Do Thai Dong
Institute of Social Sciences
Ho Chi Minh City

1 - The problem of the role of households in agricultural production was basically solved by Decision No10 of the Central Committee of Vietnam Communist Party, which recognized the household's autonomy in production and trade. Many years before, the ambition of abolishing private peasant ownership led to the idea of eliminating the household as a basic production unit and to replace it with compulsory agricultural cooperatives. Practice, however, has shown that the household economy has a tenacious vitality as it has since ancient times, and all rural development policies should be bared on this as a point of departure.
In most cases, our notion of the household economy, especially households in the Mekong Delta, coincides with the notion of the peasant family. It is different from western farms not only by acreage size but also by the way business is conducted. Anyway, the household economy is a small family economy, which belongs to a pre-capitalist mode of production. It is not a component of capitalist market as is the farm economy.
As a production unit, a family in the Mekong Delta does not differ much from families in northern or central Vietnam. Like others, it is a unit of land ownership and land use, a unit which carries on investment and savings. It is also self-financed and self-managed, balancing its production and consumption, and at the same time it is a unit which bears all duties before the state. A family itself decides how to organize the production process, how to use all abilities among its old and young, male and female members, giving everybody jobs, and how to balance its labour between different activities.
Unlike families in cities and industrial areas, rural family is both a production unit and a living unit at the same time. Those two functions are not separated, so production is carried on a family scale, in a family framework and in accordance with family traditions. This is the historical mode of production in Vietnam's agriculture, a historically originated type of relations of production which reflects a certain level of development of productive forces. Today, as well as in the future, it is impossible to develop agricultural production and build up rural social life without this basic family unit concept, with production and everyday life activities of peasant families which represent the basic of rural life and agriculture.
What are the constituent factors of the household economy? To answer this question we need to study the following fundamental factors : number of people in a family, land stock, number and characters of labours, sources of funds and means of production, and finally, sources of income from agricultural and non-agricultural activities.
There are many surveys done in recent years on the demographic aspect of the Mekong Delta, which have shown that the household average demographic size is 5,5 people per unit and that the tendency is to keep this size stable although sometimes the current land allocation system, which had taken family size as its main criteria, has encouraged people to divide families into smaller ones. The average number of 5,5 people per family was resulted by many socio-economic factors, especially by population growth rate in last 15 years. It is noted that families with 4-10 members now make up 85% of the total number of families in this area. 3% of families have 2 members and only 2% of families have more than 12 members.
Certainly, the reproduction of generations plays an important role in maintaining this family size. More than 70% of families consist of 2 generations - parents and their children, while about over 25% comprise 3 generations . This can be expected to be the picture of rural family in the long term future. With this family size, people always have a demographic-labour structure, which is based on the major labour of husband and wife, and subordinate labour from those family's member under 16 or over 60 years of age. This also means that a labourer has two mouths to feed.
Demographic analysis is closely related to analysis of land owned by families. It is not simple to survey households' land fund changes in the Mekong Delta due to intricate changes caused by the land "adjustments" after 1975, through collectivization and equal distribution of land under Direction No.100 issued by Secretariat of the Party Central Committee in 1982. Land disputes, which occured during period 1987-89, revealed those intricate problems.
After promulgation of Decision No.10 on the reform of agricultural management, a majority of disputes were solved as long as household rights to long-term land use was recognized. Land law issued in 1992 went further, extending recognition to the rights of land inheritance, transfer and use as pledge. Actually, land distribution tends to be determined not by an equality objective, as formerly, but to be influenced largely by market relations. A land accumulation process also appears.
However, in order to follow the changes in households' land use in the Mekong Delta, we need to focus on the whole process through most important periods. This is closely related and serves as a base for analysis of rural class structure in Mekong Delta and serves to forecast future structural changes.
Land reforms, which were implemented by both the revolutionary, as well as the former Saigon authorities before 1975, have led to complete abolition of big landlord property holdings. The middle class, which made up 70% of households in the delta, represents a relatively stable land distributive situation where the average size of ownership was below 5 hectares per household in major agricultural regions. Well-to-do middle households usually concentrated in economically prosperous regions, where population density was already high, so that their cultivated acreage rarely could exceed 5 hectares, excluding those who had land under cultivation in wild areas. The number of landless households make up about three to five percent and this figure differes through region. The pressure of population growth in combination with limited available land caused a decrease in the average cultivated acreage per head in the area along the Tien river and the Hau river.
Land adjustments in 1978 and agricultural collectivization in 1982 caused serious ups and downs in household land ownership relations, especially in terms of the middle class. A meticulous survey in Thot Not district in 1986, which allowed to forecast land disputes latter, confirmed that 50% of the whole acreage in villages changed hands. The following is an example of the land ownership picture in a village with long-standing population in Thot Not district (Phung village, Thach An commune):
Acreage under cultivation by household use periods:


Acreage ('000m2)

% of total

Before 1975



More than 5 years



More than 3 year



Less than 3 years



First year






Source: Rural survey, made by Do Thai Dong in Thot Not district, 1986.

Thus, more than 50% of land belonged to households since before 1975. Changes of land in last 12 years relate to the other half of the land, major parts of which changed owners in the period 1978-82. Disputes for land, which occurred since 1987, had led to the complete collapse of various production brigades and co-operatives formed in administrative way. Hence, household autonomy in production was recognized indifferently. In addition, a major part of land, which changed owners, was returned to its original owners. So far, the major role in stabilizing land situation in the Mekong Delta belonges to the peasantry, who themselves carried on negotiations and settled disputes. However, there still are small land disputes between members of families.

2 - In fact, Decision No.10 served only as a recognition of land situation which was formed a long time ago in the Mekong Delta. The former land situation now appears again in which the over-whelming majority of households are middle class, including about 10% rich, 70% middle and 20% poor. From now on, land may be reallocated in accordance with market relations.
However, in the traditional agricultural regions of the Mekong Delta, land property of 3 to 5 hectares will be a model, which represents a long term, and almost insurmountable limit for land accumulation. This, due to many factors, will also be a stable, long-term cultivated model for prosperous household in the deltas of the Tien and Hau rivers. The majority of the rest households will have approximately one hectare of land each and the per capita average acreage will be about 3,000 m2. This will also be a picture of a typical middle peasant, the most popular among population in the Mekong Delta.
So, the Mekong Delta development strategies in the future will face a class structure, in which the middle peasant household will still be a major unit of production. Middle peasant households can still reach a higher production level in many ways. But the size of land accumulation, if it occurs, has historical limits, which can not be exceeded to form big farms. The Mekong Delta has historically never seen a rural bourgeois class. And there is not any sign of the apperance of a capitalist mode and a bourgeois class in agriculture yet.
Certainly, differences between different groups of household still remain, and will become greater. There are many criteria for household classification, such as the level of market-oriented production, the income level and finally the ability to turn out non-agricultural activities together with agricultural ones.
Recently, households, which have proven their abilities and the mode of market-oriented production, make up only 10% of middle peasant households in the Mekong Delta. There are many conditions which converge to raise their abilities of market-oriented production.
The land size is still the crucial condition. Only in newly opened-up land we can meet households with a big acreage of several tens hectares and more. But in regions, where the population density is high, the acreage of 3 hectares under crop and several thousands square metres of garden is typical size for the solid middle peasant household. Thus, land fund is one of the fundamental factor, but it is uncertain that it can determine market-oriented production abilities of a household.
Capital, which households had saved formerly and stared boldly using in their business, is the most important factor for households to prove their actual role in market-oriented production in rural areas. Although this source of capital is very difficult to measure, reality shows that peasants spent large amounts of money and gold buying machinery, transport means and processing workshops, promoting crop specialization, investing in aquaculture, biding projects in forestry and fishery, hiring a large number of labour for developing reclaimed areas.
It is necessary to note that capital use in those cases must be accompanied by rather thorough knowledge, broad production experiences, as well as dynamic managerial skills. Those households which produce for the market usually diversify their activities and change their targets to satisfy market requirements. Thus, their technical level of production as well as marketing skills are much higher than those of other households.
This kind of households represents productive forces of goods in rural areas, and at the same time it expresses potentials of structural changes in the rural economy through diversification and specification, in conjunction with development of processing industries and industrialization. Hence, despite a small percentage in whole middle class (10%), those households are the vanguard in implementing rural development projects in the future.
It is also noted that turning to the market economy, about 40% of the households in the Mekong Delta will be able to overtake self-sufficient level and choose a way to develop into market economy. This kind of households is a major figure in the Mekong Delta. It is unlike in the situation in the Red River Delta and Central Vietnam, where poor peasants are considered to be the most regular in rural areas. Certainly, market-oriented production capability of those middle peasants is much lower than prosperous peasants mentioned above.Their land scale is 3 times larger than average acreage in northern Vietnam, but only about 1 hectare per household. In areas with high population density, many households possess only 0.7 hectares of cultivated land, so per capita acreage falls to less than 2 000 m2. It is difficult for those households to get funds to buy more land, though when asked, 60% of them want to have more land for cultivation.
Capital restrictions are more clear. In many cases, households face difficulties due to lack of money, especially when they need to stage large investments. Many households have to borrow and seek for support from rural development credit societies.
From such an aspect as production experiences and knowledge, they are promising forces in the way of speeding up the development in the Mekong Delta.
Thus, except prosperous middle households, which make up 50% of the total number of households, we have 30% of households with production as well as income level below the average and other 20% of poor households.
Households below the average can only reach self-sufficiency. Although they have almost approximate acreage, due to lack of funds they often have to borrow on high interests. This group is typical for the rice single crop system, which has no chance to develop other productive activities. Farming is the sole livelihood for this type of households. Their per capita income is about $30-40. In difficult situations caused by natural calamities, they also fall in food shortage. In several recent years, because of the increase of labour productivity since decision No.10 and due to positive influence from export activities, income for those households has increased. However, in the long run, a prospect of higher living standards will not be easy if the price of inputs still remains at a high level while the price of agricultural products may fall.
From such an aspect as the attitude towards development programs, those households making up 30% of the total await support for production which can create conditions to bring their own productive forces into full play and help them to overtake difficulties. Expected solutions for this vicious circle are not temporary aid or even short term loans for fertilizers or insecticide purchases. Peasants sometimes experience all the inconveniences of loan procedures. The solution is medium and long term measures which create conditions for them to move forwards applying technical and scientific progress, carrying on intensive cultivation, specification and turning to new activities.
20% of the households are poor, with an average per capita income below 25,000 Dong per month. A survey done by the General Statistical Office in 1989 and the Policy Department of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1990 determined the poverty level as a real monthly per capita income which equals 20 kilograms of rice. In comparison with this level, the situation in the Mekong Delta was worse. Surveys had shown that in 1990, the proportion of poor groups among the total population of the Mekong Delta was almost the same as in northern and central Vietnam. (For example, in Hau Giang province in 1989 12.1% of the total households were poor. The similar indicator in Tien Giang province in 1990 was 15.2%. Meanwhile, the figure for Quang Nam province was 14.4% and was 14% in Ha Nam Ninh province in 1990). If compared with the Eastern South, so poor population in Tien Giang province in 1990 made up 15.2%, may be higher than in Lam Dong province in the same year - 11.9%.
Despite the fact that the Mekong Delta is the rice bowl of the country, this region still has hungry people, especially when natural calamities occur. According to an assessment made by Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, 6% of the households in this region are chronically hungry throughout the year. This group concentrates in areas with aluminous or saline soil where people can harvest only once a year.
Poor people do not necessary experience a lack of land, but it is a fact that they use land inefficiently. Lack of funds is also one of the reasons. But first of all, this often is the situation when hunger leads households to short term borrowings for very high interest rates so that later they have to pay debts by selling out young paddy and reach a deadlock. It is necessary to note that in the Mekong Delta usury is very serious and almost a custom. Interest rates may reach the level of 20% or even 30% per month. Social evils such as gambling and drinking, together with illiteracy are other factors explaining poverty in the Mekong Delta.
Being a hired labourer is one of the ways for poor people to earn their living and this is popular in the Mekong River Delta. The phenomenon of a hired agricultural worker, who has no land and no properties, but has an income above the average, sometimes is highly praised. There are different points of view about this phenomenon. Supporters of land accumulation explain that it is an inevitable process in which land is accumulated by households, who are able to use it more efficiently. Other people say that this phenomenon indeed causes anxiety, because it creates social differentiation and increases the number of rural proletariat, who do not have stable earnings. Both points of view are reasonable to some extend, if we consider only the land factor and exclude all other possibilities, which could play a more significant role in solving the problem of surplus labour in rural areas.
Certainly, there are other factors, which must be considered carefully. For example, if the land accumulation process goes too quickly, it will inevitably cause social troubles due to the polarization of the rich and poor. In some places the numbers of households who have sold all of their land has reached 15-20% of the total population. This figure causes anxiety. Also, it is necessary to take practical and immediate measures to alleviate hunger, and to reduce the debts of peasants to usurers. An initiative in mobilizing credit for poor people would be very helpful now, especially in the poorest regions. If activities of local authorities to alleviate poverty could become more effective, it also could contribute to finding more immediate measures to reduce difficulties in the poorest group.
However, in the long run, problems of surplus labour and reduced land under cultivation caused by population growth, will demand more fundamental development measures. These measures must aim to create alternative sources of income, firstl from agricultural activities and then from non-agricultural ones.
In agriculture at the present time, 50% of households have only two sources of income: first, from rice cultivation, and second, from pig raising. Very few households could turn poultry or cattle raising, or fishing into major sources of income. Almost all poor households have only one source of income. They are totally dependant on the rice crop. Even amongst middle peasant households, it is noted that only 60% have stable incomes from pig raising, and 8% from poultry raising. Households who cultivate fruit on such a scale that it becomes a major source of income, usually are concentrated in several regions which have traditions in this kind of cultivation, and have access to markets. Regarding fishery activities, a survey in South Mang Thit, a region with a maritime economy, showed that only 8% of households have regular incomes from fish and shrimp raising.
Income from non-agricultural activities contributed an even smaller proportion. Only prosperous villagers can turn to non-agricultural activities and agricultural services. Very few people can do business in trading tractor ploughs, harrows and other agricultural machinery. Numbers of people involved with agricultural services is also restricted by the small scale of activities, and in many case, those people are dependent on traders. Food processing and other small industries have started thriving in rural areas. However, middle peasant households, or even prosperous ones are not able to develop steadily their household economy.

3 - We can see from the above facts that to turn a household into a factor for development in the future, to change the nature of the household income structure, to help households to generate savings and to be able to solve essential problems of surplus of labour, it is clear that we have to solve problems outside of the household framework. How to organize the current economy so that it integrates household resources, agriculture and industry. Thus, inevitably it touches upon problems of cooperativization and industrialization in rural areas.
When production reaches a certain level, it will automatically bring about the development of co-operative structures. This happens inevitably in the process of socializing production. Every household, even if it is given the maximum autonomy in production, has a limited space for development, especially in the market mechanism. A household, which lacks , the means of production, or information, will not be able to meet requirements of the market with its changing completlity. Hence, households themselves need to co-operate.
In other countries, there are various co-operative forms and co-operatives in every field of production and trade. Those co-operatives sometimes are large, just like unions of producers in agriculture. Some co-operatives are able to control the markets for agricultural products. They just integrate agriculture and industry in order to supply goods in large quantities and with high commercial value. Due to their power, co-operatives can defend the interests of agricultural interests in the market.
In Vietnam, compulsory co-operativization was applied for a period of time. Especially in the Mekong Delta, collectivization had deprived households of autonomy, hence incurring deep displeasure and negativity from the peasantry. However, today after households were given autonomy in production, forms of co-operation of production under different names started to appear again. Focusing on these co-operative forms, we can derive the following features.
The membership of co-operatives is made up of households. Co-operation is completely voluntarily, and is initiated and established by households, without any intervention from the authorities. The field for co-operation is very concrete. It aims at some production or trading activity such as cultivation of new crops, application of a new breed, raising of fish, shrimp, milch cow, services like tillage, applying fertilizer and plant protection. Management is very simple, and management methods may be changed to achieve greater efficiency, without any bureaucratic mechanism. Co-operatives defend the interest of the peasantry against pressures from private traders, by using different arrangements for input supply through direct relationship with large companies. They also take responsibility for getting loans and credits from banks, helping their members to use these sources of funds efficiently, and supervising in-time payment of debt.
Many forms of co-operative groups of production have developed in different regions. For example, a recent survey in An Giang province revealed that the province has 2,191 co-operative groups of production, attracting 78,952 households, and occupying 41.1% of cultivated acreage - 70,289 hectares. 50% of households who are raising fish, pigs, cows, have joined co-operative groups for animal husbandry in order to make it more convenient to receive new techniques and to take an active role in the marketing of their outputs.
Making an assessment of this new tendency, the An Giang Provincial Rural Development Program had made the following remarks:
1) Peasant households have become autonomous units, and now, step-by-step turn into commodity producers. Co-operativization does not mean the abolishment of individual household economies, as with former thinking, but on the contrary, it aims at helping the household economy, and facilitating the development of the household economy.
2) Co-operation is based on the social division of labour, and hence it facilitates the appearance of increasingly specialized production and service entities.
3) Co-operativization in the market economy does not mean the abolishment of private ownership and private interests. Contrarily, it is necessary to exploit private interests as a motive force for production development, bringing into play the spirit of co-operation between the peasantry.
4) The co-operative is an important link for speeding up scientific-technical progress, acting as a base for technological transfer and technical diffusion in rural areas.
To sum up, new co-operative forms started their first steps under favorable conditions. They brought with them the practical efficiency of production and trade. However, it is too early to say that these co-operation forms will develope further by themselves. In fact, these forms appear in very small numbers and they lack full capacity in terms of fundamental development targets.
Rural economic infrastructure in the Mekong Delta still remains very weak. To develop infrastructure, it is expected that people's savings may be partially mobilized and used by co-operatives. But the government still plays a key role in supporting co-operatives, helping to supply them with technical equipment for increasingly specialized sectors. Governmental support given to co-operatives is not subsidized. It comprises loans, tax policy, protection of the market for their products, import of technical equipment, and especially the supply of intellectual labour, including technical and managerial. The goal is to advance co-operatives step-by-step from scattered units to a co-operative network, which comprises large-scale production and trading systems.
Government plays an especially important role in agricultural financial support policy. Co-operatives will be major objects for effective implementation of the policy, whose goal is to thoroughly develop the entire rural sector.
In the beginning, financial support usually aims at immediate household needs. Loans are between several hundred thousand to a million dong, at current price levels. This amount is just enough for a household to meet everyday consumption needs or to purchase inputs (seeds, fertilizer, fuel). With such a small amount, a household can also pay debts to credit societies or rural development banks.
However, later it will be more important that loans and funds from rural banks and credit societies will be used for relatively big projects, which are scheduled to be implemented by co-operatives. Loans will also be made through credit co-operatives, whose funds come from the contributions of peasants contribution and agricultural funding. In the future, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, as well as other foreign banks also can finance large-scale projects through large co-operatives in animal husbandry, rice and fruit exports, forestry, etc.
In fact, when the peasantry's internal savings will be greater, the co-operative role in attracting this source of funds will be much more important. Foreign experiences show that if there are not projects which can attract this source of funds to develop the local economy, peasants will send most of their savings to big cities to benefit from non-agricultural activities. Hence the government should have medium- and long-term development programs to support co-operatives in circulating peasant's funds, which cannot be done efficiently by single households.