TRYING to shed a drab image, Hanoi held its first beauty contest at the end of last year. Contestants were judged not only on charm and grace, but on what they had to say about the Communist Youth Union. The union - like much of Vietnam's officialdom - is more likely the butt of jokes these days among the nation's restless youth. Playwrights, for instance, get easy laughs from theater audiences by poking fun at the advanced age of leaders.
A rapid disenchantment among the nation's 17 million school-age youth has officials worried. Recent school graduates account for over half of the nation's urban jobless. Teen-agers commit four out of five crimes in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The number of drug addicts, despite police crackdowns, has escalated. Traditional respect for teachers and ethics has been ``grievously eroded,'' officials say.
``Some young people have lost their sense of self-restraint, indulging in opportunism, the cult of money, and the pursuit of leisure,'' said Communist Party chief Nguyen Van Linh last year.
``Some of them derive pleasure from drinking parties and places of fun and enjoyment, while others seek consolation in saints and gods at temples and pagodas to relieve personal sorrows or detach themselves from life,'' he told a youth conference.
Students have become too lazy, official media reports. Graduates want only high-paying jobs or none at all. Western goods, such as Japanese motorcycles or American blue jeans, have become addictive and expensive status symbols.
``Young people today have too much to worry about,'' says Ha Quang Du, first secretary of the youth union. ``They're not like youth trained by battle during the war and who are politically stable. They want Western life styles and are always looking for overseas jobs.''
Legacies of the war and a rapid decline in income are taking a heavy toll on the next generation, a few Western analysts say.
``Many kids have become cynical and distrustful,'' says one Asian diplomat in Hanoi. ``They are weak both morally and physically. The leadership in Hanoi found out about it too late. They kept looking at Marxism and Leninism for a solution to social problems, but found nothing.''
Ideology took a back seat when officials announced in December that final exams on Marxism-Leninism were being dropped. ``Kids are interested only in material goods. We try to teach ideology, but it's not close to reality for them,'' says Nguyen Van Gian, a Nghe Tinh Province official.
Close dancing, once scorned, is all the rage at new discos opening in city hotels. A burst of nudity in art and on stage, in addition to the Hanoi beauty contest, reveal a pent-up enthusiasm under the limited freedoms being granted by the party.
Most worrisome to officials is a lack of jobs, especially since a massive Army demobilization is planned after 1990. Each year, about 2 million young people enter an economy that provides an average income of only $130 a year. Only about 40 percent of youth find employment.
With military recruitment going down, the state set up ``assault forces'' of youth in 1987, providing makeshift employment on three-year cycles. State-run factories have been ordered to make hiring preferences for young people. And various state organs are putting up seed capital for young entrepreneurs. A special law on youth will be taken up by the National Assembly in 1989.
The youth union itself, founded by Ho Chi Minh even before he founded Vietnam's Communist Party, is going through hard times. With 4 million members, the union still serves as a training ground for future party members and as a press gang for the military draft. But the party admits it has long used the union to exploit youth. In 1988, union membership decreased for the first time after the removal of benefits, such as easy access to university and overseas jobs.
After jobs, schools are a second battle front for the state. Educational quality has declined and illiteracy has risen, officials admit. ``We need a return to Vietnamese culture and to offer more Western culture, with more training in ethics and law,'' says Truong Anh Dung, deputy editor of Youth newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh's life, presented as a model of virtue, has lately been pushed more than usual in the public eye.
Alarm bells went off in 1986 when thousands of demoralized teachers walked off the job, protesting low pay - as low as $2 a month. Teachers complain of ramshackle classrooms, shaky desks and chairs, a lack of blackboards, chalk, paper, and ink. Five or six students share one set of textbooks.
The walkout forced the issue for the party. Educational reform has been in only fits and starts since the North, accustomed to two decades of rigid Soviet-style education, took over the free-wheeling southern school system in 1975.
``Our system is too rigid. We must be more flexible,'' says Tran Hong Quan, minister of higher vocational education and job training, who likes to show pictures of the last Confucian-style education of mandarins in 1912. ``Morality is our biggest issue.''
In 1986, children of former middle-class families were, in theory, no longer discriminated against in university entrance exams. Last year, a new three-year literacy campaign was launched for those under 35, and the party gave students the freedom to choose their own jobs - with little effect.
``The students are like zoo lions set free,'' says Mr. Quan. ``They prefer the comfort of the cage and the freedom to do nothing.'' Fewer than 5 percent of students want to be become workers, surveys suggest.
In 1988, private schools were made legal, and parents of pupils were ``invited'' to contribute fees for local schools. Local officials have been ordered to give teachers the best lands to till, higher rice subsidies, and overtime pay.