Duong Thu Huong, 53, settles into a chair and smiles easily across the table at a central Hanoi hotel, showing no sign of fear. "The government is a bunch of liars," she says, her words erupting like machinegun fire. "They are corrupt, ignorant, incompetent leaders."

Such stinging criticism is rarely voiced in Vietnam, and the writer has paid a price for her outspokenness. All six of her novels are effectively banned in Vietnam, including 1988's Paradise of the Blind, the story of a young woman whose life is nearly ruined by a corrupt Communist uncle. In 1991, Huong was imprisoned for seven months without trial until a campaign by Amnesty International and French notables (including actress Catherine Deneuve) led to her release. After she visited Paris in 1994 to receive the prestigious French Order of Arts and Letters, her passport was confiscated. But Huong, who helped entertain troops at the front for seven years as part of the Communist Youth Brigade, is no longer followed constantly, and her phone is tapped only occasionally. "I think they're fed up with me," she says with a smile.

Not everyone sees her as a heroine. "She blasts the government without offering constructive solutions," says Phan Thanh Tram, a scholar at the Vietnam Women's Union. Others say her dissident image is hyped to help sell books abroad. A divorced mother of two grown children, Huong, whose Memories of a Pure Spring came out in the U.S. in January, won't stop nipping at Hanoi's heels. "I am," she says, "a solitary female wolf."