Reporter's Notebook: A New Vietnam Emerges

When the Vietnamese people went to the polls in May to elect a new National Assembly, they had no real choice.

Of the candidates listed on the ballots, 83 percent were from the Communist party. And those that weren’t had been heavily vetted by a powerful umbrella communist group, the Fatherland Front.

In the previous elections five years ago, 90 percent of candidates were communist. So there is change in the political landscape, it's just not happening very fast.

The streets tell a different tale, though.

Click here for's Asia center.

I’ve been visiting Vietnam for 15 years now and in that time there has been a dramatic transformation of this country.

From the darkened potholed streets of Ho Chi Minh City in the early 1990s has risen a powerful economy which could soon surpass the likes of Thailand and Malaysia.

Why? Well 50 million of Vietnam's 82.5 million population are young, educated, hardworking and seemingly desperate to advance themselves.

That is a powerful mix when one considers that most still earn as little as a few dollars a day.

If you run a multinational and have invested heavily in China in recent years then this is certainly an attraction. Even more so for those who don’t, as they say, want all your eggs in one basket.

It wasn’t any real surprise to economic experts that Intel, for instance, decided to build a multimillion dollar plant on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City rather than India or the Philippines last year.

But Vietnam is not like most other Asian economies.

The reality is that Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party which has no interest in listening to opposing voices.

The government recently tried a number of dissidents, including a Catholic priest, for calling for multiparty elections.

As a visiting correspondent, you quickly realize the extent to which the government feels obligated to control the flow of information.

A government-assigned minder is always with you to make sure you don't go anywhere or see anything the state wouldn't want the outside world to know about.

In some ways it actually works, because your minder often has great access to government officials and can even get recalcitrant businessmen to give an interview or provide access to their operation.

What is simply amazing, is that while your minder is assigned to you, you have to pay for his accommodation, transport and food.

And this doesn’t come cheap, I can assure you.

Before Presidents Bush's trip to Hanoi last year to attend an APEC summit, I produced a series of reports on the country.

One of the people I was lucky enough to interview with the help of my minder was Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly.

You couldn’t wish to meet a more interesting person. She speaks several languages, travels extensively and is the consummate diplomat.

Madame Nihn is also a communist. She believes the communist party continues to represent the people.

A huge bust of Ho Chi Minh looked down on us in the reception hall where we talked.

“No government will succeed if it didn’t benefit from wide, broad public support, which is the case in Vietnam” she told me.

Without free elections it does seem difficult to really know if this is the case.

The pace of political reform is slow in Vietnam but the National Assembly may change that.

Its members, including Madame Ninh, are pushing push for a crackdown on corruption in the government and within the communist party which has been embarrassed recently by the activities of several leading figures.

Vietnam’s communist leaders have shown they can adapt to the changing world with their embrace of market opening policies, referred to here as “Doi Moi.”

But how long will it take for them to realize that a similar openness in politics might be a good idea.

Click here for's Asia center.