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Geopolitics

Vietnam: Where Capitalism Thrives, Communists Rule And Dissent Whispers From The Walls

Twenty-five years of “doi moi” reforms have unleashed Vietnam’s economy and solidified one-party rule. Yet in Hanoi, a rare few offer the first signs of rebellion.

Luxury is hot in Hanoi (@Saigon/Flickr)

HANOI - Nguyen Duc Vinh, the ambitious director of a private bank with holdings of $2.5 billion, says he has the "heart of a communist." Pham Xuan Ly, a confidante of former Vietnam Army chief General Giap, is perfectly comfortable with his personal fortune and party membership: "It is not a problem at all for me," he says. "Nor for them."

After 25 years of doi moi, a policy of renewal and progressive liberalization of the economy, Vietnam is glaring paradox: a one-party communist regime overseeing a Wild-West style of capitalism. In the streets of Hanoi, red is still omnipresent, with banners of propaganda celebrating the party's 11th Congress, which concluded this week. "Vietnam is communist only once every five years, during the season of this political ritual," a French businessman says dryly.

"No one believes in communism any more, though the entire country pretends to," Dao Anh Kanh, a surrealist artist, explains. "Vietnam is a theater. Regular people stage small plays of their own, while the leaders put on a grand spectacle."

Before the opening of each Congress, the party delegates receive each other in full force, with briefcases in hand and the hammer and sickle on the heart, in front of the embalmed body of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. But in cafés saturated with the strong aroma of syrup-flavored coffees, one learns how belonging to the party is a stepping stone to power and wealth. People discuss how much it costs to purchase a ministry, with jokes that bagging the prime minister post would be a jackpot for any aspiring clan. The experts do not disagree. "Fighting to replace political leaders is even more bloody than control for economic power currently in play," notes Benoît de Tréglodé, director of the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia.

Communists by name, capitalists by nature

As the Communist Party grew to 3.6 million members, or 10 percent of the population, Hanoi residents developed a saying: "Communists by name, capitalists by nature." The 87 million citizens, hungry consumers, have thrown Marxism-Leninism to the sidelines.

Today, the pursuit of money is a national obsession. And consumption is ostentatious. The Louis Vuitton store in Hanoi currently boasts the highest sales per square meter within the company's global chain. Luxury cars have joined the buzz of traffic in what, 25 years ago, was an austere capital of people rolling on bicycles down avenues bathed in faint light, flanked by stores of the most humble merchandise.

"We think about money from morning to night," said Ngoc, a student born the same year the doi moi reform policies took effect. In a country that has long symbolized the resistance to a Western vision of the world, Pham Xuan Ly, a formor bo doi (North Vietnamese soldier), who has become a restaurant owner, explains that "success is a beautiful house, a car and studies abroad for the children."

"In 25 years, we have won the freedom to make money," adds banker Nguyen Duc Vinh, 52. In his three-piece suit, the former soldier, who manned the trenches along the Chinese border in the 1980s, went on to attend the prestigious HEC business school in France and learned to be a banker in the United States.

This is the new face of Vietnam: dynamic, open to the outside world, optimistic. A United Nations index of happiness in populations around the world puts Vietnam in third place. Like Vinh, the majority of Vietnamese wonder little, if at all, about the country's political structure. "As long as the Communist Party maintains a satisfactory level of development, people are not interested in getting involved with politics," he said. For artist Dao Anh Kanh, who for 15 years worked as a censor for the cultural police: "doi mo saved the Communist Party. The leaders are clever and know how to adapt." Being decidedly cautious at all costs, the Vietnamese, despite the many corruption scandals at the top, are for the most part confident in their political institutions, especially the Communist Party and the National Assembly, according to a study by Transparency International.

There is currently no viable, organized opposition. "There is no room for dissent. The state apparatus owns the turf," said Matthieu Saloman, Transparency International's Hanoi representative.

"Few artists dare to question power"

Still, the first rays of rebellion can be found. Over tea in her living room cluttered with paintings illustrating the reign of darkness, the writer Vo Thi Hao discussed her "revolt against a regime that has never loosened its grip over political life." She is one of a dozen dissidents closely watched by the regime. She jokes that the walls have ears. "In East Germany under the Stasi, there was one spy for every 50 people. Today in Vietnam, the ratio is one for every 40." As beautiful as she is courageous, Hao is one of the rare Vietnamese to challenge the single-party system. "The majority of Vietnamese are happy with the current regime. They're satisfied with the improvement of their finances."

Some young contemporary artists are starting to push back against this "fear hidden within people that prevents them from questioning power," said Hao. They present a Vietnam torn between doctrinal communism and liberal economic policies. Watched continuously, one of them holds meetings on a sidewalk and confides secrets amidst the din of a crowded café. "Today, word no longer comes from above. It's no longer necessary to be a member of the Artists' Union to get paint and brushes, but few artists dare to challenge power," he said. The cultural police watches them groping through the dark. "In Vietnam, demanding subjectivity and invention is a political act," he sighs, after telling of his weariness over taking down his paintings judged at each art exposition as being "out of step with cultural and moral values."

Lost in the maze of winding streets in south Hanoi, there is a residence as closed off as it is insignificant – and yet it is home to the most incendiary cultural works in Vietnam. Writer Nguyen Qui Duc holds an eclectic collection of censored art. "Out of love for painting, intellectual resistance and the spirit of contradiction," he says. He stands in front of a greenish canvas inspired by pop art. A lascivious woman ignores a man in a suit who stands upright behind her. "Who is more vulgar, the woman, the businessman or the leaders who have absolute power?" he asks. The painter Nguyen Van Cuong works on the theme of dictatorships, which is why he is forbidden from showing his work in Vietnam." With an amused smile, Duc shows a series of vases that the censors failed to appreciate in which "uniforms, bodies and bank notes intertwine ad nauseum."

"After the doi moi, or the opening in 1985, contemporary art began to truly bloom. But today it still is cautious about approaching sensitive subjects," says Duc, the collector. He cites just four artists taking such a bold approach: Nguyen Van Cuong, who plays with the obscenity of women for sale and dictatorships, the artist Truong Tan and his gigantic diaper that takes the form of a police officer's jacket pocket, ready to absorb under-the-table payments. Le Hong Thai, attempts to draw a parallel between leaders and bottles – which make much noise when they clink together but remain empty. Le Quang Ha and his characters have hideous, uncouth traits that wear the uniform of leaders.

In a darkened hallway in Duc's home, a spiral of incomprehensible words eats a blue face. It is a forbidden canvas by Nguyen Quang Huy. The most perceptive could discern the silhouette of a young Ho Chi Minh, the father of the country's independence. Behind the flies' feet, betrayed ideals, the individual chewed up by the machine.

But in Vietnam, the sayings and poems of Uncle Ho have been thrown at people for so long that the cult of personality is now internalized. Daring to shake the image of a deified hero is unimaginable, even if he is systematically surpassed by Bill Gates, the model of American capitalism, in popularity polls. So when asking Nguyen Quang Huy whether this poll result is healthy, he says soberly: "I will not say yes or no." Insolence against this regime has its limits.

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