The Mainland

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This video program features two case studies on mainland Southeast Asia: Laos: Isolated Heart and Vietnam: Fertile Dreams.

Laos and Vietnam are countries attempting to open their borders to the world after years of isolation due to civil war, political unrest, and physical geographic barriers.

The first case study, Laos: Isolated Heart, shows how physical geographic barriers such as the Mekong River and the mountains that cover seventy percent of this traditionally poor country have led to years of isolation for Laos. Political unrest and military conflict in Southeast Asia during the latter half of the twentieth century has also limited access. Landlocked by five other countries, Laos has no sea access and must rely on ground and air travel to interact with other countries.

The results of this isolation can be seen in Laos' agrarian economy. With little economic development in its cities, most of the population lives in small villages. Even the capital, Vientiane (Viangchan), has a population of fewer than half a million people. With the opening of the Friendship Bridge over the 1,100-mile Mekong River, overland access to Thailand became available for the first time. Other road linkages are planned to connect Laos to China and Vietnamese ports. Developers hope to exploit the country's vast hydroelectric power-generating potential to serve markets in Thailand and eventually within Laos itself.

Updates to this program include discussion and critique of dam building and the sale of hydroelectricity as a means of develolpment. Commentary by Dr. Coleen Fox explores the effect of development on the population at large and raises the question of future sustainable development.

The second case study, Vietnam: Fertile Dreams, focuses on the agrarian sector of the Vietnamese economy, specifically the transformation of rice production in the Mekong Delta. In the last twenty years, the Vietnamese government has engineered a remarkable agrarian reform. Improved management of the water from the sediment-rich Mekong River for irrigation, combined with a move away from collective farming to contract farming, have made Vietnam the second largest rice exporter in the world. Farmers contract land for a period of twenty years, producing up to three crops per year, and are provided with short-term loans to cover their overhead by the government-run Vietnam Bank for Agriculture. Agricultural reform has also encouraged the success of another lucrative crop: coffee. Vietnam is now second only to Brazil in production of coffee.

In addition to irrigation, the waters of the Mekong Delta also provide convenient transportation, allowing crops to be brought to mills and markets quickly and inexpensively. The renewed economic vitality in the Mekong Delta is echoed in the rest of southern Vietnam. Foreign firms are reopening branch offices in Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon to most of its estimated five million residents. The open door policy, implemented in 1986, is reviving the manufacturing and industrial sectors. But the key to the Vietnamese economy remains the rice production process, which depends on the complex interaction of water resource management, transportation, finance, and organization at both the household and village levels.

Updates to this case study include discussion of the growth of the coffee industry and expanding opportunities in Ho Chi Minh City, with commentary by Dr. Amrita Daniere.

Find additional resources, including primary source materials, interactives, and downloadable print materials, at:

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