NGO Activity in Vietnam: A Cartographic Exercise
by Joe Hannah
Department of Geography, University of Washington

In the Fall of 1999, I entered the graduate program in the Geography Department of the University of Washington, in Seattle. The maps on this page are from a project I did for an introductory Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course.

The maps I produced for this project attempt to visually correlate NGO activity in Vietnam with two variables, provincial GDP and provincial population density. My intention was to illustrate whether NGOs decide to work in areas based on these criteria (as indicators of poverty conditions) or by other (undetermined) criteria. It must be said at the outset that the level of analysis in this project is very rudimentary; the project was predominently a mapping excersize, rather than a careful analysis of NGO behavior.
NGO Activity by Population Density

This first map shows provincial population densities and NGO activity. No strong correlation is evident.

  • Red River Delta -- The large number of NGOs working in these provinces may be because of high population densities, or merely because of the proximity to the national capital, Hanoi.
  • Central Provinces -- The three provinces of Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue, and Quang Nam- Da Nang have heavy NGO presence. Provinces to the south have similar population densities, but with much less NGO activity.
  • Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta -- Ho Chi Minh City is the most populous place in Vietnam and, along with Hanoi, has the most number of active NGOs.  Population densities in other provinces in the southern part of the country seem to have little bearing on NGO activity.

NGO Activity by Provincial GDP

The second map shows provincial gross domestic product (GDP) and NGO activity. Again, no strong correlation is evident:

  • Red River Delta -- There is significant NGO activity in most of these provinces, regardless of GDP. Proximity to Hanoi may be a more important factor than wealth.
  • Central Provinces -- NGOs are working in both rich and poor provinces in this area. The closer to the cities of Hue and Da Nang, the more activity, indicating the deciding factor may be air transportation.
  • Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta -- This the wealthiest region of Vietnam. Once again we see more NGO activity near the major metropolis, rather than in more remote and poorer provinces a few hundred kilometers to the north. Transportation may be a deciding factor for siting NGO projects.

What the Maps Say

The level of NGO activity in various provinces is fairly well illustrated in these maps. What is less clear is any correspondence with the variables that I chose to map – GDP and population density. In some cases a group of provinces seems to show a positive correlation, but another group of provinces may show a negative correlation. Therefore I would conclude that neither of these variables is a determinant for NGOs choosing project sites.

This conclusion validates my own experience in Vietnam. First of all, it became clear during the project that neither GDP nor population density are adequate indicators of poverty. For instance, I know that NGOs do try to target poor areas, which might be either areas of extremely high population density or remote, less dense areas.  Further studies with more comprehensive variables for poverty are needed.

Secondly, the problems of transportation, costs of operation, and availability of local staff are more likely to constrain site selection. Practicality curtails ideal choice. Further studies should look at these factors -- the correspondence of site selection with major airports and good roads, for instance. A more detailed look, at a district level rather than provincial, would also be much more informative.

Data Issues and Sources

Data was a serious problem in this project. The biggest challenge was that the base map was made prior to 1998. Unfortunately, in that year, the government of Vietnam redrew the provincial boundaries for eight provinces, splitting each of them into two separate provinces. My NGO, GDP, and population data used the new provincial boundaries, while my base map used the old. Fortunately I was able to determine which provincial boundaries changed and in what manner, so was able to map all the new data to the old provincial boundaries. I am told a new base map of Vietnam will become available from the government of Vietnam soon, though I have yet to see it.

Base Map and Provincial Land Area:

Obtained from ESRI's on line database. This is ESRI’s description (from their web site of their online base map data:

"The ArcData Online collection World Basemap Data includes data layers from a variety of ESRI products, including ArcWorld ArcAtlas, Digital Chart of World, and Data and Maps. ESRI has assembled these products into a single Spatial Database Engine (SDE) database to provide a continuous display of basemap data from a small-scale global display to a medium-scale regional display."

NGO Activity:
Forum on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Vietnam NGO Directory 1998/99. Hanoi, July 1999.
Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (Government of Vietnam). Thuc Trang Lao Dong – Viec Lam O Viet Nam. [Status of Labour – Employment in Vietnam] Hanoi 1998.

General Statistical Office (Government of Vietnam). Tu Lieu Kinh Te – Xa Hoi Chon Loc Tu Ket Qua Cac Cuoc Dieu Tra Qui Mo Lon Nhung Nam 1990-1996. [Major Social and Economic Information Obtained from the Large Scale Surveys in Period of 1990-1996] Hanoi 1998.

Provincial GDP:
General Statistical Office (Government of Vietnam). 1997 (unpublished).

Please feel free to send any comments or questions to me at