THE man who comes close to being the Thomas Edison of Vietnam has a word to the wise. Be careful if you invent a better mousetrap. The world may beat a path to your door. But the Communist Party may spring a trap of its own.
Three times Nguyen Van Chan has been branded an ``enemy of the state,'' and he was jailed twice after reaping profits from his own inventions. Today he is a legend in Vietnam, the little guy who endured the slings and arrows of a party that, until recently, valued brawn over brains and toil over talent.
A survivor of a shift in ideology, Mr. Chan has become a hero of the revolution - that is, the latest version of the Vietnamese revolution, the one calling for ``renovation'' by using the best of capitalism to build communism.
Few Vietnamese know Chan by his real name. Rather, he is called ``Vua Lop,'' the Tire King. In a country that regards bicycle tires as a necessity, Vua Lop is the mother of invention. Like him, his tires can't be beat.
A poor peasant who drifted to Hanoi, Vua Lop has a rags-to-riches tale that would serve as a business school case study on how to be an entrepreneur, Vietnamese-style.
His days of ingenuity began with plastic fountain pens. One day in 1969, his son asked him for a pen. He examined the construction of the pen he bought at the state store. ``There was no big deal to the parts, nothing needed for national defense,'' he said. ``Anyone could make it, only no one was trying.''
After a year of experiments, he created a better pen with recycled scrap plastic. When he sought an official permit for production, he was denied. He was told to join a collective, but he declined.
Though he refused to reveal his industrial secrets, he was finally granted a permit. Some months later, when customers began to stand in line to buy his better pens - and after his income shot up to more than 20 times the average - his small workshop was raided by local authorities.
``I just made goods for the people,'' Vua Lop says. ``But some officials have hostile hearts and were jealous.''
Hanoi's city court sentenced him to 30 months in jail for ``illegal'' business. In 1972, a judge released Vua Lop, but he was barred from making pens.
During the next two years, he experimented to formulate a new type of glue for repairing rubber tires. Customers again lined up, and again he earned too much money. The police arrested him, demanding that he reveal his secret formula. Then they threw him in jail for three months.