Thirty years of change

Bài mới của mình trên tờ Mekong Review (, một quarterly journal do Minh Bui Jones, founder của tờ the Diplomat sáng lập, với hy vọng tạo thành một kiểu New Yorker của Đông Nam Á. Các bạn ở Hà Nội có thể tìm đọc tờ báo in bán tại Tadioto, 25 Tông Đản. Mình không cop được bản được editor sửa nên đành lấy final draft post lên đây, có sai sót nào xin được lượng thứ.


At his late 60s, Vu Van Cong still looks tough. His sunburn skin along with a well-built body and a very charismatic character make him appear like an Italian don in Mario Puzo’s novels than a committed communist. He is actually as powerful as a real don: not only leading a cooperative of 318 households, he is also the head of the local credit fund which provides financial services to all farmers in the local commune.

He manages to excel in both. Dong Phat, his cooperative, is admired across the province of Lam Dong in the Central highlands of Vietnam as a new model for agricultural development. In a country where farmers are the poorest, the cooperative has managed to make its farmers one of the most prosperous in the local district.

“The nature gives us too many advantages, to be poor is a sin,” Cong said to me, pointing to the vast area of coffee-planted hills that stretch to the horizon. It takes a quite long and winding road for Dong Phat to reach this point.

Established in the 1970s, several years after the fall of Saigon, this cooperative was a part of the relentless effort to “collectivize” the formerly “capitalist” Southern economy. The philosophy then was simple: as the means of production were monopolized by the state, it confiscated all lands and then assigned work equally to all farmers. Farmers in the same commune were put together into a “hop tac xa” (which literally means commune cooperative) and work in a daily routine just like blue-collar workers. Around the country at that time, there were dozen thousands of hop tac xa.

Similar to situations in other socialist countries like the Soviet Union and China, this collectivization policy failed badly in Vietnam, which led a resource-rich country at risk of famine. Facing with pressures from rising domestic dissatisfaction and decreasing aids from the Eastern Bloc, the Vietnamese Communist Party finally decided to follow China’s footsteps to adopt a market-oriented approach to development. This quickly helped the country avoid a catastrophic famine (which then happened in another defiant socialist regime, North Korea, a decade later killing reportedly a million people), and even transformed it from a net importer to a top rice exporter within years.

Of course, there is no good policy for all: Doi Moi has its own victims. Hop tac xa is among those.  As soon as they were given the right to cultivate their land individually, most of the farmers quit hop tac xa. Although the government keeps these cooperatives active, most of them were just shadow of themselves without both farmers and land.

“It was a very hard and confusing time. As the head of the cooperative, I had to decide whether to remain it as a state administrative unit in the country side, or totally changed it into something else,” Cong said. He chose the latter.

For the next 30 years, he and his team have blown a rigorous entrepreneurial spirit into Dong Phat, transforming it from a communist relic into a successful for-profit cooperative. Dong Phat is organized as a company structure with a CEO, chief financial officer, and even its self-designed computational management system. Mr. Cong called himself the “chairman of the management board”, a more or less “capitalist” definition instead of the commonly use “cooperative chairman” (chu nhiem hop tac xa).

“That title sounds too bureaucratic and outdated. I’d prefer something new,” he said.


There is a different story in a poor village in Nghe An, 300km away from the capital Hanoi. Hien is a war veteran who fought against the Pol Pot in Cambodia in late 1970s. Staying in Battambang, a Northeast province of Cambodia for 10 years, he came back with several injuries that keep him awake at night when the weather changes. Then he realized that the pains were not the only problem he had to deal with, as the whole society seemed to be quite different from the time he joined the army.

He left as a cooperative’s farmer. When he came back, the village’s cooperative had dissolved. He must then get used to the concept of “market economy”, in which there would be no more state subsidy of food and essential materials. No wake – up loudspeakers every morning to urge farmers to begin their work on the field. And above all, money, instead of coupon (tem phiếu), rose to control every bit of social life.

During a typical Vietnamese evening’s tea talk, under the moonlight with breezes from the paddy fields, he told me about the story of a young fisherman who got lost to a paradise island. He spent three days there, enjoyed the most incredible time of his life. Things only went wrong when he came back: his village totally changed, and he realized no acquaintances there. Only then did he know that he had disappeared for 300 years. Being out of touch with the reality, he took the boat back to the open sea. No one ever saw him again.

In a way, Hien’s life was similar to the young fisherman’s. After the decade he devoted his youth in Cambodia, he lost the connection with the life back in Vietnam. The only difference is that Hien still has a family to take care of. He can’t just sail away. He must get adapted somehow. That requires him to have some new skills, such as how to bribe properly, and of course, money.

When I met him recently, he bitterly told me how he failed to get his daughter a job as a kindergarten teacher in his homeland. He believed very much in the government policy which gives priority to veteran’s children in competition for a vacancy in the bureaucracy. And anyway, the job isn’t that lucrative: salary of kindergarten teachers is just around 2 million VND (or 100 USD) per month.

He filled his daughter’s application package for months with no reply. When he came to the district’s department of education to ask for his case, the official said they were still waiting for more documents to process. That was a usual covert way of asking for bribery. Hien showed his veteran card, the official pushed it aside.

“This thing doesn’t work here, uncle,” he said.

Hien told me they asked 100 million VND (around 4500 USD) for the post, which he was unable to pay for. Still a committed communist, he stays very much loyal to the party. But he thinks the people who run the system in the “market-oriented” way are not good enough. And he is disappointed in the rise of money, which he believes is killing the dignity of the society.

“I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but the life 30 years ago was better to me. Of course we were poor and starving, but very happy. People were kind to each other, and there were not many corrupt officials in the system. I was happy to live that way,”



Changes in the countryside, however, are not the biggest consequence of Doi Moi. Its main contribution is forcing the drastic demographic shift in Vietnam, from rural – majority to an increasingly urban population. From just below 18% in 1990, up to 2014 nearly 35% of Vietnamese live in urban areas.

That is critical, providing the fact that cities are the locomotive of changes in the most part of human history. Indeed, the most glorious faces of Vietnam’s transformation lay in its two metropolises: the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), in which 8 million people live in each side. Skyscrapers, crowded streets, fancy shopping malls with luxurious Western brands make the cities appear more similar to New York and London more than La Havana or Pyongyang. Even McDonalds, the symbol of capitalism, came to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014 and is planning to open the first restaurant in Hanoi this year.

There appears the direct result of Doi Moi: the rising middle class who are young, open-minded, and a little bit better off than the rest of the country. Mostly born during or after the Doi Moi policy was introduced (1986), they didn’t go through communist social experiment. Having no ideological attachment, all they care are performance.  Different from people from the countryside like Cong and Hien, they don’t passively accept the conditions imposed on them. They perceive, examine, and then vocal out if they believe something is not right.

That is the case for Nguyen Anh Tuan, a young Hanoian architect who is also a social activist.

“I didn’t really experience the pre – Doi Moi era but from what I’ve been told, I know life was much tougher then,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the authority can consider it as an achievement. They made a grave mistake, and then corrected it on time. There’s nothing glorious about it.”

Tuan, 28, lives with his father who is a veteran in downtown Hanoi. They frequently quarrel because his father doesn’t like Tuan’s social activities, which are considered as “anti-revolutionary” by the security police. Besides normal architecture job, he blogs on political issues and sometimes takes part in some politically sensitive activities such as anti – China demonstrations.

Sitting with me in Cong Caphe, a chain of coffee shops which decorates with relics from the command economy and communist propagandas, he told me how he has become an activist. He was always a rebel at school, but didn’t understand much about politics. He refused to join the Communist Youth Union (which is a Communist mass organization for students) and criticized the school’s strict supervision on students.

“At that time I just wanted freedom, nothing else. The schooling system made me feel being chained, so I spoke out. After graduation, I chose to stay away from politics,” he said.

Things only changed after he moved to work in Kuala Lumpur for 2 years. He realized how life could be different if citizens are more concerned a little bit on how they are governed.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Tuan said, quoting the South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Certainly, there are not many young and outspoken people like Tuan. A lot of others, who understand the risk of being too outspoken, choose to stay inside the comfort zone and earn a decent living. Even the owner of the Cong Caphe chain where we were talking to each other is among those. Yet increasingly, more and more people start having opinions.

This tendency, for sure, doesn’t please the Party. A communist regime, which relies on people’s unity and obedience, remains stable only when there are not many different opinions around. This is institutionalized as a motto “The Party leads, the state manages, and the people own”. It proved to be the recipe for success of the country to survive nearly a half century of wars, extreme poverty, harsh living conditions, and international isolation. Yet, with the new generation, particularly generation 8x (born in 1980s) and 9x (born in 1990s), it is much harder for the party to maintain the recipe. Inspired by the boom of Internet and communications technology, the country’s economic success and international integration, they prefer a more pluralistic society, in which anyone can keep their own viewpoint and live their own life without being bothered. What is more: they are willing to take risk for that purpose.

There have been on and off signals of such pluralism since 1990s. However, it is not until recently that it appears to be a prominent trend. The emergence of civil society perfectly illustrates it. Last year, a group of previously unconnected activists created a movement called “6,700 trees” to protest against Hanoian authority’s decision to chop down such urban trees. Nguyen Anh Tuan was among those who initiated it. He held a board that wrote “I am a tree” and then stood inside the hole where the tree was chopped. His picture was a phenomenon on social media, which attracted a lot of attention from both media and the public.

The movement garnered unexpected popularity, forcing the central government to intervene. The result was quite encouraging: the project was cancelled, and several senior officials were punished.


The original Doi Moi goal, which was considered as the only “interim era” en route to socialism, has very less relevance to the present Vietnam. If you come and ask normal Vietnamese, either working for the state or doing their own business, they will just laugh off and rubbish the idea of “heading towards socialism”. Doi Moi, which has focused on economic reform by allowing private enterprises and foreign investors to be operational in a market economy,    has brought massive success to the country and its people for the past 30 years. No one will ever think of giving up such progress for another adventurous effort of social engineering. Doi Moi is no “interim”, its legacy comes here to stay.

Yet Everything that has a beginning has an ending. The economic reform, along with its social changes, has reached its limit. The Party has tried to maintain its socialist promise by building up state-owned enterprises, with hopes to be “strong pillars” and “iron fists” of the economy. It turned out to be a disastrous mistake: several years ago, one of these SOEs, Vinashin, went bankrupt with a debt of over 4 billion USD. The others were also put under scrutiny for mismanagement, over-investment, and corruption. The Party has walked a fine line between keeping its ideological orthodoxy and economic prosperity for all those years, but now they must choose: either pushing forward for a more free and efficient economy without the state’s visible hand, or dragging it down with the SOE zombies.

On the social side, the stellar rise of Internet in Vietnam (with 40% of people are netizens) seriously challenge the monopoly over information from the state.  Without this monopoly, it is impossible for the authority to impose their ideas over the people. In addition, younger generations demand for a more open society where they can speak out their mind without the risk of being punished. People are obliged to the prosperity that Doi Moi has brought in, but the Party cannot keep the glorious past as the legitimacy for future’s action. Just like elsewhere in East Asia, as the society is getting richer, it will ask for more political freedom.

Top leaders, certainly, already feel the pressure as they have been loosening the political space bit by bit for the past 20 years, which can be seen by the rising of civil society and more independent media. However, the system and its idea, which was built 30 years ago in the Party Congress that led to the Doi Moi policy, fall short of providing a solid foundation for the next phase of Vietnam’s development. That might well explain why many Vietnamese elite leaders are now calling for a “Doi Moi 2.0”, which focuses mostly on “institutional” changes, the softer way of mentioning political reforms.

The recent Party Congress in early 2016 might leave some people worry that the country’s determination to further reforms, as the widely considered reformist Nguyen Tan Dung was ousted from the top post. Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong, 72 years old with 50 years of party membership, was re-elected as the party chief, raising concern that the country will reverse its path to future. Yet, since Vietnam always emphasizes collective leadership as its main policy making mechanism, this concern might be exaggerated. Getting closer to the America, opening up the country for more investments, or giving more rights to citizens, are not credited to one or one group of leaders, but the Party itself.

Therefore, the more important concern is what the Party really thinks.. Alas, that is what we don’t really know by now.  The Party knows well that being “socialist” as in the 20th century is not possible, but following the “capitalist” model of market economy and democracy is not a popular option among the Party members. Despite growing tensions with China recently and a much warmer relations with the West, some of the Party conservatives still consider “velvet revolution” as the biggest threat of the regime. Openly opting for a Western style democracy might contain risks that the Party is not ready to take. The chaos in post-Arab Spring countries as well as unhealthy development in Thailand make the party elites more paranoid about “regime change”.

And there comes the question of legitimacy for the Party if adopting “democracy” as the way forward. After all, it was the denial of capitalism that the Communist North invaded and reunified with the Capitalist South. Choosing this way is likely to put an end for the Party’s monopoly power over Vietnam.. That is the price that the Party is not willing to take. Similar to the fisherman in the fairy tale, the Party is trapped in the middle: can’t go back to the past, yet hard to get along with the present without drastic changes. In the end, it is the people who will decide which way the boat will head to.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s