Nguyen Minh Triet, 64, has been president of Vietnam since June 2006. He joined the Communist Party in 1965, fought in the civil war and later became a party activist. As president, Triet is the country's third-in-command, after the general secretary and the prime minister.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, your country is a socialist republic with a market economy. How much say do individual citizens have?
Nguyen Minh Triet: We fought hard for socialism in a devastating war of independence and reunification. To build an affluent and prosperous society, we chose the path of a socialist market economy. We have achieved strong economic growth, and yet the sense of solidarity in our society has not been lost. This is very important to people.
SPIEGEL: You grew up in the south, where you fought in the resistance movement. But there are still great differences between the country's south and north.
Triet: Reunification and the end of the war happened 32 years ago. There were great differences between the two regions at that time. The north helped the south develop socialism, and many party officials went to the south.
SPIEGEL: But the south really won the war. The economy there is much stronger than it is in the north.
Triet: The south was in a substantially better position after reunification. The United States and its allies had invested enormous sums there to prevent the regime from collapsing. The north, for its part, was exhausted after decades of war. The south was long able to thrive on this better infrastructure.
SPIEGEL: The economy of your neighbor to the north, China, is growing at more than 10 percent a year, and Vietnam is experiencing at least 8 percent growth. Isn't it an irony of history that, in the age of globalization, these two socialist countries have become the darlings of Western bankers and investors?
Triet: We happen to offer good investment opportunities for foreigners, although this is not a one-way street. Both we and the foreign investors benefit greatly as a result.
SPIEGEL: Which models do you follow with your economic reforms: China, the Southeast Asian Tigers or the capitalist West?
Triet: The world is a big place, and there are many paths that lead to success. This applies to both political and economic concepts. For this reason, we see no need to stoically pursue the Chinese, American or French way. But we have socialism in common with China.
SPIEGEL: Western investors value Vietnam and China, partly because these countries have hardly any strikes and no independent trade unions. Environmental requirements are also considerably less stringent. Workers in capitalist Germany have far more rights than workers in Vietnam or China. Aren't you betraying the values of socialism for capitalism?
Triet: The main difference lies in wage levels, which is because our workers are not yet as well trained as in other countries. We are a poor country. This is why we must accept the conditions that prevail in international markets. But our trade unions do represent the rights of workers.
SPIEGEL: Labor leaders in the West accuse countries like China and Vietnam of lowering the standards for industrial work to inhumane levels, thereby contributing to the loss of jobs in the West.
Triet: The governments and the communist parties in Vietnam and China are doing their best to develop their local economies. But the rise of countries in Asia is not in opposition to development and affluence in Western nations. It is a mutually beneficial development. The interests of Western investors are protected in our country. Both we and the West benefit from this in equal measure.
SPIEGEL: There were recent countrywide raids against discotheques and nightclubs. Young people want to have fun. Are they even interested in the old values of Ho Chi Minh anymore?
Triet: We respect the freedom of all citizens. Young people should have fun, but there is no tolerance of drug abuse. Drugs have become a serious problem in Vietnam. This is why we have very strict penalties for any sort of drug dealing.
SPIEGEL: Many Communist Party members appear to have succumbed to other drugs -- money, greed. General Giap, a national hero, has warned that the party has become a protective cover for corrupt officials. Is he right?
Triet: Money, as a sort of drug, has become a great danger to our development. There will be no progress in our country unless we win the fight against corruption. This is a question of survival for the Communist Party of Vietnam and for socialism.
SPIEGEL: You have opened up the economy to market forces. But in politics you do not tolerate any competition for the Communist Party. How much longer can this work?
Triet: I do not see this as a contradiction. In the economy we guarantee all market players the same conditions, and the private sector plays an increasingly important role. We are in the process of dissolving thousands of state-owned companies and converting them into stock corporations. We even plan to accelerate this development. In contrast, it is the party's responsibility to improve the lives of the people, and this is where our citizens have great confidence in us. Party members who commit crimes are severely punished.
SPIEGEL: This in itself does not make a democracy, as we see it.
Triet: We also have no taboos against freedom of expression. Although I am president, I must confront the criticism of party members in my election district once every three months. In addition, people pay close attention to what my wife does and how my children live.
SPIEGEL: When you meet with your voters as you travel through the country, what do they want from you and how do they address you?
Triet: Some address me as Mr. President, but the modern thing is to simply call me Mr. Triet. Young people call me Uncle Triet. One thing they have in common is that they are not hesitant when it comes to criticism. People want more safety in their daily lives, and they want their standard of living to rise constantly. They compare their living conditions with conditions in other countries. You wouldn't believe the aggressive tone they take in venting their anger against widespread corruption.
SPIEGEL: Before the 10th party congress last year, the Communist Party called upon its members to exercise more criticism. Have they complied?
Triet: In the Communist Party, we address problems very openly and sometimes very vocally, and we point out abuses. This is a good thing. We exercise self-criticism once a year. Although 80 percent of the members of the National Assembly are also members of the Communist Party, this does not prevent them from sharply criticizing the administrative and governmental system.
SPIEGEL: Before your country joined the World Trade Organization, an active dissident movement developed and had plans to found a democratic party. The courts condemned many of the activists in this movement to prison sentences, some very long. How does this fit in with your supposed freedom of expression?
Triet: The people you mention broke the laws of our country. We no longer punish people for having different views. But that's irrelevant here. The people you call dissidents tried to create organizations that would have been hostile to the government. They also tried to manipulate the public with false information, and they received financial support from abroad.
SPIEGEL: In other words, anyone can criticize the party, but they cannot question your leadership?
Triet: No, that's not the way it is. I often have discussions with people who demand pluralism and much more. One can discuss these issues, but only within the framework of the law.
SPIEGEL: Many Vietnamese who left the country as so-called boat people are now returning. Are they welcome?
Triet: We no longer have any problems with them. We have opened the door and are welcoming all overseas Vietnamese, or Viet Kieu. We have made peace with the past. The Viet Kieu are investing heavily in their old country. We even have cases where members of the former regime feel quite comfortable here after returning.
SPIEGEL: German President Horst Köhler is paying Vietnam a visit this week. What do you expect from Germany?
Triet: German businesspeople have invested a great deal in our country, and trade is flourishing. We want to speed up economic cooperation. Your country is a large, important provider of aid, and it has done a great deal to reduce the poverty of many Vietnamese.
Interview conducted by Jürgen Kremb and Hans Hoyng.