The three-day Tet festival is approaching in Vietnam, the climax of a long season of celebrations that began with the enthusiastic embrace of Christmas in mid-December. In the southern city that residents still call Saigon, parks and boulevards have been festooned with colorful lights, and Christmas carols drifted over restaurants, hotel lobbies and department stores with their resident Santas.
On the surface, the “American” war that ended more than three decades ago seems to have left no traces here. But in the hearts and minds of those who suffered the war and survived to remember it, there is pain. Tet is a time for reflection, and there are some conflicted emotions about where Vietnam is headed in the new year.
It is not only that the spectacle of affluence and materialism, even in tough economic times, and the love affair with things Western seem jarring to a revolutionary generation that gave their all to a cause, losing relatives and friends, often to unmarked battlefield graves. There is also, especially in the south, unease and disappointment that a unified Vietnam has not lived up to its considerable potential. Despite nearly two decades of economic liberalization, the Vietnamese see their country stagnating under the heavy hand of excess government regulation and censorship, and watch politicians squandering the country’s economic gains on corruption.
The start of this long holiday season coincided with a suspension of Japanese development assistance after the discovery of a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that diverted aid funds from Japan, until now Vietnam’s largest donor. A reporter from a leading newspaper said journalists have been told to stop dwelling on this. Two reporters were arrested last year for writing about the skimming of aid from not only from Japan but also the World Bank. One journalist is in jail and the other in re-education. The reporters, Ngyuen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre and Nguyen Viet Chen of Thanh Nien, were convicted of “absuing democratic freedoms.” (Human Rights Watch has a new report, Vietnam: Stop Muzzling the Messengers, on these and other cases. Colleagues say that the reporters had inside government sources, but that did not save them or their editors. The government, which retains the right to appoint news managers, dismissed the editors of the two newspapers involved. The popular, daring and profitable daily Tuoi Tre saw its editor replaced in December for the third time in two years by ever “safer” government appointees; in early January the editor of Thanh Nien was sacked.
In Danang, a publishing house was shut down in December and two top editors fired for printing “mistakes.” Internet users are regularly harassed and occasionally arrested. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of Vietnamese use the Internet to post blogs and share information. Among the bloggers are schoolchildren as young as 11 or 12 who have home computers or frequent Internet cafes, which the government polices clumsily. It may be a sign of a losing battle that new regulations on Internet use have been recently published in an effort to contain the impact of the cyberworld. At the same time, newspapers and other publications are racing to create English-language Web sites to give their reporting wider exposure.