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Vietnam Insight

Overview Of LGBTQ+ Rights In Vietnam



Pride marches in Vietnam. Photos: The Jakarta Globe (background), Unknown (right-top), People’s World (right bottom). Graphics: The Vietnamese Magazine.

The Vietnamese Magazine’s “Vietnam Insight” introduces background information on political and human rights issues in contemporary Vietnam. 

Unlike other human rights issues, LGBTQ+ rights are among an extremely few issues in which Vietnam is not widely considered notorious. 

For example, a famous travel blog ranks Vietnam 87 out of 150 countries in its index on safe destinations for LGBTQ+ travellers [1], cited by prominent media outlets such as CNN, USA Today, and The Guardian. While this number might not seem impressive, it is essential to remember that Vietnam was ranked 137 out of 167 countries in The Economist’s democracy index [2] and at the bottom in Southeast Asia. 

This means that Vietnam’s handling of LGBTQ+ issues is not as alarming compared to how it handles other human rights. In a 2015 article, NBC News reported that when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, Vietnam can even be considered more progressive than the United States. [3] 

However, this does not mean that Vietnam is a paradise for LGBTQ+ people.

According to a recent report published by the Asia branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, many people in the Vietnamese LGBTQ+ community feel like the government is taking advantage of LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam as compensation for other violations of human rights.[4]  

But what is the reality of LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam? What rights do LGBTQ+ people have? Is the Vietnamese public and government accepting of LGBTQ+ people? What are some issues that LGBTQ+ people in Vietnam still face? These questions are answered in this article as we walk you through a brief overview of the LGBTQ+ community’s situation in Vietnam. 

Are same-sex relationships criminalized? 

No. Even though same-sex relationships were banned in Vietnam in the early 2000s, the government decriminalized such relationships in 2013.[5] 

In 2000, the law first mentioned same-sex relationships in legal documents. The Law on Marriage and Family was amended in 2000 to incorporate a ban on same-sex cohabitation and same-sex marriage, making it primarily illegal to have a same-sex relationship. 

Under these regulations, same-sex couples who attempted to organize a wedding ceremony, and people participating in these ceremonies, could get fined by the authorities. However, this law did not crack down on same-sex couples who did not co-habit or attempted to get married, even though the police frequently raided many LGBTQ+ friendly establishments. 

In the following years, Vietnam also outlawed various forms of same-sex relationships, such as the adoption of children by same-sex couples or surrogacy and same-sex marriages to foreigners abroad. 

The situation got better in 2012, as the then-Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong expressed disapproval of the existing legal discrimination of LGBTQ+ people. It was the first time a high-ranked Vietnamese government official publicly talked about the LGBTQ+ community in a non-discriminatory tone. 

In 2013, same-sex cohabitation and wedding ceremonies were decriminalized in Vietnam. 

Can same-sex couples get married? 

No. Up until now, the law in Vietnam does not recognize same-sex marriages. 

However, as mentioned above, co-habitation among same-sex couples is now permitted, in addition to wedding ceremonies. 

Can transgender people undergo gender transition procedures? 

In principle, yes. However, the situation in Vietnam is more complicated. 

In 2008, a law in Vietnam said gender affirmation surgeries were forbidden for “people whose gender is already correct”[6]. It means that while gender transition procedures were available for intersex people who were thought to have gender defects, they were banned for transgender people who were thought to have no gender issues. 

The situation got better as the country passed a change to the Civil Code in 2015 recognizing the rights to gender transition[7], official recognition of transgender people in Vietnam, making it one of the most progressive countries in Southeast Asia LGBTQ+ rights. 

Although this law was supposed to be implemented by 2017, the reality is that transgender people still faced extreme hardships in accessing gender transition procedures or getting their name and gender changed on paper. 

This was due to the inefficiency of lawmakers, who failed to take into account various specific details on transition procedures. For example, they could not detail the eligibility criteria for pursuing gender transition, the criteria for health providers to accommodate gender transition procedures, or the circumstances in which transgender people could legally change their name or gender on paper, among various other considerations.  

Therefore, even though transgender people technically could undergo gender transition in Vietnam, it remains extremely inaccessible. 

Can transgender people get married?

Yes, but there are some additional issues. 

Article 37 of the Civil Code states that “Individuals who have undergone gender transition have the right and obligation to change their civil status, and have the civil rights in accordance with this Code and other related regulations.”

This means that transgender people, after successfully changing their gender on paper, could get married to people of the opposite gender. For example, a transgender woman (male to female) could marry someone legally recognized as male. A transgender man (female to male) could get married to someone legally recognized as female. 

As same-sex marriage is not legally mandated in Vietnam, transgender people cannot marry people of the same gender after the transition. Thus, for instance, a transgender woman cannot marry someone lawfully recognized as female and vice versa. 

However, as mentioned above, the recognition of transgender people and their legal transition have not been implemented in practice. 

Therefore, even though transgender people can marry someone of the opposite gender after transitioning, they still cannot get married and have their marriage legally recognized in practice.  

Is there anti-discrimination law to protect LGBTQ+ people? 

Up to now, there is no anti-discrimination law explicitly aimed at protecting LGBTQ+ people. 

Is Vietnamese society accepting of LGBTQ+ people?

Even though the law in Vietnam has been more friendly towards LGBTQ+ people (or at least in principle) and the government has been pledging to improve the conditions of the community, LGBTQ+ people in Vietnam still face tremendous discrimination from society and pressure from their families to conform to a “normal” heteronormative life. 

For example, there is an issue of homosexual individuals marrying people of different gender due to the pressure from either society or their family.[8] Homosexual individuals also engage in marriage arrangements with other homosexual individuals of a different gender to please their families on both sides. 

Due to the government’s inefficiency in drafting regulations for transgender people, undergoing hormone therapy or other related medical procedures remains extremely difficult and dangerous, not to mention very costly.[9] 

LGBTQ+ adults are not the only ones facing hardship in their social life. LGBTQ+ students and children in Vietnam also reported violence and discrimination. Oftentimes when students come out as LGBTQ+ people to their family, teachers or friends, they are told that they have “a disease.”[10]

While Vietnamese society is becoming more open and accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, it can be seen that it is still generally tough for many LGBTQ+ individuals to live a happy and fulfilling life. 

Are there LGBTQ+ politicians or lawmakers? 

So far, there are no known openly LGBTQ+ politicians or lawmakers in Vietnam who hold office in the National Assembly or the local People’s Committee in different regions – the most crucial legislative organs in Vietnam. In Vietnam’s conservative political climate, even the existence of women in Vietnamese politics is scarce.[11]

The 2021 elections for the National Assembly and the local People’s Committee in Hanoi saw the appearance of Luong The Huy, the first openly gay candidate running for both offices. He is also an independent non-party candidate. At age 32, Huy is much younger than the typical member of the National Assembly or the People’s Committee.

Unfortunately, despite the enthusiastic support from young people, Huy did not win in both elections this year. 

There are very few notable non-governmental organizations which aim to further LGBTQ+ rights in Vietnam. The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (ISEE) is currently directed by Luong The Huy in Hanoi and the ICS Center in Saigon. 

In general, the voice of LGBTQ+ people in politics and policymaking is still meager. Because of this, LGBTQ+ issues remain in the “non-priority” bracket of the country’s legislation. As LGBTQ+ people remain unheard of [12], it is not surprising that the government is primarily inefficient in making decisions related to the community.


[1] LGBTQ+ Travel Safety – 150 Best & Worst Countries Ranked (2021). (2021, May 7). Asher & Lyric.

[2] The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2021). Democracy Index 2020 In sickness and in health?

[3] NBC Universal. (2015, June 11). On Gay Rights, Vietnam is Now More Progressive Than America. NBC News.

[4] ILGA Asia. (2021, June). Dare to dream: The ongoing voyage from invisibility to community empowerment, and foray into the region for LGBTIQ in Vietnam.

[5] UNDP & USAID. (2014). Being LGBT in Asia: Vietnam Country Report.

[6] iSEE. (2019, January). Hiện trạng trải nghiệm y tế và nhu cầu chuyển đổi giới tính của người chuyển giới ở Việt Nam.

[7] Human Rights Watch. (2015, November 30). Vietnam: Positive Step for Transgender Rights.

[8] iSEE. (2018, November). Sống chung cùng giới: Trải nghiệm thực tế và Mưu cầu hạnh phúc lứa đôi.

[9] Nguyen, S. (2019, June 21). LGBT rights: Vietnam recognises transgender people, but there’s a flaw in its law. South China Morning Post.

[10] Human Rights Watch. (2020, February). “My Teacher Said I Had a Disease” Barriers to the Right to Education for LGBT Youth in Vietnam.

[11] Trinh, H. L., & H.T. (2021, February 18). Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress: Women Have No Place In Politics. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[12] Nguyen. LGBT rights. South China Morning Post. 


Venerable Thich Quang Do: A Lifetime Of Struggle



Venerable Thich Quang Do, aged 70, in a picture taken in HCMC after he was released from prison in 1988. Photo: AFP.

This article contains many quotes and literary excerpts from Venerable Thich Quang Do. A number of excerpts may be difficult to comprehend, and the formatting may be different from section to section. The author, Luat Khoa Magazine, and The Vietnamese Magazine maintain the excerpts in full respect for Venerable Thich Quang Do.

Thich Quang Do

Thich Quang Do’s birth name is Dang Phuc Tue. He was born in Thanh Chau Commune, Tien Hai Suburban District, Thai Binh Province, on November 27, 1928, into a family with three other siblings.

He left his home in 1942 at 14 years of age to become a monk at Thanh Lam Village Pagoda in Ha Dong Province, which is today a part of Hanoi. 

He passed away on the night of February 22, 2020, at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City.

An undated portrait of Thich Quang Do. Photo:

In the beginning months of 1945, famine swept across the northern part of Vietnam, killing two million people. At the time, 18-year-old Thich Quang Do was in training in Ha Dong Province, as a disciple of the Venerable Thich Duc Hai. 

Much later, in 1992, he would recall his early days of entering the monkhood in his memoir:

“In the year of the rooster (1945), the people were very hungry, especially in the two provinces of Thai Binh and Nam Dinh. Those who had starved to death littered the streets. […] At the time, my master at Thanh Lam Village Pagoda […] heard from people heartbreaking stories, so he travelled out to Ha Dong Township and established a relief group to help the hungry. That was March 1945. My master opened up a food camp to help sustain the hungry. He relied on Ho Dac Diem, who was the Ha Dong Province chief, to intervene with the Japanese and request some rice to rescue the starving. The group was able to carry many people through the famine.” [2]

A young woman (left) and three siblings of another family in Thai Binh during the 1945 famine. The northern famine was caused by the Japanese and the French and led to approximately two million deaths. Photo: Vo An Ninh.

Right after that disaster, the August Revolution broke out, and seeing that the people were still incensed at the famine caused by foreign countries, the Viet Minh hunted down Vietnamese traitors and those who worked for the Japanese or the French, executing them. The executions were seen – by some – as a way for the Viet Minh to flaunt their prestige. Thich Quang Do’s master was allegedly a Vietnamese traitor. 

He recalled in an open letter sent to the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Do Muoi, in 1994: 

”At 10 AM, on the morning of August 18, 1945 […] as I looked at my master, his two hands bound behind his back by zinc wire, on his neck hung two signs scrawled with the words ‘Vietnamese traitor, national sellout’ […] On both sides, a group of people holding sticks, spears, and scythes, stood guard. A group calling themselves the magistrates of the People’s Tribunal stood on a platform […] forcing my master to kneel down in the courtyard and listen to the court convicted him. They immediately sentenced him to death, carrying him out to the field of grass in front of the courtyard, blood continuing to flow from his mouth [as he had been punched]. Upon reaching the field of grass, they wrestled him down onto his side, shooting him through the ears three times with a pistol. Another stream of bright red blood sprayed straight up, and my master died instantly.” [3]

Spurred by the exceedingly painful image of his master being executed, Thich Quang Do wrote: “I swore to fight fanaticism and mercilessness, and to devote my entire life to pursuing justice through Buddhism’s teachings on non-violence, tolerance, and mercy”. [4]

In 1947, Thich Quang Do was ordained as a monk while studying at the Quan Su Buddhist Institute in Hanoi. During this time, he wrote for the magazine Phuong Tien [Means], where Venerable Thich To Lien was editor-in-chief. In 1951, Venerable To Lien dispatched Do to study abroad in Sri Lanka [5]. In that same year, Buddhist temples throughout the country were unified under the leadership of the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation, headquartered at Tu Dam Pagoda in Hue. [6]

After Sri Lanka, Thich Quang Do travelled to India in 1953 to continue his studies. The year after, Vietnam was divided in two, and the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation splintered. Buddhist sects and associations continued to operate independently, and a number of northern Buddhist temples moved south.
While Vietnam awaited a free general election, the Geneva Accords split the country at the 17th parallel into two separate militarized zones; residents on each side were free to move to the other side. Approximately 800,000 northerners moved to the south, according to data from the South Vietnamese government. This photo depicts northerners preparing to move to the south. Photo: LIFE.

In 1958, Thich Quang Do, 30 and fluent in English and Chinese, returned to Saigon to teach and translate scriptures. [7] During this time, the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation moved its headquarters to An Quang Pagoda in Saigon, and Buddhist sects and associations continued to operate independently. [8]

At the end of 1961, Buddhists and monks were increasingly subjected to excessive religious persecution by the Saigon government. There were reports that many areas banned Buddhists from practising and forced them to give up their religion. By April 1963, as Vesak Day (Buddha Day) approached, monks in Hue were no longer able to tolerate the repression, declaring that they were at odds with the government and commencing a period of impassioned struggle for Buddhism. [9]
Nuns, monks, and Buddhists scuffle with police in Saigon, protesting against government repression. Buddhist leaders demanded that the government respect the Buddhist flag, cease the repression of Buddhists, treat them equally, grant them the freedom to proselytize and practice, and make reparations for those killed. Photo: HORST FAAS/AP.

To weather the religious crisis, the Inter-sectarian Committee to Protect Buddhism was established in May 1963. It comprised 11 sects and associations and was headquartered at Xa Loi Pagoda in Saigon. The committee included 19 individuals, of whom Venerable Thich Tinh Khiet was the highest leader and Thich Quang Do was an assistant to the diplomatic corps. [10]

The committee organized large-scale protests and hunger strikes. Thich Quang Do hit the streets with thousands of monks, nuns, and Buddhists to fight for the religion. The government cracked down. Many monks self-immolated to demand a resolution to Buddhism’s five aspirations. Dozens of people lost their lives in clashes with police. The tumult lasted for many months, stirring world opinion.
Thich Quang Do, 35, elaborating on the Buddhist struggle in front of monks, nuns, Buddhists, students, and police. Photo: Buddhist Struggles (Quoc Oai)

On August 20, 1963, the government arrested Thich Quang Do in its “floodwater campaign,” in which pagodas were raided simultaneously to capture Buddhist leaders. He was tortured in prison. While behind bars, he secretly received English articles, translating them into Vietnamese and then sending them out, where they were reprinted in Buddhist newspapers to encourage the fighting spirit of monks, nuns, and Buddhists. [11]

The conflict between Buddhists and the government led the United Nations to send a fact-finding mission to Vietnam on October 24, 1963. A week later, President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated, and Buddhism was able to gain the upper hand. Thich Quang Do was released but remained seriously ill due to the torture he suffered while in prison. [12]

Immediately after the 1963 Buddhist crisis and with the flames of solidarity burning bright in the hearts of monks and nuns, a number of well-respected monks reiterated calls to unify Buddhism.
A scene from the opening of the Buddhist Unity Congress at Xa Loi Pagoda on December 31, 1963; outside the pagoda, thousands of Buddhists gathered to support Buddhist solidarity. Photo: Buddhism’s Historic Struggle.

At the beginning of 1964, the Buddhist Unity Congress concluded. Eleven sects and associations were merged into a single Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCVN), headquartered at the National Pagoda of Vietnam (which was just starting construction). The UBCVN ratified a charter edited by Thich Tri Quang [13] and sat under the supervision of the Supreme Patriarch Institute and the Hoa Dao Institute.

In 1966, a little over two years after unification, the church began to fracture under pressure. A conflict arose between two groups. On one side was the An Quang bloc, led by Thich Tri Quang, which advocated a fierce struggle to interfere in politics, with its overwhelming force and superior organizational ability. On the other side were the moderated at the National Pagoda of Vietnam, led by Thich Tam Chau, who only fought for religious freedom.
Thich Tri Quang (left) and Thich Tam Chau(right) sit in a Saigon monastery on April 9, 1966, to announce to the press their demand for the establishment of a Constitutional Committee for the general election of a civilian government. Photo: AP.

In October 1966, the An Quang bloc established its own and separate Hoa Dao Institute with three sects and associations. [14]

By 1967, the National Pagoda of Vietnam bloc convened a congress with eight sects and associations to amend its charter, asserting that the 1964 charter sought to eliminate the autonomy of sects and associations. From here, the conflict deepened when the government recognized the National Pagoda of Vietnam bloc’s amendments. 

Also in 1967, the An Quang bloc organized a series of large-scale protests, carrying the Buddhist altars down to the streets to oppose both the government and the National Pagoda bloc. The government accused the An Quang bloc of “sowing chaos” and accordingly cracked down against them. The government later broadly apologized to all Vietnamese Buddhists and monks that it had to maintain social order and there were no other methods except for cracking down against the monks of the An Quang bloc.
Not only did the An Quang bloc organize protests, but it also organized other noteworthy activities, such as carrying the Buddhist altars into the streets, hunger strikes, and a number of acts that are still considered controversial to this day for their perceived un-Buddhist spirit. Photo: LIFE.

According to the Sangha of the United Southern Buddhist Church, Thich Quang Do served both as the spokesperson for and inspector of the UBCVN’s Hoa Dao Institute in 1972; two years later, he was appointed general secretary.

The conflict between the An Quang and National Pagoda of Vietnam blocs, with their different approaches, continued until April 30, 1975.

From when he returned to Saigon until 1975, Thich Quang Do taught at Van Hanh University, the Saigon University of Literature, Hoa Hao University (An Giang), even the Pontifical Academy of Pius X (Da Lat), and other Buddhist academies. [15] He also edited numerous scriptures and books on Buddhism.

After taking control of the south, the victors immediately cracked down on all religions, sending dignitaries to re-education camps, destroying Buddhist statues, and confiscating the property of sects and associations.
General Tran Van Tra, head of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Military Management Committee, organizes an international press conference on May 8, 1975. Photo: Herve GLOAGUEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Thich Quang Do witnessed what the victors did to Buddhism. He recounts in an interview with Radio Free Asia in 2015: 

“On April 30, 1975, the Communists forcibly conquered South Vietnam. All the Vietnamese people were enslaved to an inhumane, cruel, hateful policy that was unmerciful towards religion. Our Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was also stripped of its more than 2000 years of legal status, Buddhist leaders were fiercely repressed, and 12 monks and nuns of Duoc Su Pagoda self-immolated.” [16]

“During the investigation in Can Tho Province into the 12 self-immolations against repressive communist policies [one individual was only 14 years of age], the Communist authorities accused Venerable Thich Hau Hien of being an informant for the Americans and South Vietnamese, committing lewdness against other nuns in their attempt to invalidate 12 immolations. That plot, however, failed because I didn’t sign the final forms legitimizing their scheme.

[…] Things hit a fever pitch on March 3, 1977, when the Communists came to appropriate the Quang Thi Trang convent […], tearing down the “UBCVN” sign and tossing it to the ground. At exactly 11 AM that day, as general secretary of the Hoa Dao Institute, I signed circular urging monks and nuns to prepare to sacrifice to protect the religion and the honor of the Church.”

On April 6, 1977, Venerable Master Huyen Quang and I, along with a number of others, were imprisoned in Phan Dang Luu Prison in Ba Chieu, Gia Dinh. Later, I would find out that former Venerable Master Thich Thien Minh was also captured and had died of unknown causes at the Saigon police headquarters.” [17]

According to Amnesty International, Venerable Thich Thien Minh had died in a temporary detention camp in October 1978. [18] To this day, the Vietnamese state has yet to make an announcement about his death in Detention Camp #4 on Phan Dang Luu Rd., Ho Chi Minh City.

A portrait of the Venerable Thich Thien Minh. He was born in 1921 in Quang Tri and entered the monkhood as a child. After the Buddhist Unity Congress in 1964, he was selected as general director of the Unified Buddhist Church’s youth affairs. Minh stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Venerable Thich Tri Quang during the Buddhist political struggles in the south. Photo:

Seven members of the An Quang bloc and Thich Quang Do were eventually tried in December 1978. [19]

The seven were accused of numerous crimes: taking advantage of religion to disrupt national security, disrupting national unity, and acting to oppose the revolution. Under international pressure, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Venerable Thich Thanh The were acquitted. [20] In that same year, Thich Quang Do and Venerable Thich Huyen Quang were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. [21]

From 1980 – 1981, Do, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Duc Nhuan, and a number of others disagreed with the remaining An Quang bloc members, who advocated cooperating with the state to establish the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which would allow the Communist Party to tightly control church activities.
In just one day, the government united all monks, nuns, and Buddhists across the country during the Conference of Representatives to Unify Vietnamese Buddhism, which took place on November 7, 1981, at Quan Su Pagoda. Photo: Buddhist Church of Vietnam. 

With the establishment of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the UBCVN, with its history since 1951, became illegal and remains so to this day. Venerable Thich Quang Do recalls:

“From the day former Venerable Master Tri Thu was elected head of the state church [that is, today’s Buddhist Church of Vietnam], the UBCVN no longer had a director leading the Hoa Dao Institute. Without a director, the vice-director stepped up until another congress could be convened to elect officials […]. Because of that, Venerable Master Huyen Quang was the first vice-director to become institute director, and we continued to conduct business with the church [UBCVN] as usual”.

“At four in the afternoon on February 24, 1982, I received a letter from the municipal police headquarters, with the word ‘express’ written on it. When I opened it, I saw that I had been ‘invited’ down to their office.

At exactly 8 AM [the next day], I arrived at police headquarters and was led to a waiting room, where two uniformed officers stood guard with pistols. After approximately an hour, I guess when they figured that was enough psychological torture, I was taken in to see Quang Minh. He said: ‘You’re being involved in religion also means you’re involved in politics (!), we’re going to have to handle you accordingly.’ After about five minutes, Quang stood up and read out the decision, […] expelling me from the city.” [22]

In the ten years after, Thich Quang Do lived alone under the watchful eyes of Thai Binh police: “The Communists […] exiled me to Vu Doai Commune, Vu Thu Suburban District, Thai Binh Province from February 25, 1982, for the crime of ‘being involved in religion and thus being involved in politics.” [23]
Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang in an undated photo, possibly during the time Thich Huyen Quang was exiled in Binh Dinh. Venerable Thich Huyen Quang was born in 1919 and left home to become a monk in Binh Dinh when he was 13 years old. According to the UBCVN, he was detained in the pagoda until his passing in 2008. Photo source: unknown.

In the late 1980s, Vietnam entered the era of Doi Moi when the country’s economy changed into the market economy of capitalism. At that time, some monks saw that as the opportunity to fight for religious freedom. 

At the end of 1991, Venerable Thich Don Hau, nearing death, left in his will a call to restore the UBCVN and reactivate the 1964 church charter, amended in 1973. [24] He reminded the dignitaries, among them Venerable Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, that they respectively held the positions of director and general secretary of the Hoa Dao Institute.

Religious repression continued to intensify in 1992 and 1993, and the self-immolation of monks in the Mekong River Delta demanding religious freedom led to enormous protests in Hue, which the authorities cracked down upon and suppressed information about. [25]

On May 21, 1992, a man self-immolated at Thien Mu Pagoda, leading to the temporary detention of Thich Tri Tuu, a Buddhist nun. Immediately after that, thousands of monks and nuns took to the streets in protests that shook the city, and a government car was set on fire. Photo: Nicolas Cornet.

After living in exile in Thai Binh for 10 years, in 1992, Thich Quang Do decided to return to the south a month after notifying the authorities of his plans:

“On February 10, 1982, the Communists also inexplicably exiled my mother to Vu Doai Commune with me, where she died a tragic death […] in January of 1985 from cold and deprivation.  Left all on my own, I decided that I could no longer allow myself to be hemmed in so senselessly, interminably, and unscrupulously. On March 22, 1992 (after 10 years and 27 days of exile), I returned to Saigon after letting Hanoi police know, arriving on March 25, 1992. [26]

I returned to the south in 1992 and continued to work on the [Phat Quang] dictionary series; in 1994, I sent to Do Muoi [a former senior leader] a series of assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the nation and Vietnamese Buddhism. After that, I went out into the community to provide aid.” [27]

In November 1994, the Mekong River Delta suffered an unexpected flood, killing approximately 400 people. Representing the UBCVN, Venerable Thich Quang Do, along with a number of monks and retired scholars, went out to render aid to their compatriots, only to be arrested afterwards. 

“On January 4, 1995, they arrested me and imprisoned me at the temporary detention center on Nguyen Van Cu St. in the middle of Saigon. Venerable Khong Tanh and I each received five years in prison and five years probation”. [28]

Thich Quang Do, together with Thich Khong Tanh, Thich Nhat Ban, Thich Tri Luc, and two retired scholars Dong Ngoc and Nhat Thuong, at their August 1995 trial in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Vietnamese Buddhists.

“My time in jail wasn’t too bad; it was fairly leisurely […]. You eat and you go about your work, just like anywhere else […]. Before I was imprisoned, I had requested […] that they give me the Phat Quang dictionary set that I was working on.

I completed [the dictionary series] while in prison; when I received special amnesty and was released on September 2, 1998, they refused to return the nearly 100 volumes that I had already translated […]. They required I fill out a request form. 

Unreasonable! This having-to-request business. If it’s going to be that way, then I’m not going to request anything. They can just keep it and use it however they like; I’ll just redo everything again at home. So I did, and it took me two years. I redid everything, without having to make a request of anyone. Please be reasonable. Let’s think about this. For example, if you’re hungry, then you go and ask people for food. When people give it to you, you thank them. But in this situation, the government simply kept my work, I didn’t give it to them”. [29]

At the beginning of 1999, Thich Quang Do went out to Quang Ngai to visit Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, who had just been exiled three days before. Also in the same year, Do became the director of the UBCVN’s Hoa Dao Institute.

After his trip to Quang Ngai, he was interrogated by police. In February 2001, he was formally put under house arrest for violating the terms of his probation. [30]

After that trip, Thich Quang Do stated to the press that: “I will continue to speak loudly, strongly, and firmly for freedom, democracy, human rights, and freedom of religion, so that those in and outside the country hear the church’s calls and its support for human rights and democracy.” [31]

In 2001, Thich Quang Do issued a call for democracy in Vietnam to his domestic and overseas compatriots, as well as to the Vietnamese government:

“But today, as other countries around the world develop, growing more prosperous, free, and democratic by the day, our country is becoming increasingly paralyzed and impoverished, our people oppressed and trampled on. […]

This catastrophe persists, nurtured by three factors: the government thinks too highly of itself and refuses to accept the opinions of others, resulting in a single-party dictatorship; the government has broken away from the people and refuses the most basic calls for human rights and citizens’ rights, resulting in an abominable authoritarian regime; the government is too dependent on foreign countries, from ideology to the structure of the state apparatus, causing social and civilizational upheaval [,..] moral decay and national stagnation.” [32]

In October 2003, after the state lifted its probation order, Quang Do risked his life to bring Thich Huyen Quang from Binh Dinh to HCMC for medical treatment. While on the road, the two were stopped by police and held on National Highway 1A, accused of keeping some state secrets with them [33], resulting in approximately 200 monks and nuns, and more than 1,000 Buddhists from nearby pagodas protesting to protect the two. [34]
Venerable Thich Quang Do visits Venerable Thich Huyen Quang (laying down) in 2006. Venerable Thich Huyen Quang passed away on July 5, 2008, at Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh Province. Photo: Vietnamese Buddhists.

In 2006, Thich Quang Do received two awards for his human rights work, Norway’s Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize and the World Movement for Democracy’s Democracy Courage Tribute. However, the Vietnamese government prevented Do from travelling overseas to accept the awards. 

In 2007, the UBCVN began mutually supporting disenfranchised citizens through the Disenfranchised Relief Fund, helping those who had long petitioned the government on land issues. 

And in order to eradicate what it does not approve of, the government began a well-worn campaign of using the press to cast aspersions on Do and the UBCVN.

Newspapers from Nhan Dan [The People] to Tuoi Tre [Youth] called Do “a religious exploiter” accusing him of “political opportunism,” “inciting the people,” being “on a mission of vengeance,”  and behaving like “an old dog who can’t learn new tricks.” 

In the same year, during which he was banned from talking to the press, Thich Quang Do responded to Al-Jazeera through video: [35]

“We are prisoners in our own homeland, where the government decides who has the right to speak and who has to keep their mouths shut. Even at this very moment, I’m being held at the Thanh Minh Monastery in Saigon. Secret police tail me day and night, preventing me from moving freely.

I’ve been continuously repressed by the Communist regime since 1975. But I myself am not afraid of anything because I am fighting for what is right.

Today, we lack an opposition party and freedom of the press, independent religions are being cracked down upon, and anyone demanding political reform, democracy, or human rights could be subject to immediate arrest.

We must have political pluralism, the right to free elections, and the right to decide our political system […]. In sum, we must have the right to determine our future and our fate.”
From 2001, Venerable Thich Quang Do was held under house arrest at Thanh Minh Monastery, where he was closely monitored by police and isolated from church activities and the outside world. Politicians from the world over regularly tried to find ways to visit him. Photo: Clochers & Lieux de culte.

In 2012, while he was meeting with the Australian ambassador in Vietnam, Thich Quang Do had expressed his views regarding the East Sea [South China Sea] problem:

“Vietnam has already lost a portion, an island in Hoang Sa [the Paracels], eight islands in Truong Sa [the Spratleys]. China just established the Tam Sa [Sansha] district center, setting up administrative and military bodies to control that region. […] For now, I only wish for Vietnam to democratize and then ally itself with the world’s democratic nations. […] As it stands right now, I don’t have any hope for Vietnam.” [36]

In 2011, Thich Quang Do became the fifth patriarch of the UBCVN but met with many difficulties in developing the UBCVN due to his house arrest at Thanh Minh Monastery:

“They [the government] have yet to cease discrimination and repression of the UBCVN. Thus, the church has struggled to conduct activities over the past 30 years. We can’t preach, we can’t open schools to teach. […] If they had an opportunity to completely do away with the church, they absolutely would. 

For several decades, [I have been restricted to] a single room upstairs that I inhabit. […] Every two months, I go to the hospital, and that’s it. No one is allowed to come and go, and I can’t move freely either. When I go to the hospital, they [the police] follow.”
A photo of Venerable Thich Quang Do in his room at Thanh Minh Monastery on September 3, 2018. Photo: International Buddhist Information Office. 

“As of now, I eat only one meal a day, which is brought up to me in the morning. There’s a chair outside my door that I leave my plates on after I finish eating. The kitchen will come up to take them away, and then they lock the metal gate. The stairs up to my room have a metal gate, just like a prison cell. It’s been like this for more than 20 years since I returned from the north. 

I owe my residence here to Venerable Thich Thanh Minh’s pagoda […]. Since I left to join the monkhood some sixty years ago, I have lived thanks to the generosity of others. […] As of now, I only recite Buddhist scriptures to myself. I’m not allowed to pray for or preach to others; I can only recite to myself. They have stipulated this very clearly.” [37]

In mid-September 2018, exactly three months after American Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink came to visit him, Thich Quang Do was evicted from Thien Minh Monastery, staying at a number of pagodas before heading home to Thai Binh at 90 years of age:  

“I returned to my hometown as an ostensible retreat, but if there were any small pagodas, I would recite Buddhist scriptures there. No matter what happens to the church, even if I die, I could never give it up.”

American ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink (left) and a colleague visit Venerable Thich Quang Do on June 14, 2018. Photo: International Buddhist Information Office.

Not long after, Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fifth patriarch of the UBCVN, returned to HCMC at age 90 to continue his obstacle-plagued work of the church.

Two years later, at 9:30 PM on February 22, 2020, Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fifth patriarch of the UBCVN, took his last breath at Tu Hieu Pagoda; his painful endeavor for the Vietnamese homeland finally came to an end.
On February 25, 2020, three days after his funeral, monks, nuns, and Buddhists escort Venerable Thich Quang Do to his cremation site; his ashes were scattered at sea 49 days later. Photo: Giac Ngo [Enlightenment].

This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 1, 2020. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

*** In our previous version of this article, we have cited the 1979 report of Amnesty International on the death of Venerable Thich Thien Minh. However, upon our recent re-checking of the cited link, it is unfortunate that the link is no longer accessible. Therefore, we have changed the link to the copy of Amnesty International’s January 1979 newsletter. We apologize for this inconvenience.***


[1] Thich Quang Do, Defiant Rights Champion in Vietnam.
[2] Assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the Nation and Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
[3] Letter written to Do Muoi, Thich Quang Do, written in 1994.
[4] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
[5] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), Sangha of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
[6] Vietnamese Buddhism Monthly Review #1, published by the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation. 

[7] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), cited material.
[8] Vietnamese Buddhism Monthly Review #27 and #28, published by the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation.
[9] Vietnamese Buddhism’s Historic Struggle, Nam Thanh, published by the UBCVN Hoa Dao Institute in 1964. [10] Vietnamese Buddhism’s Historic Struggle cited material.
[11] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, cited material.
[12] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), cited material.
[13] White paper on the divide between An Quang and the National Pagoda of Vietnam, written by Thich Tam Chau in 1993.
[14] White paper on the divide between An Quang and the National Pagoda of Vietnam cited material.
[15] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), cited material.
[16] Interview of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do regarding the UBCVN over the past 40 years.
[17] Assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the Nation and Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
[18] Amnesty International Newsletter January 1979. (1979, January 1). Amnesty International.
[19] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, cited material.
[20] Amnesty International Report 1979, p.117, cited material.
[21] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, cited material.
[22] Assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the Nation and Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
[23] Letter written to Do Muoi, Thich Quang Do, written in 1994.
[24] Venerable Thich Don Hau’s will.
[25] In Vietnam, Monks Lead Protest to Repression.
[26] Letter written to Do Muoi, Thich Quang Do, written in 1994. 

[27] Letter of truth Venerable Thich Quang Do sent to HCMC police.
[28] RFA interviews Venerable Thich Quang Do.
[29] Letter of truth Venerable Thich Quang Do sent to HCMC police.
[30] In the News Summer 2001, Tricycle.
[31] Venerable Thich Quang Do publicizes his call for democracy.
[32] Venerable Thich Quang Do’s call for democracy in Vietnam.
[33] Vietnam denounces Venerable Thich Huyen Quang.
[34] Vietnam backs down over monks.
[35] In My Review: Vietnam’s Buddhist Monk.
[36, 37] Australian ambassador visits Venerable Thich Quang Do.

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Vietnam: In The Middle Of The COVID-19 Pandemic, They Are The Ones Being Left Behind



Photo credit: Canva (background photo). Twitter/ RFA/ AFP (other photos). Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

Since the first infections were detected in the country, Vietnam has surpassed [1] 100,000 Covid-19 cases spanning 62 out of its 63 provinces and more than 1,000 deaths. As the pandemic shows no signs of vanishing anytime soon, especially in the southern provinces, this Southeast Asian country faces both a healthcare and economic crisis.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, as usual, has been deploying propaganda, at maximum capacity, to placate the public. Vigorous slogans, from promises of “leaving no one behind” to “protecting people’s lives remain a top priority” [2], are dominating state media and pro-government online groups on social media.

However, the reality is far gloomier than the Party’s political discourse.

Besides revealing the darker side [3] of Vietnam’s epidemiological strategy, the pandemic also deepens the increasingly widening gap between the haves and have-nots and between the people with power and those without. 

The Workers

According to the Vietnam General Statistics Office report, [4] nearly 13 million workers were negatively affected by the economic downturn caused by the third and fourth wave of Covid-19 outbreaks. This number includes [5] about 557,000 people who lost their jobs, 4.3 million people who had their working hours cut, those who had to take time off from work or had to rotate shifts, and another 8.5 million who had their income reduced.

The pandemic has had an impartial effect on the Vietnamese labor market, but so far, freelance and manual workers are among those who got hit the hardest.

In Vietnam, the term “freelance workers” has a very different connotation compared to the West. This workforce primarily consists of senior citizens, the impoverished, and college graduates, who lack physical health and certain skills that the average employer often deems necessary. They are known for doing various unskilled jobs, such as being street vendors, motorbike drivers, lottery ticket sellers, and the like.

These freelance workers usually rely on their own labor to make ends meet daily while lacking health insurance and many personal savings, so they are at a greater risk of getting infected with the coronavirus or becoming financially strained under lockdown measures and other anti-coronavirus restrictions. Furthermore, stagnant economic activities, coupled with the government’s ineffective financial assistance schemes, seem to add [6] to their struggle.

A street vendor in Da Nang City. Photo: RFA.

At the same time, factory workers, the backbone of Vietnam’s export-oriented economy, are also facing another set of challenges in the midst of the pandemic.

When coronavirus infections started to spread inside many factories during the latest outbreak, most workers were required to be quarantined inside their workplaces while continuing production in a strategy known as “dual goal.” [7] This strategy aimed to control infections while at the same time maintaining industrial production.

However, risky working environments and the factories’ poor accommodations have sparked anger among many workers, causing them to flee their workplaces. Meanwhile, on social media, many people have also expressed their disagreement with the decisions of local authorities, repeatedly condemning [8] them for compromising workers’ health for cash.

Besides rigid anti-coronavirus measures, the “ho khau” system, a household registration scheme used in Vietnam, has created another burden for these unskilled workers, especially for migrants from poorer provinces seeking manual jobs in big cities and industrial zones.

More specifically, this household registration system denies migrant workers the eligibility to receive public services and welfare assistance where they temporarily live and work, such as healthcare and education, unless they register with local police.

Many migrant workers chose to return to their hometowns by motorbikes. Photo: Người Huế ở Sì Gòn (Facebook group)/ BBC Vietnamese.

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s bureaucratic public services, alongside rampant corruption in the registration process, leaves many of them living illegally without legitimate status. As a result, when several southern industrial provinces and the economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City remained under lockdown to battle the latest outbreak of Covid-19, a large number of these employees were left with no choice but to return to their hometowns to avoid infection and to overcome the financial difficulties caused by their unemployment.

Over the past few weeks, a massive exodus of migrant workers has been seen, with workers risking their lives on arduous journeys to go back home. Many choose motorbikes, and some attempted to make it on foot, [9] with several unfortunate souls losing their lives along the way. In response, several provinces have publicized official announcements citing the Covid-19 infection risk to urge migrant workers not to return home [10] or to “go back to where they started.” [11]

This dire situation has led to an outcry on Vietnamese social media. Many users are questioning the government’s response and criticizing its failure to provide financial assistance to these people, secure safer means of homebound transportation, and provide housing in adequate quarantine facilities.

A worker walked more than 180 km in 16 days from Dak Lak Province to his sister’s house in Binh Phuoc Province, as he did not have enough money for a bus ride. Photo: Zing News/ provided by the worker.

Inmates, Prisoners of Conscience, and Addicts

Multiple prisons and rehabilitation centers, especially in several southern localities, have also become new hotspots of infections during the fourth wave of the Covid-19 outbreak in Vietnam.

On July 7, local authorities declared [12] that Chi Hoa Prison, a detention center located in Ho Chi Minh City, had recorded more than 80 people infected with Covid-19, including detainees and correctional officers. As the situation worsened, riots began to erupt [13] inside the facility as the rapid spread of coronavirus fueled fear among hundreds of inmates.

A few weeks later, on July 23, all of the staff and addicts [14] at Bo La Rehabilitation Center, a facility located in the southern province of Binh Duong, tested positive for Covid-19. At the same time, a mental health hospital in Ho Chi Minh City also diverted a part of its functionality to treat Covid-19 patients, including many infected mental health patients, as surging cases overloaded healthcare capacity in the city.

The infrastructure of detention and rehabilitation centers in Vietnam in general and other public facilities have long been infamously known for their degradation, poor living conditions, and maltreatment of prisoners and patients.

Riot police vans were seen leaving the Chi Hoa Prison after reportedly being deployed to quell riots. Photo courtesy: Dinh Van/ VnExpress.

Several family members of prisoners of conscience have also expressed their concerns over the safety of their relatives amid the Covid-19 situation. During interviews with RFA Vietnamese, [16] many expressed concerns that the proximity of sleeping quarters, poor living conditions, and limited information about the prisoners threaten the well-being of the people being kept inside the cells.

Currently, prisoners, addicts, and mental health patients are not part of the official list [17] of 16 qualified priority groups to receive Covid-19 vaccinations, despite promises of future vaccination opportunities. However, given Vietnam’s ongoing vaccine shortage, these people will likely be the last to receive the vaccine.

Other Vulnerable Groups

The latest vaccination scandals [18] include a woman and her husband being prioritized to get vaccinated thanks to her father’s connections and a decision from Ho Chi Minh City authorities to lend Vingroup, a local conglomerate, 5,000 Moderna doses from the COVAX initiative to inoculate its staff, raise questions about equal access to the Covid-19 vaccine for all Vietnamese citizens.

From a broader perspective, the political landscape in Vietnam is deepening the inequality in vaccine distribution. Government officials with strong connections or powerful corporations with economic clout can “cut in line” [19] to get vaccinated first, taking away inoculation opportunities from others, especially those who are most vulnerable once infected.

As of July 19, [20] Ho Chi Minh City has officially begun vaccinating older adults and patients with underlying health conditions in the fifth phase of its inoculation campaign. Still, authorities have neither provided further information on the screening process nor medical assistance should side effects occur in these high-risk groups. Meanwhile, vaccination schedules for other vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, war veterans, and the disabled have remained undisclosed.

Homeless people in Ho Chi Minh City amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Lao Dong.

The Communist Party, since the very first days of its establishment, has prided itself on being “a Party of the people, of the working class.” [21] The Party manifests its ideology in the notion that their ultimate goals are “nothing other than the interests of the [working] class, the people and the nation” to build a more “democratic, wealthy and equal Vietnam.”

Almost a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has fully uncovered what the Party has been dedicating its whole lifespan to achieving benefits for itself and those living dependent on the corrupt system. Ironically, the poor, migrant workers or prisoners of conscience have never been of great concern to the Communist regime.

As the dark clouds of Covid-19 continue to loom large over Vietnam, the tragic fates of those voiceless and powerless people mentioned above seem astoundingly more genuine than the Party’s empty promises.


  1. Số liệu Covid-19 tại Việt Nam. (2021, August 2). VnExpress.
  2. Tiep, P. (2021, May 16). Quyết tâm đẩy lùi dịch COVID-19, bảo vệ sức khỏe nhân dân là trên hết. Báo Công An Nhân Dân.
  3. Jason, N. (2021, July 21). How The Latest Outbreak Reveals The Darker Side Of Vietnam’s Anti-Coronavirus Strategy. The Vietnamese Magazine.
  4. Bang, L. (2021, July 7). Over 1.1 million people unemployed, nearly 13 million others affected by Covid-19 pandemic. Vietnamnet.
  5. VOA News. (2021, July 16). Vietnam Shops for Vaccines in Hopes of Avoiding More Lockdowns. VOA.
  6. RFA. (2021, June 7). Lao động tự do chật vật trong đợt dịch COVID-19 thứ tư. Đài Á Châu Tự Do.
  7. Việt Nam có nên vận dụng “mục tiêu kép” trong lúc này? (2021, May 27). Đài Á Châu Tự Do.
  8. Ibid., [7]
  9. Nhi, T. (2021, July 26). Người đàn ông đi bộ 16 ngày từ Đắk Lắk về Bình Phước để tránh dịch. Zing News.
  10. Nguyen, C. (2021, August 1). Xót xa cả gia đình gặp nạn trên đường về quê tránh dịch Covid-19. Người Lao Động.
  11. Ngoc, N. (2021, July 31). Từ 1/8, dân Quảng Ngãi buộc quay lại nơi xuất phát. Tiền Phong.
  12. Tinh, D. (2021, July 7). TP.HCM: Ổ dịch tại Trại tạm giam Chí Hòa có 81 ca nhiễm Covid-19. Thanh Niên Online.
  13. Trại Chí Hòa: Hàng trăm phạm nhân nổi dậy sau khi 81 người nhiễm COVID-19 trong trại. (2021, July 7). Đài Á Châu Tự Do.
  14. Canh, N. (2021, July 23). Toàn bộ những người ở cơ sở cai nghiện ma tuý Bố Lá dương tính với SARS-CoV-2. Báo Công An Nhân Dân.
  15. Anh, T. (2021, July 25). TP HCM lập bệnh viện điều trị người tâm thần mắc Covid-19. VnExpress.
  16. Son, T. (2021, July 7). COVID-19 xâm nhập trại giam: lo lắng cho an nguy của các tù nhân. Đài Á Châu Tự Do.
  17. Thanh, A. (2021, July 11). [Infographic] Những nhóm mở rộng được ưu tiên tiêm vắc-xin Covid-19. Người Lao Động.
  18. The Vietnamese Magazine. (2021, July 26). Vietnam Briefing: COVID-19 Crisis Deepening While The National Assembly Convened To Elect State Leadership. The Vietnamese Magazine.
  19. Minh, N. (2021, July 22). Có bao nhiêu “cháu ngoại” đã trót lọt chen hàng để tiêm vaccine trước? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí.
  20. L.Đ.O. (2021, July 19). Người già, người có bệnh nền tại TPHCM được tiêm vaccine tại bệnh viện. Người Lao Động.
  21. L.Đ.O. (2020, January 28). Đảng của dân tộc, Đảng của giai cấp công nhân. Người Lao Động.

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Vietnam: How Powerful Is The Prime Minister?



Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. Photo:

Among the “four pillars,” the position of prime minister possesses both power and prestige.

In the spring of 2021, Vietnam has a new leader: Pham Minh Chinh, a former police intelligence officer and former head of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Organization Commission. On July 26, 2021, Pham Minh Chinh, once again, takes his oath to be the prime minister of Vietnam for the next 5 years.

One amongst “four pillars of the imperial court”

In the article “A few things you should know about Vietnam’s National Assembly chairmanship,” we wrote about the formation of the institutional division of power known as the “four pillars,” which includes the general secretary, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairman of the National Assembly.

If the state president and the chairman of the National Assembly, two among four of the most powerful positions in the Vietnamese Communist Party hierarchy, serve as primarily ceremonial positions, then the prime minister has both pomp and power, possessing broad authority in the governing system.

The prime ministership was once a position without any notable power. Before Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s term (1991-1997), previous prime ministers left a very little mark, except for Ho Chi Minh – who served as both state president and prime minister from 1946-1955.

Prime ministers after him, such as Pham Van Dong (1955-1987), Pham Hung (1987-1988), and Do Muoi (1988-1991), all served during periods where the government functioned according to the direction and management of the Party, rather than with tools of the executive branch. The same could be said during periods where Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan had overwhelming individual influence over the Party, causing other institutions and positions, including the prime ministership, to be subservient. 

In the 1980 Constitution, the government was called the Council of Ministers, with the prime minister position changed to the chairman of the Council of Ministers. This was an institution of collective leadership, with the powers of the chairman being minimal. With the 1992 Constitution, Vietnam reverted to the government mechanism in which the prime minister was head, concentrating greater power in his hands rather than practicing collective decision-making as in the past. Vo Van Kiet was the first prime minister to enjoy the new system under the 1992 Constitution.

With the depth and broadness of economic reform, the government’s role in managing national affairs grew by the day to more quickly, effectively, and dynamically respond to domestic and international developments. This increase in authority also served to more adequately address the increasing importance of foreign affairs in the age of globalization. The position of prime minister, thus, became extremely powerful. Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016) is seen as the most powerful prime minister ever and once competed fiercely for the position of general secretary. 

Who elects the prime minister?

Vietnam’s central government is modeled on the parliamentary system, with the central role (theoretically) held by the National Assembly. Constituents elect members of the National Assembly, and the National Assembly elects the government’s leadership figures, including the prime minister. (Obviously, everyone knows who actually “elects” the members of the National Assembly and the prime minister). The prime minister must be a member of the National Assembly.

Normally, electing the prime minister occurs during the first session of the new National Assembly term, after the general election, which occurs after the Party congress. In 2016, the procedure took an unusual turn: the National Assembly elected the new prime minister in the last meeting of its term in April, preceding the general election by more than a month. After the general election, the new National Assembly then repeated the election of the prime minister one more time. Nguyen Xuan Phuc was sworn into office twice in 2016. Pham Minh Chinh also had the same experience in 2021.

How powerful is the prime minister?

The prime minister’s powers are stipulated in Article 98 of the Constitution and Article 28 of the Law on Government Organization (ratified in 2015 and amended in 2019).

As head of state administration, this position has broad authority, from enforcing laws and organizing personnel to proposing and distributing the budget.

As a unitary state, the central government has overarching authority, with the prime minister’s power extending from the center all the way to the provinces and cities.

Outside his separate authority, the prime minister also has general authority over the collective decisions and resolutions of the cabinet.

For more details, please see the two documents described above. Here, we would like to list a few of the prime minister’s decision-making powers to demonstrate just how influential this position is in the economic sphere:

·      Regarding land: has the power to establish a council to assess land usage programs and plans at the national level; approves changes in land usage purposes on rice cultivation fields 10 hectares and above, protected and special-use forest land 20 hectares and above; decides the policy framework for compensation, support, and resettlement in special cases; decides price tables for province-level land in many cases; decides on several cases in which the usage rights for land the state allocates or leases are not auctioned.

·      Regarding investment: has the power to approve investment plans on the scale of airports, ports, oil and gas rigs, large urban areas, industrial zones, and export processing zones; approves investment plans overseas in banking, insurance, stocks, and telecommunications…from 400 billion dong and above, along with other projects involving capital of 800 billion dong and above.

Is prime minister the highest attainable position?

No. In the party power hierarchy, the general secretary remains at the top and is the most powerful position overall. 

There has never been a prime minister who has risen to become general secretary, except for Do Muoi, who was the chairman of the Council of Ministers. Nearly all served only one or two terms before retiring, except Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who served as prime minister and then stepped down to become state president, a much less powerful position. 

This article describes the power of the prime minister, but in actuality, we have only spoken of it in legal terms and in relation to the order of power in the party. The position’s power is also dependent on the individual’s level of influence within the party.

To put it another way, a leader’s power is the sum of his or her institutional power and individual sway. If the system bestows power but the individual leader doesn’t have the ability to wield it properly, then he does not have much power at all. Conversely, the system can bestow limited power, but an individual can exercise influence beyond his institutional limits. 

This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 6, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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