Institutional setting, administrative framework, international borders, and internal borders

Changes in the institutional setting since the early-19th century

As a result of the vicissitudes of Vietnam’s institutional settings, few statistics have been collected for the country as a whole in its present-day boundaries before the mid-1970s. The major phases of the successive overhauls of the institutional setting since the early-19th century can be summarized as follows: (1) reunification the country in 1802 under the authority of the kings of the Nguyen dynasty; (2) occupation of southern Vietnam and the establishment of colonial rule in this region from the 1860s onward; (3) occupation of the rest of the country in the 1880s, formally under French protectorate, and the reorganization of central and northern Vietnam into two administrative regions; (4) inclusion of the three administrative regions of Vietnam in the framework of French Indochina, which also included Cambodia and Laos, until its transformation from 1949 into an association of the three independent States of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos within the framework of Union Française (French Commonwealth); (5) partition between North Vietnam and South Vietnam in 1954; (6) reunification in 1976 as a result of the victory of communist-led North Vietnam over US supported South Vietnam;  (7) implementation of socio-economic reforms beginning in the late 1980s leading to a convergence towards UN standards in the collection of statistics and the compilation of national accounts data. 

Changes in the administrative framework and data collection

In the first half of the 19th century, the Nguyen dynasty ruled the entire country, almost in its present-day boundaries, albeit with a limited control over peripheral territories whose population was not ethnic Vietnamese. The Chinese-style Confucian bureaucracy conducted population censuses and land surveys whose dependability remains difficult to assess. Foreign trade was strictly limited, managed under a system of public monopolies, and deliberately favoring neighboring countries. The Vietnamese authorities had firm control over the coastal regions and were therefore able to prevent illegal trade with the Westerners.

In 1859-60, the French Navy, with some Spanish military support, invaded the three eastern provinces of southern Vietnam, justifying their occupation with the need to protect Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese Christians. An important motivation for imposing direct rule and establishing a colonial administration, however, seems to have been the desire to open this area to foreign trade as it was a major rice growing region producing an exportable surplus. Immediately after the end of military operations, the port of Saigon was opened to all foreign traders. Collecting export taxes and monitoring foreign trade were two of the most important tasks of the new colonial administration.

The imposition of French colonial rule resulted in a partition of the country in the 1860s. In 1863, this area became a French colony called French Cochinchina (Cochinchine Française). The colonial authorities ruled all of southern Vietnam after the French takeover, in 1867, of the three western provinces that were still controlled by the Vietnamese authorities. Until 1879, the colonial administration was under the supervision of a governor appointed by the Ministry of the Navy. Thereafter, civil governors were appointed by the Ministry of the Colonies.

Though the Kingdom of Vietnam remained formally independent until 1884 and continued to rule the central and northern regions of the country, it was forced to open up to foreign trade by unequal treaties imposed by the French. In addition, under these treaties, the Vietnamese government had to lease three urban territories as French concessions ruled by local French municipal authorities: Tourane (present-day Da Nang) in central Vietnam; Haiphong on the coastal part of the Red River Delta, which was at that time a small fishing village; and part of central Hanoi, which was not the capital of Vietnam at that time, but the main city of northern Vietnam. The capital of Vietnam before the French invasion was Hue; Hue also remained the capital of that part of Vietnam that was not under French rule. Central and northern Vietnam became territories under French rule from 1884 onward, officially as protectorates. Northern Vietnam (called Tonkin by the colonial administration) fell under direct rule, while rule in central Vietnam (called Annam by the colonial administration) was more indirect, especially before 1898.

Between 1887 and 1949, Vietnam was part of the French colonial construct of French Indochina. As a result, a major part of the most reliable data, particularly on central government revenues and expenditures, and international trade, is for French Indochina as a whole rather than for Vietnam. However, the three administrative regions of Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin retained separate regional governments. The number of provinces increased, in comparison with the pre-colonial administrative set-up, especially in Cochinchina. Nevertheless, the administrative framework remained similar to the pre-colonial one, with successive subdivisions of administrative units into provinces, prefectures, districts and communes. Each commune generally contained several villages or hamlets, each with their own local administration and autonomous allocation of financial resources. This administrative framework has remained broadly unchanged until the present day. 

During the Indochina War (1945-1954), two rival administrations competed for authority over the Vietnamese population, with some overlaps in terms of the territories in which their rule was actually enforced: the official administration supported by the French military forces, which controlled the cities, some surrounding areas, and the areas along the main roads; and the Viet-Minh underground administration, which controlled large parts of the countryside. When, in 1949, French Indochina became the Indochinese Union (in French, Union Indochinoise) a confederation of the three independent states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The borders remained unchanged, even though ethnic Vietnamese made up a sizeable minority – and in some cases a majority – in Cambodian provinces close to Cochinchina. This presence of ethnic Vietnamese was the result of immigration since the pre-colonial period that was amplified under French rule.

Changes in international border

Vietnam’s pre-colonial borders (i.e. before 1858) were almost identical to the present-day country’s borders. The main exception is the relatively large but sparsely populated area of the central highlands, which were formally part of Laos until 1904, when the three provinces of Haut Donnai, Kontum and Darlac were established and incorporated into Annam.  Before the opening of roads, the population of these areas almost exclusively belonged to ethnic minorities. Also disputed before the imposition of colonial rule was the border between Vietnam and Laos in what today makes up the Northern Vietnam highlands. In these areas, too, ethnic Vietnamese accounted only for a tiny minority of the total population. Minor modifications of the border with China were made during the negotiations between the French and the Chinese in 1885-1887. As the pre-colonial Nguyen dynasty had no direct control over the midland and highland areas of northern Vietnam, where very few ethnic Vietnamese lived, this Sino-French agreement marks the establishment of the authority of Vietnam’s central government over these areas.

Changes in internal borders

Following French colonization of southern Vietnam in the 1860s, the number of provinces in Southern Vietnam increased rapidly, from 6 to 20. In contrast, the imposition of French rule in Central and Northern Vietnam was associated with only limited changes in provincial names and areas. The southernmost province of Annam, Kanh Hoa, was briefly included in Cochinchina during the 1880s, but soon reverted to Annam. Until the early 20th century, the French colonial governments of Tonkin and Cochinchina had some territorial ambitions over part of Annam, which at that time was officially only under indirect French rule as a protectorate. Thus, the internal borders were not the same for all the administrative services.  For the purpose of the collection of various taxes, the present-day region of “North Central Coast”, called Northern Annam by the French colonial administration, was administered by the colonial administrative services of Tonkin, who labeled the region under their control “Tonkin and Northern Annam” (In French, Tonkin et Nord-Annam). Meanwhile, Southern Annam (present-day South Central Coast) was under the influence of the administration of Cochinchina, but in a less formal manner.

Between 1904 and 1945, the internal borders of French Indochina remained almost unaltered. Officially, internal borders remained largely unchanged between 1945 and 1954. In practice, however, the struggle between the government and the Viet Minh for control over populations and territory meant that borders became blurred. Against this background, three types of rural areas can be distinguished: (1) those generally under Viet Minh control except for brief incursions by French military forces; (2) those mostly under French control during daytime and under Viet-Minh control during nighttime; (3) those areas mostly under the control of the French military forces or the French sponsored administration with some presence of an underground Viet-Minh administration (primarily for the purpose of tax collection). The urban areas, defined as the largest cities and their peripheries, were generally of the third type. Although changing over time, the area under complete control of the Viet-Minh administration covered about 80 percent of the territory of Northern and Central Vietnam and about 40 percent of Southern Vietnam. 

Important changes of internal borders occurred after 1954 in South Vietnam and again after 1976 in various parts of Vietnam. As a result, it is difficult to make long-term comparisons of population figures, cultivated areas, output volumes, or estimates of yields and output per capita at the provincial level. In 1954, South Vietnam was officially organized into three regions: Southern Vietnam, Central Coast, and Central Highlands. In many rural areas, neighboring villages were often under control of mutually hostile authorities: the official administration of South Vietnam and the Viet-Cong communist insurgent’s mostly underground administration

Changes in the number of provinces also occurred after 1976 but provincial borders hardly changed (most changes consisted of the partition of former provinces into smaller ones or their recombination to form larger units), making it possible to reconstruct time series. Since 2003, Vietnam is organized into eight regions and 63 provinces (more precisely, 58 provinces and 5 municipalities):

  • Red River Delta: 9 provinces (Bac Ninh, Ha Nam, Hai Duong, Hanoi, Haiphong, Hung Yen, Nam Dinh, Ninh Binh, and Thai Binh);
  • North East: 12 provinces (Bac Kan, Cao Bang, Ha Giuang, Lao Cai, Lang Son, Tuyen Quang, Thai Nguyen, Phu Tho, Vinh Phuc, Bac Giang, Quang Ninh, and Yen Bai);
  • North West: 4 provinces (Dien Bien, Hoa Binh, Lai Chau, and Son La);
  • North Central Coast: 6 provinces (Ha Tinh, Nghe An, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thanh Hoa, and Thua Thien–Hue);
  • South Central Coast: 6 provinces (Binh Dinh, Da Nang, Khanh Hoa, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, and Phu Yen);
  • Central Highlands: 5 provinces (Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Gia Lai, Kontum, and Lam Dong);
  • Southeast: 7 provinces (Baria–Vung Tau, Binh Duong, Binh Phuoc, Binh Thuan, Dong Nai, Ho Chi Minh City, and Ninh Thuan);
  • Mekong River Delta: 12 provinces (An Giang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Can Tho Dong Thap, Hau Giang, Kien Giang, Long An, Soc Trang, Tien Giang, Tra Vinh, Vinh Long).




Last update on Wednesday 14 November 2018 (07:30) by  J-P Bassino


Editor : Jean-Pascal Bassino [UMR IAO]

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