Times of London
Sunday 23, 2000

Last hurrah for Vietnam's old red guard

Michael Sheridan, Ho Chi Minh City

FROM red revolutionaries to red capitalists, one old man has seen them all. As Vietnam prepares to celebrate the day of its triumph over America a quarter of a century ago, he is opening a new front in the battle for his country's future.

Although aged 80, Nguyen Xuan Oanh does not feel like settling down to the retirement of a capitalist central banker who turned himself into the Communist party's favourite economist.

He sits instead in a cool new office in the city he first knew as Saigon, arguing for what amounts to a new revolution - 25 years to the week since he sat in his old office awaiting the knock on his door from North Vietnamese troops who captured the southern capital on April 30, 1975.

Now he shakes his head in wonder at a Vietnam where the children of those veteran revolutionaries - known as "red capitalists" - take advantage of economic reforms that have transformed the Marxist-Leninist system into a nascent market economy under the coded term of restructuring, or doi moi.

Vietnamese nostalgic for the old certainties have reason to be wary of change. People mutter about corruption, while foreign investors complain of extortionate bribes and red tape. From backpackers to veterans, western tourists flock in increasing numbers to places where soldiers once tramped.

"Social evils" such as drug abuse and prostitution flourish anew on the streets. Occasionally the Communist party stages a purge, holds a show trial, shoots a few of the usual suspects. It may be a new economy in Vietnam but it is certainly old politics.

Yet even the offspring of the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who defeated first the French and then the Americans, are said to have gone into business. The octogenarian general himself recently gave a speech about e-commerce and the internet, calling for Vietnam to leapfrog into the information economy. The daughter of Vo Van Kiet, the former prime minister, is reputed to be the queen of Ho Chi Minh City's booming sports club business.

Oanh, a Harvard-educated economist who was prime minister for a few turbulent months in the coup-ridden 1960s, understands the challenges faced by the present leadership.

Somehow, after the fall of Saigon and eight months of house arrest, he managed to persuade the communists that he was a technocrat and a patriot who had stayed on to serve his country. Rehabilitation allowed Oanh to become the architect of doi moi.

In a society where the secret police still crack down on dissidents, Oanh feels secure enough to tell the party that it is time to change for ever. With the encouragement of Kiet, who remains his patron, Oanh is soon to publish a book that will challenge some of the most sacred precepts of Ho Chi Minh's old party.

The doi moi that he invented, Oanh writes, has ended up "neither regimented nor liberal but a kind of half-between model of the two extremes, to be exploited by both [party] cadres and businessmen".

In the final chapter of his forthcoming book, he questions the central doctrine of "sustaining the proletariat regime while supporting class struggle". The way forward, he argues, is for Vietnam to free its economy from the heavy hand of the state.

"These were regarded as 'undisputed truths' not only to party members but also to the entire population," he says. "But are they still undisputed truths in the new millennium?" He says Vietnam should advance to political restructuring with the renovation of human rights and the rights of citizens.

"Shouldn't we recognise that national independence and democratic values go hand in hand?" he asks. Such arguments divide many Vietnamese families. At 46, Phan Xuan Anh remembers his joy when he witnessed the collapse of the Saigon government troops on April 30, 1975. He spent the first years of "liberation" as an idealistic volunteer and teacher. Today he teaches business techniques to a bright new generation of tourist guides and also runs private businesses - including a vegetarian restaurant for people who now have the luxury of worrying about their diet rather than the next bowl of rice.

His father, a revolutionary in the anti-French Viet Minh who rotted for 14 years in one of the old regime's prison camps, finds it more difficult to adapt to change. "Father is very sad about the social evils," Anh said. "He believes the government should take tough measures to stamp them out. Me, I realise they are inevitable."

The doi moi reforms, however, have created a third generational gap between people such as Anh, old enough to recollect the war, and vast numbers of young Vietnamese to whom such violence and hardship are as unreal as an old movie. More than half the country's 78m population is aged under 25. "I don't think young people realise what we went through," said Anh.

Some Vietnamese have responded to the changes by searching for the immutable foundations of their ancient Confucian civilisation. The Buddhist pagodas are full of worshippers, while more young men and women don the pale ochre robes of the monkhood.

Yet this time-honoured force in the land no longer possesses the strength it had in the 1960s when it made governments tremble and shocked America with televised images of self-immolated Buddhist monks ablaze in protest.

During those epochal times, Trich Tri Quang, the charismatic Buddhist leader, adorned the cover of Time magazine, his words enough to bring the mobs out in Vietnam. Now, forgotten by all but the secret police, he lives out his years in reclusive retreat at a drab pagoda in a suburb of the city.

His role still fascinates and perplexes liberal historians and as another venerable gentleman with a long memory he might have been expected to have plenty to say about the anniversary of the fall of the regime he had denounced. But perhaps his own dispatch to a "re-education" camp had wearied him, for he greeted with a baleful stare the would-be questioners who disturbed his afternoon stroll under the bougainvillea.

"Go away, now," he said. Retirement, after a revolution, is not always graceful.