HANOI, Vietnam -- The phrase on almost everyone's lips in Vietnam is "theo kip," which means "catch up," as in this impoverished nation catching up with the rest of the world. But the government is learning that prosperity is also linked to another expression: "family planning."

Women in Vietnam have an average of 3.8 children each -- the highest fertility rate in the region. In Thailand, the figure is 2.9 children; China, which has gone so far as to monitor women's menstrual cycles and to insist on abortions, has reduced its fertility rate to 2.

The fertility rate in Vietnam ensures that even if new family planning programs prove successful, the population will continue to grow for at least another 50 years. The current population of 74 million people is projected to increase to 140 million by the year 2050 and only then level off -- this in a country already struggling to feed itself.

"Some years ago leaders didn't want to talk about family planning work," says Mai Ky, the minister in charge of family planning. "It was viewed as less important, and they were embarrassed to talk about deliveries and births."

The population surge is one of the first things people notice about Vietnam. U.S. officials who accompanied Secretary of State Warren Christopher on his trip to Hanoi last month expressed surprise at how few Vietnamese had firsthand experience of the Vietnam War. About 60 percent of the country's population is under age 25.

Now, the government wants to encourage parents to settle for no more than one or two children. That indeed is to be the program's slogan: "One or two children are better."

Mr. Ky acknowledges that such a policy carries the risk of coercion, especially since the program calls for Communist Party members to be evaluated on how well their districts fare in limiting births.

But he insisted that government "motivators" are charged only with educating the population -- not with monitoring of households.

To set a strict limit of only one child would inevitably lead to coercion, he says, citing the example of China.

Andrew McNee, a program officer with the U.N. Population Fund, says the government apparently realizes that force would eventually fail: "Ultimately, these strategies can backfire and are not sustainable over time because people resent them."

In Vietnam, the population problem is most acute in the rural FTC areas, where farmers equate children with field labor -- the more children, the more agricultural wealth for the family. But the high birth rate helps fuels the cycle of poverty.

Many of the children die young, since more than half the population of young people is malnourished -- because the population is outstripping the food supply.

The high birth rate also has consequences on unemployment and poverty relief.

Agriculture officials calculate that Vietnam requires a fifth of an acre a person if the country is to be able to feed itself. In the north the ratio has already fallen to a tenth of an acre a person, causing a new wave of migration into cities and the south, with the migrants showing up on city streets, searching for jobs.

Nguyen Van Binh, for example, left Son La province four years ago to look for work in Hanoi. With nine brothers and sisters, he didn't have to worry about leaving his parents' farm untended.

He works about four days a week -- more if he's lucky -- digging ditches and carting loads at construction sites. He sends home about $30 a month, about 30 percent of his family's needs.

Mr. Binh, 21, said family planning was rarely discussed in his hometown. "So many children isn't so good," he says. "I'd like to have a family, but I want to be able to feed them all and send them all to school."

Before Vietnam was unified in 1975 with the North's conquering of the South, North Vietnam had a family planning policy, albeit an ineffective one, according to Mr. Ky. Later, unified Vietnam officially encouraged the use of birth control. But this too was largely ignored.

From 52 million people in its first national census in 1979, Vietnam's population grew to 64 million in 1989. Meanwhile, Mr. Ky notes, neighboring countries were seeing their population growth level off, allowing their booming economies to make people richer. Thailand began family planning programs in 1970, helping the birth rate to drop dramatically by 1990.

In Vietnam, progress may be slowed by the limited resources. Including international assistance, Vietnam spends 40 cents per person annually on family planning, a 10-fold increase over the past three years, but still dwarfed by the $1.10 per person spent by China or the $1 per person by Indonesia.

Mr. McNee of the U.N. Population Fund says that international donors are expanding programs in Vietnam.

His organization is in the middle of a five-year, $30 million program making Vietnam the third-largest recipient of U.N. family planning aid in the world, after India and China. Germany and Australia are two other major donors; no money comes from the United States.

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