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People and Society, Way of Life

poisonous weeds, filial piety, economic reform program, traditional attire, Vietnamese society

Before the late 1800s, nearly all the people of Vietnam lived in villages, and the cultivation of wet rice was the principal economic activity. The basic component of rural society was the nuclear family, composed of parents and unwed children. As in China, however, extended family relationships were also important. In many cases, extended families lived together. Parents arranged the marriages of their children, and filial piety (obedience to one’s parents) was expected. Wives, too, were expected to obey their husbands. Families venerated their ancestors with special religious rituals. The houses of the wealthy were constructed of brick, with tile roofs. Those of the poor were of bamboo and thatch. Rice was the staple food for the vast majority, garnished with vegetables and, for those who could afford it, meat and fish.

The French introduced Western values of individual freedom and sexual equality, which undermined the traditional Vietnamese social system. In urban areas, Western patterns of social behavior became increasingly common, especially among educated and wealthy Vietnamese. Elite Vietnamese attended French schools, read French books, replaced traditional attire with Western-style clothing, and drank French wines instead of the traditional wine distilled from rice. Adolescents began to resist the tradition of arranged marriages, and women chafed under social mores that demanded obedience to their fathers and husbands. In the countryside, however, traditional Vietnamese family values remained strong.

The trend toward adopting Western values continued in South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954. Many young people embraced sexual freedom and the movies, clothing styles, and rock music from Western cultures became popular. But in the North, social ethics were defined by Communist principles adapted from China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Communist government officially recognized equality of the sexes, and women began to obtain employment in professions previously dominated by men. At the same time, the government began enforcing a more puritanical lifestyle as a means to counter the so-called decadent practices of Western society. Traditional values continued to hold sway in rural areas, where the concept of male superiority remained common.

In 1986 the Vietnamese government adopted an economic reform program that borrowed freely from free-market principles and encouraged foreign investment and tourism. As a result, the Vietnamese people have become increasingly acquainted with and influenced by the lifestyles in developed countries of East Asia and the West. The Communist regime finds this trend worrisome, believing it could lead to an increase in individualism, materialism, drug use, and pornography. While the administration stresses the importance of economic development, it remains committed to wiping out what it considers the “poisonous weeds” of capitalism in Vietnamese society.

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