The statue of King Ly Thai at the Chi Linh Park in central Hanoi overlooks a public plaza. This is the only place in the bustling city where public gatherings are allowed and also where one could easily catch a glimpse of the youth culture in Vietnam’s capital city.
Two-thirds of the country’s 90 million population were born after the Vietnam War. Much like the other Asian cities with emerging market-oriented economy, the postwar generation is carefree and inquisitive — determined to explore beyond the borders of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Twenty-one-year-old Ding, along with fellow skateboarders, was perfecting his spinning and sliding skills. Younger children were busy playing. The show Vietnam Got Talent was filming at the elevated level of the square. All of these while a half dozen security officers, the police, stood guard.
“Every public event and gathering here is being watched by the district police to make sure that no dissenting voices and acts are shown in the public place,” said Ding, who is studying the Chinese language at the Hanoi University of Languages and International Studies.
Studying Chinese is my destiny and it’s for my future, Ding said. Having this communication skill will open doors, offer career prospects as China has been Vietnam’s largest neighbour and former imperial master, he added.
He paused, took a deep breath, and then glanced at the screen of his smart phone. Often, the main reason for Ding to take a break from his skateboarding is to scroll through his Facebook feed.
“We (young people) all go online to communicate and to get information. The newspapers and television news are boring and depressing. It is all about merry-making news in the controlled state and society,” he said.
Online outlets such as vnexpress.net or snippets from Facebook Timelines are the main source of news for us, he added.
On social media growth
Almost half (49 percent) of Vietnam’s population uses the Internet; over two-thirds (67 percent) are under the age of 30. The statistics relate to the increasing smart phone sales and congested social media traffic.
Nihn, an 18-year-old student from the University of Commerce, loitered around the square stopping to practice her English with fellow students and tourists. She splits her time between her home in a small village in the western part of Hanoi and the capital to attend courses and follow her dream — to sing in Vietnam Got Talent.
“I am quite busy following my idols and their trends, and posting my own photos on Facebook. I don’t bother to pick up the newspapers and give a look at news items even on Facebook Timelines,” she said.
Unlike Nihn, 18 year-old Chin regularly checks Facebook for snippets of domestic news. But he said that he didn’t go further than that — access information for a deeper understanding of a topic. Chin studies the English language at the Posts and Telecommunications Institute of Technology.
“We are all busy with our own study and lifestyle. (But) Facebook is a trend (setter) among us. That’s why I scroll down my timeline constantly,” he added.
Vietnam has more than 30 million Facebook users. Seventy-five percent of those are between ages 18 and 34. Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung, now elected as secretary-general of communist party,who asked the people to use social media more responsibly, cited these figures.
The government is turning to Facebook to reach out to its young population. In October 2015, the Communist Party of Vietnam created its own Facebook account stating that it aims to provide timely information about the government and Prime Minister to the people. Soon after, the increasing number of “government information” Facebook pages drew complaints.
In 2013, the government announced that they will fine (100 million dong, approximately USD 5,000.00) anyone who criticizes the party and its policy on social media. The decree is vague. But the Communist Party maintains that the law is applicable to anyone who will use “propaganda against the state” or spread “reactionary ideology.”
That same year, a Vietnamese Facebook user was sentenced to a 15-month house arrest for an online campaign to release his brother — who was jailed for criticizing the government.
Ahead of the five-yearly congress, the government sought ways to discourage the Internet-savvy public from reading web posts that belittle the politburo (executive committee of the political party) and its policies. The event happened from 20 to 28 January 2016.
Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan posted on Facebook: “these pages are most distorting and talking bad about our party’s leaders, government and policies. We expect more such bad pages appearing around the congress and election.”
“Social media are hubs of information for Vietnam’s younger generations. Facebook is a big thing here,” said Linh, a lifestyle reporter of an online news outlet.
Her daily reports mostly focus on the latest trend in lifestyle and culture in the capital. Even if a publication is market-oriented and consumer-driven, like the one she works for, Linh remains cautious.
“Mostly, the boss sets the line of what we can write and what we cannot. I also know the limits set for my journalistic aspirations,” she said. Most world news and politically-charged contents of neighbor countries are carried from wire services, she added.
Le Anh is a commentator for an online portal which reviews online games. Twenty-four-year-old Le Anh is not trained in journalism. But he does have the information and technology (IT) background as well as the passion to land his job.
The government considers the website he works for as a pure commercial and entertainment outlet. Gaming companies sponsor it to run commentaries on their products. But some video and online games touch on political and provocative themes.
“In addition to having in-house guidelines and rule books to follow, I (use) self-censorship in writing about games which could turn into a controversial package and (are in) conflict with the ideas of the State of unionism,” said Le Anh.
Le Anh said only a few people in real life have critical views on the society and consider analytical outlooks for the country. Therefore, there are fewer people in Vietnam who are generating critical contents — he added.
“Mostly, people (will tune in to the) the 7 o’clock official news bulletins to gauge basic ideas of what is up for today. (They) do not go deeper than that,” Le Anh said.
He said that people in general would prefer not to talk or write about politics, the Party, the economy, and problems resulting to the indifference of the society and the youth to their own country and neighbouring nations.
In Vietnam, the State manages all the print and broadcasting media. Media leaders are either party members or party-approved. Thus, party politics and policies remain off-limits for discussion. Any dissenting voices, online and offline, are not tolerated and are penalized harshly.
There are around 1,100 publications in the country. For the past 15 years, the media industry continues to grow. But the politburo sees media commercialization as “affecting negatively public opinions.” By the end of 2016, it will decrease support and tighten the controls over the state-run media and publishing sector.
According to a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper report, 4,000 licensed journalists and 6,000 employees could lose their jobs under the planned four year-media restructuring project, which will be managed by the Information and Communications Ministry.
The Communist Party will remain in charge of the operations of media outlets with wider reach such as Vietnam Television, Voice of Vietnam Radio, Vietnam News Agency, and three newspapers. Defense and police ministers will still be involved in the operations of some multimedia agencies. Smaller media outlets and some newspapers in the provinces will no longer run except for those which have online versions.
With more than 40 million Internet users and 30 million smartphone users, Vietnam is tagged as the Silicon Valley of Southeast Asia. Search engine giant Google committed to train 1,400 local IT engineers. Tech start-ups (on gaming, chat and e-commerce platforms) are making a beeline to cater the growing digital demand.
The future lies in Vietnam’s youth population to tap into this digital growth and find opportunities for empowerment and development.
But the country’s restrictive tendencies will hinder rather than encourage this potential.