HANOI -- Vietnamese officials are actively pursuing their own version of Mikhail Gorbachev's economic restructuring program, and they boast that theirs -- called doi moi, or renovation -- is being achieved with a minimum of the disorder now affecting the Soviet Union.
Signs that free enterprise is taking hold are everywhere here. New two-story private houses have sprung up or are under construction in and around the city, and some of its French colonial architecture is getting a facelift. Private shops and markets have taken over many streets, selling everything from blue jeans to videocassette recorders and lending an atmosphere of vibrancy to once drab neighborhoods.
To be sure, the changes are something of a paradox in a state whose leaders refuse to acknowledge here that they are moving toward capitalism and seem horrified by the collapse of Communist allies abroad. Furthermore, the ruling Communist Party is holding the line against political reform, and a recent crackdown on dissidents attests to the power of hard-liners who control internal security.
But for many Vietnamese, the economic changes are revolutionary, and some officials are not afraid to admit that their Communist system has ruined the country's economy. Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, said Friday in an interview in New York that a planned economy "couldn't work" and had turned his nation into a "charity house."
In addition, Vietnamese officials and diplomats say that at the same time the government represses dissent, Hanoi is quietly dismantling the Stalinist model that has prevailed here since the 1950s. There is a growing sense that the transition to a "multisectoral" economy makes even more far-reaching political changes inevitable.
Officials here say that doi moi is proceeding without the kind of social disturbance that has affected the Soviet Union as Moscow tries to change its command economy into one that operates on market forces.
This is occurring in part because terms like "pluralism" and "multi-party system" remain dirty words in Hanoi's political vocabulary. Officials say there is no great public demand for such changes and that after more than 40 years of war and impoverishment people's main desires are stability and a chance to improve economically.
But government insiders agree that even political change will come eventually.
"We don't talk a lot about eliminating the Stalinist model, but if you look at what we've done, we have already changed the model," said a high-ranking official. He added, "A multisectoral economy will lead to political pluralism, and Communists understand that better than anyone else."
Among the more imminent changes is an overhaul of Vietnam's 1980 constitution. While the leading role of the Communist Party remains beyond challenge in the document, substantial changes in it are mandated by Vietnam's shift from a centrally planned economy to a free-market system, said Justice Minister Phan Hien.
"We must revise the constitution," he said in an interview. "It will be almost a new one." He said the new charter would be drafted over the next several months for discussion at the party's seventh congress, scheduled for May 1991.
To advance the renovation policy introduced in 1986, Vietnam needs "a new system of laws," Phan Hien said. Currently being drafted, for example, is the country's first comprehensive law on companies, part of an effort to codify renovation and encourage foreign investors. The government also plans to introduce progressive personal income taxes.
Meanwhile, signs of economic change abound. Privately owned cars are still few, but imported motorbikes compete for space on the capital's tree-lined, French-designed streets with bicycles and pedicabs.
More than 100 private restaurants have opened in Hanoi in the last few years, along with hundreds of coffeeshops and some small, privately owned hotels. The trading of gold, silver and dollars is no longer a state monopoly, and private jewelers now challenge the few state-owned jewelry stores. In one such private shop, the owner worked behind a display case filled with gold and jade adornments as children played nearby with a video game. A new Toyota car was in the back.
In the countryside, where more than 80 percent of Vietnamese live, collectivized agriculture has been dismantled under a system in which the land is leased to peasant families. After having to import up to 800,000 tons of rice a year during much of the 1980s, Vietnam last year became the world's third-largest rice exporter.
"Before, we forced peasants to join cooperatives, and that was a revolution," said an official. "Now we have set them free, and that is also a revolution. This hasn't even been done in the Soviet Union yet."
Under one of the most liberal foreign investment codes in the region, Vietnam in the last three years has approved more than 180 projects, with a total investment of $1.3 billion, according to Vo Dong Giang, the minister in charge of the State Committee for Cooperation and Investment. The investors include nine foreign oil companies working to develop offshore reserves under production-sharing arrangements.
A long-standing U.S. trade embargo, renewed last month by President Bush, bars American investment in Vietnam. However, some American businessmen and oil company representatives have begun exploring the market in hopes the embargo will be lifted.
As part of the shift to a market economy, the government has eliminated rationing and most of the subsidies that formerly consumed as much as 30 percent of the national budget. It also has lifted restrictions on the number of workers a private company can employ and has forced state firms to compete on a commercial basis. Hundreds of thousands of state workers have been laid off as a consequence of the moves.
Since June, wholly private Vietnamese companies have been allowed to form joint ventures with foreign investors.
Although state enterprises still own 93 percent of the means of production, they produce only 28 percent of national income, according to government statistics. The growing private sector now employs about 40 percent of the country's nearly 29 million workers and accounts for 42 percent of gross national product.
A looming problem is that Vietnam faces a sharp decrease in Soviet aid, which has totaled more than $10 billion over the last five years, according to Le Dang Doanh, a top government economist.
While the government denies any opposition to the renovation policy, diplomats point to signs of a power struggle over how far it should go.
Fearing disturbances timed to coincide with politically important anniversaries, security forces began cracking down on dissenters in April as part of a crime-fighting campaign that eventually netted nearly 2,000 "criminals and many people accused of violating national security," official news media said.
In July, the human-rights organization Amnesty International complained that at least nine dissidents, including a Roman Catholic priest, were still being held for political reasons.
The feared disturbances never materialized, and the clampdown eased in September, Vietnamese and diplomatic sources said.
In general, they said, renovation has spawned greater freedom of expression, more debate in the Vietnamese legislature and a reduced role for Communist Party functionaries in government bodies.
Newspaper and book publishing remains under the control of the state, but journalists now vie to break stories on official corruption, and writers delve into some previously taboo topics.
Since 1988, more than 10 histories and novels have been written about North Vietnam's disastrous land reform in the 1950s, a policy enforced by thousands of executions. Writers also have been reexamining formerly glorified events, including aspects of the Vietnam War. Terrible losses on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in the 1968 Tet offensive, as well as commanders' mistakes and shortcomings, are subjects of a more critical appraisal.
"Now we can point out the truth," said Ngo Thao, a leading Hanoi literary critic who rejects the once mandatory "socialist realism."