Vietnamese Ask: What Party Congress?

Gnguyen Thi Thuy sells noodles and fried bean curd in Lenin Park, a popular getaway for families in Hanoi. Despite the draping of red banners throughout the city for the ruling Communist Party's Eighth National Congress June 28-July 1, she says she does not know when the meeting is taking place.

"I'm not so interested in politics," she proclaims while stirring a pan full of bean curd for a customer. "I'm too busy working."

Le Thi Lan, who sells drinks in the park, also professes indifference. "I work all day," she declares. "I have no time to follow what's going on."

When party delegates from around the country gathered for the key event on Vietnam's political calender, most Vietnamese were too busy to pay much notice. Just a few years ago, before Vietnam embraced capitalism, a party congress was Event No. 1. Today, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of Vietnam is business.

As a result of the doi moi policy of renovating the economy introduced in 1986, the number of private enterprises in Vietnam has mushroomed. According to the World Bank, the private sector helped create 4.7 million jobs between 1989 and 1993, compared with 900,000 jobs for the state sector. Private firms employ three times as many workers as their state counterparts. In once-staid Hanoi, shops are now open until the wee hours selling the latest Western goods.

Even in peoples' off-hours, politics plays second fiddle. Doan Nguyen Than, a student preparing for his college-entrance exams, said he and his friends would probably be staying up late Sunday night to watch the finals of the European soccer championship between Germany and the Czech Republic, an event which has overshadowed the party congress in this soccer-loving country. "I think Germany will win - they've got such a strong team," he predicts.

And the party congress? "It's an important event, but I'm too busy preparing for my exams to follow it," he shrugs.

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