This is where children are socialised to societal norms and values through intra- and inter-family interactions. The family's position and role in the social structure provides a point of reference from which a nation's social system - networks, relationships, and values - can be understood.
Whilst modernisation may tend to diminish the family's role, notably in a nation that is changing fast such as Vietnam, this paper looks at the nature of social relationships in a Vietnamese family to gain a deeper understanding of its key characteristics and provide insights on the consequences of the social and economic changes taking place.
Indispensable to this study is a knowledge of the values and influences that helped shape the form of the Vietnamese family through the centuries. Its geography as a nation at the crossroads of Indochina, to the east of India and south of China, has opened it to these two cultures. Its long eastern coastline likewise opened it to a Western wave of Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French colonisation beginning in the 17th century. These conquests and occupations shaped present Vietnamese society into a complex mixture of East and West.
The predominant religions in Vietnam are Buddhism from India and Confucianism and Taoism, both from China. Although Confucianism is more a code of behaviour than a religion, its combination with the other two explains to a great extent the evolution and development of the Vietnamese family to its present form. The influence of Catholicism coming from the more recent wave of western explorers has not been substantial, except for the Vietnamese alphabet which a French missionary transformed from Chinese characters to a system that uses the Roman alphabet (Luong, 1989). The significance of this quirk of history is that it keeps the country open to the outside world.
Buddhism teaches enlightenment, the quest for perfection, and the value of balance, presenting therefore an ideal foundation where other spiritual and cultural influences can take root. Confucianism emphasises filial piety and obligation, respect for authority in the form of parents and teachers, the importance of social rites, being kind to others, and the belief that man creates his own destiny. Taoism teaches that the goal of becoming an Ultimate and Unconditioned being can be achieved through thrift, humility and compassion. Taoists may worship several authorities or gods and value simplicity, patience, and contentment. They avoid confrontation and strive for harmony both amongst men and between man and nature. Some Taoists also worship deities or other religions. They have an organised clergy and temples. Though many Vietnamese do not practice this religion, Taoism has strongly influenced Vietnamese culture (Jamieson, 1995).
To these three major beliefs can be traced our understanding of the social nature of the Vietnamese family that has evolved through the centuries. Jamieson's (1995) thesis that the Vietnamese societal structure - from the family through literature to religion to economic and political systems - is composed of the Taoist yin and yang components is a simple but complex verbalisation of the mystical combination arising from centuries of spiritual and cultural influences: simple in capturing its essence, but complex in providing its