A day after Vietnam’s most important political event in five years, Quyen was oblivious her country had a new crop of top leaders.

The 31-year-old tour operator was on her way to a hotpot lunch with colleagues on the banks of the scenic Truc Bach lake in Hanoi.

A working mother of two young children, Quyen was getting on with life while the Communist Party’s 12th National Congress, a week-long gathering of the party’s top brass, held talks, conducted secret votes and, finally, re-elected its serving general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong as well as a 19-member politburo on Thursday (Jan 28).

Congress news dominated headlines and social media for at least a fortnight, while colourful propaganda posters flanked the streets of the capital, visual reminders of the event on the other side of town.

Still, Quyen was too busy to notice. She does not necessarily want democracy for Vietnam either. She believes in the socialist model.

“Yes I believe,” she said cheerfully, “But it’s not much change for my life, personally.”

Beautiful but impossible

Quyen echoes the collective disengagement of young Vietnamese, for whom the ruling Communist Party and its socialist ideology have become increasingly distant, even irrelevant.

“Socialism is a beautiful ideal, but over the course of its implementation, people have found it far from reality. It’s impossible,” said sociologist and former National Assembly member Professor Nguyen Minh Thuyet.

It is a growing divide leaders recognise. In a Congress opener broadcast live on national television, 71-year-old chief Nguyen Phu Trong said public faith in both state and party has been hit hard by corruption and excesses within their rank and file.

Vietnam ranked 112th out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, which puts it amongst countries where public sector corruption is considered serious and widespread.

More worrying perhaps, Vietnam was placed far behind some of its regional peers and leading competitors for foreign investment such as Malaysia (54th), Indonesia (88th) and the Philippines (95th).

Middle-income trap

Vietnam’s once-in-five-years leadership transition took place at a time when the Communist Party felt the need to justify its existence more than ever, according to lawyer and long-time Vietnam expert Oliver Massmann.

Leaders have done well in reducing poverty and lifting living standards over the past 30 years of “Doi Moi” or economic reform. However, Massmann said a sense of stagnation has crept in since 2010 as the country was falling into the middle-income trap.

“Vietnam doesn't have a lot of value-added chains in the country. The education system is not good, and the effect is Vietnam's stagnating. The young Vietnamese know that and they’re not satisfied.”

About half of Vietnam’s 91 million population, which grows by 1 per cent a year, are under the age of 30.

“If this population gets higher education,” Massmann warned, “the days of the Communist Party are numbered.”

Faceless leadership

Democratic elections around the region in recent months have not gone unnoticed in Vietnam, Prof Thuyet said.

The Vietnamese watched their peers in less developed Myanmar head to what the country claimed to be the freest and fairest polls in decades, while they were left with a process that limits voting rights to an elite 1,510 delegates of the Communist Party.

“I want Vietnam to be like the other countries, but it’s too hard,” said a 21-year-old student, Dat, smoking a cigarette at a café chain down the road from Quyen’s hotpot restaurant.

Elected officials are too old and the young don’t stand a chance of rising to the top, he added.

What Dat did not know was the Communist Party had picked one of its youngest ever crop of leaders at the Congress. Nearly a quarter of the 200-member decision-making Central Committee are under 50; their average age is 53.

Still, it does not change the fact that every one of these leaders is faceless to Chi, a 24-year-old freelance make-up artist. Little is known about Vietnamese politicians’ private lives, their spouses and children.

“We only know some older leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap because they’re like legends,” she said.

Unlike Quyen and Dat, Chi has not given up hope that Vietnam could somehow have a different political future.

“There will come a time when the old people retire and there will be new people with different visions. So maybe they can change things,” Chi said quietly, looking out from the café balcony over the calm, slightly grimy water of Truc Bach lake.

“Yes, that what I expect.”

By Tan Qiuyi - Chanel NewsAsia - January 31, 2016