As widely expected, Nguyen Phu Trong, 66, was officially proclaimed the new party boss Wednesday, along with 14 new members of the all-powerful Politburo, including Trong. As the party's former chief Marxist theorist, he leaves his position as head of the lawmaking National Assembly.

The new leaders were picked behind closed doors by the Communist elite without any public elections, but Trong nonetheless praised the Congress as a great example of "straightforwardness and true democracy."

"It's not a kind of face democracy, just for display," Trong told reporters.

Trong replaces retiring party chief Nong Duc Manh, 70, who departed taking responsibility for many flaws during a tenure that ended with a litany of economic woes.

"I, myself, to some extent, haven't met the expectations of the people and the Communist members," Manh told delegates in his closing remarks. "And I honor the reports that you heard over the days that pointed out our shortcomings in the leadership, for the party's central committee, and I also take my responsibility."

The secretive eight-day meeting takes place once every five years, and delegates refer to each other as "comrade."

The session ended with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, 61, picked to retain his job and rival Truong Tan Sang, also 61 and the party's No. 2, tapped as the new president, according to party officials close to the selection process. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the results to the media.

Dung and Sang, who will replace retiring President Nguyen Minh Triet, will officially be confirmed by the parliament later this year. The presidential role is largely ceremonial, while the prime minister runs the country's day-to-day operations.

The new leadership will be faced with wide-ranging economic woes, including huge trade and current account deficits, a weak currency and double-digit inflation that's squeezing the country's poor by driving up food prices. Vietnam also is wrangling with a financial scandal at a state-owned shipbuilding company that has blighted its global image.

After years of war, isolation and poverty, Vietnam has embraced a market economy and become one of Asia's fastest growing countries averaging 7.2 percent growth over the past decade. But it remains a tightly controlled one-party state, mired in corruption, red tape and slow reform.

The Party Congress is the government's biggest blowout event, and its propaganda machine has been working overtime.

The capital's chilly city streets were festooned with streaming red hammer-and-sickle banners sagging across busy streets with slogans proclaiming, "The Great President Ho Chi Minh Lives Forever In Our Cause!"

Uncle Ho, as he is commonly called here, was Vietnam's revered founding president. His revolutionary forces drove the French colonialists out of Vietnam and then fought the Americans during long years of war to gain independence and later reunify North with South in 1975.

But despite all of the grandstanding, many ordinary Vietnamese were too caught up in their daily lives to pay much attention to the event. Average monthly income still hovers around $100 a month in the country of 86 million.

"Whenever I surf the Internet there are many other interesting things that attract me rather than the Party Congress," said pharmacy student Vo Mai Phuong, 22. "I visit Facebook and chat rooms, and I watch South Korean and U.S. movies."

Vietnam does not tolerate any threat to its rule, and in the weeks before the Congress, Facebook — which is normally blocked with controls that are easily bypassed — was impenetrable. International human rights groups also have complained about crackdowns on pro-democracy dissidents.

"Vietnam will not realize its full potential until all of its citizens have equal voice and opportunity," said a statement from U.S.-based Viet Tan, or the Vietnam Reform Party, a banned U.S.-based group with members abroad and within Vietnam. "Vietnam's future must be decided by all of its citizens, not an unelected political elite."

Hanoi considers Viet Tan a terrorist organization, but the U.S. says it is a group peacefully expressing its political views.

The Associated Press - January 19, 2011