Communist Party sets out to define 'Vietnamese identity'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 July, 1998, 12:00am

What is the 'Vietnamese identity'? The Communist Party's ruling Central Committee is discussing the subject behind closed doors in Hanoi this week.

There is a lot more to it than the tourist view of conical hats, emerald green rice paddies and hot French baguettes. Urban elites may tell you it is Honda Dream motorcycles, mobile phones and watching the World Cup on a big-screen television.

Vietnam is a young, aggressive nation whose recent history means identity and cultural values can be tricky to define.

A staggering 60 per cent of Vietnam's 78 million people are believed to be aged under 30 and, while still deeply nationalistic, its long legacy of war perhaps means less than it did a few years ago.

The hard-boiled Communist Party cadres who still fill the government offices and police posts provide one view. The hard-working peasant women who toil season after season in rice paddies provide another.

And their husbands, who often prefer to toil at the bar of the local bia hoi - fresh beer - stall, add a different shade to the social brew.

Travel up to the mountains of the far north and west and it is even more elusive.

Here, in long houses, ethnic minorities such as the Hmong and Thai eke out fiercely independent lives to ancient mystical rhythms. Yet they are 'Vietnamese nationals' ultimately under the gaze of the party.

Certainly the country is more open now than for years.

The open-door policy has brought a tide of baseball caps and a host of Western influences while a relaxing of social controls has sparked the return of customs and rites banned under more severe Marxist rule.

Bullfights that culminate in ritual slaughter - a 400-year-old tradition - have returned to Haiphong.

Weddings are now expensive elaborate affairs and so are funerals - sometimes staffed by professional mourners paid to make a great show of wailing and weeping as the coffin is taken away.

Both the 'unhealthy lifestyles of a section of the youth' and 'superstition' are being examined this week - dangerous waters perhaps for a staunchly atheist party keen to show it allows religious freedom.

Such a review may sound odd but it cannot be dismissed. The few Communist parties left are in uncharted territory with the end of the Cold War. To define a culture and then stay close to it could prove a key to survival.