Of primary importance to Manh is economic growth. The boom years of the early 1990s have passed and the economy is growing at a much diminished rate, barely keeping up with a rapidly growing population. It is estimated that 1.4 million people annually join a workforce dominated by bureaucracy, badly run state-owned enterprises, and a state-owned banking sector unfriendly to extending credit to private enterprise. These areas all need to be reformed, and Manh has indicated his intention to tackle these difficult issues. Speaking to the National Assembly in July 2002, Manh called for improvements in Vietnam's legal system, with reforms even edging towards democracy. Corruption has continued to be a major issue, with a scandal regarding criminal "godfather" Nam Cam reaching into many areas of Vietnamese life. In early 2003, Nam Cam was put on trial, with 154 associates (some of whom were politicians and police officers), for multiple charges, including murder and bribing public officials. The trial held great interest for the public, but observers stressed the need for system-wide reforms as well as high-profile criminal prosecution.
Manh has worked to address an issue of long concern in Vietnam: the economic disparity between north and south. Hanoi, the capital and the largest city in the north, is economically behind Ho Chi Minh City, which contributes 30 percent to the nation's budget but is restrained in many of its capitalist impulses by Hanoi's bureaucracy. In August 2001, Manh granted Ho Chi Minh city (and the province of the same name) greater autonomy for development. The city would have liked even more freedom, but Manh and the party bosses in Hanoi fear Ho Chi Minh City becoming another Singapore or Hong Kong while the rest of the country falls further behind economically.
The Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic appeared early in Vietnam, but was declared under control there in April 2003 by the World Health Organization, which praised Vietnam's transparency and international cooperation in fighting the infectious disease. In spite of this, Vietnam's tourism industry was hard-hit by the stigma of the epidemic.
While he may be in favor of economic liberalization, Manh is a strict adherent to party discipline and maintains a tight grip on political dissent. Early in 2002, the government initiated a crackdown on books deemed to be "dissident" and ordered them seized and destroyed. One of the dissidents named in the crackdown was a former general and highly placed party functionary. The Communist Party also moved to restrict religious expression, particularly the Christianity practiced by ethnic minority people of the Central Highlands, a region where severe repression continued. Additionally, vocal dissidents from the educated urban elite were given prison sentences in late 2002 and early 2003. In March 2003, dissident physician Nguyen Dan Que was arrested. A human rights and health care advocate, Que had previously spent many years in prison.