Especially poor harvests since 1985 have sounded alarm bells in Hanoi, prompting government officials to find new ways to slow a rapid population growth. To keep pace with the addition of an estimated 1.2 million people every year, the country needs to create more jobs and increase its grain yield by 400,000 metric tons. On both counts, Vietnam lost considerable ground the last two years.
``Those who understand demographics are horrified by the problem,'' says William Turley, an American expert on Vietnam. ``They just won't fit that many people in that small space.''
Despite a strong public policy on family planning and some limited success, the population has reached 62 million, the world's 12th largest. Officially, the growth rate is 2.2 percent with a new goal of 1.7 percent by 1990 (an earlier goal was 1.5 percent by 1985). But most experts say the rate is closer to 2.6 percent, and in some rural areas, Vietnam competes with Bangladesh for the highest rate in the world.
``We need to have 1.5 percent population growth and a 5 percent yearly increase in grain to keep even,'' says Agriculture Minister Nguyen Cong Tan.
Some critics of Vietnam say Hanoi is using Cambodia and Laos as an outlet for its excess population. Hanoi has also used internal migration to ease population pressures. The program is faltering due to public resistance.
Calls by Communist Party leaders for families to have only two children have proved largely unpopular in rural areas. With Vietnam maintaining the world's fourth largest army and with its troops still fighting in Cambodia, families can expect one son to go into military service for as long as 12 years. And with more freedom for farmers to sell their own produce, having more children is an economic advantage.
``The program to reduce family size is still very slow. It's only being implemented in cities,'' says an editor in Can Tho. ``The party's mass organizations are not very active and we don't have party cadres who can actually teach family planning.'' With scarce resources, immediate health needs are given priority.
Vietnamese tradition remains a major barrier to the success of the program. A common New Year's greeting is ``May you have more children, and more grandchildren.'' Many people believe that having more children brings wealth. But a deeper cultural concept lies in this popular saying: ``If God created the elephant, he would have provided enough grass to feed the elephant.''
The chief incentive for limiting births to two is a big reduction of benefits for those couples who have three or more children. At the Dang Hai commune near Haiphong, women who are sterilized after the second child get two weeks' vacation and extra meat and medicine.
``We especially encourage abortion if a woman already has a third or fourth child,'' says a commune official. ``We will then subject her to mass criticism.''
Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, who directs family planning programs for the southern provinces, says women are paid to be sterilized, usually about two week's average income. Her traveling education program on family planning aims to make people afraid of alleged medical problems in having more than two children. The program also tries to improve the health of children.
``The best limit on births is to bring more electricity to the countryside,'' says Vu Mao, chairman of the Communist Youth Union. ``With no lights or television, farmers go to bed by eight o'clock. Those evening hours are our worst problem.''
Gail Russell in Boston contributed to this report.