Winds of change blow old cadres from party leadership
The sight of a young Hanoi student three metres up a tree, straining for a glimpse of Microsoft founder Bill Gates during his weekend visit, is one of the more telling images surrounding the Communist Party congress now under way.
It highlights one of Vietnam's strongest assets - a growing, bright and eager young population desperate for their nation to catch up with the outside world.
The Communist Party is desperate to play its own form of catch-up, too, ensuring it can stay relevant as wider society starts to change at an ever-faster speed. Yesterday, it voted for what is almost certain to be a younger leadership, one free for the first time of direct links to the old revolutionary cadre and its habitual war-time caution. Talk to officials involved and it is clear that the new leaders will start with an unshakeable message cemented at the congress: there is no turning back; reforms - economic, social and diplomatic - must progress.
Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien captured the confidence. He talked up Vietnam's deepening and broadening relations with former enemies China and the US, and its goal to join the World Trade Organisation as soon as possible, as well as the UN Security Council. Later this year, Vietnam will host Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum leaders and it is preparing to send its troops to participate in peacekeeping operations.
Such goals were pipe-dreams just a decade ago as it fitfully emerged from its status as an international pariah at the end of the cold war, suspicious of its neighbours and even former comrades. 'We are fully committed to this process,' Mr Nien said. 'We can only move ahead on all fronts.'
The breeze of change reached the corridors of the Soviet-era Ba Dinh Hall, where 1,178 national congressional delegates voted late yesterday. No one was pretending it was a festival of democracy, but significant changes took place.
Instead of the usual rubber-stamping of a new Central Committee list presented by the outgoing body, they voted among 207 candidates for 160 full places.
The new Central Committee will meet later today to elect the ruling Politburo and general secretary of the party, considering for the first time candidates recommended by the floor. The Politburo list, which could be expanded to 17 members, will effectively confirm the prime minister and president, positions to be ratified later by the National Assembly, Vietnam's parliament.
General Secretary Nong Duc Manh is expected to stay on, but Prime Minister Phan Van Khai is expected to retire. President Tran Duc Luong removed his name from Central Committee consideration, effectively sealing his retirement.
The favoured contenders to replace Mr Khai and Mr Luong remain Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Ho Chi Minh party boss Nguyen Minh Triet respectively, sources said.