AS communist Vietnam builds a market economy, university instructors train managers for a world where the customer comes first.
Vietnam's biggest economics university now offers the country's first master's degree in business administration. Students and professors alike devour introductory economics textbooks written by Americans. And economics students talk openly about getting rich.
``I have two goals: to become wealthy, and to learn how to become even wealthier in the future,'' says a 20-year-old student of financial management at Hanoi University.
The student, who asked not to be identified, says he learned a lot about the pursuit of wealth from reading ``Economics,'' the basic economics text written by Paul Samuelson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus. The book was translated into Vietnamese two years ago and is now printed locally.
``In the past, a lot of my colleagues taught Marxist economics, and I myself was trained very carefully in it,'' says Nguyen Truong Son, a marketing instructor at Hanoi University. ``Now if students want to learn Marxist economics, they can study it on their own.''
Mr. Son describes Marxism as one economic theory among many. This theoretical sea-change stems from Vietnam's decision in the late 1980s to abandon Stalinist central-planning. Disastrous economic conditions at that time led the country's leaders to pursue a policy of liberalization known as doi moi. The government freed prices, slashed subsidies to state-owned enterprises, and welcomed foreign investment.
TODAY, Vietnam's private sector is booming.
``Before, under the subsidized system, all the factories and offices produced according to a command,'' says Tran Van Dai, a third-year statistics major at the National Economics University in Hanoi. ``But under the new market economy mechanism, the customer is king.''
Universities, however, were unprepared for the abrupt change in government policy. Economics instructors themselves needed to learn about the free market before they could teach others.
Vu Dinh Bach, rector of the National Economics University, says retraining teachers is his most critical task. ``If we cannot do that, we'll have to close our university because now our students need [new] skills and new knowledge for their jobs,'' he says.
Professor Bach oversees more than 10,000 students, half of them women, at Vietnam's largest and most prestigious school for economics. With help from America's Ford Foundation, he started in 1992 the country's first year-long program to educate teachers and public officials about the market economy.
Since the introduction of doi moi, traditional National Economics University subjects such as price theory and labor economics have been transformed into courses on marketing and human resource management. Students must still learn about Marxist economics, but they can no longer specialize in it.
Last July the university used money from Sweden to start training its first 30 candidates for an MBA.
But some of Vietnam's would-be tycoons complain that their instructors rely too much on theory. ``We must have knowledge from businessmen if we want to learn about business,'' the Hanoi University student says. ``Professors just give us principles. Rarely do they give us examples.''
Even as more Vietnamese students flock to classes on finance and marketing, not all of them admit to becoming capitalists. Mr. Dai, for example, sees no contradiction in describing Communism as society's ultimate objective.
``The idea of the customer as king means that we [businessmen] have to serve the people in the very best way,'' he says. ``And that is the idea behind socialism.... If all enterprises succeed, this means the incomes of all people will rise.''