VietnamCulture and HistoryVietnam's History with Opium

Vietnam’s History with Opium

Opium addiction was a real issue in Vietnamese society during the French colonial period in Vietnam. In fact, one of the first public opium factories in Indochina was in Vietnam. So how did opium become such a critical issue in Vietnam, even in modern days? Read our article to find out more about opium in Vietnam history.

In the West, opium was widely used as a painkiller in the 18th century. In 1804, morphine was successfully isolated from opium, and in 1898 came the birth of heroin. An excessive number of addicts was first seen in the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), which raised public concern for its widespread. As for the East, China recorded the introduction of opium smoking in the 17th century.

In the 18th century, when European traders noticed the potential market in China, opium became the exchange for tea and silk. The Chinese started the Opium Wars in 1858, and a far-reaching crackdown by the Communist Government happened again in 1949.

The Golden Triangle was another massive producer and trader of opium in the late 20th century. This notorious region consisting of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand was the world’s leader in opium planting and production. Furthermore, it contributed to the surge in the illegal opium trade in Southeast Asia between the 1960s and 1970s.

Now, back to the story of opium in Vietnamese History. Opium as an addictive drug became known to the Vietnamese during the French colonial period in the 19th century. Due to Vietnam’s corrupted leadership and other unsettling events, the French quickly succeeded in taking over Vietnam around the 1850s.

Learn more about the French Quarter in Ho Chi Minh City.

vietnam history opium hai ba trung opium refinery

A map by the French showing the location of the opium refinery near the Saigon River

The colonizers were able to produce opium in Vietnam and then sell it within the country and to China. Opium production scattered across the country, with the largest output in Saigon. In 1861, the French traders built the infamous factory at what is now an alley at 74 Hai Ba Trung, District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City. The primary materials for these factories, especially the one at Hai Ba Trung, came from India. Opium products were later governed by the French government, taxed at 10%, and retailed by Chinese merchants.

vietnam history opium hai ba trung opium inside workers 3

Inside the refinery, workers in the process of producing opium products

This “business model” – buying raw Indian resin and refining it at Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City’s former name) proved to be a successful business idea of Governor-General Doumer. Under his direction, opium revenues made up about one-third of the colonial government income, from 1882 to the 1910s.

Opium addiction became a severe problem in Vietnamese society at the time, especially among the wealthy Vietnamese elite. A significant proportion of the native elite got addicted, became more corrupt, and thus, further deteriorated the state of their own country. Not only the rich but also countless miners, plantation workers, and urban laborers got into the vicious circles of opium addiction. As a result, this was a depressing picture of a weakened society suffering at the hands of greed.

Opium addiction continued to be an issue well into the Vietnam War. Even in modern times, the Vietnamese government is still trying to crack down on the issue. Border areas, such as Lao Cai or Dien Bien, are critical areas for illegal drug transporting.


The old opium factory (74 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City) is now an alley with a few restaurants inside

Few people know that just behind the famed Saigon Opera House, right in the busy street of Hai Ba Trung, was a notorious opium factory revealing startling facts about the history of Vietnam in the French colonial period.

Vietnam Laws Regarding the Use and Trade of Opium

Opium is a kind of drug, or more precisely, a narcotic, that can produce the following effects: pain relief, a sleepy state (narcosis), and dependence on the drug (addiction).

Opium trafficking and other acts involving opium are severe crimes under Vietnamese laws. It is entirely illegal to grow, sell, own, buy, or consume any opium. Consequently, you are not allowed to carry any form of opium into the country.

Punishment for opium-related crimes varies according to the amount, the kind of opium involved, and the severity of the actions, but the lightest one in the framework is a 7-year sentence. The highest penalties are 20 years in prison, a life sentence, and capital punishment. Trading 100 grams of heroin, for example, is enough to warrant the highest punishments listed above.

See Is CBD Legal in Vietnam?

Conclusion on Opium in Vietnam History

Opium, morphine, heroin, and all the addictive, fatal guilty pleasures first became a major social problem in Vietnam during the French colonial period. Now that peace has long been around for the Vietnamese, opium trafficking is still an issue to be tackled with sweat and tears by the country’s security forces, as is the case with any other society. If you fancy getting a feel of opium in Vietnam history, drop by 74 Hai Ba Trung Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, for an intriguing visit.

Sources: Britannica, Lao Dong News, and Vietnamese Criminal Law (2015)

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