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Used with permission from Far Eastern Economic Review Interactive Edition
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Timely stories from the FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW, reprinted and maintained by V V G for a short time, with links remaining in case our readers have a later need to read the full text. Updated January 5, 2003

TELECOMS - A Tough Call in Vietnam By Margot Cohen   Issue cover-dated May 02, 2002

Vietnam's telecoms industry is growing fast from an extremely low base. Foreign companies may see opportunities arising in the next few years, but they will first need to take on powerful and competing domestic interests

THERE'S A NEW BUZZ in Vietnam's telecoms industry. Phone charges are tumbling. Mobile services are expanding. And fresh competition has cropped up between three carriers offering low-cost domestic and overseas calls through Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP. But potential investors should take a good look behind the scenes, where a state-owned giant is fighting fiercely to defend its interests.


On the surface, the changes send a positive signal. More competition and lower costs will spur overall economic development and help unleash the potential of Vietnam's budding software industry. Interest is also perking up because more reforms are mandated by the United States-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement. That pact, which took effect last December, sets a timetable of two to six years down the road for joint-ventures in a variety of telecoms services.


But monopolistic practices still linger. The dominant player-state-owned Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications, or VNPT-squeezes potential competitors through interconnection fees and lease lines that cost 30% more than the regional average. Mysterious delays still plague contracts. Citing national security concerns, VNPT maintains sole control over the international gateway for direct-dial calls, imposing firewalls that impede Internet access. Change in the industry is likely to be incremental, not radical.


In fact, VNPT remains far more powerful than the state agency that ostensibly regulates the telecoms industry: the Department General of Posts and Telecommunications. "I would like to see DGPT exercise more authority," says Simon Perkins, chief executive at Swedish-owned Comvik International Vietnam, which works with VNPT to provide cellular phone services under the brand name MobiFone. Perkins notes that VNPT's moves are "typical of an incumbent trying to protect its revenue streams."


VNPT's revenues are more like a torrent. Last year the company generated revenues of 19 trillion dong ($1.25 billion), and funnelled 2.9 trillion ($190 million) to the national budget, making it the second-largest corporate contributor to state coffers after oil giant PetroVietnam. Power follows money. VNPT's chairman sits on the Communist Party's central committee-outranking everyone at the regulatory agency.


But other powerful interests are also at work. To date, the most interesting challenge to VNPT's supremacy comes from the Vietnamese military, which is moving to commercialize infrastructure once used exclusively for defence. The Defence Ministry owns the Military Electronics Telecommunications Company, or Vietel, which has an optical-fibre network connecting 50 of the country's 61 provinces and cities.


The military's clout was reflected in the government's permitting Vietel to become the first carrier to offer a domestic VOIP service in October 2000. VNPT followed suit nine months later. Last December, Vietel teamed up with US-based ITXC to offer an overseas VOIP service. "They're aggressive, eager to expand, and very open to new ways of doing things," ITXC chairman Tom Evslin told the REVIEW.


Indeed, Vietel has snapped up a 60% market share in domestic and overseas VOIP, apparently causing VNPT some concern. Initially, VNPT tried to slow down Vietel's growth by limiting its leased lines, thereby frustrating customers, who encountered constant busy signals. Vietel successfully lobbied for some additional lines, but it's still waiting for VNPT to give it a line to Khanh Hoa province, and complains of high costs, according to industry sources.


The problem is even more acute in Ho Chi Minh City, where another telecoms firm, Saigon Postel, jumped into VOIP last September. Although VNPT owns 18% of Saigon Postel (whose shares are also held by 10 other state companies), the telecoms giant perceives the southern firm as an upstart competitor with virtually no infrastructure of its own. In March, Saigon Postel sought to double its lease lines from VNPT, but the answer was "wait and see," says general director Trinh Dinh Khuong.


Without more lines, the money he's spending on media promotions will just go down the drain. "Our traffic is limited by the policy of allowing us a market share of 10%-15%," says Khuong. "It's not good for business."

Sharing comes with strings attached, insist VNPT's top leaders. They pledge their commitment to the state's new policy of allotting competitors an overall market share of 25%-30% by 2005. However, "in the competitive environment, each company must prove itself," says VNPT president Dang Dinh Lam. 


That means competitors should not just skim easy profits off VOIP--which requires minimal investment in infrastructure--but move on to more capital-intensive activities like fixed lines and cellular services. After all, Lam argues, VNPT is duty-bound to extend services to more remote and less profitable areas in the countryside, budgeting 30 trillion dong from 2001-05 to expand infrastructure.


True, Vietnam does have pressing infrastructure needs. But other companies are still in a catch-22 situation. The long reign of monopoly means that Vietel and Saigon Postel don't have much cash at their disposal. They need foreign back-up. Yet many overseas companies hesitate because they are not yet allowed to become fully fledged joint-venture partners. At present, they're only eligible for so-called "business-cooperation contracts," which require massive investment and training commitments without any operational powers in return. That's why the joint-venture provisions in the bilateral trade agreement are so important as a stimulus for investment.


But in any corporate marriage, VNPT looms as a jealous lover. SLD Telecoms, a Singapore company owned by three South Korean shareholders, found that out the hard way. SLD had hoped to sign a contract with Saigon Postel in January 2001, for a third mobile network down south, the only one excluding VNPT. But the $230 million deal was delayed for 11 months after VNPT "suggested" to the state regulatory agency that profits be split 50-50 rather than 75-25 in favour of SLD. SLD acquiesced, only to wait another eight months for the state to approve the selection of the supplier, South Korean firm LG Electronics. SLD has persisted because it was promised that no more cellular contracts would be awarded in the Ho Chi Minh City area. Under those conditions, the firm reckoned it could still break even within nine years.


But in early April, the local press reported that a VNPT subsidiary would probably be given a licence to launch a fixed wireless service in Ho Chi Minh City. (In a fixed wireless system, customers can't use their phones in rapidly moving vehicles.) The Review has learned that prices would be dirt-cheap: 280 dong per minute, compared to the usual cellular rate of 1,800 dong per minute.


The move is widely seen as an anti-competitive strategy, aimed at undercutting the service to be launched by Saigon Postel and SLD by the year's end. "This is a breach of promise," says Eeejay Kim, SLD's manager of strategic planning. Meanwhile, VNPT is planning an identical move into the fixed wireless business in Hanoi, where there are rumours that a politically well-connected, private Vietnamese firm is trying to get into the cellular business in the capital.


Some experts hope that legal remedies can curb VNPT's power. A draft ordinance, recently submitted to a parliamentary committee, mandates "transparent and objective and reasonable rules" that would bar monopolistic practices. But until such laws can be passed and enforced, deal makers might think twice before reaching for their phones.


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Cash & Carry, By Margot Cohen  Issue cover-dated April 25, 2002

An international wholesale chain is welcomed to Ho Chi Minh City. But will it thrive?

FOREIGN INVESTMENTS OF $120 million don't come bouncing into Vietnam every day of the week. So when German-owned Metro AG announced plans to open eight giant Metro Cash & Carry wholesale outlets--launching the first one on March 28 in Ho Chi Minh City--Vietnamese officials rolled out the red carpet. Apart from granting tax breaks, they made sure that Metro's massive freezers and other heavy equipment cleared customs in just four days.


Vietnam's friendly welcome contrasts sharply with attitudes in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, where hypermarkets have raised protectionist hackles. While other countries fret over the prospect of local enterprises getting crushed, Vietnam seems to be buying Metro's argument that its presence will benefit local companies.


The biggest lure: Metro's global chain of 337 wholesale outlets could provide a window on the world for many Vietnamese products that currently lack distribution channels. "Metro will help Vietnamese entrepreneurs keep pace with those in other countries, " says Pham Xuan Ai, vice-director of the state-run Institute for Economic Research in Ho Chi Minh City.


Piggybacking on Metro's connections is a lot easier than starting from scratch. Last year, a Hong Kong-based Metro affiliate purchased and exported some $75 million worth of Vietnamese goods, including textiles, shoes and furniture.


That number could swell this year, depending on the firm's continuing evaluations of Vietnamese seafood and various agricultural products. Starting in May, Metro executives promise that they will team up with a German development group to help Vietnamese farmers introduce new crop varieties and ensure the supply of quality vegetables.


And for some Vietnamese retailers, Metro is already providing a useful model for brighter, more hygienic displays of fresh meat, fish and produce. At the Saigon Union of Trading Cooperatives, known as Saigon Co-Op, executives are considering importing new equipment to improve cooling at its string of supermarkets. "We have to try harder," says Nguyen Thi Nghia, president of Saigon Co-Op.


But not everyone is rushing to embrace Metro. As the name suggests, Cash & Carry rules out both credit and delivery--perks that buyers at Ho Chi Minh City's major hotels and restaurants have long enjoyed in centrally located, traditional markets like Ben Thanh. Delivery is a big issue because Metro launched its first store in the southwest corner of the city, a 40-minute ride from the center. "Prices [at Metro] are only 10% lower than they are outside. If you add transportation costs, the price is almost the same as in Ben Thanh," says Pham Vu Hiep, acting food-and-beverage manager at the Rex Hotel. For now, he's sticking with his traditional suppliers, who can deliver goods within 15 minutes and extend daily credit of up to 20 million dong ($1,315).


While opening day was jammed with an estimated 10,000 shoppers and gawkers, subsequent visits on a Sunday afternoon and Friday morning found trade more subdued, with short lines at checkout counters and a half-empty parking lot. One factor is Metro's worldwide insistence that it's a wholesale outlet rather than a discount-retail chain. Potential customers must produce a business-registration number to obtain a plastic entry card emblazoned with a photograph to avoid transferable use. And since few can afford cars in Ho Chi Minh City, they're limited to what they can cart away on their motorbikes.


Another damper is the barring of children under the age of 14. While Metro aims to protect youngsters from getting hurt by the heavy machinery that lifts items onto top shelves, the policy undercuts one of the main functions of shopping in Vietnam--cheap family entertainment. Witness the hordes shuffling through the halls of Trang Tien Plaza, Hanoi's first major mall, which made its debut earlier this year. It's a natural trend, given the lack of recreational alternatives and the novelty of seeing a wide variety of foreign goods in Vietnam.


Rather than draw window shoppers, Metro is counting on cajoling more customers like 30-year-old Le Hong Diem, who hawks home-care products such as shampoo and toothpaste from a modest market stall. Although Diem didn't buy anything on her first two trips to Metro, on her third foray she wheeled two crammed shopping carts to the cash register and peeled off a fat wad of dong. Even though she estimates that shopping at Metro won't save her more than 100,000 dong, she says she doesn't mind paying the total bill of 4,525,100 dong in cash--and piling the massive load onto her motorbike to take back to her stall.


For Vietnam, the broader question is whether Metro's presence will encourage other foreign investors to jump in. "When a group like Metro invests in Vietnam, it's a very strong signal of confidence in political stability and growth," says Doan Viet Dai Tu, a Ho Chi Minh City-based business consultant hired by Metro. Maybe so, but so far the numbers have been disappointing: In the first quarter, approved foreign-investment capital dropped 30% from the same period last year. To reverse the trend, Vietnamese officials must show that Metro won't be the only customer to get red-carpet treatment.

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Bridging the Great Divide, By Margot Cohen, Issue cover-dated April 04, 2002, If that link is no longer active, try

DOING BUSINESS IN Vietnam often requires double vision. Expatriate managers must perceive and adapt to cultural differences between the north and the south. While the country has been reunified for nearly three decades, there's still a major divide between the northern capital of Hanoi and the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City. But since those cultural differences aren't always clear-cut--and perceptions vary according to personal experience--dealing with human resources requires a double dose of sensitivity, too.


First lesson: Establish clear lines of communication. While southerners tend to be more open, northerners tend to stifle their discontent. "Expatriates should reach out more to northern staff--draw them out to understand their problems," advises one Vietnamese banker from Hanoi, who recently moved to Ho Chi Minh City.

Second lesson: Don't expect staff to jump at promotions if they require migrating north or south. Even if the company might benefit greatly from relocating an experienced employee, deeply instilled prejudices and strong family ties build resistance. "We have found it impossible to get people from Ho Chi Minh City to go to Hanoi, and only recently, a few from Hanoi were willing to move to Ho Chi Minh City," notes Peter Karam, general manager of ANZ Bank in Ho Chi Minh City. .... for more, see link, above.


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Waking Up to Reality By Margot Cohen Issue cover-dated January 10, 2002  If that link is no longer active, try

WITH ITS OIL-EXPORT earnings forecast to decline by 20% this year, Vietnam faces intense pressure to transform itself into a modern, proactive economic player. Senior politicians are calling on exporters to cast off their passive, follow-the-middleman habits, and go directly for well-researched business opportunities. That sounds like a tall order, but never underestimate the fear inspired by competition from neighboring China. An important testing ground is the implementation of the bilateral trade agreement with the United States.


In theory, sharp reductions in tariffs give Vietnam unprecedented access to the U.S. market. In reality, even if the U.S. economy perks up by mid-2002, Vietnam won't accomplish much unless it rapidly upgrades the quality of its manufactured goods and marine products. Competing on price alone won't work. In garments, for example, China's exports will surely squeeze Vietnamese rivals. But some analysts remain bullish on the benefits of the trade pact--particularly since Vietnam starts from such a low base. "Half a percentage point increase in market share of the U.S. apparel and textile market would be a huge boost for Vietnam's exports," says Steve Parker, director of a U.S.-funded trade project in Hanoi. .... for more, see link, above.

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Hanoi to Ease Its Hold ~ Ho Chi Minh City is set to win some autonomy from the central government in Hanoi by promising the move will attract business and generate more revenues By Margot Cohen/HO CHI MINH CITY, HAIPHONG and HANOI Issue cover-dated September 13, 2001  If that link is no longer active, try

 LOOSEN UP OR LOSE OUT. That's the message that leaders of Ho Chi Minh City have long tried to drive home to Vietnam's restrictive central government. In return for greater freedom to manage their fiscal and administrative affairs, they promise faster economic growth to pump more money into Hanoi's pocket for national development.

But if the central government's straitjacket remains intact, this vibrant southern city will never fulfill its dreams of becoming a regional economic powerhouse, and the whole country will suffer, local officials argue. "The clothing we are wearing is too tight. We have to change," says Mai Quoc Binh, vice-chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. The city submitted a wish-list to Hanoi in June.... for more, see link, above.

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ASIA'S RED-QUEEN ECONOMIES: ASIA FACES SOMETHING FAR MORE SERIOUS THAN JUST A CYCLICAL DOWNTURN IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. THE RISE OF CHINA AS THE REGION'S TOP LOW-COST MANUFACTURER WILL COMPEL EVERY COUNTRY TO BASE FUTURE GROWTH ON ITS TRUE COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGES. The current global downturn has obscured the structural changes that are reshaping the region's economies. By Tom Holland. Issue cover-dated September 6, 2001. (Vol: 164, No:35)  If that link is, or if the links below are, no longer active, try

This week's section is devoted to our biannual survey of the region's economies, the cover story. We ask: What impact will a prolonged global slowdown have on Asia's economies, and what can governments do to mitigate the damage?

SIX MONTHS TO THE BOTTOM. The structural reforms pledged by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, although widely seen as beneficial in the long term, will hurt the economy in the coming quarters. By David Kruger.

STORING UP TROUBLE? While most analysts agree that China can afford to spend whatever it takes to compensate for a poorer global climate, questions remain about how wisely the money is being used and whether massive government spending is too easily resorted to. By David Murphy. 

HOLDING ITS BREATH. With many losing their jobs and others seeing their property assets tumble in value, Hong Kong residents just aren't spending as much as they used to. By Suh-kyung Yoon.

THE CHIPS ARE DOWN. Faced with the collapse of global hi-tech demand, Taiwan now flounders because it has been unable to find an alternate engine of growth. By Maureen Pao.

WEANING TIME. South Korea may have survived the regional financial meltdown but the global slowdown is exposing a weakness and need to overcome its dependence on semiconductor exports. By John Larkin.

SHELTERED. Sluggish integration into the international marketplace should cushion Vietnam from major blows in the world downturn. By Margot Cohen.

THE BEST-LAID PLANS... There's very little to be done when external demand holds the key to Singapore's economy. By Trish Saywell.

A RECEDING BOTTOM LINE. Kuala Lumpur is attempting to avoid recession by boosting domestic demand. By S. Jayasankaran. 

DEBTOR NATION. After a brief glimmer of hope last year, growth prospects are once again down in the dumps. By Sadanand Dhume. 

FAST AND LOOSE. Public debt of 62% of GDP seems near the limits of fiscal prudence. By Shawn W. Crispin.

PINNED DOWN. There isn't much the government can do about crumbling demand for Philippine exports. By Deidre Sheehan. 

MUDDLING ALONG. Its energy sapped by scandals, the government has little appetite for reform, even though that's what the business community would like to see. By Joanna Slater. 

BUSINESS LOSES CONFIDENCE. Foreign investment into Pakistan dropped to its lowest in two decades in the year ending June 2001. By Ahmed Rashid. 

IN SHOCK. This year has seen a prolonged drought, a power crisis, the government losing its majority in parliament and a deadly attack by Tamil Tigers on the country's international airport. By Manik de Silva. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT. For the first time the country has become self-sufficient in food production, thanks to bumper crops in the past three years. By Sayed Kamaluddin. 

BACK TO BASICS. Australia is enjoying a relatively robust economy in spite of continued uncertainty elsewhere. By Michelle Innis.

LORD OF THE RIM. The Kiwis are expecting an economic lift just as the world turns down. By Colin James. 

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Thunder From The Highlands:  Ethnic unrest in Vietnam's central highlands may trigger tighter controls and a tense leadership struggle centered on the Communist Party chief
Far Eastern Economic Review  1 March 2001
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By Margot Cohen/HANOI


THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM of Vietnam's body politic suffered a profound shock in early February. Nothing had prepared the Hanoi leadership for an ethnic-minority uprising in the central highlands, where an estimated 5,000 protesters turned out to clamor for the return of ancestral lands, among other demands. While those numbers are paltry by Indonesian or Philippine standards, the protests exposed an embarrassing hole in the security apparatus, which was bolstered by Communist Party Secretary-General Le Kha Phieu and his allies in the armed forces.

Phieu and military leaders appear bent on using the worst unrest in years as a springboard to reassert the dominance of political conservatives in the name of national stability and unity. Some analysts predict a tightening of controls, including further restrictions on local and foreign media and stricter surveillance of foreign-funded development projects. Party suspicions that foreign intervention led to the unrest heighten a xenophobic mood, say party insiders.... for more, see link, above.

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Open Season: Media attacks on a Vietnamese tycoon could be signs of political infighting  If that link is no longer active, try

By Margot Cohen/HO CHI MINH CITY

TYCOON LE VAN KIEM, the proud peacock of private enterprise in Vietnam in the 1990s, may be turning into a giant albatross for his Communist Party friends.

In what is seen by many observers as a sign of heated maneuvering inside the party in the run-up to the pivotal Ninth Party Congress next March, the government-controlled media announced in mid-August that Kiem's Huy Hoang conglomerate was on the verge of bankruptcy.

In exposť-style reports, the leading trade union newspaper Lao Dong and five other papers claimed Huy Hoang has debts of 430 billion dong ($30 million) and $10 million --a huge debt load for any private enterprise in Vietnam. Some of the reports attacked Kiem's free-spending lifestyle in a clear bid to smear his reputation.

Despite denials by his staff, there is little doubt that Kiem has severe financial problems. But with Communist Party leaders pumping out anti-corruption rhetoric ahead of the congress, many observers who have watched powerful businessmen fall fast out of favor see party infighting as the trigger for the media barrage. The party congress, held every five years, determines the country's leadership and policies.

"In Vietnam, if things are still under control, it won't be put in the press," says a seasoned Vietnamese lawyer. "When it goes into a central newspaper like Lao Dong, the order must come from the politburo or the ideology section."

Associates can be expected to seek cover. "Now everyone who has had dealings with Kiem will try to show that he has no connections whatsoever," the lawyer says.

The Dai Doan Ket newspaper, published by the Fatherland Front of Vietnam, which helps set the congress agenda, was especially blunt. It attacked Kiem and his family for living in luxury while being in debt. His car was deemed particularly offensive. "The Rolls-Royce, bought by the tycoon for $1 million, is the most expensive luxury, and the only one in Vietnam," the paper claimed. There were, however, no direct accusations of corruption.

At Huy Hoang's garment factory, Kiem failed to turn up for a scheduled interview with the Review. His assistant, Nguyen Duc Lam, claims to have burned all newspaper clippings in anger at inaccuracies. While declining to give debt figures, Lam says Huy Hoang is "absolutely healthy," with 2,500 workers and plans to build a $600-million expressway.

In his heyday, Kiem posed for photographs next to his Mercedes-Benz and boasted of using the Rolls-Royce for beach trips. Yet according to Lam, the Rolls-Royce cost only $70,000, and was imported by a joint venture with a Hyundai group company to chauffeur visiting South Korean VIPs.

Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Huy Hoang's interests in garments, tourism, steel pipes, construction and real estate have suffered cash-flow problems. A banker who was once close to the company says that by late 1998 Huy Hoang had debts of about $9 million and 320 billion dong. He says that at the time Kiem could not meet monthly interest payments of over 3 billion dong. Now, Lam says, the garment and tourism businesses make profits of about 1 billion dong a month.

As early as 1997 officials knew Kiem's real estate investments had soured as a result of altered land-ownership laws, the economic crisis and plunging foreign investment. Unsuccessful forays into fertilizer imports and other schemes compounded his woes.

Kiem built his career by nurturing relationships with a variety of local and central government figures. Lam says he doesn't know whether Huy Hoang made any enemies in the process of securing export quotas, land allocations and state-linked contracts.

The party took on other freewheeling entrepreneurs in 1997-98 with a series of corruption trials. One leading businessman was executed by firing squad, and two others, also sentenced to death, await execution.

Some businessmen in Vietnam still hope the government will rescue Huy Hoang to avert lay-offs and preserve social stability. But many see the writing on the wall, with party leaders looking to score points with a public that is sick of graft.

Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a top economist and Fatherland Front leader, emphasizes the need for entrepreneurs to boost their business skills rather than rely on connections. "I don't believe people like Kiem are businessmen. They try to make use of their allegiance, or semi-allegiance, to the party, to get as close to the leadership as possible."

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The Bilateral Trade Agreement - By Margot Cohen 
Far Eastern Economic Review  27 July 2000  If that link is no longer active, try

WITH CLARITY COMES confidence. That's the bottom line in Vietnam's sweeping trade pact with the United States, signed on July 13. In return for vastly improved access to the U.S. market, Hanoi has finally agreed to provide foreign investors with some respite from murky approvals processes, dual-pricing hurdles, and bewildering obstacles to joint ventures.

But optimism is being tempered with pragmatism on both sides. While the pact provides a boost for Vietnam's credibility--signaling a willingness to push ahead with urgently needed reforms and clear the way toward membership of the World Trade Organization--dramatic gains in trade and investment may take years.... For more, please contact FEER

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Far Eastern Economic Review - 4 May 2000  If that link is no longer active, try

A QUARTER OF A CENTURY after Hanoi's victory over the forces of imperialism, disillusion in Vietnam is running deep. Faced with trying to understand why a resource-rich country with an educated and dynamic workforce should have become one of the poorest in the world--and one of the most corrupt--many Vietnamese are reaching the same conclusion. "We have seen the enemy," says a veteran of the ruling Communist Party. "It is us." For more on this article, please contact FEER.

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