According to Hanoi, the population of Vietnam was almost 60 million at the end of 1985 (Western sources estimated about a half million more than that in mid-1985). Vietnamese officials estimated that the population would be at least 66 million by 1990 and 80 million by the year 2000, unless the growth rate of 2 percent per year used for these estimates was lowered to 1.7 percent by 1990. With declining mortality rates achieved through improved health conditions, the population increased by 1.2 million or more per year between 1981 and 1986 (1.5 million in 1985 alone), worsening the country's chronic food shortage. In the 1980s, Vietnam needed to produce an additional 400,000 tons of food each year just to keep pace with its rapidly increasing population.
Census results of October 1979 showed the total population of reunified Vietnam to be 52.7 million of which 52 percent lived in the North and 48 percent in the South. About 19 percent of the population was classified as urban and 81 percent as rural. Females outnumbered males by 3 percent, and the average life expectancy at birth was 66 for females and 63 for males. With 52 percent of the total under 20 years of age, the population was young. Ethnically, 87 percent were Vietnamese-speaking lowlanders known as Viet or Kinh, and the remainder were Hoa or members of highland minority groups. In December 1986, Hanoi estimated that more than 1 million Vietnamese lived overseas, 50 percent of them in the United States. A Vietnamese source in Paris claimed that about half of Ho Chi Minh City's population lived completely or partially on family aid packages sent by Vietnamese emigres abroad.
Beginning in the early 1960s, the socioeconomic implications of rapid population growth became an increasing concern of the government in Hanoi. A family planning drive, instituted in 1963, was claimed by the government to have accounted for a decline in the annual growth rate in the North from 3.4 percent in 1960 to 2.7 percent in 1975. In the South, however, family planning was actively encouraged only after 1976, and the results were mixed, consistently falling short of announced goals. In 1981 Hanoi set a national goal of 1.7 percent growth rate to be achieved by the end of 1985: a growth rate of 1.3 to 1.5 percent was established for the North, 1.5 to 1.7 percent for the South, and 1.7 to 2.0 percent for the sparsely settled highland provinces. In 1987, the growth rate, according to Vietnamese sources, was about 2.0 percent.
Family planning was described as voluntary and dependent upon persuasion. The program's guidelines called for two children per couple, births spaced five years apart, and a minimum age of twenty-two for first-time mothers--a major challenge in a society where the customary age for women to marry, especially in the rural areas, was nineteen or twenty. Campaign workers were instructed to refrain tactfully from mentioning abortion and to focus instead on pregnancy prevention when dealing with people of strong religious conviction. Enlisting the support of Catholic priests for the campaign was strongly encouraged. In 1987 it was evident that the government was serious about family planning; a new law on marriage and the family adopted in December 1986 made family planning obligatory, and punitive measures, such as pay cuts and denial of bonuses and promotions, were introduced for non-compliance.
A substantial portion of the population had mixed feelings about birth control and sex education, and the number of women marrying before age twenty remained high. Typically, a woman of child-bearing age had four or more children. The 1986 family law that raised the legal marriage age for women to twenty-two met with strenuous opposition. Critics argued that raising the legal age offered no solution to the widespread practice among Vietnamese youth of "falling in love early, having sexual relations early, and getting married early." Some critics even advanced the view that the population should be increased to further economic development; others insisted that those who could grow enough food for themselves need not practice birth control. A significant proportion of the population retained traditional attitudes which favored large families with many sons as a means of insuring the survival of a family's lineage and providing for its security. Although problems associated with urban living, such as inadequate housing and unemployment, created a need for change in traditional family-size standards, old ways nevertheless persisted. They were perpetuated in proverbs like "If Heaven procreates elephants, it will provide enough grass to feed them" or "To have one son is to have; to have ten daughters is not to have."
Government authorities were concerned over the lack of coordination among agencies involved in family planning and the lack of necessary clinics and funding to provide convenient, safe, and efficient family planning services in rural areas. Even more disturbing was the knowledge that many local party committees and government agencies were only going through the motions of supporting the family planning drive. To remedy the situation, the government in 1984 created the National Committee on Family Planning (also known as the National Commission on Demography and Family Planning, or the National Population and Parenthood Commission). The commission was directed to increase the rate of contraceptive use among married couples from about 23 percent in 1983 to 70 percent by 1990 and to limit the population to between 75 and 80 million by the year 2000. The latter goal was to be based on an annual growth rate of 1.7 percent or less, a figure that in 1987 seemed unrealistically low. According to a National Committee on Family Planning report released in February 1987, the population grew by 2.2 percent in 1986 (Western analysts estimate the increase to have been between 2.5 and 2.8 percent). In light of the 1986 growth rate, the committee's target for 1987 was revised at the beginning of the year to 1.9 percent. Even if such a goal were met, Vietnam's population at the end of 1987 would stand in excess of 63 million inhabitants.
The average population density in 1985 was 179 persons per square kilometer. Population density varied widely, however, and was generally lower in the southern provinces than in the northern ones; in both North and South it was also lower in the highlands and mountainous regions than in the lowlands. The most densely settled region was the Red River Delta, accounting for roughly 75 percent of the population of the North. Also heavily settled was the Mekong River Delta, with nearly half of the southern population.
After 1976, population redistribution became a pressing issue because of food shortages and unemployment in the urban areas. A plan unveiled at the Fourth National Party Congress in December 1976 called for the relocation of 44 million people by 1980 and an additional 10 million by the mid-1990s. The plan also called for opening up 1 million hectares of virgin land to cultivation and introduced a measure designed to divert some armed forces personnel to the building of new economic zones. The relocation was to involve an interregional transfer of northerners to the South as well as an intraregional movement of lowlanders to upland areas in both the North and the South. Between 1976 and 1980, most of the 4 million people who were relocated to rural areas and the new economic zones were from Ho Chi Minh City and other southern cities. In the 1981-85 period, a total of about 0.6 million workers and 1.3 million dependents were relocated, causing the country's urban population to decline from 19.3 percent of the total in 1979 to 18 percent in 1985. The country's long-range goal, established in 1976, called for the population to be distributed more or less evenly throughout Vietnam's 443 districts with an average for each district of 200,000 persons living on 20,000 hectares.
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