As we are halfway through our trip in Vietnam, I find myself wanting to compare it to China.

I am not bothering with a comparison to Laos or Cambodia because 1) we were not there as long, 2) we only visited the most sacred/touristy of their cities and 3) they are still weak economies.

I am not comparing to Thailand because they are simply so different. Perhaps a later blog will detail these differences, but they include the following:

  • Thailand never fell to communism
  • They deeply embrace the culture of the west, from the good (our freedoms) to the bad (their tolerance for pornography).
  • Thai beach resort areas are exactly like those you would see in Hawaii or Cancun.
  • The Thais just love their monarch.  I mean really love.  Imagine William and Kate all the time.  That is about right.

I am comparing Vietnam and China because they have so many similarities, but some interesting differences.

Lets start with the similarities.

Both China and Vietnam are communist states of the same flavor.  By this I mean that they have only one political party that is totalitarian when it comes to freedom of the press.  Both had an iconic leader (Mao in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam) whose ubiquitous image stares lovingly from buildings, bills and monuments.

[Note: I blanked on the word “ubiquitous” moments ago and asked the family for the word.  I said it is like “omnipresent”.  Susie suggested a sentence, “In New Zealand, sheep are BLANK.”  Terrill guessed “benevolent”.  I look forward to being aided by loving ewes when we arrive in Auckland.]

Both China and Vietnam have seen impressive economic growth after liberating their economies.  The markets are free even if the people are not.

Both encountered a crippling, population-pruning events in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In Vietnam, it was the war.   China’s struggle was self-imposed with the scourge of the Cultural Revolution that purged the country of many of its best minds and business people.

The countries share many of the same ethnic minorities.

Both companies eat everything – dog, monkey, organs, slugs, and things unmentionable.

They both have strong Buddhist and Confucian roots.

But I have seen some real differences.

First, Vietnam’s economy has been less successful than China’s.  Or, more precisely, its growth and its upper end have been less successful.  Two decades ago, many of the clothes and toys sold in the US said “Made in China”.  Now, more and more come from Vietnam.  The Chinese workers have come to expect higher wages, so Vietnam has become the ‘communist’ country of choice for reliable, inexpensive, well-trained labor.

I do not yet know why China has passed Vietnam so much.  I suspect it is a combination of several reasons:

  1. They have more natural resources
  2. The Vietnam war was more crippling than the Cultural Revolution
  3. China was ahead going into the 1960’s so they were on a better foundation since then.
  4. China has had better leadership.  In the mid-1980s, China’s premier (Deng Xiaoping) led an intellectual revolution that included the acquisition of Hong Kong and the “liberalization” of the Chinese economy.  He essentially mapped the course that China (and later Vietnam) is now on: Communism, just without the communism or socialism part.  In other words, they aggressively embrace the free market even more than Europe and parts of the US.  The only vestiges of “Communism” are the Mao/Ho Chi Minh worship and the one-party system.  They want their economies to grow and to stay in power.  Free-markets coupled with few social freedoms have proven to be a pretty good answer so far.

Another difference is their approach to religion.  When Mao came to power, he did so with Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” firmly in hand.  Like Lenin before him, this included the belief that religion is the “opiate of the people” and should be eliminated.  They both declared their countries atheist and oppressed many people of faith.

Ho Chi Minh, on the other hand, never seemed to make atheism a core principle of Vietnamese communism.   The Single Column Pagoda remained at the complex that he lived in.  I think he understood that Vietnam is a deeply religious (and superstitious) nation and that atheism really did not do much to help or harm Marx’s ideas.  I am guessing that he decided that this was not a battle worth fighting.  [Note: I say this based on what we learned form Hien, our first guide.  I acknowledge that she might be spouting revisionist history.  Perhaps Ho Chi Minh started trying to make atheism work, changed his mind and changed the history books. I, however, doubt this.  I believe any attempt to purge Vietnam of religion would have left scars that she would have been aware of.

China is catching up here.  They do not seem to care as much about religion than the early years.  You cannot rise up against the government or print anti-China magazines, but you can worship using the major faiths.  There is one religious sect that seems to be persecuted, but they seem “out there” in their beliefs.  Somehow, they have really angered the Chinese government.  This is never a good idea.

The biggest difference, however, is the population age and growth.

China did the math on being the most populous country in the world with a) decreasing child mortality, b) increasing longevity and c) improved fertility.  Their answer was to curb fertility and introduce a one-family, one-baby policy.

Vietnam did no such thing.  For most of its history since the war, their view seems to be “if one baby is good, two is better and 4+ is great!!”  3 or 4 years ago, the Vietnam government introduced a 2 baby maximum, but the effect of years without any such policy is clear.

Vietnam’s population was deeply culled form the war.  China purged their intellectuals, but not all their people.

These two differences (loss of lives in Vietnam, loss of babies in China) have made Vietnam a very young country while China is much older.  The median age in China is 35.5 years old, while Vietnam is 27.8 - a staggering difference.   In the cities of China, we saw older citizens practicing Tai Chi and walking about in their Mao jackets and pajamas (a habit that is simultaneously baffling and amusing).  The few children that you saw were almost always in arms – carried by proud parents and beaming grandparents.

In Vietnam, we see children everywhere: infants in adults’ arms, toddlers shadowing their siblings, young children playing and swarms of bikes pedaling to and from school.  The herds of children contrast with a dearth of older people since the war depleted their numbers.

I have no idea what the disparate population policies of these two countries will lead to, but it will be interesting to watch.

The final difference, and perhaps the most important, is their approaches to education.  China has a elaborate system of exams.  As we noted earlier, their schools teach a unified curriculum that is disciplined and rigorous.  They start with callistenics at 8AM and stay in class until 4PM.   We did not see any children that were not in school.

Vietnam schools seem to have a fluid start time.  Some children go in the morning and others in the afternoons.  We saw this approach in Cambodia as well.  We suspect that it is partly because the population explosions in Cambodia and Vietnam might have over-crowded the existing schools.  In order to accommodate all the children, they might have chosen to teach partial days rather than build more schools.  The Vietnamese also seem to see education as optional, especially in the villages.  Free school ends after middle school rather than high school or college in China.

I suspect that as more companies use Vietnamese workers, there will be more value placed on education.  Also, as the nation moves to cities, more children will see classrooms.  Until then, the wealth gap between China and Thailand will surely widen.

I hope this country addresses this issue soon.  They have much going for them, but they need to transform their swarm of children into knowledge workers.

Steve Sir


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