Is Vietnam Really That Happy?
August 7, 2013
In 2012, Vietnam came second in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index (HPI). According to the HPI, the only happier people in the world live in Costa Rica. The HPI ranks 151 countries across the globe on the basis of how many long, happy, and sustainable lives they provide for the people that live in them per unit of environmental output – a stronger emphasis on the planet than individual life satisfaction. Those countries near the top of the index seem to be largely middle income, tropical, and have a lot of beaches. Some good reasons to be cheerful but it led me to wonder: is Vietnam really that happy?
In 2010, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that 81 percent of people felt Vietnam was heading in the right direction, with 87 percent expecting the economy to be stronger in five years time. Vietnamese were getting rapidly richer, more connected, and more mobile. Poverty had fallen quickly and consumer goods were increasingly available. The country had all the buzz of an Asian Tiger, a young, positive population going places.
However, a happy people living at one with their environment wouldn’t be the first thought that came to mind for those scanning recent international reporting on Vietnam. Vietnam’s position as the poster boy of development has begun to drift. Whether it is mass bankruptcies, corruption, pollution, or repression, the international press has overflowed with negative stories over the last 18 months: In 2011-2012, about 100,000 Vietnamese businesses went under (half the total for the last 20 years). Last year, Vietnam was listed in the bottom 10 countries in the world for air pollution. 2013 saw a further acceleration in the crackdown on bloggers and dissidents. It has become difficult to find the positive and, perhaps, uncritical reporting that dominated five years ago.
Urban anxiety certainly seems to be on the rise in Vietnam. In 2012, the consumer mood was somber. Consumer confidence dropped sharply, well down from the record-breaking levels pre-2008. Only two-thirds of urban residents surveyed thought their jobs were safe and people were saving much harder than in 2011.
The bulk of Vietnam’s population (about 70 percent) are still in the countryside, their needs and interests often glossed over, as the focus has been on the rapid changes taking place in Vietnam’s cities. Dr. Nguyen Do Anh Tuan of the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (Ipsard), a research institute attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, is trying to use the Vietnam Access to Resources Rural Household Survey (VARRHS) to judge the mood of rural Vietnam. The analysis of happiness is in its early days with data limitations – the survey only interviews heads of households – but with responses from over 2,700 rural households from 12 provinces in Vietnam there are already some interesting results.
Findings indicate that 52 percent of Vietnamese are very or quite pleased with their lives against 48 percent who say they are not. Seven percent claimed to be very pleased and 6 percent not at all pleased. Wealthier people are more likely to say they are happier than poor people. Married people are happier than single people, and older people are happier than younger people. So far, so predictable. The percentages chime with satisfied groups across the world, and the numbers saying they are happy may even be higher than in (non-equivalent) surveys in many western countries. But the factor that gave the biggest boost in the numbers of very or quite happy responses among Vietnamese rural householders is membership of the Communist Party.
IPSARD’s work appears to tally with that of UNDP and Gallup. UNDP’s 2012 Provincial Government and Public Administration Performance Index found that 78 percent of respondents rated their economic situation as being from normal to very good (a slight drop from 83 percent in 2011). Only 7 percent believed that their economic situation would be worse in five years.
Similarly, in 2012, Gallup’s Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness asked: “Compared to this year will next year be a year of economic prosperity, economic difficulty, or remain the same?” In Vietnam 37 percent said prosperity, 30 percent difficulty, and 32 percent the same. That makes a net score of plus 7 on hope for the economy. Globally that’s right on average. But it is a fairly miserable climate. Portugal, the most negative country, scored -85. Perhaps significantly, Vietnam’s score is well below the East Asia regional average of plus 14.
So, what can we conclude from these survey findings? The data, as so often in Vietnam, is thin and of varying reliability. The surveys are not directly comparable; economic prosperity does not necessarily equate to personal happiness. Overall, life satisfaction appears to be more resilient in Vietnam than news reporting would suggest. Short memories may ignore the huge advances in most people’s quality of life in recent years. But Vietnamese do appear to be less happy and less optimistic than they were.
William Taylor is The Asia Foundation’s acting country representative in Vietnam. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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