Vietnam's Communist Party is meeting this week to chart an end to a generation of hard-line socialist leadership and to guide one of Asia's worst economies into the 21st century, officials and diplomats said Friday.

They said the Central Committee, due to end its meeting on Monday, was preparing for a full congress of the ruling party next year that would be the swan song of leaders weaned on anti-colonial struggle and the Vietnam War."I don't hide from you that the present moment is the most crucial for our party. It is the moment of transition from one generation to another," said Nguyen Van Dang, deputy editor of the party's theoretical journal, Tap Chi Cong San.

Dang, for 42 years a party member, said the session would discuss four documents outlining a passage between the socialism of the past few decades and pressing demands for greater economic and social freedom.

Nearly all the present Politburo, the youngest of them 67, helped steer this Indochinese state through decades of warfare against the French, Japanese and Americans.

But it has remained baffled by economic problems, veering between Stalinist central control and the mayhem of deregulation.

Faced with a cut-off of Soviet aid next year, leaders have opened up the economy to Western investment, but with only limited results.

The meeting, which opened unannounced last Friday in this drab capital, will pave the way for next year's congress where, Dang said, the present leadership will step down.

He did not know how many of the 12 Politburo members would retire.

Officials and diplomats said the documents, some of which have gone through 12 drafts to cope with rapid changes among Vietnam's former Soviet-bloc allies, would not be as radical as some party members wished.

"I don't think the draft documents have any new ideas or indicate any real shift in domestic or foreign policies," said one East European diplomat.