HO CHI MINH CITY, officially known as Saigon until 1975 and
unofficially ever since, is the fountainhead of Vietnam's economic
A third of the foreign investment in Vietnam has been spent
here. The average income in large parts of the city is $600 a year;
the average for the entire country is closer to $200.
The power may reside in Hanoi, the capital, but the man some
call the father of doi moi - as the "renovation" of the economy
is known - lives in Saigon.
He is Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a Harvard University-trained former
economist for the International Monetary Fund who served as central
bank governor and acting prime minister in the south Vietnamese
His short political career led him to a nine-month period of
house arrest after 1975, because the government of unified Vietnam
was suspicious of his loyalties. Since then he has given new
meaning to the term "survivor."
He has opened a business consultancy, served as a representative
from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam's National Assembly, and become an
economic adviser to Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. An original Renoir
painting decorates Mr. Oanh's office.
In addition to advising numerous international companies on
their Vietnam operations, he is chairman of the Vietnam Frontier
Fund, which counts former United States Central Intelligence Agency
Director William Colby as an investor.
A soft-spoken, dignified man, Oanh offers soothing answers to
the problems of Vietnam's economic transition.
Some investors worry that Vietnam has no reliable legal system
for resolving disputes between business partners, but Oanh promises
that administrative courts will soon be established and that
Vietnam will join international arbitration agreements by the end
of this year.
He agrees that Vietnam needs a stock exchange if the free market
is to flourish. "We must have a money market, but we cannot build
a stock market overnight."
Complaints about corruption?
It's not really a problem, Oanh says. Most of what is labeled
corruption is "harmless gift-giving ... of little significance."
Vietnam has sometimes been compared to its large northern
neighbor, China, in that the leaders of both countries are intent
on keeping power in the hands of the Communist Party as they create
essentially capitalist economies.
But Oanh argues that there are differences. Vietnam will not let
growth "overheat" in certain areas, as has happened in coastal
And Vietnam will provide even greater political stability, so
that investors will not have to worry about revolutions disrupting
"We haven't got anything like Tiananmen Square," he says,
referring to the pro-democracy movement that Chinese leaders
crushed in June 1989.
Oanh offers himself as proof that the Vietnamese Communist Party
is not running a repressive state in its efforts to guarantee
"I can do almost anything in this country, because they know
I'm not trying to overthrow the government," he says. Anything
includes discussing the prospect of multiparty democracy in
Vietnam, which he says is possible "in 10 or 15 years' time."
Others are not given quite so much leeway. In 1993, eight
dissidents were jailed by the government for circulating a
newsletter called Freedom Forum, which called for multiparty