HANOI -- -- The young Vietnamese intellectual, an army veteran with impeccable Communist Party credentials, looked carefully around the restaurant before discussing whether his compatriots will rebel against the Communist regime here the way East Europeans and Chinese did against their governments last year.
"I am worried," he finally replied. "Our government must find 1 million new jobs a year for our young people. It can't find them. And now thousands of our young people are losing their jobs in Eastern Europe and coming home. There is no work for them here. I am worried what will happen."
During a month of traveling in cities and villages from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and interviewing Communist leaders and ordinary citizens, many Vietnamese -- both inside and outside of the government -- said they are preoccupied with the political situation here and how it might be affected by rising social and economic troubles.
Hard-line officials led by Interior Minister Mai Chi Tho have warned that a democracy movement similar to the one that rocked China in 1989 could take hold here, and they have pressed for a crackdown on dissidents. But other officials, led by Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, advocate extensive political reform and are pushing for a greater opening to the West to win assistance and technology to aid the devastated economy.
The government revealed the extent of its fears about possible disturbances when it issued a statement earlier this month acknowledging widespread disillusionment within the Vietnamese army, raising the question of how soldiers would react if ordered to crush a democracy movement.
Amid a continuing power struggle in the ruling Politburo, arrests are rising sharply, according to Vietnamese and Americans with connections to the government, although reliable figures could not be obtained. An account of one recent arrest documents how intensely Interior Ministry officials fear that Vietnamese citizens paid by the United States or exiles living in America will act if controls are loosened.
Michael Morrow, a magazine editor who was in Vietnam on business this spring and had been in the country many times before, was arrested and held for days of questioning. "One of my interrogators who had recently toured Eastern Europe was convinced that the CIA had played a major role in destabilizing Communist governments there and that American policy now aimed to do the same in Vietnam," Morrow said in a written statement after being freed May 14.
Morrow also wrote that in his interrogation, "no one seemed immune from suspicion, including prominent Vietnamese intellectuals, especially Catholics, and some of the best known of Americans who, often at great risk to themselves, were at the forefront of anti-war activities in Vietnam 20 years ago."
Among the Americans was Don Luce, a former Agency for International Development employee in South Vietnam who exposed the former Saigon government's use of tiger cages to confine and punish dissidents.
Luce said in Vietnam that his friends had warned him that the Interior Ministry had put him under surveillance as part of the stepped-up anti-dissident campaign.
The government's statement about the army, broadcast over the radio and monitored in Bangkok, was an unusual step and indicated how seriously authorities are viewing disillusionment in the ranks.
It said that in many cases, political officers "have become helpless in the face of the situation of their units, not only because they are incapable or irresponsible, but because their units are too poor and also because of a lack of social justice."
Many soldiers are deserting, the statement acknowledged, and the collapse of Communist governments in Eastern Europe has had "a negative impact on the hearts and minds of the people, cadres and combatants of our armed forces."
Army morale and efficiency also have been hurt by budget cuts, which have created poor living conditions, and military men are angry that corrupt government officials are not punished even after they are caught, the broadcast said.
The government said that the army is still "politically stable" but that the problem in the ranks stems from the failure of political officers to do their jobs. "This has caused the masses to lose their confidence in the leadership," the statement said.
While the government worries about soldiers in its active army, another segment of the military is clamoring for its attention, vocalizing its unhappiness in ever increasing volume -- the veterans of the North Vietnamese army that drove out the Americans and defeated the U.S.-backed government in the south in 1975. The veterans recently established a national organization to press the government to meet their needs, and a number of them have written books critical of the war and the treatment they received when they went home.
Interviews with some of these veterans revealed that many have the same complaints as their American counterparts. They said their government had not done enough to combat rashes and cancers believed to have resulted from the American chemical poison Agent Orange. They also lamented a lack of artificial arms and legs, and of psychiatric care for veterans suffering from lingering traumas.
A bestseller in Vietnam is a book entitled "The Retired General," the story of a war hero who came home to find that he no longer fit into Vietnam's postwar society and felt compelled to leave it. Vietnamese officials guardedly said that drinking, drug abuse and other maladies are problems for many of the veterans who went home to estranged families and no jobs.
Dr. Pham Song, who as minister of health is responsible for coping with the nation's psychological as well as physical ills, agreed with his medical colleagues that postwar Vietnam has yet to make the psychological adjustment to peace. But he said the best medicine would be more jobs, not increased government medical services. "We need 2.5 million new jobs a year," he said in a recent interview here. "We can find only 1 million."
The resulting unemployment is highly visible in Vietnamese cities. In Danang, for example, young men fill up the sidewalk cafes on work-day mornings, and mothers and fathers complain about the lack of jobs.
A 27-year-old college graduate in Danang personalized both the hopelessness and resignation of the postwar generation of educated Vietnamese. "I am trained to be an English teacher," she said as she waited tables. "But there is no suitable job for me unless I go far from here. I don't want to leave my parents. So I must do what I can to help them here. I am 27 -- too old to be loved. I won't marry."
But asked whether she and others who could not find suitable jobs would take action against the government, she smiled and said: "I must always believe that tomorrow will be better than today."
Health Minister Song, too, was asked whether Vietnam's unemployed and discontented would rise up against their government. "At this moment, no. But in the future?" The minister took a long pause. "Hard to say. We have to think about this."