In 1986, my father brought home a colour TV and suddenly our little apartment in Hanoi became a place for neighbours to hang out in the evening. That tiny 14-inch JVC was second-hand, sourced from Japan, but in Hanoi it was still a symbol of luxury. This was in the first year of the reform that initiated the marketization process in Vietnam. Two hours of nightly entertainment added welcome variation to our cultural diet, which had previously been largely limited to Soviet literature and classic French novels. My childhood memories are tied to idle summer afternoons watching Journey to the West (Xi You Ji), a Chinese drama that played repeatedly in syndication on Vietnamese small screens in the early 1990s. In 1991, the Mexican telenovela The Rich Also Cry made a great hit, to the extent that the phrase “the rich also cry” (người giàu cũng khóc”) is still a common saying in Vietnam to denote the limits of wealth. Other series, mostly from East Asian countries – such as Yearning and My Fair Princess from China, Oshin from Japan, and Feelings from Korea – made the 1990s the heyday of television drama in Vietnam. The success of these contributed to an increasing attention to popular taste on the part of the Vietnamese media, which had previously served largely as state’s propaganda instrument.
Literature was slower to orientate itself towards popular tastes. Despite the positive critical reception of emerging post-war Vietnamese writers in the 1980s and 90s, the book market was monotonous. Nguyen Huy Thiep, whose writing provides a poignant account of daily struggles, was the most widely read author in Vietnam. And yet outside the country, Thiep was eclipsed by Bao Ninh and Duong Thu Huong, whose work better pandered to the image of Vietnam in the Western imagination – a land of warfare and socialist dictatorship. Among local readers in the late 1990s, Gabriel García Márquez was also popular in translation. In 2003, Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips saw significant market success in Vietnam, turning its Chinese author into a household name, long before his Nobel Prize in 2012. The title was considered sufficiently “sensitive” for it to be translated into Vietnamese as Treasures of Life (Báu Vật Của Đời).
A further milestone in the Vietnamese book market came with the arrival of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood in 2006. This was due less to the novel itself than to the publisher’s prolific marketing campaign, which helped to make the book a bestseller, and introduced a new trend in the Vietnamese market for eye-catching covers. Almost all of Murakami’s books were quickly translated into Vietnamese and were well received by Vietnamese critics. By 2010, literature laden with politics no longer dominated the front shelves of Hanoian bookstores. Instead, we saw a colourful mixture of globally popular titles, such as the Twilight saga, Harry Potter and books by Marc Levi. The rise of self-help books has also been noteworthy. In a society torn between competing fears about having too much money and too little, the two bibles of post-reform self-improvement were Rich Dad Poor Dad and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Soviet novels, French classics and war literature disappeared from the bestseller lists.
The 2000s also witnessed a flood of global television formats into Vietnam. Western quiz shows such as Wheel of Fortune, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and The Price is Right were hugely popular. There followed Vietnam Idol, Vietnam’s Next Top Model, Dancing with the Stars, Master Chef and The Voice Vietnam.
Western reality formats, however, lay behind Korean popular music and dramas, which Vietnamese youngsters are increasingly now viewing online. There are dynamic and diverse fan communities devoted to Korean bands such as Super Junior, Big Bang and Exo. My Love from the Star and Descendants of the Sun are just two of the Korean series that attract a great deal of online discussion. Vietnam has become a thriving market for Korean popular culture, as well as Korean beauty products, electronic brands and cosmetic surgery. Despite the cooling diplomatic relations between China and Vietnam due to disputes over the South China Sea, Chinese series still attract audiences – but they are received with less excitement.
The patriotic legacy of Vietnam’s past has not disappeared. In 2005, more than four hundred thousand copies of The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram were sold almost overnight. Young Vietnamese readers who knew little about the Vietnam War were touched by the story of Tram, a young female doctor who served in the socialist army, and who was killed in 1970 by American forces. The diary recorded Tram’s day-to-day reflections on peace and war, her fear and loneliness on the battlefield, and the haunting conditions in the jungle clinic. Vietnamese readers only learnt of this diary when two American veterans returned the document to Tram’s parents thirty-five years after her death. The state immediately seized the opportunity to publish it as a means of connecting the post-war generation to the fading glory of socialism. And yet the intimate story would not have made it through the strict state censorship had it been unearthed twenty years ago.
In general, Vietnam has made less and less television of its own to compete with imported popular products. As if We Never Parted (Như Chưa Hề Có Cuộc Chia Ly) is probably the most successful – a homegrown reality show that seeks to reunite people mostly separated by war or emigration. The show has had more than seven hundred successful cases, many of them deeply moving. While telling a patriotic story of the nation’s past, it focuses on human vulnerability over socialist heroism.
Now in 2016, Vietnamese publishers are busy exploring a new trend: transforming popular bloggers into bestselling authors. Boasting one of the world’s highest rates of internet usage, Vietnam presents an obvious market. In 2015, 100,000 copies of Tony Buổi Sáng’s self-help book – a collection of the author’s popular Facebook posts – were sold. Gào is another bestselling writer, on the back of her life as a social media star, with more than two-and-a-half million Facebook followers. Her new book, We Will Be Alright (Chúng Ta Rồi Sẽ Ổn Thôi) co-authored with Minh Nhat, another emerging author, speaks to a generation of Vietnamese youngsters, lost in this new age of online uncertainty.
Giang Nguyen-Thu, “Popular tastes in Vietnam,” Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 2016