I AWOKE ONE AUTUMN MORNING to find my sleepy Hanoi neigh¬borhood had slipped into festival mode. Convoys of pickup trucks and motor scooters cruised the streets, Vietnamese flags waving, loudspeakers blaring patriotic songs and messages. Large bouquets of flowers were everywhere, on the doorsteps of shops, on the plastic tables of sidewalk noodle cafes, on the altars of pagodas, on the sewing table of the tailor down the street. From the schoolyard, I heard children singing the Vietnamese national anthem, written by a Northern soldier in the colonial 1940s:
Soldiers of Vietnam, we go forward
With the one will to save our Fatherland
Our hurried steps are sounding on the long and arduous road
Our flag, red with the blood of victory, bears the spirit of our country.
The distant rumbling of the guns mingles with our marching song.
The path to glory passes over the bodies of our foes.
Overcoming all hardships, together we build our resistance bases.
Ceaselesslyfor the people’s cause let us struggle.
Let us hasten to the battlefield Forward! AH together advancing!
Our Vietnam is strong, eternal.
Soldiers of Vietnam, we go forward!
The gold star of our fag in the wind
Leading our people, our native land, out of misery and suffering.
Let usjoin our efforts in thefightfor the building of a new life
Let us stand up and break our chains
For too long have we swallowed our hatred
Let us keep ready for all sacrifices and our life will be radiant
Ceaselessly for the people’s cause let us struggle
Let us hasten to the battlefield
Forward! All together advancing!
Our Vietnam is strong, eternal.
“What’s going on?” I asked the bicycle repairman on the corner.
“The election,” he said. “It’s the startup to the election.”
Election? Vietnam had elections? Real elections?
Most historians agree Hanoi had no intention of letting its citizens vote freely had elections on the future of the country been held in 1956. The communists did hold a “free” national election in 1976, but the 99 percent of the vote they won made the whole affair a bit suspect. Still, the celebratory atmosphere I had awakened to in my Ngu Xa neighborhood had engulfed the entire country. One hundred thousand candidates were running for 25,000 seats on the local People’s Committees—Vietnam’s version of a town council—and in the balance hung a new road for some villages and not for others, perhaps a beautification project, access to elec¬tricity or purified water, another public toilet facility or rebuilt market¬place. The campaign lasted about a week and was pretty uneventful. The candidates had all been approved by the Vietnamese Communist Party, and there was no debate on issues, or even any apparent differences of opinion. Seldom did candidates even show up to pitch their credentials to voters, although for the first time some neighborhoods were circulating petitions saying they wanted to hear from the candidates before making a choice.
The election was set for Tuesday. I walked down to the polling station in the school on Due Chinh Street. Voting is mandatory in Vietnam, so a good turnout was never in question. Ngu Xa had 1,542 registered voters, and by 9 A.M. 1,537 ballots had been cast. I asked a friend if he had voted, and he said, “I couldn’t. I was late for work. My uncle voted for me.” Ah, so that’s why the schoolyard was quieter than I had expected. Voters ful¬filled the obligations of indisposed relatives and friends. Some cast seven¬teen or eighteen ballots.
Ngu Xa had the ambiance of a village, a quiet, pint-sized peninsula linked to the bustle of Hanoi by a single road, and I wanted to learn more about its political structure. I asked around, inquiring when the People’s Committee met, whether meetings were open to the public, how deci¬sions were reached. No one had any idea. Then I started asking the same questions about the central government. Who was on the politburo? Plow did they get there? How long did they serve? Why didn’t newspa¬pers write about the debate on any issue? Again, hardly anyone knew anything. Which raised a question: Who runs Vietnam?
The simplest answer is the Communist Party. It is an elite organiza¬tion, open to newcomers by invitation only, with 2.5 million members, the majority of whom live in the North. Only 12 percent are under the age of thirty. The Party dominates all sectors of society, with trusted senior cadres controlling the ministries, the military, the media, the state-run enterprises, the instruments of policymaking. It is, says the 1980 constitution, “the only force leading the state and society and the main factor de¬termining all successes of the Vietnamese revolution.” That doesn’t leave much room for interpretation, so the Vietnamese don’t sit around dis¬cussing the merits and shortfalls of communism. For the most part, they have bought into the leadership’s masterful sales pitch. Myths and reali¬ties of the past are presented in a manner that suggests they led naturally to the present: The innate wisdom and rectitude of Ho Chi Minh led to the formation of the Communist Party; the Communist Party freed the country from foreign domination; ending foreign domination resulted in the dramatic improvement of living standards in the 1990s. Were it not for communism, well, God only knows what misfortune would have be¬fallen Vietnam.

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