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11.2: The Mainland Countries

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the main economic activities of each country.
    2. Understand how Vietnam was divided by civil war and the impact the war had on the country.
    3. Realize how the country of Laos is addressing its rural landlocked economic situation.
    4. Describe the radical conditions that led to the creation of Democratic Kampuchea.
    5. Outline the physical geography of Thailand and how this country has developed its economy.
    6. Comprehend the conditions in Burma. Learn why the Burmese people would be opposing the government.


    The elongated state of Vietnam is slightly larger than Italy and about three times the size of the US state of Kentucky. In 2010 it was estimated to have a population of about ninety million people. Sixty percent of the population is under age twenty-one. This indicates that the population was only about half its current size at the end of the Vietnam War. Vietnam has two main urban core areas: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and the capital, Hanoi, in the north. The middle region of Vietnam is narrow, with higher elevation. Each core area is located along a major river delta. The Red River delta is located east of Hanoi in the north, and the mighty Mekong River delta is located next to Saigon in the south. These river deltas deposit silt from upstream and provide excellent farmland for growing multiple crops of rice and food grains per year.

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

    Political Geography

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

    Figure 11.3 Southeast Asia and Vietnam


    The two main cities of Vietnam are both located next to large rivers. The capital, Hanoi, in the north is on the Red River. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the south is next to the delta of the Mekong River.

    Updated from map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

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

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

    Not wishing Vietnam and its neighbors to “go Communist” through a domino effect—where if one country fell to Communism its neighbors would follow—President Johnson decided to escalate the war in Vietnam. By 1965, more than one half million US soldiers were on the ground in Vietnam. History has recorded the result. Just as Vietnam was divided by political and economic ideology, the Vietnam War also divided the US population. Protests were common on college campuses and public support for the war was often met with public opposition.

    Figure 11.4 Portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist Leader of North Vietnam during the Cold War


    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

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

    Figure 11.5 Man Hauling Cut Wood on a Bicycle Cart (Pedicab) by the Perfume River Near the City of Hue, Vietnam


    Heiko Carstens – Vietnam_full_04 – CC BY 2.0.

    Modern Vietnam

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

    Any country that experiences rapid urbanization or economic change suffers from serious growing pains. Conflicts usually erupt over control of resources and land ownership, ethnic groups usually vie for power, and environmental damage is usually extensive. All these issues are evident in Vietnam. The dogmatic Communist government has acted to moderate both the problems and the economic growth. The future of Vietnam may be similar to most of Southeast Asia as it balances out the strong adhesive forces of local culture and the demands of a competitive global economy. The growing population will add to the demand for resources and employment opportunities. Vietnam has been a relatively poor country but it still has been able to export rice and other agricultural products. In recent years, the Communist government has implemented a series of reforms moving toward a market economy, which has encouraged economic development and international trade.

    Globalization has prompted a strong rural-to-urban shift within Vietnam. The rural countryside is still steeped in its agrarian heritage based on growing rice and food crops, but the urban centers have been energized by modern technology and outside economic interest. Vietnam has enormous growth potential. The country’s urban centers are shifting from stage 2 of the index of economic development into stage 3, where the urbanization rates are the strongest. The rapid rise of the global economy that is connected to Vietnam’s major cities has provided jobs and opportunities that are highly sought after by the growing population. The city streets are filled with a sea of motorbikes and bicycle traffic. Cars are becoming more plentiful. Saigon has been a major destination for the export textile industry and other industries seeking a cheap labor base. Cell phones and Internet services have connected a once-isolated country with the rest of the world.