon n.d., 8).

40) Ban Quản lý Dự án Đầu tư và Xây dựng Thủy lợi số 10

41) Phân Viện Khảo sát Thủy lợi Miền Nam: Today the institute is called the Southern Institute of Water Resources Planning (SIWRP) and still represents the principal planning institute under the central government for the Southern region, including the Mekong Delta.

42) Today it is known as the Vietnamese Academy of Water Resources (Viện Khoa học Thủy lợi Việt Nam).

43) In 1993, the institute was converted into a state-owned engineering and consultancy company called Hydraulic Engineering Consultants Corporation II (HEC II).

44) In the beginning, these departments were called Ty Thủy lơi. Later on, they were renamed Sở Thủy lợi and retained this name until 1996, when they were merged into the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD).

45) Phòng Thủy lợi

46) For futher empirical evidence also see Benedikter (2014).

47) Công ty Xây dựng số 10 was later renamed Construction Company No. 40 (Công ty Xây dựng số 40).

48) Công ty Thi công Cơ giới Công Thủy—Đầu tư và Xây dựng later on was renamed Công ty ty Cổ phần Tàu Cuốc số 2 (Dredging Company No. 2).

49) Công ty 622

50) Khu Quân sự số 9

51) Công ty Cơ khí Công trình Thủy 276

52) Present-day Bạc Liêu and Cà Mau

53) Present-day Cần Thơ City, Hậu Giang and Sóc Trăng

54) This refers to the Tiền Giang Hydraulic Construction Company (TICCO), which today is one of the most powerful hydraulic engineering companies in the Mekong Delta.

55) According to data of the student secretary, Water Resources University; personally received in 2009, Hà Nội.

56) In 2011, the Mekong Delta had 1,151 pumping stations, while the total number of irrigation and drainage pumping stations in the Red River Delta was more than 3,700 (Vo Khac Tri 2012, 78; Nguyen Van Diep et al. 2007, 2).

57) Biggs (2010, 37–38, 84)

58) Translation by the author

59) It was only in 2008 that the government approved a new investment program for pumping station development in the Mekong Delta, but this time under different considerations and with a more decentralized and adaptive approach, in which responsibility has been delegated to the provincial authorities (Prime Minister 2009).

60) Quy hoạch thủy lợi

61) Tứ Giác Long Xuyên

62) Đồng Tháp Mười

63) Vùng giữa Sông Tiền và Sông Hậu

64) Bán đảo Cà Mau

65) Vùng thủy lợi

66) Khu thủy lợi

67) Ngọt hóa

68) Incumbent Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

69) In Vietnam, these companies are called công ty quản lý và khai thác công trình thủy lợi.

70) Thủy lợi phí

71) This refers to the national food supply crises in the 1970s and the first rice trade experiments in the Mekong Delta. These informal experiments became possible with the backing of prominent party cadres, such as Võ Văn Kiệt, the party secretary of Hồ Chí Minh City (1975–88) and later Prime Minister of Vietnam (1991–97), as well as provincial leaders from Long An and An Giang province (Rama 2008, 9–27).

72) Netherlands Engineering Consultants

73) See Table 2: World Bank-funded projects are highlighted by an asterisk.


Vol. 1, No. 3, Yasuko YOSHIMOTO

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

A Study of the Hồi giáo Religion in Vietnam:
With a Reference to Islamic Religious Practices of Cham Bani

Yasuko Yoshimoto*

* 吉本康子, National Museum of Ethnology, 10-1 Senri-Expo Park, Suita-city, Osaka 565-8511, Japan

e-mail: yoshimotoysk[at]

This paper examines Hồi giáo, a state-recognized religion translated as “Islam” in Vietnam, and will focus on the Islamic religious practices of the Cham Bani, one of two groups of Muslims in Vietnam. While it is recognized that diverse Islamic religious practices have taken root in various areas, there is a tendency to view religious practices such as the Quran recital, Ramadan, Salat, and so on, with a sweeping uniformity. As such, regardless of how “unorthodox” they are, the people who engage in such practices within society are regarded, or classified, as Muslim. The Cham Bani have also been described as an unorthodox Muslim sect, on the basis of its syncretic religious practices. However, the Cham Bani practitioners see themselves as neither Muslim nor members of the Islam community, and consider that they have experienced a different evolution of Islamic religious elements.

Is it possible to equate Hồi giáo with Islam and its followers with Muslim? This paper examines these questions through observations of the self-recognition, as well as the actual conditions of Islamic practices among the Cham Bani, especially the rituals that are observed during Ramadan. It reveals the possibility that Vietnam’s state-recognized religious sect of “Islam” and its “Muslim” followers are polythetic in nature and differ from the conventional definitions of Islam and Muslim, based on a monothetic classification.

Keywords: Cham Bani, Hồi giáo, Islam, Vietnam, polythetic classes, religious practice

I Introduction

Since the Doi Moi policy, religion has been discussed actively in Vietnam so as to maintain national unification as well as to construct a national identity in the country’s new period. In 2007, the White Paper on Religion and Policies was released with a special reference to the six state-recognized religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao (Vietnam, Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) 2006).1) In this paper, I examine the state-recognized Islam, Hồi giáo, in order to contribute to an understanding of a peripheral aspect of Muslim.

Table 1 “Muslims” in Vietnam

Source: Vietnam, GCRA (2006)

According to the official statistics in 2009, the number of “Muslims” in Vietnam is approximately 75,000, many of whom are part of the Cham ethnic group, believed to be the descendants of Champa.2) They are divided into two main groups: one, the Muslims living in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces in south-central Vietnam, known as “the Old Islamic Group,” “Cham Bani,” or “Bani”; two, the Muslims living in An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Dong Nai provinces around the Mekong Delta, as well as in Ho Chi Minh City, known as “the New Islamic Group,” “Cham Islam,” or “Islam” (see Table 1). There are considerable differences between the two groups in terms of religious practices: the Cham Bani are strongly influenced by local and traditional customs and beliefs and have incorporated elements of Brahmanism and ancestor worship. They also have no contact with the wider Islamic world, while Cham Islam is Sunni Muslim and has maintained contact with the Islamic community through pilgrimages to Mecca or studies abroad in such countries as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia.3)

Ever since the French colonial period, contemporary academia has researched the religious situation of Cham Bani. Records left by missionaries and colonial administrators indicate that the Cham Bani, or “les Chams musulmans du Sud-Annam,” recite the Quran and believe in Allah, yet do not strictly follow the Islamic faith. They do not recite prayers five times a day; they believe in gods other than Allah; and during Ramadan, only monks fast. For these reasons, the Cham Bani are described variously as “Shiites” (Catabon 1901, 4; Durand 1903, 54) or “. . . musulmans, d’ailleurs peu orthodox” (Ner 1942, 154). The descriptions of the Cham Bani, based on the Western Christian concept of religion, have not changed greatly till today (Phan et al. 1991; Phan 1993; Phú 2004).

Indeed, not all of the people who are officially classified as “Islam” or Hồi giáo in Vietnam identify themselves as Muslim; the Cham Bani people especially do not have such self-identification. They usually say that they are the followers of Hồi giáo but not Islam; more specifically they identify themselves as Hồi giáo or Bani, but not as Muslims. This raises the question whether Hồi giáo can be translated as Muslim. Some of the Cham Bani villagers and intellectuals whom I approached claim that it is a mistake to view them as Muslims. As I will explore further below, they view Cham Bani as one branch of the “Cham religion,” rather than of Islam. While Cham Islam and Cham Bani are both ethnic Cham, the former tends to regard the latter as non-Muslims, and many Cham Bani intellectuals think of themselves as non-Muslims as well.

How did such a gap between the official/scholarly discourse and the practitioners’ perception emerge? Is Hồi giáo, a state-recognized religion translated as “Islam” in Vietnam, axiomatically the same as Islam, and are its followers Muslim? It should be noted that because of this gap, I differentiate between the Vietnamese state-recognized category of “Muslim” in this paper and Muslim as generally defined.

Perhaps this difference is caused by the method of classification of Islam or Muslim. In general, Islam and Muslim are defined in an essentialist way; indeed, faced with “the diversity of Islam,” there is a tendency, as numerous previous ethnographic descriptions have made clear, to view such practices as the recitation of the Quran, the Islamic prayer (salat), or fasting of Ramadan as having uniform meanings for Muslims worldwide. In addition, there is a tendency to view the various religious practices of Muslims in local societies as “a variation of Islam,” or else to categorically divide the local religious elements into “Islamic” or “non-Islamic.”4) The Cham Bani have been classified as Islam because of the presence of Islamic elements such as prayers to Allah or recitations of the Quran.

Meanwhile, the practitioners themselves do not necessarily subscribe to such categorizations. Most of the villagers in Cham Bani society do not distinguish between the “Islamic” and “non-Islamic” elements of their religion. In other words, the villagers’ Islamic religious practices are more similar to those of practical religion.5) Moreover, in Cham Bani society, Islamic religious practices vary depending on gender or social stratum. In fact, most of the villagers do not recite the Quran, and they even eat pork outside the village. Despite these “ambiguous” practices, the religion has been described as “Muslim,” and the religious elements have been described separately as Islamic/non- Islamic, or orthodox/non-orthodox in ethnographic writing or religious documents.

The conventional definition of Islam, or Muslim, is usually made on the assumption that the followers share certain practices or belief systems. However, among the Cham Bani, the Vietnamese “Muslim,” it is unclear whether its followers have common Islamic practices or belief systems.

Wittgenstein has shown that such a definition based on the idea that a concept has one essential common feature is unrealistic and advocates instead the concept of “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein 1967). The anthropologist Rodney Needham has incorporated his concept into anthropology and insists that such anthropological concepts of “family” and “marriage” cannot apply to the whole society. Additionally, he borrowed two classifications from natural sciences: monothetic and polythetic. The monothetic classification is one in which an individual of a certain class possesses at least one common feature. In the polythetic classification, an individual of a class does not share even one feature as a whole (Needham 1975).

Shirakawa applied this polythetic classification to the study of religion. Mentioning the policy of separation of Shintoism and Buddhism implemented by the Meiji government, he focused on the historical regional expansion of Jisha and Kenmitsu as ambiguous classes and reconsidered the syncretic fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan from the perspective of polythetic class (Shirakawa 2007). Examining the religious discourse in modern Japan, he points out the importance of describing a religious situation that is “natural” for the people who live inside of it, not as a variation of religious syncretism.

Using Needham’s polythetic classification and referring to Shirakawa’s work, this paper focuses on the dynamic evolution of Islamic religious practices that differ depending on gender or social strata among the Cham Bani. The paper then considers the possibility of understanding Hồi giáo or “Muslim” in Vietnam as a polythetic class.

II The Religious Situation in a Cham Bani Village

The Cham Bani live mainly in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces, in south-central Vietnam. These provinces are where Panduranga, part of the kingdom of Champa, was found. Another religious group of the Cham exists here, usually referred to by Vietnamese scholars and officials as Cham Balamon, the followers of Bà la môn giáo.6) These two religious groups inhabit separate villages; intermarriage, although not explicitly forbidden, is rare and is, in fact, said to have been formerly taboo. The people of both groups are matrilineal and conform to the practice of matrilocal residence, with houses of the same descent group usually neighboring one another. The sphere dominated by members of the same descent group is called laga, and its members constitute fluid units on occasions of rituals, such as ancestor worshipping, while a unit of expenditure or the production of daily life is basically one household, which is composed of a husband, wife, and their children. Members of the same descent group recognize each other through the cemetery or gravesite of the group, and also through a lineage deity called achiet atau, who is worshipped in a basket and maintained by a woman called po atau (landlord of atau), of the descent group.

In the past, the Cham people of the region belonged to one of the two religious groups mentioned above; however, since the emergence of converts to Sunni Islam in the 1960s, another religious group has developed: Cham Islam. Cham Islam is usually described as followers of Hồi giáo mới in Vietnamese, which means “new Islam,” or Cham biraw in Cham, which means “New Cham.” According to previous studies, “New Islam” began to emerge in the 1960s, when some of the Cham Bani were exposed to the practice of Sunni Muslims in places such as Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Realizing that their own religious practices were not authentic, they began to aim for purer Islamic practices (Nguyễn 1974, 272; Nakamura 1999, 104). After their conversion, the converts abandoned ancestor worship and, with the aid of the Islam Community, built mosques in their villages (Dohamide 1965, 56; Yoshimoto 2010, 243).7)

Map 1“Muslim (Hồi giáo)” Residential Provinces and City in Vietnam

Today, there are approximately 100,000 Cham living in this region (see Table 2). As the table shows, the total population of the Bà la môn giáo is greater than that of the Hồi giáo (“Muslim”). The total “Muslim” population in both provinces is approximately 44,000. This number includes both the Cham Bani and Cham Islam; there are no statistics revealing the breakdown for each group. However, according to an official report in
2001, the population of the Cham Islam in Ninh Thuan province was 1,791, which counted four masjid. Thus the majority of the “Muslim” population in this region consists of the Cham Bani. The more than 40,000 Cham Bani of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces are scattered over 20 villages. Each village of Cham Bani usually has one masjid called thang magik.

This paper focuses on the Cham Bani religious situation and practices in Y Village,
Bac Binh district, Binh Thuan province.8) The village has approximately 3,800 inhabitants and most are of Cham Bani origin. The majority of the villagers earn their living by growing paddy rice; however, since harvests are irregular because of the dry climate and poor soil, many villagers work on the side—making charcoal, collecting firewood, weaving, working as a housemaid in town, etc.—in order to supplement their income.

Table 2 “Muslim” and Bà la môn Population in Vietnam

Source: Vietnam, Central Population and Housing Census Steering Committee (CPHCSC) (2010)

Certain religious practices prevail in the village, such as worship of the village god called po yang or po palei at a place of worship called bimon; worship of po Auluah (Allah), which has roots in Islam, at the thang magik (masjid); worship of the dead such as ancestor worship, and worship of the lineage deity achiet atau as mentioned previously.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, villagers used to live on a hill at the foot of a mountain, but today they live on some flat land close to National Highway 1.9) Although the hill area is no longer the site of daily activities, there remain graves, fields, and a religious building for bimon worshipping, the mausoleum of a Champa king or his servant, Po Klong Sak. On the flat land can be found paddy fields and buildings, including the village office, a clinic, a post office, an elementary school, and a thang magik for worshipping po Auluah.

Structurally, the Cham society in this region is made up of two categories: hala Janan
(religious priests) and ghiheh (laity). I will set out the religious elements by focusing first on the types of religious priests. As shown in Table 3, there are different types of religious priests, who are, in turn, served by priests known as acar and po acar, and an elderly woman known as muk buh, who makes offerings in dishes for acar during the rituals. The main role of the aca is to oversee the worship of po Auluah and muk kei (ancestors), drawing on his knowledge of manuscripts, generically called kura’an (Quran), which are written in transformed Arabic letters called akhar bini 10) Rituals in thang magik are organized on set days according to the lunar calendar and seem to be the principal religious events for the villagers (see Table 4). The acar also leads rites of passage such as marriages, funerals, and so forth. In fact, the people do not consider the acar merely as the community’s priest but also as a representative of each descent group, as I describe in the next section. Bimon and achiet atau rituals are led by a priest called on muduon, guided by manuscripts written in akhar thrah, the traditional writing system of the Cham. These rituals, called rija, are meant to serve deities or po yang. They are not conducted in thang magik and are held according to the traditional sakawi calendar.11)

Table 3 Halau Janan (Religious Priests) in the Cham Bani Village

Source: Author’s research at Y Village in 2003.

Table 4 Main Annual Rituals Held in the Thang Magik

Source: Author’s research at Y Village in 2003.

In short, religious affairs are divided into two categories in the village. Rituals related to po Auluah thang magik, as well as the rites of passage, are served by aca who have knowledge of kura’an; rituals for po yang, the village god, and lineage deities are led by on muduon Po Auluah (Allah), thang magik (masjid), and kura’an are regarded as Islamic elements, having originated from Islam; however, they have been co-opted and practiced quite differently in the Cham Bani society such that describing them simply as examples of “the diversity among commodities of Islam” is limiting and possibly inaccurate. In the next section, I describe how these elements are practiced in the region.

III Islamic Religious Practices in the Village

In this section, I will focus on three Islamic elements of the Cham Bani village: the thang magik, the recitation of the kura’an, and rituals conducted during Ramadan, called Ramuwan.

In both official and scholarly literature, thang magik has been translated as “mosque” and is considered to be one element that demonstrates the “Islam-ness” of Cham Bani because it is where people offer their prayers to Allah. Observations in situ reveal the interesting process of local acceptance of Islam, which might not be entirely captured in the translation.12)

Photo 1 shows the exterior of a thang magik. Its front wall is encased in concrete, it lacks towers like minarets, and it is painted with a variety of decorations and words. In the middle, towards the top of the front pillars, the number “1993” is written in Cham traditional letters, flanked on both sides by yin-yang figures. On the front side of the roof is a honkan, a symbolic figure of dualism in Cham society (see details in Section IV). Inside, one finds a wooden box-like pulpit called minbar, from which the acar recites the kura’an during the Friday prayer ritual (Photo 2). For the villagers, this pulpit should be placed to the west—“the direction of the Maka (Makkah).” The frame of the pulpit is painted red, with pictures of dragons that resemble the holy snake, Naga, as well as a gai bhong, a red rod wrapped in a white cloth. The red rod is considered to be a symbol of po Mohamat, Muhammad.

The thang magik is unlike the Islamic mosque—it is closed most of the time and people do not enter for prayers five times a day—but like other Islamic religious centers, it is regarded as the main communal setting for rituals, which are administered on Fridays of certain months of the lunar calendar (Table 4).

As mentioned above, the Cham society in this region is composed of two categories—religious priests and the laity—so participants and practices at thang magik are
notably different. The villagers use different words for “pray”: for example, the prayer by the aca for po Auluah, with recitations from the kura’an and accompanied by special body movements, is called vat. On the other hand, the laity’s prayer, without any recitation, is described as lancan and tampah. These are dedicated to po Auluah, the village god and lineage deities. The laity can only connect to po Auluah or the deities through priests as their medium.13)

Photo 1 Exterior of a Thang Magik

Photo 2 A Minbar inside a Thang Magik

Photo 3 Textbook for Laypersons (Edited by Phuoc Nhon Village Doctrine Committee 1971)

The acar carry out Islamic religious practices on behalf of the villagers, such as recitation of the kura’an, but they do not follow Muslim duties strictly, not even the requisite prayers five times a day. In fact, they are not considered by the villagers as simply priests but also as representatives of each descent group because of the important role they play, particularly in funeral rituals and ancestor worship. Therefore the motivation to become an acar is usually explained by a desire to serve the descendant group.

In the Cham Bani society, studying the kura’an is the right—and obligation—of male
members, and is not reserved solely for the acar. Boys who reach the age of 12–13 years old must study Arabic text in the kura’an at the thang magik. When they are able to recite some phrases and pass an exam, they celebrate this rite of passage called talaik kalem,14) after which they are given the right to study the kura’an. Photo 3 shows a textbook for the laity that was edited by an acar living in Ninh Thuan province in 1971. Written in Vietnamese on the cover are the words: “the sacred phrases to serve your ancestors,” and in the preface the sentence: “akhar rah akhar mukey, akhar ta-a” (phrases of rah, phrases for ancestors, phrases for praying). These three phrases are effective in ancestor worship and must be studied by Bani males. The textbook also quotes four passages from the kura’an that the Cham Bani recite for ancestral service, when visiting a graveyard, and during a funeral. Thus it can be seen that in Cham Bani society, reciting from the kura’an serves as an offering to ancestral spirits and not as a Muslim duty.

Table 5 Main Events of Ramuwan in Y Village

Source: Author’s research in July and August 2011.

Next I will describe the ritual process in Ramadan. For the villagers, Ramadan, which they call Ramuwan, is the most important season in their religious life. It is a sacred month because it is the time when ancestors return home, and the acar stay at the thang magik for one month and adhere to a vegetarian diet. Although Ramuwan has been described as a distorted version of the Muslim fasting month, the people do not actually fast.

Table 5 shows the main ritual processes of Ramuwan. As we can see, many of the
rites are similar to a memorial service. Three days before the first day of the month of Ramuwan, people visit the graveyards of their matrilineal lineage and invite their ancestral spirits back to their houses. After the three-day graveyard visits, people make offerings to the ancestral spirits residing in their homes. First, they prepare a meal offering to every ancestral spirit, then they make individual offerings to descendant members who have passed away. These offerings are made by male members who recite the kura’an, and who are usually acar; however, the oldest woman of the household usually has the responsibility of remembering the names of the deceased over a span of approximately seven generations.15) After the offerings, a place for the ancestral spirits is set up in the house, and an individual is responsible for keeping this place clean at all times.

Table 6 Prayers during Ramuwan in Y Village

Source: Author’s research in July and August 2011.

On the first day of Ramadan, after sunset, the acar enter the thang magik. This marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramuwan. During this month, they stay in the thang magik, away from their families to serve Allah five times a day; however, as Table 6 shows, the names and times of prayers are different from Muslim prayers. Laywomen and elderly men, all dressed in white, watch and participate in these prayers, but they do not recite the kura’an. The main function of the females is to bring sets of betel nuts for the ancestral spirits and to pray for blessings.

Women’s participation in the religious ceremony is crucial and they play a significant role. The wife, or other female members of the descendant group, prepares special meals for the priests twice a day—before sunrise and after sunset. According to a woman of a house that I observed, the rice prepared by the women is eaten in the morning by the priests for ancestors, and in the evening, it is eaten for po Auluah.

While the priests fast for the first three days, laypeople do not observe the ritual of fasting at all; nevertheless, they are forbidden from eating meat for the first three days of the month, until the “red rod” is deposited.16) Women make special offerings for female spirits on the 15th, and for male spirits on the 20th. Offerings continue to be made for ancestral spirits at the mosque until the 27th, when they return to their world.


Photo 4 Offerings for Male Spirits in the Thang Magik

As I mentioned earlier, the acar and laypeople have different prayers. The prayers of the acar begin with a part called vat and finish with a section called mroi. Vat starts with ablutions, followed by a fixed sequence of movements: standing, prostrating, kneeling, and sitting, each conducted with a set reading from the kura’an, with the acar facing west all the time. After the vat, the acar sit up facing east and eat an offering for po Auluah or ancestors, then transition into the mroi, the closing ceremony that includes burning a piece of eagle wood.

The laity’s prayers, called lancan and tampah, do not include reading from the kura’an instead the people make individual wishes for health and prosperity—in short, worldly interests. They do not consume food offerings but bring some home as a food of grace.

As we have observed, people visit graveyards to bring ancestral spirits back home, make offerings to these spirits, and visit the thang magik with betel nuts offerings. They pray to po Auluah, but as we have seen, Ramuwan is mostly a month for memorial services and prayers for benefits.

IV The Cham Bani Discourse on Religion

As mentioned earlier, some argue that Cham Bani should not be considered as a form of Islam but as a branch or sect of a religious system. The ethnologist, Thanh Phan, who is of Cham Bani origin, explains Cham Bani as follows:

Chams used to have two religious sects Awal and Ahier. . . . In colloquial language Awal is called Bani. Chams see Awal as symbolizing women and Ahier as symbolizing men. These two are dia- metrically opposed to each other in a sense, yet also cannot exist one without the other. . . . People of the Bani sect adopted Islamic thoughts and culture but they did not accept them passively or mechanically; instead, by creatively and selectively adopting them, they assimilated the new religion into their own economic and cultural practices. This is why even today they do not worship only Allah but also other gods. (Thành 1996, 166)


Table 7 Examples of Awal-Ahier Attributions

Source: Nakamura (1999) and author’s research.

According to this explanation, Bani is one sect of a people divided into Awal and Ahier. These words can be traced to the Arabic words meaning “last” and “first” respectively, and supplemented with a religious connotation of “woman” and “man.”

Nakamura, based on her lengthy fieldwork, also traced the Cham religion from the perspective of Awal- Ahier (Nakamura 1999). According to Nakamura, all the phenomena of Cham society are constituted in the form of binary oppositions: for example, the relationship between Cham Balamon and Cham Bani achieves a harmony with the former belonging to Awal and the latter to Ahier sects. The religious elements in the Cham Bani village are drawn from a combination of Awal and Ahier elements (see Table 7).

Photo 5 is a honcan, a figure that illustrates the concept of Awal-Ahier dualism. As mentioned earlier, this figure, which resembles the Onkara of Balinese Hinduism, is painted on the roof of the thang magik in the village. Cham Bani is symbolized by the figure of the moon and the number 6 in traditional Cham letters, while Cham Balamon by the sun and the number 3. Together it demonstrates the fusion of the two.

Photo 5 A Honcan

This concept of Awal-Ahier is emphasized by Cham Bani intellectuals and ordained priests in discussions about Islam in Cham society, possibly as a means to validate the “authenticity” of the Cham Bani religion in the face of criticism by “orthodox” Islam and rejection of the indigenous elements within the Cham Bani religion. Awal-Ahier is understood as the syncretism that affirms the tolerance of Cham society. For these intellectuals, the Islamic religious practices of Cham Bani should be viewed through the Awal-Ahier perspective, rather than categorized as Islamic or non-Islamic. In my opinion, however, ordinary people are unfamiliar with these concepts and only understand that they are practicing their religion in the age-old, long-established manner.

V Conclusion

As mentioned in the first section, the Cham Bani have been considered as unorthodox Muslims because they recite the Quran and believe in Allah, yet do not strictly follow the Islamic faith. This perception is based on the idea that those who recite the Quran and fast during Ramadan are performing their Muslim duty and partake in the “commonality of Islam.” This is a perception based on essentialism.

Such classification is unrealistic. As we have seen, Islamic religious practices among the Cham Bani differ widely depending on gender or social strata. Members of the Cham Bani do not have a single feature in common across the board. In other words, it can be said that the Cham Bani is a polythetic class.

Hồi giáo in Vietnam, regardless of the criteria used in the classification, is indeed a polythetic class, as opposed to the conventional classification of Muslim. On the question of self-recognition, not all of those officially classified as “Muslim” or Hồi giáo identify themselves as Muslim. Cham Bani people actually identify themselves as followers of Hồi giáo, calling themselves tín đồ Hồi giáo or tín đồ đạo Hồi. This does not, however, mean that they accept to be identified with Islam. They describe themselves as not of the Islam sect but Bani. In other words, they subscribe to a Vietnamese religious category that includes Cham Islam and Cham Bani, but not one where Islam is connected with the wider Islam community. To put it another way, the word “Islam” has two meanings in Vietnam: the first is Islam in a broad sense as the English translation of Hồi giáo the second is Islam in a narrower sense as one of the groups of Hồi giáo—Cham Islam or Sunni Muslim.

This reality is not taken into account by the state and official classification is monothetic. Here I will discuss the state’s stance towards syncretic religions such as Cham Bani. Since the beginning of the Doi Moi period, there has been much debate on religions in Vietnam. The state has tended to consider cases such as Cham Bani, where foreign religion became “indigenized” (dân tộc hóa) as something positive.17) We can see this quite clearly in an excerpt from a government white paper of 2006:

Exogenous religions entering Vietnam have adapted to the cultural and religious complexions of the Vietnamese people. As a result, they have transformed from their original form; in other words, once these exogenous religions entered Vietnam, they were assimilated by Vietnamese culture. . . . Whether following exogenous or native religions, Vietnamese believers in general are influenced by polytheism, by a spirit of religious tolerance and of nationalism. (Vietnam, GCRA 2006, 9)

Incidentally, it has long used the term “religious syncretism” by anthropologists to explain the phenomenon in which a new or an exogenous religion, introduced to a specific society, either mixes or coexists with local religions as it is adopted. Within this framework, the debate was centered upon the question of whether the exogenous and local religions coexist without eliminating the border between them, or whether they blend together in a seamless form to create a new and coherent religious system. This idea, however, has been criticized from many directions (Leopold and Jensen 2004). For instance, some argued that all religions currently practiced are the products of syncretism, having incorporated elements from many different religious traditions. Others were concerned that because the idea of “authentic religion” is inherent in the idea of syncretism, it has imputed negative connotations such as “impure” and “inauthentic” to the real religious phenomena.

Anthropologists have focused on the discourses on syncretism or the processes through which different religions merge, examining how power is exercised in the process of legitimization or de-legitimization of certain religious practices (for example, Stewart and Shaw 1994). While some cultures embrace syncretism as evidence of their tolerance toward different cultures, others hold an “anti-syncretic” attitude, asserting their cultural “authenticity” by rejecting or erasing the “impure” cultural elements from their practices.

How then does religious assimilation occur in Vietnam? How does the foreign religion become “indigenized” (dân tộc hóa)? In the case of Cham Bani, this occurs by sustaining the worship of ancestors (muk kei) and deities (yang), including spirits of the members of each descendant group, village gods, and spirits of Champa kings or those who have served the kingdom. These are the local religious elements shared with the Cham Balamon, another religious group among the Cham. It is precisely in this way that Cham Bani differentiate themselves from Cham Islam by sustaining these elements.

From this perspective, it could be said that the Cham Bani might exist as Muslim only as recognized by the state. Perhaps, in a nation like Vietnam where a single religion does not constitute the glue of national unity, religious syncretism is linked to the idea of unique indigenous cultures that buttresses the image of a multi-ethnic Vietnam. It is precisely this religious syncretism that is held up as being “authentic.”


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1) The first statistics in 1999 identified six state-recognized religions; by 2011 there were 12 state- recognized religions, including Baha’i, Buu Son Ky Huong, etc.

2) Champa is one of the oldest kingdoms in Southeast Asia, having been established around the second century in what is today’s central Vietnam.

3) The presence of two groups of Muslims is regarded as a result of differences in the process of Islamization. The Islamization of Champa is believed to have occurred through contact with Islamic Arab merchants and the Persians, from the ninth to eleventh century, and through the Malays, from the sixteenth to seventeenth century. The Cham Bani could have been a group of people who stayed behind even after the country was deprived of maritime trade with Islam. The Cham Islam might be a group of people who moved to Cambodia and then the Mekong Delta whose practice of Islam was intensified through contact with the Malays (Nakamura 2000).

4) Other labels like “folk Islam” or “islam” in lowercase letters (Eickelman 1982; El-Zein 1977) have also emerged.

5) The meaning of practical religion here is that found in Dialectic in Practical Religion (1968) by Edmond Leach.

6) Bà la môn giáo has been described as indigenized Hinduism. For example, see Phan et al. (1991).

7) This caused clashes with other Cham Bani, who saw no contradictions with their traditional religious practices.

8) My fieldwork was carried out mainly among the Cham communities in Bac Binh district, Binh Thuan province in 2001, 2002, and 2011.

9) According to the elders in the village, the villagers were forced to move under the Strategic Hamlet Program in 1959.

10) There are several types of kura’an in Cham Bani: patar murat, janreng gar, etc. In any of these kura’an, phonetic transcriptions and explanations, written using the traditional writing system called akhar thrah, are inserted.

11) Villagers use the Western calendar and the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar on a daily basis while the traditional calendar, sakawi, is used for customary rituals. The sakawi plays no role in most people’s lives; only religious priests and intellectuals consult it for information and guidance in organizing rituals and annual events (Yoshimoto 2011).

12) According to Aymonier’s Cham-French dictionary, magik means “masjid” and thang means “house” (Aymonier 1906, 367).

13) There are no differences in the laity’s prayers no matter what rank. Laymen’s prayers for po Auluah are also no different from that for po yang; po Auluah is positioned as one of the deities. In this respect, po Auluah is manifestly not the same as the Islamic god Allah.

14) Talaik (open) kalem (a brush) means “begin writing.” This ritual consists mainly of boys reading aloud the Arabic alphabet called akhar Bini and bismillah (the phrase uttered before reciting each chapter of the Quran), following the acar’s direction.

15) In a house that I observed in 2010, in Ninh Thuan province, a woman around 52 years old said she invited about 50 spirits and members, both of matrilineal and patrilineal lineages. She said her deceased mother used to invite about 80 spirits and members, but she could not remember all of them so the number was reduced.

16) The length of abstention from meat depends on the area: for example, the Cham Bani in Ninh Thuan province are forbidden to eat meat for 15 days.

17) For example, Đặng (2004).