It’s been almost six weeks since the October 4 death of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam brought the entire nation to a standstill and provoked an outpouring of international media attention to the 102-year-old military icon and his legacy. The passing of General Giap — the last remaining member of Vietnam’s Communist vanguard (together with Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, Le Duan, Truong Chinh, and Ton Duc Thang) — was all that Vietnamese people could talk about for weeks. Businesses were shut across the nation for days before and after the national day of mourning on October 12, entertainment programs were taken off the air, and bars and nightclubs and even cinemas were shuttered. On the day of the funeral, a live broadcast of the ceremony was the ubiquitous backdrop to every Vietnam’s citizens daily routine. The whole country seemed to attend an imagined national funeral within the confines of their own lives. The seriousness of the man, his legacy, and the occasion created an atmosphere which discouraged frivolity and irreverence in favor of the strict protocols of behavior and etiquette that characterized previous eras.
Many in mainstream media outlets were all too happy to point out what they considered “inappropriate behaviours” from both citizens and celebrities. Playing the part of responsible neighbours who can’t bear to stay out of the etiquette-policing business are netizens who helped spread the coverage and generated heated discussions on whether or not certain kinds of acts are acceptable and/or forgivable. Opinions haven’t been remotely homogeneous, not even in a time of great tribulation. Diversity in public opinion has continued to be an interesting trend in Vietnam, as well as the willingness to express it online.
It has been a while since Vietnam last went through the death of a major leader (in 2000 when Pham Van Dong passed away). In the interim, both the national media and a new generation of youth have become comfortable with a suite of digital tools and communication technologies newly available to them, providing a striking look at just how much has changed in Vietnam over the past 13 years.
On Facebook, thousands of Vietnam’s 22 million members changed their profile pictures to portraits of General Giap. Many, even most of these were surely meant as unironic tributes to the man himself. Yet for many others who made the switch, it was meant as a subtle political statement regarding the lack of leadership and moral authority in the current crop of leaders. As the BBC wrote in an analysis, “In death he is being seen as a symbol of everything that today’s Communist leaders are not; charismatic, heroic, clean-living, a true patriot.”
But three incidents in particular in the frenzy surrounding the General’s death provide an interesting look inside the mind of modern-day Vietnam and the way people are grappling with the many new ways that ordinary citizens have of expressing themselves to the world.
The first began with a VTV television crew of three people taking a self-portrait with a smartphone in the middle of the the funeral. In case you’re not familiar with the concept of the funeral selfie, this tumblr site provides an excellent primer. While selfie culture permeates social media and has become more or less a signature of Gen Z, there seems to be a fine line between the when-to and the when-not-to. Selfies appears to be okay in the classroom, at restaurants, in the bedroom, in front of a landmark, in a queue, at most public social functions, and on the toilet. Selfies at funerals, however, seem to be widely viewed as crossing a line. There are a whole different set of values associated with arguably the single most tragic event in one’s life and those around him, one that puts to an ultimate test the clash between the old and the new. What made matters worse was that these were not just ordinary citizens but members of the media, supposedly well-educated, well-mannered professionals and adults.
“Have they no shame?” scolded Vo Danh, who was supported by a long thread of similar comments — outraged though often incoherent, such as that by Ngoi Sao Sang: “The government only pays these uneducated pricks to be parasites on the people’s money! Corrupted, rotten society! He [General Giap] was a great father to the country, an outstanding general to Vietnam and the world. Remembering him is showing pain with the rest of the country … What would happen to those corrupted government officials when they die, and would anybody care to mourn?”
Nix Khanh was equally offended: “Those f*cking uneducated newbies … I loathe those f*cking dogs who cannot find work anywhere else and crawl their ways to the broadcast station … Don’t let me see you on the street or you’ll see!” Taking more of a sarcastic and personal approach, Chien Nguyen commented, “I bet these bastards would also laugh when their parents die.”
“What would happen to those corrupted government officials when they die, and would anybody care to mourn?”
Comments offering contempt of a more civilized variety were also widespread. “Little flat brain wannbes!”, said Dao Trinh. Hung VN seemed to regard such photos as a “girl thing” and expressed concern about the future of Vietnam’s manhood: “Oh, these blokes! Well-educated with quirks! Just like teenagers! What kind of men would act like girls? Ew!”
Responses defending the photographers were rare, but not totally absent. “Oh it’s just a stupid moment. Let it go,” said Tu Bat Tu. “It’s actually pretty normal, there’s nothing to fuss about,” said Cuong.
The main VTV employee in the photo issued an apology on his Facebook page several days after the incident and received positive responses from a majority of commenters. What was most interesting, though, was that he did not apologise to the angry public. Rather, he addressed the deceased General Giap directly and prayed for forgiveness from him: “What I have done may have caused ramifications on my whole life. But at least what I can ask for is your forgiveness, General.”
The second incident had at its center one of Vietnam’s most controversial celebrities, Dam Vinh Hung, a male diva with an intense interest in obtaining and showcasing luxury clothing and accessories. Hung has made a hugely successful career out of making headlines with extravagant purchases and shocking public activities (notably smooching a monk at one point and most recently, dressing for Halloween as Dr. Cat Tuong, the unlicensed cosmetic surgeon who accidentally killed a breast-enhancement patient and then dumped her body into the Red River). So it was almost expected that the celebrity would do something controversial during Vietnam’s biggest, most watched event of 2013. And watchers were not disappointed. With his girlfriend and an assistant hovering at his side, escorted by police officers on duty, Dam Vinh Hung bypassed a queue of thousands outside General Giap’s house, all of them waiting in line to pay tribute to the General. Wearing sunglasses and carrying a large bouquet of flowers, the performer paused for photographs on exiting the house, hamming it up. The visit set off an explosion of indignation both in person and online.
Within minutes of the event, pictures of the celebrity waltzing past the queue went viral. Hours later they were all over mainstream news. Reactions to the event were a mixed bag. Many people were were furious. And as one would expect, some very strong language was involved. “If this is true, that is no manner of a human being. That is animalistic. And ungrateful,” wrote Phuong Tay Nguyen. Skipping through all the comments containing profanity, evaluative comments confessing faith in humanity are also prevalent. “I am happy to see our civilised society standing up to wrongdoings. This is so necessary. We have passed an anti-smoking law to stop air pollution, unfortunately we still can’t get rid of people like Dam who pollute our culture. I am deeply saddened and insulted by this,” said Tuyet Trang.
Still others caught a strong whiff of hypocrisy. Many expressed disappointment with the major media and the attitude of so-called “online heroes,” noting that it’s precisely the big media outlets who swoon over figures like Dam Vinh Hung to boost readership, playing it all up for eyeballs, with the result being that the true meaning of event – General Giap’s legacy – is overshadowed in the eyes of the world by spectacle and scandal.
Fear over the impact of any break in the hoped-for national unity typified several comments. “Oh, please people, would you stop this?” wrote Nguyen Chi Thanh. “You guys are giving those subversive bastards lurking out there a reason to come in and create a divide among us. This is a sensitive time to fight.”
“If this is true, that is no manner of a human being. That is animalistic.”
As the story developed, Hung claimed on his Facebook page that prior arrangements had been made and permission from the General’s family had been granted for him to jump the queue and pay his tribute before everybody else to avoid drawing crowds of curious people and fans and thereby affect the “solemnity” of Gen. Giap’s funeral. Many accepted the explanation and apology at face value, although debate raged for weeks over the way Vietnamese celebrities and wealthy individuals are given preferential treatment over ordinary citizens in all manner of circumstances. (On November 6 . the Ministry of Culture’s Performing Arts Department requested that the pop singer “repent” for his recent inappropriate actions, including his conduct during Gen. Giap’s funeral.)
The last incident was a television moment that will be immortalised in history. Reporting on traffic conditions in Ho Chi Minh City on the national day of mourning live for HTV1, announcer Le Ngoc Minh closed his segment by reminding all Saigon residents to drive safely and to “have a happy national mourning day.” The clip went viral almost instantly and the comments began to flow like blood.
“Have a happy national mourning day.”
“National shame!” “We should not tolerate this. Sack the hell out of this guy!” “Kill it with fire!” To be fair, it is a norm of media practice in Vietnam that announcers follow a rigid script. If viewers were to receive 1000 dong every time an announcer utters a cliche such as “Have a nice day” or uses a fixed set of sentences by simply changing the name or date of the event being reported, Vietnam would be able to lift itself out of poverty. News anchors are neither allowed nor expected to make jokes or improvise on purpose, as in the west. Indeed, improvising was hardly what happened here — in fact it would have been less embarrassing had it been a case of bad improvisation.
Days later HTV issued a public apology featuring its Deputy Station Secretary reading an apology — scripted, of course — on behalf of the station in a solemn and serious manner. Again, public opinion eased following the apology.
The intense yet short-lived public disappointment that swept across Vietnam’s social web following each of these incidents reflected the way Vietnamese netizens consume online information in 2013. Opinions are not only diverse but flexible; an overwhelming public opinion forms rapidly, but it’s swayed and mitigated almost as quickly with new information. It would be an overgeneralization to claim a predictable pattern on the basis of just three incidents — the dynamics of public opinion are complex. But these three incidents to provide a glimmer of insight into the interaction and adaptability between Vietnamese traditional media and new media. Some were better than others in handling the above crises, yet the end results seem to converge rather than diverge.