HANOI — Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the long-ruling Communist Party of Vietnam kept his post during a week-long party congress in Hanoi that ended Jan. 28 as he easily fended off a challenge by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has championed economic reforms. The CPV holds a congress every five years to make leadership changes and set policy guidelines. Although the congress was held behind closed doors, the preceding weeks saw an unprecedented tussle among party apparatchiks as contending factions “played out via the Internet through blogs, leaks, rumors and innuendos,” according to Hung Nguyen, a former Vietnam government advisor who now lectures at George Mason University in the U.S. Despite Vietnam’s closed political system and censored media, internet access is growing, with social media widely used and a proliferation of activist blogs and online comments — often penned anonymously — showing that many Vietnamese are keenly interested in politics and want to have a say in how the country is run.
VINH-O COMMUNE, QUANG TRI PROVINCE, VIETNAM – The Ben Hai river running through this small mountain village in central Vietnam marks the 17th parallel — what was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam prior to the exit of US troops and the communist victory in 1975. It is a historic but neglected part of Vietnam – a world apart from the bustling capital Hanoi, with cell phone coverage disappearing on the snaking road up to the village, as the early morning drizzle falls over the steep, foliage-laden slopes on either side. Most of the people living along the rural river area are Van Kieu, one of 54 officially-recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam, a country where rising income levels for urban Vietnamese have not been matched by improved living standards in some isolated rural areas where minorities live. Despite Vietnam’s “tiger” economy years, “upland farmers [including and in particular the minority ethnic groups of the Central Highlands] have been left behind,” says Roger Montgomery of the London School of Economics.