At nine o'clock this morning, amid much solemnity, the Communist Party of Vietnam will convene its Eighth Congress, and on the streets of Hanoi yesterday there was only one topic of conversation. Was it the future of doi moi, the policy of cautious free market "renovation" which has transformed Vietnam's economy since the 1980s? No. Was it the Orientations and Tasks of the 1996-2000 Socio-Economic Plan, due to be adopted over the weekend? No. It wasn't even the imminent arrival of the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, the most senior Chinese visitor to attend a congress since 1936. The question Vietnamese were eager to ask a British visitor yesterday was: "What about the England-Germany penalty shoot-out?"
I haven't mastered the Vietnamese for We wuz robbed but the lesson was clear. For all the lofty decisions being weighed in the committee rooms, the country has more interesting things to occupy itself with than politics. In the popular imagination, Dai Hoi (Congress) VIII is no match for Euro '96.
At any time other than Congress week, it would not be obvious that Vietnam was a Communist country at all. The city has been festooned with red flags and banners but, these apart, Hanoi has a less authoritarian atmosphere than Tokyo or Seoul. Policemen are polite and unarmed. The media, although state controlled, are relaxed.
Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, which, as Saigon, was capital of the anti- Communist south, Hanoi is a newcomer to the free market. But the streets seethe with touts offering rides, shoe-shines, Western books, magazines and women. Advertising is in its infancy but the proliferating billboards demonstrate a growing spirit of competition for everything from Pepsi Cola and LG Insurance to Trust Quality Condoms.
But this is a superficial impression: the interest of the Congress is how it will square this modest flowering of free enterprise with a political system still intolerant of dissent and suspicious of the capitalist world. "The ordinary Vietnamese I know never say a word about politics," a diplomat in Hanoi said. "But there are still knocks on the door in the dead of night, and those red flags outside the houses - they're certainly not all there because the owners decided on their own initiative to put them there."
The limited tolerance of the free market, initiated by the Communist Party, has brought about change, but Hanoi has no Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer intent on democratisation. Vietnam's communists have adapted to survive and so far the experiment has worked.
At the last congress but one, 10 years ago, Vietnam was an economic basket case - a Soviet-style economy, plagued by red tape and corruption. These days growth is more than 8 per cent, but inflation seems under control: this week the government announced it had fallen to a three-year low of 4.6 per cent.
But in the months leading up to the Congress, there have been signs that doi moi may be slowing down. In February, Hanoi witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of Western video tapes, girly calendars and music cassettes being crushed under a steam roller. Loudspeakers have broadcast warnings against such imported "social poisons", and foreign companies, including soft drinks and underwear manufacturers, have had their billboards removed.
Whether the clampdown was just an angry spasm or whether it represents a new current in Vietnamese Communism remains to be seen. Certainly, the Party Congress shows little sign of introducing new changes. Partly this is a problem of leadership. Delegates have been unable to agree on new occupants for the top posts, so the present leadership, including the 79-year-old Party Secretary, Do Muoi, and the 75-year-old President, Le Duc Anh, will be re-elected. A resolution to keep 60 per cent of GDP under state control has been dropped from the Congress's policy document after objections from foreign governments, but diplomats believe it will remain an unofficial bar to market reform.
Political reform is not on the agenda. "We refute categorically pluralism and a multi-party system," Hong Ha, the General Secretary of the Central Committee said yesterday. "Why? Because it is contrary to the political line of the Communist Party and the aspiration of the Vietnamese people." For the time being that may be true, but without a change of leadership, the Party may find its IXth Congress, in five years' time, a rockier one. "This society is changing so fast," one diplomat said. "And expectations are rising faster than the Party's ability to control them."