When around 100 police and local officials came to seize their land outside the northern port city of Haiphong, the family of farmer Doan Van Vuon was ready and waiting, with shotguns in hand and improvised explosive devices planted in the ground.
Six security officers were injured in the ensuing shoot-out on January 5, the culmination of a long-running land dispute between Mr Vuon and the local government, according to state media reports.
The local government claimed that the lease on his land had expired several years earlier, while he and his supporters said he still controlled the area of swampland he had invested in to build a fish farm.
Mr Vuon and his relatives were subsequently arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and their property was razed to the ground.
Such violent defiance is extremely rare in Communist-ruled Vietnam, an authoritarian state that allows little room for dissent.
But, in a sign of deep dissatisfaction over land confiscation by local authorities and inadequate compensation payments, Mr Vuon has attracted widespread sympathy from bloggers, lawyers and even a former president.
Following the path laid out by China, Vietnam embarked on its first steps toward a market economy in the late 1980s. In 1993, Vietnam allowed citizens to acquire “land use rights” but the state has retained official ownership of all land.
As Vietnam’s economy boomed over the last decade, that ambiguity has led to an increase in the number of disputes over land between residents, on the one hand, and developers and local governments, on the other.
Foreign diplomats say that the government is concerned about the potential for such disputes to spiral out of control, at a time when it is facing other threats to social stability such as the record number of labour strikes and soaring food prices.
Jairo Acuna-Alfaro, a policy adviser on the United Nations Development Programme in Hanoi, says that disputes over land use rights were “perhaps the largest source of corruption nowadays in Vietnam”, with many Vietnamese complaining that local authorities often set compensation prices for land too low.
This discrepancy is a significant factor in driving rising social inequality.
“The Haiphong case is emblematic of a wider problem and people are clearly frustrated,” he says. “The authorities need to pay more attention to this issue because there’s a fear of a domino effect.”
The case echoes similar land disputes in neighbouring China. In December, a confrontation over land sales turned violent in the southern village Wukan after the local government sent in paramilitary troops to quell demonstrations. On January 16, the leader of the rebellion was appointed secretary of the local branch of the Communist party, as part of Beijing’s efforts to resolve the dispute.
Tran Vu Hai, a Hanoi lawyer who has worked as defence counsel in a number of high profile cases, says the Haiphong incident was the most serious land dispute since 1997, when violent riots erupted in Thai Binh province.
Le Duc Anh, who stepped down as president in 1997, told The Labourer newspaper last week that while Mr Vuon had broken the law, the authorities acted “wrongly” and must pay him compensation.
The slew of negative headlines in Vietnam’s normally restrained state media has prompted Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s prime minister, to order the Haiphong government to undertake an official inquiry into the causes of the incident.
But, amid fears that tempers could be further inflamed, the Haiphong government has called on the local press to stop reporting on the case. It also refused to give the Financial Times permission to travel to the city, a requirement under Vietnam’s draconian press law.
Le Quoc Quan, a democracy activist and lawyer, believes there will be more conflicts in Vietnam until the land law is reformed to allow full private ownership.
“This guy [whose family] shot at the police has a lot of public support because many people see his story as like their story,” says Mr Quan, who has been detained by police on several occasions and was recently ordered to undergo six months of “re-education” under the supervision of local officials. -By Ben Bland