Vietnam is making remarkable progress in many ways that demonstrate the linkages between advances in health and education as well as cash incomes. But details of the 2009 census are showing a few negatives as well which could cause difficulties in the years ahead.
Perhaps the most remarkable of the new statistics relates to housing. Although the population has continued to grow at a gradually slowing rate, a decade of construction boom has increased the average living space per person from 9.2 square meters to 16.9 sq m.. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise given the visual evidence of village and town housing alike adding one two or more storeys. But it is a tribute to the family-driven enterprise in Vietnam that the housing gains have been largely achieved by household initiative rather than via the giant high rise schemes which are so evident in China.
Giant housing developments will doubtless increase in the future if only because of urbanization. Vietnam is still only 30 percent urbanized. Nonetheless the living space gains in such a still-rural society are a tribute to both household initiative and the relatively (at least compared to China) gap between urban and rural incomes. Literacy is now 94%, almost universal among younger groups and there is little difference between urban and rural.
Related big gains have been in access to safe water supplies, now covering 86% of the population, and hygienic toilet facilities – 56 percent.
These advances have led to another – over the 10 years since the previous census, life expectancy has increased by four years to an average of 72.8 with the largest gains being among women. Some of the gain can be attributed to a very sharp fall in infant mortality – from 36 to 16 per 1,000 live births.
The population is now 85 million and still grew at an average 1.2 percent a year over the decade. But that is down on the 1.7 percent in the previous decade and Vietnam can now look forward to stabilization at some point as the fertility rate has fallen to 2.03 – or just below the 2.1 replacement level. It is likely to fall further with urbanization as in the southeast of the country – which includes Ho Chi Minh and other cities – where it has already fallen to 1.65 while remaining high – 2.65 – in the underdeveloped highland areas. The southeast is also the biggest recipient of migrant labor – mostly from the Mekong delta.
As its birth rate has fallen steeply, Vietnam has ceased to be the most densely populated nation in southeast Asia (excluding city-state Singapore). That dubious honor is now held by the Philippines where the fertility rate is still around 3.2.
Vietnam can now look forward to two decades of the so-called "demographic dividend" – a low dependency ratio as the proportion of people under 15 continues to fall while numbers over 65 grow slowly.
The highlands birth rate underscores the development problems in this region where minorities are concentrated. However a bigger problem for the nation at large is a wide and growing gap between male and female births. Nationwide there are now 110 male to 100 female births compared with a natural 104/100 ratio. The imbalance is extreme in the most populous region, the Red River delta where it is now 115/100, approaching Chinese levels. Indeed the difference between Red and Mekong deltas would seem to reflect a cultural difference between north and south.
Whatever the cause, it is clearly storing up trouble for the future. Indeed it may already be being reflected in the average age of marriage which has risen by one year to 26.2 for men but remained stable at 22.8 for women.
This gender imbalance is a major blemish on a remarkable record of progress. It is possible that improved data collection in 2009 compared with 1999 has exaggerated some of the gains. But overall they do show very real improvements in the quality of life in Vietnam as measured by data other than income.