Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Government Overview: The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has a monopoly on power. A three-person collective leadership consists of the VCP general secretary, the prime minister, and the president. President Tran Duc Luong is the chief of state, while Prime Minister Phan Van Khai is head of government. General Secretary Nong Duc Manh heads up not only the VCP but also the 15-member Politburo. A decision by any member of the triumvirate is vetted by the other two. As a result, policy announcements tend to be bland and equivocal.

In July 2002, the National Assembly voted to keep Prime Minister Khai and President Luong in office until 2007. Khai, who is the oldest member of the cabinet and is known for his pro-reform policies, is believed likely to complete his 2002–7 term because of the absence of an heir apparent. The mechanism for transfers of power suffers from a lack of transparency.

Constitution: Vietnam has had a series of constitutions, introduced in 1946, 1959, 1980, and 1992. As of late 2004, the Vietnamese constitution is regarded as the 1992 document, as amended in 2001 to continue the reform of the state apparatus, to allow more leeway to the private sector, and to promote progress in the areas of education, science, and technology. The original 1992 constitution modestly downgraded the roles of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the government in favor of reform. Instead of being authorized to do whatever was necessary to “build socialism,” the VCP was subordinated to the constitution and the law, while the government was assigned specific management functions under the direction of a prime minister, whose powers also were defined. In addition, the constitution called for a multisector economy. Although the autonomy of state enterprises was recognized, a role also was assigned to the private sector. Individuals were permitted to acquire lengthy land leases. Foreign investors were granted ownership rights and protection against nationalization.

In 2001 the constitution was amended to increase the role of the National Assembly by giving it the authority to decide budget allocations and to stage votes of no confidence in office holders. Amendments also boosted the role of the private sector by recognizing the right to operate of any businesses not explicitly prohibited and lifting restrictions on their size. These revisions were intended to encourage the development of a cottage industry of individual traders and private enterprises. In the field of education, amendments established the goals of universal secondary education, more vocational and technical training, and easier access to education by the poor and handicapped.

Branches of Government: The constitution recognizes the National Assembly as “the highest organ of state power.” The National Assembly, a 498-member unicameral body elected to a five-year term, meets twice a year. The assembly appoints the president (chief of state), the prime minister (head of government), chief procurators of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Office of Supervision and Control (the heads of the judiciary), and the 21-member cabinet (the executive). Once a rubber stamp, the National Assembly has become more assertive in holding ministers accountable and amending legislation. Ultimately, however, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) controls the executive and the electoral process. The VCP exercises control through the 150-member Central Committee, which elects the 15-member Politburo at national party congresses held every five years. Members of the party hold all senior government positions.

The Vietnamese government has ministers in the following areas: agriculture and rural development; construction; culture and information; education and training; finance; foreign affairs; industry; interior; justice; labor, war invalids, and social affairs; marine products; national defense; planning and investment; public health; science, technology and environment; trade; and transport and communications.

Administrative Divisions: Administratively, Vietnam consists of 59 provinces and 5 municipalities. The provinces are An Giang, Bac Giang, Bac Kan, Bac Lieu, Bac Ninh, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Ben Tre, Binh Dinh, Binh Duong, Binh Phuoc, Binh Thuan, Ca Mau, Cao Bang, Dac Lak, Dac Nong, Dien Bien, Dong Nai, Dong Thap, Gia Lai, Ha Giang, Hai Duong, Ha Nam, Ha Tay, Ha Tinh, Hau Giang, Hoa Binh, Hung Yen, Khanh Hoa, Kien Giang, Kon Tum, Lai Chau, Lam Dong, Lang Son, Lao Cai, Long An, Nam Dinh, Nghe An, Ninh Binh, Ninh Thuan, Phu Tho, Phu Yen, Quang Binh, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Quang Ninh, Quang Tri, Soc Trang, Son La, Tay Ninh, Thai Binh, Thai Nguyen, Thanh Hoa, Thua Thien-Hue, Tien Giang, Tra Vinh, Tuyen Quang, Vinh Long, Vinh Phuc, and Yen Bai. The municipalities are Can Tho, Da Nang, Haiphong, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh.

Provincial and Local Government: Provinces and municipalities are subdivided into towns, districts, and villages. The provinces and municipalities are centrally controlled by the national government. The towns, districts, and villages are locally accountable to some degree through elected people’s councils.

Judicial and Legal System: At the apex of the judicial system is the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), which is the highest court for appeal and review. The SPC reports to the National Assembly, which controls the judiciary’s budget and confirms the president’s nominees to the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuracy. The Supreme People’s Procuracy issues arrest warrants, sometimes retroactively. Below the SPC are district and provincial people’s courts, military tribunals, and administrative, economic, and labor courts. The people’s courts are the courts of first instance. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) has military tribunals, which have the same rules as civil courts. Military judges and assessors are selected by the MOD and SPC, but the SPC has supervisory responsibility.

Although the constitution provides for independent judges and lay assessors (who lack administrative training), the U.S. Department of State maintains that Vietnam lacks an independent judiciary, in part because the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) selects judges and vets them for political reliability. Moreover, the party seeks to influence the outcome of cases involving perceived threats to the state or the party’s dominant position. In an effort to increase judicial independence, the government transferred local courts from the Ministry of Justice to the SPC in September 2002. However, the Department of State saw no evidence that the move actually achieved the stated goal. Vietnam’s judiciary also is hampered by a shortage of lawyers and rudimentary trial procedures. The death penalty often is imposed in cases of corruption and drug trafficking.

Electoral System: Vietnam has universal suffrage at age 18. Elections for the National Assembly are scheduled every five years. The last election was held on May 19, 2002. The next election is scheduled in 2007. In addition, elections to the people’s councils (local assemblies) were last held in April 2004. Although candidates are carefully vetted, about 25 percent of those elected were not members of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). By a law enacted in 2003, each district has at least two more candidates than the number of elected positions.

Politics/Political Parties: Vietnam is a one-party state. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has a monopoly on power.

Mass Media: Vietnam’s mass media are supervised by the Ministry of Culture and Information and communicate officially approved information. The government has shut down non-compliant newspapers. Only senior officials are permitted access to foreign television via satellite. Given Vietnam’s close supervision of official media outlets, dissidents have sought to disseminate their views via the Internet, leading the government to impose restrictions on Internet use and access. The regime controls Internet access via Vietnam’s sole gateway, Vietnam Data Communications. In 2002 the Ministry of Culture and Information began to block access to Internet Web sites it considers “subversive,” such as the BBC’s Vietnamese language Web site. Also in 2002, the government sent a warning by jailing activists for publishing critical commentaries on the Internet. Altogether, Reporters Without Borders documented seven cases of dissidents being imprisoned or detained for illicit Internet use. The government also has tightened controls over cybercafés. In 2004 the government reprimanded 65 cybercafé owners for violating restrictions on Internet access, including the viewing of pornography.

Foreign Relations: During its incursion into Cambodia in 1978–89, Vietnam was isolated internationally. However, soon after the conflict was resolved in the Paris Agreement on Cambodia in October 1991, Vietnam established or reestablished diplomatic and economic relations with most of Western Europe, China, and other East Asian countries. Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1995 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in 1998. Vietnam’s foreign policy is aimed at developing good relations with a diversified mix of nations.

In February 1994, the United States lifted its economic embargo against Vietnam, and in June 1995 the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. However, these relations remain somewhat volatile. Full implementation of a bilateral trade agreement, which came into effect in December 2001, is being held up by a dispute over catfish exports. In July 2003, the International Trade Commission decided in favor of the United States in the catfish dispute. Vietnam’s government is also upset with a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in July 2004 to link non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam’s human rights record. In June 2005, a high-level Vietnamese delegation, led by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, visited the United States and met with their U.S. counterparts, including President George W. Bush. This was the first such visit in 30 years. The leaders engaged in far-reaching discussions, including lingering issues from the Second Indochina War, but the United States did not endorse Vietnam’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) during the visit.

Ideological affinities are driving improved relations with China, and trade between the nations soared to reach US$7.2 billion in 2004. But despite improved relations, Vietnam remains suspicious of China’s intentions. In January 2000, China and Vietnam signed a treaty defining a common land border. However, the countries both claim sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and this dispute is a potential source of renewed tension.

Vietnam enjoys a good political and economic relationship with Japan, and the two countries are partnering to exploit the disputed offshore oil fields in the South China Sea. At a meeting in Hanoi in July 2004, foreign ministers from the two nations pledged to strengthen the partnership. Already a major trading partner and investor, Japan promised to boost direct investment in Vietnam. Japan also offered support for Vietnam’s bid to join the WTO. In December 2004, Japan announced a grant of US$19 million to fight poverty in Vietnam.

Russia’s predecessor state, the Soviet Union, was a longstanding ally and a major investor. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia reduced its investments in Vietnam. Trade also suffered as a result of a dispute over the large debt that Vietnam owed the Soviet Union. This debt has been restructured to Vietnam’s benefit so that Vietnam now must repay only 15 percent, with payments stretched over two decades. Part of the debt is repayable in commodities such as rice and coffee.

Membership in International Organizations: Vietnam is a member of the Asian Development Bank, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization. Reflecting Vietnam’s recognition of its place in the global economy, in 1995 Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Now an observer at the World Trade Organization (WTO), Vietnam hopes to become a full member of the WTO in 2006.

Other memberships include the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), International Civil Aviation Organization, International Development Association, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Finance Corporation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, Interpol, International Olympic Committee, International Telecommunication Union, Nonaligned Movement, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, and World Intellectual Property Organization.

Major International Treaties: With the United States, Vietnam reached the following agreements: Normalization of Relations (1995), Bilateral Trade (2001), and Counternarcotics, Civil Aviation, and Textiles (2003). With China, Vietnam reached a Land Border Agreement (1999), an Agreement on Borders in the Gulf of Tonkin (2000), and a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2002). With Russia, Vietnam agreed to a Strategic Partnership (2001).

Aside from these bilateral agreements, Vietnam is a signatory to numerous international agreements on biological weapons, chemical weapons, civil aviation, counterterrorism, diplomatic immunity, nuclear nonproliferation, and war crimes. Notable agreements on the environment include the following: Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (1978), Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (1986), Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (1987), Convention for Protection of the Ozone Layer (1988), Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1989), and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1994).


Armed Forces Overview: Since Vietnam fought against the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1978–89, it has demobilized about 500,000 troops and cut military spending. Still, Vietnam has one of the region’s largest and most powerful militaries. Furthermore, the People’s Army of Vietnam remains politically influential, and many senior officers have obtained leadership positions in the Central Committee and Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). The military’s prestige stems from its formidable track record against such major world military powers as France, the United States, and China and its deep roots in society.

Foreign Military Relations: Vietnam cooperates militarily with India and China. Vietnam advises India on how to combat guerrilla warfare. India helps maintain Vietnam’s MiG fighter planes and helps Vietnam manufacture small- and medium-sized weapons. In 2001 Vietnam bolstered its military cooperation with China. Russia has reduced its military presence in Vietnam since it abandoned control over the Camh Ranh Bay Naval Base in 2001 because it could not afford the expense.

External Threat: Despite having fought a border war with China in 1979, Vietnam does not face an identifiable military enemy. However, sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea remains in dispute with China and several other nations. In addition, Cambodia and Laos have protested incursions by Vietnamese squatters.

Defense Budget: In 2003 Vietnam’s defense budget was estimated at US$2.3 billion.

Major Military Units: Vietnam’s active-duty military consists of a 412,000-member army, a 42,000-member navy, a 30,000-member air and air defense force, and a 40,000-member paramilitary border defense corps. The army, which is deployed in nine military regions (including Hanoi), consists of headquarters, 58 infantry divisions, 3 mechanized infantry divisions, 10 armored battalions, 15 independent infantry regiments, special forces and airborne brigades, 10 field artillery brigades, 8 engineering divisions, 10 to 15 economic construction divisions, and 20 independent engineering brigades. The navy, including naval infantry, is deployed in four naval regions. The People’s Air Force consists of three air divisions, each with three regiments.

Major Military Equipment: The army is equipped with 1,315 main battle tanks, 620 light tanks, 100 reconnaissance vehicles, 300 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 1,380 armored personnel carriers, 2,300 towed artillery, and more than 30 self-propelled artillery. The army also has an unspecified number of combined gun/mortars, assault guns, multiple rocket launchers, mortars, surface-to-surface missiles, antitank guided weapons, recoilless launchers, air defense guns, and surface-to-air missiles. The navy has 2 Yugo-class submarines, 6 frigates, 1 corvette, 12 missile craft, 10 torpedo craft, 19 inshore patrol combatants, 10 mine warfare ships, 6 amphibious ships, and at least 30 support craft. The People’s Air Force has 189 combat aircraft (53 Su–22, 12 Su–27, and 124 MiG–21) and 26 Mi–24 armed helicopters.

Military Service: Military service is compulsory, usually for two years. In late 2001, Vietnam reinstated the requirement that women register for military service. However, barring an emergency mobilization, they are unlikely to be called up. Mandatory military service for women had been abandoned in 1975 at the end of the nation’s civil war.

Paramilitary Forces: Vietnam has a 4-million to 5-million-member paramilitary reserve force, consisting of the People’s Self-Defense Force and the rural People’s Militia.

Police: The Ministry of Public Security controls the police, a national security investigative agency, and other units that maintain internal security.

Internal Threat: The government seeks to prevent the expression of views critical of the government and non-sanctioned religious worship. When some dissidents sought to evade official media controls by using the Internet to disseminate their views, the government responded by introducing Internet restrictions. Although dissident activity generates substantial press commentary, it does not pose a threat to the regime’s stability.

The Montagnard ethnic minority represents a special case. This group is seeking a return of its ancestral lands in the Central Highlands. The Montagnards, who traditionally have opposed the communist government, receive support from overseas Vietnamese, particularly the United States-based Montagnard Foundation. After a violent clash with demonstrators in April 2004, the government boosted its security presence in the region.

Terrorism: Following al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, Vietnam expressed sympathy for the victims and qualified support for the war on terrorism. Vietnam urged that any steps taken against terrorists be consistent with international cooperation within the bounds of the United Nations Charter, target the culprits, and avoid larger-scale warfare.

In April 2004, the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) issued a draft decree to combat money laundering as a source of terrorist financing. This move followed pressure from the United States, which denied requests by the Vietcombank and the Vietnam Bank for Investment and Development to set up representative offices on the grounds that they could be used to finance international terrorism.

Human Rights: In its 2004 report on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. Department of State characterized Vietnam’s human rights record as “poor” and cited the continuation of “serious abuses.” According to the report, the government has imposed restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. Citizens are denied the right to change their government. The government continues to hold political prisoners who have expressed views at odds with government policy. Prison conditions are generally “harsh, but not unduly so given the country's level of economic development,” according to the State Department assessment. Vietnam has no independent judiciary, and there is no right to a fair and speedy trial. Human rights organizations are not permitted to operate. Discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, child labor, and prostitution are serious problems. The government is attempting to address the child labor issue.

The government officially provides for freedom of religion and recognizes Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Muslim denominations. However, non-sanctioned groups, including branches of even the recognized denominations, face harassment. Furthermore, the government insists on supervising the clergies of the sanctioned groups (by approving appointments, for example) in the interest of “national unity.”

In April 2004, 20,000 to 30,000 members of the Montagnard ethnic minority gathered to protest for the return of their ancestral lands in the Central Highlands and an end to religious repression. Human Rights Watch alleges that hundreds of demonstrators were wounded and at least 10 killed in a clash with Vietnamese officials and civilians. The Vietnamese government is concerned that the Montagnards are seeking an independent state.

member Politburo. President Luong was chief of state, and Prime Minister Khai was head of government. The leadership is promoting a “socialist-oriented market economy” and friendly relations with China, Japan, the European Union, Russia, and the United States. Although the leadership is presiding over a period of rapid economic growth, official corruption and a widening gap between urban wealth and rural poverty remain stubborn problems that are eroding the VCP’s authority. A major goal is gaining full membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Vietnam now hopes to join the WTO by mid-2006, although previously it had hoped to achieve this goal by the end of 2005. Vietnam still needs to conclude bilateral agreements with the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic in order to qualify for membership.


Location: Vietnam is located in Southeast Asia, bordered by the

Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea to the east, China to the

north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the Gulf of Thailand

to the south.

Size: Vietnam is long and thin, with an area of 330,363 square


Land Boundaries: Vietnam shares land boundaries with Cambodia

(1,228 kilometers), China (1,281 kilometers), and Laos (2,130 kilometers).

Disputed Territory: On December 30, 1999, China and Vietnam

signed a treaty that settled disputes over the two nations’ common

border. However, the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China

Sea are still regarded as disputed territory. Malaysia, Brunei, the

Philippines, and Taiwan also claim sovereignty over the Spratly

Islands, which are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves.

In May 2004, the government authorized 50 tourists and 40 officials to visit the Spratly Islands by boat. The other nations staking a claim to the islands protested what they interpreted as an assertion of sovereignty by Vietnam. In October 2004, Vietnam invited bids for oil exploration in the Spratlys, triggering a complaint from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In November 2004, China retaliated by moving an oil-drilling platform into position to explore for oil in the Paracels.

Length of Coastline: Vietnam’s coastline along the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea, and the Gulf of Thailand measures 3,444 kilometers.

Maritime Claims: In June 2004, Vietnam’s National Assembly ratified an agreement originally reached with China in December 2000 that established an internationally valid maritime border in the Gulf of Tonkin. The ratification delay was attributable to concerns that the government had made too many concessions during negotiations. In addition, in April 2004 China and

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Overview | Government


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