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Saying Goodbye to John McCain: Salute to an American Who Helped Changed Vietnam Until His Last Days

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John McCain and Vietnamese activists in Hanoi, circa 2015. Photo courtesy: US Embassy in Hanoi.

No other foreign politicians have thus far achieved what John McCain was able to do in Vietnam in the recent decades.

In a country where he was captured, tortured and held as a POW for five years and a half, two of which were in solitary confinement, McCain had emerged during the past thirty-something years as a symbol of integrity and righteousness for Vietnamese people from all walks of life.

The love and respect which the people, from the once upon a time’s “enemy’s land,” have for John McCain also help answer a question many foreigners often wonder, do Vietnamese hate America or Americans?

As shown in the case of John McCain, we don’t.

Vietnamese people paid respect to John McCain by placing flowers at the very same spot where he was shot down and captured during the war. Photo courtesy: Facebook.

Vietnam – which till this day – continues to be divided by ideologies and remnants of the Civil War (1954-1975), to a certain extent, still haunt its future generations. Till this day, the debate about the legitimacy of the two flags, the yellow-starred red flag of the current regime and the yellow flag of the former Republic of Vietnam in the South, has yet subsided. Nevertheless, John McCain is considered by both the public in Vietnam and among the diaspora communities living overseas, as an American politician who had worked tirelessly to better the lives of many Vietnamese.

It is well-covered in the news about McCain’s efforts in the normalization of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. So it could be entirely understandable to see the affection that many Vietnamese people have shown for McCain.

The lifting of the embargo back in 1994 brought sizeable changes in every day’s lives of the ordinary people. With economic growth, what also came along was the certain rising standard of living for the majority of the population. However, that would not be all of the reasons for why Vietnamese around the globe respect John McCain.

One of a few stories you will not read about John McCain in Vietnam’s state-run media would be his close ties with the human rights and democracy activists’ community, whom he had continued to fight along their side until his very last days.

Dissident and former political prisoner, attorney Le Quoc Quan wrote on his Facebook upon learning about John McCain’s passing that as late as June 2017, during his last trip to Vietnam, McCain still insisted on meeting with the human rights and democracy activists in the country like how he had been doing for years.

While the Vietnamese government could not stop McCain, they tried to intimidate activists like Quan to stay away. But they also failed. Quan recalled, “I still went to see him (McCain) because he is a righteous friend of mine and Vietnam. Even if they (the police) tried to stop me, I would still find a way to go to the meeting. It is my way of delivering this very message to my government.”

In 2007, John McCain signed a letter to the then President of Vietnam, Nguyen Minh Triet, to demand the release of Quan, who was arbitrarily arrested and detained for a few months. Shortly after the letter was sent and made public, Vietnam did release him.

Other activists also offered their condolences on social media, recounting numerous times that John McCain spoke up on their behalf and stood by them in their fight for democracy in Vietnam.

However, McCain’s office was frequented not only by activists from Vietnam and their advocates but also members of the overseas Vietnamese community.

When working on restoring the United States’ diplomatic relation with Vietnam, McCain did not forget the human rights and democracy agenda in the country. He also remembered the fate of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees still languishing across numerous camps in Southeast Asia at the time. He certainly did not ignore the South Vietnamese men who had fought along the Americans and suffered retribution after the war ended.

John McCain participated in the establishing of the Humanitarian Operation, which was a special deal with Hanoi in 1990, to allow the South Vietnamese officers and soldiers who could not escape Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and had undergone the “re-education camps,” sometimes for tens of years, to leave for the United States. By 1994, 50,000 service members of the old South’s regime and their family members have arrived in America.

After April 1975, the Vietnamese Boat People’s Exodus made international headlights where hundreds of thousands had lost their lives at sea while escaping Vietnam by small fishing boats. The “Orderly Departure Program” was an effort created by the American government to put an end to this tragedy, by offering a special visa policy for Vietnamese to leave Vietnam to the United States directly and not having to escape to a third country first.

John McCain co-sponsored what was now known as the McCain Amendment to the ODP, which continued to allow unmarried children of the former South Vietnamese officers to immigrate to America with their parents’ refugees status, after the policy concerning their derivative refugee status expired in April 1995.

The Vietnamese immigrant children under these programs have since grown up and assimilated well into American mainstream society. Tram Ngo, a young Vietnamese American wrote on her Facebook: “McCain championed Vietnamese Boat People when it was politically unpopular to do so. For that, he will always have a dear place in my heart.” Her feelings and sentiment would certainly be mutually shared and acknowledged by many of her peers.

While John McCain’s five and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton is a well-known fact to many, the Vietnamese state-owned media has not dared to go into the details of his torture and the extent of the physical and mental abuse he suffered while in prison. However, with the blooming of the Internet and especially with the popularity of social media platforms in the past decade inside the country, such information is no longer “state’s secrets.” One could also say that the respect for John McCain accelerated when people learned about the events related to his treatment in prison. He has been widely praised for being able to put the past behind and worked to improve the life of the ordinary Vietnamese.

Truong Huy San, who is also known as author Huy Duc of The Winning Side (Bên Thắng Cuộc), shared his thoughts about McCain on Facebook:

“If he had not put aside his weapons and medals and treated them as memorabilia of the past, then he would have stayed all along within the war; if he had harbored vengeance, then his whole life would only have enemies. Moreover, he could only be a ‘war hero,’ but would never become the ‘political hero’ that he was.”

This post received close to 5,000 reactions within one day.

A friend, a comrade, a benevolent senator to the refugees, a supporter of the democracy movement, or a political hero? Those are the many sides of John McCain that Vietnamese people see. While each of them could be entirely different from one another, what matters most is that John McCain will forever be a part of this country’s history, not only in the past but as well as in the present and its future.

In March 2016, John McCain penned an op-ed in the New York Times upon learning of the passing of an American Communist, Mr. Delmer Berg of California, and he cited Donne’s poem to connect himself to Berg. Today, many Vietnamese people around the world – regardless of the ideologies they each hold – would probably want to say the same thing to Mr. McCain:

“No man is an island, entire of itself.” He is “part of the main.” And I believe “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

So was Mr. McCain. He didn’t need to know for whom the bell tolls. He knew it tolled for him. And I salute him. Rest in peace.

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Vietnam: How Powerful Is The Prime Minister?

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Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. Photo: quochoi.vn

Among the “four pillars,” the position of prime minister possesses both power and prestige.


In the spring of 2021, Vietnam has a new leader: Pham Minh Chinh, a former police intelligence officer and former head of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Organization Commission. On July 26, 2021, Pham Minh Chinh, once again, takes his oath to be the prime minister of Vietnam for the next 5 years.

One amongst “four pillars of the imperial court”

In the article “A few things you should know about Vietnam’s National Assembly chairmanship,” we wrote about the formation of the institutional division of power known as the “four pillars,” which includes the general secretary, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairman of the National Assembly.

If the state president and the chairman of the National Assembly, two among four of the most powerful positions in the Vietnamese Communist Party hierarchy, serve as primarily ceremonial positions, then the prime minister has both pomp and power, possessing broad authority in the governing system.

The prime ministership was once a position without any notable power. Before Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s term (1991-1997), previous prime ministers left a very little mark, except for Ho Chi Minh – who served as both state president and prime minister from 1946-1955.

Prime ministers after him, such as Pham Van Dong (1955-1987), Pham Hung (1987-1988), and Do Muoi (1988-1991), all served during periods where the government functioned according to the direction and management of the Party, rather than with tools of the executive branch. The same could be said during periods where Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan had overwhelming individual influence over the Party, causing other institutions and positions, including the prime ministership, to be subservient. 

In the 1980 Constitution, the government was called the Council of Ministers, with the prime minister position changed to the chairman of the Council of Ministers. This was an institution of collective leadership, with the powers of the chairman being minimal. With the 1992 Constitution, Vietnam reverted to the government mechanism in which the prime minister was head, concentrating greater power in his hands rather than practicing collective decision-making as in the past. Vo Van Kiet was the first prime minister to enjoy the new system under the 1992 Constitution.

With the depth and broadness of economic reform, the government’s role in managing national affairs grew by the day to more quickly, effectively, and dynamically respond to domestic and international developments. This increase in authority also served to more adequately address the increasing importance of foreign affairs in the age of globalization. The position of prime minister, thus, became extremely powerful. Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016) is seen as the most powerful prime minister ever and once competed fiercely for the position of general secretary. 

Who elects the prime minister?

Vietnam’s central government is modeled on the parliamentary system, with the central role (theoretically) held by the National Assembly. Constituents elect members of the National Assembly, and the National Assembly elects the government’s leadership figures, including the prime minister. (Obviously, everyone knows who actually “elects” the members of the National Assembly and the prime minister). The prime minister must be a member of the National Assembly.

Normally, electing the prime minister occurs during the first session of the new National Assembly term, after the general election, which occurs after the Party congress. In 2016, the procedure took an unusual turn: the National Assembly elected the new prime minister in the last meeting of its term in April, preceding the general election by more than a month. After the general election, the new National Assembly then repeated the election of the prime minister one more time. Nguyen Xuan Phuc was sworn into office twice in 2016. Pham Minh Chinh also had the same experience in 2021.

How powerful is the prime minister?

The prime minister’s powers are stipulated in Article 98 of the Constitution and Article 28 of the Law on Government Organization (ratified in 2015 and amended in 2019).

As head of state administration, this position has broad authority, from enforcing laws and organizing personnel to proposing and distributing the budget.

As a unitary state, the central government has overarching authority, with the prime minister’s power extending from the center all the way to the provinces and cities.

Outside his separate authority, the prime minister also has general authority over the collective decisions and resolutions of the cabinet.

For more details, please see the two documents described above. Here, we would like to list a few of the prime minister’s decision-making powers to demonstrate just how influential this position is in the economic sphere:

·      Regarding land: has the power to establish a council to assess land usage programs and plans at the national level; approves changes in land usage purposes on rice cultivation fields 10 hectares and above, protected and special-use forest land 20 hectares and above; decides the policy framework for compensation, support, and resettlement in special cases; decides price tables for province-level land in many cases; decides on several cases in which the usage rights for land the state allocates or leases are not auctioned.

·      Regarding investment: has the power to approve investment plans on the scale of airports, ports, oil and gas rigs, large urban areas, industrial zones, and export processing zones; approves investment plans overseas in banking, insurance, stocks, and telecommunications…from 400 billion dong and above, along with other projects involving capital of 800 billion dong and above.

Is prime minister the highest attainable position?

No. In the party power hierarchy, the general secretary remains at the top and is the most powerful position overall. 

There has never been a prime minister who has risen to become general secretary, except for Do Muoi, who was the chairman of the Council of Ministers. Nearly all served only one or two terms before retiring, except Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who served as prime minister and then stepped down to become state president, a much less powerful position. 

This article describes the power of the prime minister, but in actuality, we have only spoken of it in legal terms and in relation to the order of power in the party. The position’s power is also dependent on the individual’s level of influence within the party.

To put it another way, a leader’s power is the sum of his or her institutional power and individual sway. If the system bestows power but the individual leader doesn’t have the ability to wield it properly, then he does not have much power at all. Conversely, the system can bestow limited power, but an individual can exercise influence beyond his institutional limits. 


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 6, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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Vietnam’s State President: The Captain But Not Really A Captain

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State President of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

In Vietnam, the position of state president is like that of a ship captain who completely got separated from the helm.


During his single term as the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc became popular in the news for his words and promises to transform many provinces and cities in Vietnam into “captains,” from “economic captain” to “developmental captain.” Now, he himself has become the captain of Vietnam, as he accepted the position of state president – the legal head of state.

But like many other captains of years past, his position as the “captain” of Vietnam is not what it appears. Yes, he will work from No. 2 Hung Vuong Street in Hanoi’s old French palace that dates more than 100 years, where French governors-general and President Ho Chi Minh once sat, but he won’t have much real power. 

 “The four pillars” and the parliamentary system

The state president is normally drawn from the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party-normally, but not always. The exception is Ton Duc Thang, who succeeded Ho Chi Minh and served from 1969 to 1981. Ton Duc Thang was only a Party Central Committee member. 

In history, the most powerful state president of Vietnam was undoubtedly Ho Chi Minh, who held the position for more than 23 years, from 1946 until he died in 1969. During his years of greatest power, Ho Chi Minh also held the highest leadership position in the Communist Party and the position of prime minister until 1955. Between 1955 and 1960, Ho resigned as prime minister but held onto two other positions within the Party: party chairman and general secretary.

From 1960 onwards, Ho remained the party chairman and state president, but with the rise of Le Duan and his ascension to power, Ho Chi Minh was no longer the center of Vietnam’s political life. From then onwards, the role of state president slowly became largely ceremonial.

Ton Duc Thang, who was not elected into the Politburo, of course, held the position of state president, but he did not have much influence. His successor, Vo Chi Cong, on the other hand, was a member of the Politburo. But at the time, people didn’t call the position “State President,” but rather, “State Council President,” the council being an institution of collective leadership similar to the collective leadership structure of the Council of Ministers; this structure was originally borrowed from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and was incorporated wholesale into Vietnam’s 1980 Constitution. 

It was perhaps the next president, Le Duc Anh (1992-1997), who carved out a noteworthy role for the position of state president when he turned the role into an individual leadership position rather than a collective one. With his powerful influence derived from his time as defense minister, Le Duc Anh, along with General Secretary Do Muoi and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, formed what journalist Huy Duc calls the “tripartite division of power.” At the time, the “four pillars” had yet to take shape clearly; it was not until the leadership transition in 1997 that this was established. 

In actuality, the designation “four pillars” refers to the order of power within the Party. At the same time, the position of the state president in a parliamentary system such as Vietnam’s is a formality that only carries ceremonial value rather than any real power.

What does it mean to be ceremonial?

The parliamentary system is special in that the person who leads the state (head of state) is not the head of the cabinet. For example, in nearly all European countries, the head of the cabinet is the prime minister, who is simultaneously the majority leader in parliament; the head of state is either the president or the king/queen. We can see that Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and the United Kingdom all have prime ministers as their central political leaders rather than presidents or kings/queens.

Vietnam is similar. The state president is the head of state, which according to its Constitution is “the person who leads the state, who represents the Socialist Republic of Vietnam domestically and in foreign affairs.” However, the person who leads the state administration is the prime minister, who possesses far-reaching power, as we have analyzed in the article “Vietnam: How powerful is the prime minister?”

The Constitution grants the state president a number of limited powers that do not appear lacking, but in practice, are quite lacking. These powers include promulgating the Constitution, laws, and decrees, abilities that very much resemble veto power over decrees; numerous powers that relate to proposals to the National Assembly to elect or remove individuals from the highest positions in government; and above all, power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

“Commander-in-chief”sounds enormously powerful. But the command of Vietnam’s armed forces has never laid with the state president; it actually lies with the Politburo and the Central Military Commission (CMC). In recent times, the secretary of the Central Military Committee has always been the Party general secretary, while the deputy minister of the CMC has been the minister of defense. The state president is simply a standing member of the CMC. Nguyen Phu Trong has been the only individual to hold both Party general secretary and state president positions while concurrently serving as the secretary of the CMC.  

Thus, the state president does not actually hold any guns. He doesn’t hold the purse strings either, because control of the treasury is held by the prime minister. The authority of the state president, then, lies in approving military promotions, bestowing awards and honors, and deciding on issues related to citizenship, reprieves, and diplomatic protocols, etc.

With limited powers, Vietnamese presidents after Ho Chi Minh have never fully exercised their powers on thorny issues, such as dismissing a number of high-ranking positions in the government and the military or vetoing an ordinance from the National Assembly’s Standing Committee.

Though it has transitioned from a collective leadership role (in the State Council) to an individualized one, the position of state president still represents the collective in announcing decisions and lacks the broad, active powers of the prime minister.

The real power of the state president perhaps lies in the fact that he has his feet in both the Politburo and the CMC. If it weren’t for this straddling, the state president would be merely a puppet. Thus, when examining the actual power of a Vietnamese political leader, it is not enough to look to the law; one must also look at his or her power within the Party and the individual influence he or she has.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc has bestowed the title of “captain” on many provinces and cities as his way to encourage them to develop and prosper, though perhaps these provincial and municipal leaders have yet to understand how they were called “captains.” Nguyen Xuan Phuc now has also assumed the position of head of the ship, but he is also no captain.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 7, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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A Few Things You Should Know About Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairpersonship

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Former National Assembly Chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, and Current Chairman, Vuong Dinh Hue. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine

Though it is one of the “four pillars” of the Vietnamese government, the National Assembly chairpersonship remains the weakest position.


Vietnam’s National Assembly has been preparing to change its window dressing in late March 2021. No need to wait until the general election wraps up in May 2021; the National Assembly chairmanship had a new occupant in the final days of March. To reaffirm that the election in May did not change Vietnam’s political situation, July 20, 2021 would mark Vuong Dinh Hue’s continuation to serve the same leadership position as the National Assembly chairman for the next 5 years when it re-elected him.

One amongst the “four pillars of the imperial court”

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Vietnamese politics slowly moved beyond the individual leadership model and the overpowering influence of Ho Chi Minh and his successor Le Duan. This, in combination with the economic reform process, led to the gradual development of a new institutional division of power. Over time, supreme power was divided among four positions: the general secretary, state president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly. 

Today, as war has receded into the distance and demands to join the international community grow, the political system functions have begun trending towards laws of the state rather than the directives of the Vietnamese Communist Party. As such, the National Assembly increasingly plays a larger and more dynamic role in the political system.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, when Nong Duc Manh was elected as National Assembly chairman, that a member of the Politburo occupied the position. Before that, Truong Chinh – a Politburo member – served as chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee from 1960 to 1981. Still, as stated above, the National Assembly did not play a large role during that time, though it’s hard to say that its role today is large either.

The National Assembly chairmen after Truong Chinh all worked their way up to become members of the Party Central Committee (such as Le Quang Dạo) or outside the Party Central Committee altogether (e.g., Nguyen Huu Tho).

All National Assembly chairmen from Nong Duc Manh onwards were members of the Politburo. Though its numbers are among the “four pillars,” the National Assembly chairmanship remains the weakest position and must abide by party decisions.

Launchpad to power

Of the five National Assembly chairmen since 1992, two have become general secretary of the VCP’s Central Committee – the highest position in the entire political system: Nong Duc Manh (2001 – 2011) and Nguyen Phu Trong (2011- present).

In stark contrast, the prime minister’s office has been unable to propel its occupant any further. One after the other, Vo Van Kiet, Phan Van Khai, and Nguyen Tan Dung became prime ministers and then retired, failing to make it to the general secretary. The exception is Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who, rather than retiring after serving as prime minister, is set to become state president; that is, he is taking one step down the ladder of party power.

Is the National Assembly chairman the “boss” of the National Assembly representatives? 

No. 

In principle, the National Assembly chairman is simply a member of the National Assembly, with all members being equal and everyone retaining one vote. No representative can force another representative to do his or her bidding. The National Assembly chairperson cannot issue any order to a representative, except for limited powers during work assignments with vice National Assembly chairpersons.

Then what does the National Assembly chairman do?

He or she mainly coordinates the activities of the National Assembly and the National Assembly’s Standing Committee, presiding over meetings and sessions and ratifying adopted constitutions, laws, resolutions, and ordinances.

For more details, please see Vietnam’s Constitution and the Law on National Assembly Organization.

The National Assembly chairman also usually acts as head of the National Electoral Council. This arrangement contains a conflict of interest when a representative (and often also a candidate) organizes elections. In democratic countries, the council must, in principle, be independent of the National Assembly.  

A position almost always reserved for men

Of the 11 National Assembly chairpersons in Vietnam’s modern history, the only woman to serve in this position was Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who held the position from 2016 to 2021. But truth be told, Ngan is the only woman to have ever served as one of the “four pillars.”

Her predicted successor, Vuong Dinh Hue, will carry on the near-exclusive tradition of men being at the helm of the National Assembly.

Hue has served as minister of finance (2011-2012), head of the Central Economic Committee (2012-2016), deputy prime minister (2016-2020), and secretary of the Hanoi party committee (2020-current). He has been a member of the Politburo since 2016.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 30, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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