To top off the symbolism, the party yesterday announced the election to its politburo of Nguyen Dinh Tu, the 63-year-old chief of the atomic energy commission. Even by the standards of Vietnamese politics, Comrade Nguyen will be an inert and low profile cadre; last Friday, on the opening day of the congress, he died of a heart attack.
For all this, the eighth congress was not the airless assembly of ageing dinosaurs which one might have expected. It demonstrated above all that five years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Communism may not be healthy, but it is certainly not dead. In Vietnam, even by the standards of the capitalist West, it is doing very well for itself.
Like any party conference, the congress was much concerned with giving itself a pat on the back. The political report, rubber- stamped by the delegates over the weekend, dwelled much on the indisputable successes of the past 10 years. In 1986, when Vietnam embarked on its policy of doi moi, or reform, inflation was 774 per cent. At the last party congress in 1991, it was 67 per cent; this year the figure is down to a fifth of that. Capital investment is increasing, and growth is running at more than 8 percent.
But the striking thing about the policy report is the amount of self criticism it contains. Parts of its express the moderate anxieties of left-leaning parties everywhere; rising unemployment, environmental damage, and the "social evils" of crime, drug addiction and pornography. But other sections read less like the work of revolutionary Communists, than that of a team of management consultants.
Vietnam "remains the among the poorest countries in the world, with low levels of economic development, labour productivity, and business efficiency". Despite the need for investment "state and party institutions ... are spending wastefully, consuming more than they can produce without saving for intensive development". The solution to this is expressed in a curiously hybrid jargon; "to build a multi-sector commodity economy operating along the market mechanism in parallel with ... state management along the socialist line".
In practice this means more capitalism; promoting technology, commerce and foreign investment - even, some time in the next century, founding a stock market. But it also means socialism; defending the homeland, strengthening the party and a stern rejection of "fanatic democratism" and multi-party politics.
This is not as unlikely, or as unpopular, as it first sounds. American and European diplomats, avidly competing for opportunities to invest in the country's growing private sector, tend to adopt pained expressions when asked about Hanoi's record on political rights. But among Vietnam's Asian neighbours, there is less confusion.
"Foreigners always worry that the party is slowing down the speed of reform," says an Asian diplomat in Hanoi, "but we don't see it like that. In order to make the economy work, it's very important to have stability. At this stage, a one-party system is essential to this country."