NEW Year begins in February for the people of Vietnam but the year is all that will change after this week’s Communist Party Congress confirmed the old guard are still in charge of this one-party state.

An attempt at reform has been resoundingly crushed by the party leaders, concerned that Vietnam was about to abandon its socialist past.

While there is a growing demand – especially from younger members of the population – for a more open political system and economic reforms, no-one outwith the party congress has any influence.

The country’s political future is determined behind closed doors every five years by a congress of 1,510 delegates all carefully selected by top party officials.

Debates are controlled with decisions often made before they take place, and while Vietnamese citizens are aware the congress is happening they are excluded from taking part.

“We talk about it a lot, we watch TV,” said 22-year-old Duong Bui, lead singer for heavy metal band Windrunner. “But to reach it is hard. It’s not like we can take our ideas for building this country to the congress – it’s far from us.”


A takeover bid by current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has tried to transform the country’s economy through increased exports and manufacturing reforms, has been thwarted by party leaders worried about any weakening of their power.

For a while it looked as though he could win enough backing to take over as secretary general but despite support from the business community and some of the central committee of the party, his name was not approved by the politburo as a candidate.

Although popular with the public, Dung made enemies in the party through his push for better relations with the US, Vietnam’s old enemy.

And while Vietnam has enjoyed speedy economic growth under his command, corruption also appears to have increased.

In the end it appears that Dung’s rival, the current secretary general Nguyen Phu Trong, an old-style ideologue, managed to rally his supporters to crush the reform attempts.


However while it looks as though Dung’s political career is over, it is possible that Vietnam will continue with its economic reforms even though Trong maintains the state and socialism must remain central to the economy.

Interestingly, as well as the old-style communists, the new central committee contains a number of younger party members who are pro-reform.

“The condition of the economy of Vietnam nowadays is so pressured that it must change,” said economist Le Dang Doanh. “If the state sector plays a leading role, there will be no fair competition. Vietnam is now deeply integrated into the world economy.”


Now one of the fastest growing economies in south east Asia, Vietnam initially struggled to recover from three decades of war which finally ended in 1975.

With a population of around 90 million, it is the 13th most populous country on the planet and its history can be traced back to 500,000BC. Evidence of rice growing and intricate bronze work can be found as far back as 1000BC and there was a flourishing independent culture which lasted until a Chinese takeover in 111BC which lasted for 1,000 years.

Early independence movements finally succeeded in AD938 and a golden era began when Buddhism flourished and became the state religion.

However independence was gradually eroded by France in the 19th century and the French administration imposed significant cultural and political changes.

Roman Catholicism was widely propagated and western-style education developed along with a plantation economy of coffee, tobacco and tea for export.

Calls for civil rights and self-government were ignored by the French who held control until World War II and the invasion of French Indochina by the Japanese. The exploitation of the country’s natural resources to support Japan’s military campaign led to two million deaths in the Vietnamese Famine of 1945.


Despite a guerrilla campaign by the nationalist, communist liberation movement of Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh during the First Indochina War, the post-war French colonial administration did not end until 1954.

The country was then divided in two but the planned temporary partition became permanent and decades of strife between the two parts culminated in the Vietnam War in which the United States backed the south’s struggle against the communist north, backed by the Soviet Union and China.

The war devastated the country with up to 3.1m believed to have died. It ended in the mid-1970s when the two parts were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Executions, “re-education” and the collectivisation of factories and farms resulted in human misery and triple digit inflation.

Millions of people fled the country in the 1870s but by the late 1980s the state began some free market reforms while maintaining political control.

Since then there has been growth in industrial and agricultural production, private ownership and foreign investment but there has also been a rise in income inequality and gender disparities.

The challenge is to meet the growing demand for consumer goods and trade with the West, while also halting the increase in income inequality and stemming corruption. The question is whether 71-year-old Trong is up to the task.