Three-quarters of Vietnam was once covered with dense forests rich in natural resources such as high-quality timber, rattan, oil, resin and medicinal plants. Asiatic animals such as the Asian elephant, rhinoc¬eros, tiger, bear, deer, monkeys and an enormous variety of birds, fish, reptiles and insect life proliferated. Unfortunately, the combination of a growing population and vast chemical deforestation during the Vietnam War has left the country devastated environmentally. Ero¬sion and chemical residues meant vast areas of agricultural land were lost. Siltation ruined irrigation systems and hydro-electrical works and forest loss have altered weather patterns and caused flash flood¬ing to occur.
Problems on such a large scale are proving very difficult to solve. The government has embarked on programmes for reforestation and the provision of water catchment zones. National Parks are also being set aside to help restore the ecological balance. Today, Vietnam has regained much of its agricultural land and is estimated to have over 273 mammal species, 773 bird species, 180 reptile species and 80 amphibians. Much of these have not been studied in detail and Vietnam is one of the few places in the world where new species of large mammals can still be discovered. In 1992, a primitive species of ox and, in 1994, a new species of deer were discovered at Vu Quang near the Laos border.
Vietnam is rich in a number of minerals, particularly high-quality anthracite coal used for electricity, iron ore for steel and cast-iron, copper, lead-zinc, bauxite, apatite for phosphate fertilisers and some precious metals such as chromium, titanium, gold, tungsten and tin. It also has fine clay for the production of porcelain, gemstones, quartz sand and a growing oil and gas industry. Regions such as the northwest are believed to be rich in minerals but are as yet little explored. This may change soon as the government is looking into legally linking exploration and exploitation rights.
Agriculture has always been the cornerstone of the economy and Vietnam is the world’s third largest rice exporter (after United States and Thailand). Rice is also the staple of most Vietnamese meals, supplemented by com, cassava and sweet potato in the poorer areas. Rubber, tea and coffee are major exports from the highland regions and the forests provide bamboo, cinnamon, lacquer, resin, quinine and valuable timber. Pineapple, lychee, rambutan, banana, water¬melon and mango proliferate. Fruit and vegetable canning are impor¬tant industries for the local and export markets together with peanut, oilseed and animal husbandry (processed meat is a major export). Other important cash crops are coconut, pepper, tobacco, sugarcane, reed, jute, cotton and mulberry. Fisheries are also well developed with aqua-culture providing much of the fish and shrimp as well as the traditional products of fish sauce, fish paste, dried cuttlefish and dried fish.
Manufacturing industries are starting to expand as new money and technology allow them to become more competitive in the interna¬tional market. Heavy industry is concentrated in the north with steel and cement plants, as well as food processing, canning and textile factories. The traditional areas of art and handicraft have long been successful and the textile and garment industries are well established in the production of cotton and silk. The country’s main exports are rice, timber, coal, coffee, tea, rubber, processed meat and crude oil. Imports consist of oil products and fertilisers.
Tourism is increasing rapidly as the infrastructure improves and travelling becomes easier, but Vietnam’s most valuable resource lies in its people. They provide a cheap labour force which is attracting new industries as the country’s economy opens up. More importantly, the Vietnamese are receptive to new ideas and ways of doing things. Now that the country is at peace and able to benefit from overseas investments and technologies, its economy is expected to follow the growth path of its more successful Asian neighbours.
VIETNAM – THE COUNTRY 6