If you sponsor — or are thinking about sponsoring — a child in Vietnam, here are some facts to help you learn about this ancient nation, its land and its people.
Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia bordered by Cambodia and Laos to the west, China to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the east and south. Vietnam is long and narrow, stretching north to south with 2,140 miles of coastline, almost as many as its 2,883 miles of land boundary.
Vietnam is a nation that has been defined by its geography. Vietnam’s two largest rivers, the Mekong River in the south and the Red River in the north, end in the Pacific with vast, fertile deltas where most Vietnamese people live and farm products like rice, sugarcane and nuts.
Historically, the ancestors of modern-day Vietnamese people lived on the coast in the Red River delta. They threw off Chinese occupation in the early 10th century and founded an independent Vietnam, gradually migrating south and establishing the country’s borders as they exist today. Since then, Vietnam has endured colonization by various countries — Portugal, the Netherlands, France, China, Japan and the United States. The last occupation ended in 1954, when Communist leader Ho Chi Minh drove out the French.
Vietnam is full of beautiful, historical sites like Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world. It lies off the northeast coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, renowned for its emerald waters and rainforest-topped limestone cliffs.
Vietnam is also home to the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, as well as important urban historical sites. These include the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the capital city of Hanoi. Reminders of the Vietnam War are also prominent, like the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City dug by Communist guerrilla troops, and the Reunification Palace, where the war ended in April 1975.
Holt’s Work in Vietnam
Life in Vietnam has dramatically changed in the more than four decades since the Vietnam War. Economic reforms have led to greater prosperity for many people. But they have also increased disparities between rich and poor, rural and urban, and ethnic majority and minority families. Rural families often migrate to cities in search of work, putting children at risk of family separation, trafficking and exploitation. High rates of HIV/AIDS and the enduring stigma toward single mothers also threaten the stability of families.
Holt started working in Vietnam in 1973. Holt first served families and children here through a USAID-funded nutrition program, later developing an international adoption program to help find permanent homes for the approximately 25,000 children living in Vietnam’s orphanages after the Vietnam War. Holt’s services in Vietnam grew, but had to be suspended from 1975 to 1989 due to political instability. Today, Holt has helped standardize international adoption in Vietnam and develop programs throughout the country that enable children to stay within their birth families, despite hardships.
Every year, Holt sponsors and donors provide life-changing support for more than 6,000 children and families in Vietnam.
Basic Facts About Vietnam
97.47 million (2021)
128,066 square miles, slightly larger than New Mexico
Partly because of its length, Vietnam encompasses both tropical and temperate climates. The whole country experiences annual monsoons, which arrive in the North from May to October and in South and central Vietnam from September to January.
Folk religion is by far the largest belief system in Vietnam, with 90 percent of the population practicing ancestor worship, indigenous beliefs and belief in a variety of spirits. For many people these beliefs overlap with Buddhism, as more than half of the Vietnamese population also considers themselves Buddhist.
There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Viet or Kinh people are the largest, accounting for 85 percent of the population, and the remaining 15 percent are 53 smaller ethnic groups who are considered ethnic minorities.
Type of Government
Vietnam is a socialist republic with a one-party system led by the Communist Party of Vietnam.
Lunar New Year or Tết is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Tết celebrates the arrival of spring in the lunar calendar, and usually falls in January or February. People prepare by cleaning their houses and preparing special holiday food. Many customs and traditions during Tết vary by community, but common themes include visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year, veneration of ancestors, exchanging New Year’s greetings, giving lucky money to children and the elderly, opening a shop and visiting relatives, friends and neighbors.
People also commonly watch public dancing performances and visit their local Buddhist temple to offer a donation and get their fortune told. They also play traditional games, participate in athletic or intellectual competitions and enjoy firework displays in major cities. A dish called Banh Chung or Banh Tet is prepared ahead of time and eaten or left at ancestral altars during Tết, comprised of a sticky rice cake packed into a banana leaf with pork and mung bean.
Mid-Autumn Festival is another important celebration, popular in many Asian countries. However, Vietnam has their own spin on the popular holiday, with a mass of lanterns, festive food and lion dancers. There are loud music performances and busy streets with everyone getting involved in the celebrations, especially children.
The Vietnamese generally shake hands, both when greeting and when saying goodbye. They shake with both hands and bow their heads slightly, as a sign of respect. Vietnamese women are more inclined to bow their head slightly than to initiate shaking hands.
Vietnamese Food & Drink
Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced by its occupation by France, as well as its proximity to China, Champa, Malaysia and Cambodia. Bánh mì is one of the most popular foods in Vietnam, which was introduced by the French. The use of coconut milk and various central dishes such as bánh khọt were influenced by Cham cuisine. Spices including curries were also introduced to Vietnam by Malay and Indian traders.
Vietnamese cuisine generally emphasizes fresh food, the presence of herbs and vegetables, a variety of texture and broths or soup-based dishes.
Some common dishes include:
- Bánh cuốn is steamed rice batter filled with minced mushrooms and pork.
- Phở refers to rice noodles, but it has become synonymous with a staple soup served with meat, lime wedges, bean sprouts, herbs, chili sauce and fish sauce.
- Bún chả is rice vermicelli, often found in soup.
- Gỏi cuốn (Spring Rolls) are translucent rolls packed with leafy greens and often shrimp and/or pork and herbs.
- Bánh mì sandwiches arose with the French introduction of the baguette, which are filled with traditional Vietnamese stuffing to make this popular fast food.
- Bánh xèo is a savory, crisp-edged pancake made with rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric, pan-fried with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.
- Most Vietnamese families eat three meals a day. Dinner is the main meal.
- Vietnamese people share food while they are eating, passing around a common tray of food and adding it to their individual bowls of rice.
- In Vietnam, it is considered a polite gesture to pass everything using both hands, instead of just one.
- It is customary for Vietnamese people to hold the rice bowl close to their face while eating.
Many of the most vulnerable children and families in Vietnam are migrants, refugees, single-parent families or families impacted by chronic illnesses. Children don’t have enough food, medical care or access to education.
While Vietnam’s economy has grown stronger in recent decades, child poverty remains a concern for this country. Of all the children in Vietnam, 37 percent are considered poor, with this number rising to 43 percent in rural areas. Children belonging to one of the many ethnic minorities in Vietnam are far more likely to live in poverty. Many children lack access to the basic necessities of food, water, education and sanitation.
Across the country, many young people are leaving small, rural villages to work in factories in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Those who remain behind have few options besides joining their families in the fields they have farmed for generations. Like families anywhere who are living on the edge of poverty, all it takes is one crisis — one injury, one bad harvest — to send them spiraling downward.
Read more about how Holt sponsors and donors are helping to support and empower children and families in Vietnam!
Officially, primary school education in Vietnam is free of charge. But families face anywhere between $75 to $200 in annual fees for their child to attend primary or secondary school. These include building fees, maintenance fees and other academic fees. Add to that the cost of books, uniforms, health insurance and school supplies, and even some middle-income families struggle to cover the cost to send their children to school. The total cost to educate children is often too steep for families living in poverty to pay, especially when they have multiple school-aged children.
But in five provinces of Vietnam, Holt sponsors and donors help provide everything children need to stay in school through graduation. Children receive books, supplies, uniforms and fees. Some children also receive bicycles to help them safely get to and from school.
Read more about how Holt sponsors and donors are helping to send children in Vietnam to school!
In addition to regular K-12 education, Holt sponsors and donors support a school for children with special needs living in one rural community of Vietnam. Several provinces of Vietnam have much higher-than-average rates of children with special medical and developmental needs. During the Vietnam War, these provinces were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange — a chemical defoliant now known to be tied to at least a dozen health conditions, including birth defects.
But Vietnam has limited resources for children with special needs and their families, especially in rural areas. Very few communities offer special education programs, and the few private, tuition-based programs available are often out of reach for low-income families. According to UNICEF, only one in 10 children with special needs in Vietnam attends secondary school.
Read more about how Holt sponsors and donors have made it possible for nearly 100 children to attend the Kianh Foundation Center — the first and only school in the area for children with special needs.
According to UNICEF, a third of all children under age 5 in Vietnam are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. This is a significant number and a key concern, since it puts these children at risk of permanent physical and brain damage. Children in the poorest households are at especially high risk — in fact, three more times likely to be stunted than children from wealthier households. This is especially true in the predominantly ethnic minority-populated Central Highlands, Northern Midlands and Mountainous regions. Many factors lead to malnutrition, including poverty, poor water, sanitation and hygiene practices, limited education, and lack of knowledge about proper nutrition and feeding.
Read more about how Holt’s child nutrition program is helping children and families in rural Vietnam overcome malnutrition and anemia!
Learn more about Holt’s work in Vietnam!
See how sponsors and donors create a brighter, more hopeful future for children and families in Vietnam!