Long-term Economics Statistics of

Vietnam before 1954

Jean-Pascal Bassino
Jean-Dominique Giacometti


Reconstituting long term series for Vietnam's national accounts and for other economic, demographic and social indicators for the modern period1) between 1858 and 1945, and up through 1954, would seem to be a relatively easy task. There are many available sources, both public and private, and part of the work of collecting the data has already been done. Such research confronts two obstacles, however. First, there are imprecisions and lacunae which result from the institutional framework and from Vietnam's economic situation in the modern period. Second, one faces problems resulting from both the political biases and the imperfections of the statistical apparatus. It seems possible, nevertheless, to correct for these imperfections through a systematic critique of the sources and a comparison of quantitative and qualitative data.

Below, we consider the problems and the possible remedies.

1. The geographic dispersal of public and private sources

Precise numbers concerning Vietnam's demographic and economic evolution during the modern period are available in large quantities and easily accessible.2) We can distinguish four types of sources:

1) Collections of statistics which were produced by the colonial administration,3) either on a regular basis, such as the annual statistical reports, or at specific moments, such as the series of studies each administrative service in Indochina produced for the French Colonial Exposition in Vincennes in 1931. The statistics which appear in such annual reports can be considered reliable. The statistical apparatus in place in Indochina is comparable to the one in France in the same period, especially after 1914.

2) The bibliography of the colonial period, which is rich and often dependable. These texts should not be neglected since they were often the work of administrators and financiers.

3) Many private sources can also be consulted regarding plantations, mining, manufacturing, transportation, trading companies, banking or insurance.

4) The archives of the local administration constitute a fundamental resource for the study of Vietnam's economic and demographic evolution during the colonial period. Those archives often supplied the first two categories of sources with their information, either directly or through the use of extrapolation; it is often useful, therefore, for researchers to return to the original source. We emphasize the administrative archives, which are precise, numerous, and readily available. For the most part, the large volume of sources from the public administration are well classified. But one's early optimism should be shaded by several realizations derived from practical experience gained working with the archives, as much as from the analyses so far conducted.

Unfortunately, the archives are scattered between Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) and France (Aix-en-Provence, Toulon and Paris). The French archivists and those in Vietnam have made considerable efforts to classify the archives and to make them available to the public. Aix-en-Provence has recently opened up a new collection, the archives of the Etat-Major, which shed some light on the frontier with China around the turn of the century, and on the railroads of Indochina. The National Archives of Vietnam recently published a catalogue of Hanoi's collections from the colonial period which presents a number of neglected collections, such as the archives of the Flotte indochinoise or that of the Societe Cotonniere du Tonkin. This catalogue is an example of collaborative work between Vietnam and France.4)

Despite these efforts, the researcher's work is hampered by the splitting of certain collections. Thus the archives of the Governor General of Indochina, which ought to be grouped together in Aix-en-Provence, are in fact dispersed between several collections and several locations. Many files seem to have been left behind in Hanoi, and without them it is impossible to correctly evaluate this period of Vietnam's history, particularly for economic issues. One should pay special attention to the papers of the Department of Finance, which stayed in Hanoi, given the importance of this department in the colonial administrative system.

A non-negligible part of the economic, demographic and social data has already been collected by different researchers for monographs or for works of synthesis. First and foremost, one must mention the works of Jacques MARSEILLE,5) most notably with regard to foreign trade and the activity of private enterprise in mining and manufacturing, and also the works of Yasuo GONJO6) on finance, especially on the activity of the Banque de l'Indochine. The team of researchers working with Pierre BROCHEUX and Daniel HEMERY7) took an interest in investments for education and health. Other studies provided overviews and critical analyses of long term series regarding other, more specific, economic sectors such as agriculture, the opium monopoly, Haiphong, customs tariffs, or capital formation.8)

2. Imprecisions and lacunae linked to Vietnam's institutional and economic characteristics

Geographical inequalities present the first stumbling block in researching historical statistics on Vietnam. The numbers are easier to find, more precise, and more plentiful for the regions which were more thoroughly controlled by the colonial administration. The series on population not only indicate the sex and age of the individuals surveyed, but also their ethnic groups. In rural regions, however, or in regions populated largely by ethnic minorities, the information clearly relates to the denser population of the towns, which is the only part the colonial administration knew, and one must multiply by a coefficient to correct the data. The works of historical anthropology directed largely by the EFEO (Ecole Franc,aise d'Extreme Orient) allow the estimation of these coefficients for the different periods and regions. Thus, one may be able to determine that the low population estimates for the southern part of Cochinchina were exaggerated, at least for the nineteenth century.

Moreover, since the administrative reality dealt with Indochina as a whole, research on present-day Vietnam must often treat the archive series selectively. For public receipts and expenditures, for instance, one must evaluate the part of the Governor General's budget which applied to Vietnam, by separating out the part corresponding to Cambodia and Laos, or else one must simply estimate these receipts and expenses when the archives do not provide the answers. The situation is the same for foreign trade. The categories we know today did not exist; Vietnam was divided into three regions: Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina. Thus, in its accounts, the Societe Cotonniere du Tonkin listed as exports the cloth the company sent to Cochinchina as well as to Yunnan. Similarly, the rice exported from Cochinchina to Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan or France could have originated in Cambodia and only passed briefly through southern Vietnam.

The search for macro-economic indicators such as wholesale and consumer prices, salaries and interest also confronts the normal difficulties linked to the heterogeneity of the economic situation. These numbers varied from one region to another because the economic realities differed from the town to the countryside, and especially from the north to the south of the country. In other words, the economic unification of the country was far from accomplished. It is known that salaries were higher in Saigon than in Hanoi. No doubt prices followed the same trends, but to what degree? Were price structures comparable?

The same kind of gaps can be observed for the service sector. If researchers have easy access to the series which cover modern inland transportation, such as railways, there is still little appraisal of water and coastal transportation, which was largely in the hands of Vietnamese and Chinese ship owners. Yet, water transport contributed importantly to the unification of the internal market, demonstrating a micro-economic efficiency which partially explains the low levels of freight transport on the Hanoi-Saigon railroad. It seems indispensable to evaluate the importance of porters, of servants, of prostitutes, of peddlers in the different periods, which will require an investigation of diverse and complementary sources: police reports, fiscal documents, travelogues, journals, etc. In a more general sense, researchers need to evaluate the contribution of the traditional sector to indigenous income and thus to the monetarization of the economy. For this rural income, statistics on foreign trade allow one to sense the importance of artisanal production in relation to regional specializations, such as Indochinese basketry and other related labor-intensive rural industries.

In parallel manner, the contribution of indigenous capital to the development of the national economy seems to have been underestimated. Researchers have tended to focus on capital originating in France,9) whether it was invested in manufacturing, mining, transportation or agriculture. The investments of Vietnamese and Chinese economic agents have remained excluded from analysis.

This silence within the usual sources results from the weakness of the colonial administration's hold and from the absence of a fiscal stake; the explicit goal of the opium monopoly was to extract more revenue from the Chinese population than would have been possible with a tax on capital or on commercial transactions. Nevertheless, there are indirect ways to evaluate domestic private capital formation. Whether one is looking at the Vietnamese, the Chinese, or even the French in Indochina, it is absolutely necessary to research that formation, research which has more hope of success than has been claimed up to now.

Balance of payments should also be an object of close study. As regards Indochina, one knows that measuring invisibles was almost impossible, and it is even quite difficult to estimate the French capital invested. Contemporaries rarely tracked the flow of profits from Indochina to France, or even the portions of salaries which civil servants may have sent home. Given these circumstances, it would be worth re-examining the hypothesis that Vietnam was a net exporter of capital.

3. Imperfections of the statistical apparatus and political biases.

The archives which have been preserved are voluminous, but they suffer from many limitations. It is generally believed that the statistics were compiled by an administration which, though largely competent, was driven by its own logic, a logic uninterested in the collection of statistics which might meet the needs of historians or economists. Despite a rigorous, even finicky, administration, the information still presents an imperfect image of the real circumstances.

First of all, the administration wanted to appear to have mastered the situation completely, and wanted no one ever to suspect that its grasp on the colony was less than firm. The administrative framework was never sufficient in Indochina in the outlying zones or in regions where the authorities had little presence, all of which can lead one to think that some numbers were estimated, or even invented, in order to fill in the corresponding boxes. This statistical imprecision reached at times even into spheres the authorities seemed to actually control, such as the opium trade, where contraband still played a large role.

The observed biases have several points of origin. The administrators could never arrive at real numbers for the fraud and contraband, which they nevertheless often invoked in their reports. It is also difficult to make the numbers given by the administration match up with those given by its commercial partners. Moreover, it is difficult to estimate the transit trade through Hong Kong. When these products entered Indochina, they were counted officially as products of Hong Kong, even though in reality they came from all over the world.

The methods of calculation and the administrative practices of the "Douanes and Regies" (customs and monopoly firms) were like those commonly used in Europe, but they nevertheless make it difficult to use customs statistics to compile continuous archive series or to estimate economic activities. Thus, when prices are mentioned by administrations, they are often speaking not of the real value of the commodity, but of an estimated value, or even worse, one arbitrated by a commission assigned the task of fixing a moderate price to satisfy both the administration and the chambers of commerce, a price used for a given period of time. Similarly, when statistics are provided for quantities of products, the numbers seem not to have been known directly but only estimated through knowledge of the weight of the commodities.

A second source of the distortion of the data resides in the differential of inflation between France and its colony, and in the use of the franc as the monetary unit of reference even though there was no fixed parity between the franc and the piastre until 1931. The increases in external trade in terms of francs did not always correspond to developments in trade, but sometimes simply to the French currency's drop in value, which was offset by a rise in prices. Inversely, this inflation of the franc eroded the tariff barriers of the colony, disrupting or facilitating commercial relations between Indochina and the countries on the South China Sea.

4. Possibilities for comparison of information and for retrospective extrapolation

Creating a corpus of long-term economic statistics for Vietnam is a long and hard task, but one that is possible and likely to be fruitful, especially if the investigations avoid limiting themselves to the compilation of statistics from annual reports but also examine the different public and private sources in the mass of archives. It is indispensable to compare the macro-economic series which come from annual reports and the micro-economic or regional information which comes from monographs, from anthropological or sociological studies, and from reports by local colonial administrators or by managers of companies or consulates. Only in this manner can one extract original information which will permit acceptable estimations of series which are missing or have gaps. Thus, agricultural production and rural population can not be evaluated except by a compilation of information adjusted by province or prefecture. Under those conditions, it would be possible to take into account the underestimations and discontinuities in the series caused by politico-military disasters or natural disasters, and even the imperfections and ruptures in the working of the statistical apparatus.

Diversifying the sources would offer a token of reliability for series which would emerge from a retrospective estimation. However, this method is made shakier by the absence of reasonable references, due to the impact of the Japanese occupation and, especially, the Indochina War and the Vietnam War. One would have to proceed with a double extrapolation. Researchers should correct the series for certain regions for the 1945 to 1954 period. These concern especially the North, where administrative control was weak. The South, on the other hand, was less troubled by the war until 1954 and the statistical apparatus was a little less influenced by political considerations between 1954 and 1975. These resulting numbers could then be compared to the numbers collected during the 1930s, the last years of the modern era when the information remained fairly homogenous. Building on this groundwork, one could attempt to reconstitute series with gaps through retrospective extrapolation or interpolation.

This implies, beyond the international cooperation of researchers, an effort to create a dialogue between the archivists, historians, anthropologists, and economists who will see results for their different fields materialize out of their joint efforts: identification of different archives dispersed by political and military events, the knowledge of the quantitative economic environment surrounding economic, political and social facts, the comprehension of the long-term economic dynamics and the possibility of international comparisons which could lead to new considerations regarding Vietnam's ability to catch up in a changing Southeast Asia at the end of the twentieth century.

Jean-Pascal Bassino, Paul Valery University, Department of Economics;and
Jean-Dominique Giacometti, Centre for International Economy and Finance.
Translated by Erica Peters, University of Chicago, Department of History