On October 22, Vietnam was set alight by news of the attempted cover-up of a private medical patient’s death in Hanoi. The incident had all the hallmarks of a scandal tailored for prime time: a wealthy client, cosmetic surgery, an unlicensed medical facility, a missing body, a hapless accessory to the dumping of the body into the Hanoi’s Red River under cover of darkness, public officials who’ve denied accountability, and much more. With summer’s still-unresolved Hepatitis vaccination scare simmering in the background, frustration toward Vietnam’s public health sector has boiled over into what could come to be regarded as a key moment in the pull-and-push game between Vietnam’s mainstream and social media.

On October 19, 37-year-old  Le Thi Thanh Huyen had entered the private Cat Tuong beauty clinic in Hanoi for breast enhancement surgery. Dr. Nguyen Manh Tuong, the clinic owner and also a full-time physician at Bach Mai, the largest hospital in northern Vietnam, performed the procedure on Huyen. But instead of getting larger breasts and a flatter tummy, Huyen died at the clinic a few hours later. What followed was widely described by state-controlled media as a deliberate and calculated attempt by Tuong, and the security staff he shanghaied into  help, to cover up Huyen’s death by ditching her corpse in Hanoi’s Red River.

When coming to public knowledge the following day, the story caught fire.  Troubled emotions exploded across discussion forums, social media, and comments sections of online reports like dry kindling. Some likened Tuong to a butcher. A typical comment read, “Even persecution would not make up for his crime. He’s a beast, not a human.

Yet, as always, anger was hardly the only response. Lighthearted parodies sprang up all over the Vietnamese Internet. Tuyet Bitch Collection, a popular Facebook page with 168,000 fans, spun a light parody of the recent travelogue Pick Up Your Knapsack and Go – a recent, controversial accounting of traveling the world by first-time writer Huyen Chip – twisting the title into Pick Up Your Tits and Go – Don’t Die at Cat Tuong Clinic.

Via Tuyet Bitch Collection

“Pick Up Your Tits and Go – Don’t Die at Cat Tuong Clinic.”

Online remix communities took the incident and ran with it:

Honey, can I go to a beauty clinic? If you want to float dead down a river, be my guest! No shit!

Honey, can I go to a beauty clinic?
If you want to float dead down a river, be my guest!
No shit!

So I’ll get a special Red River tour promotion if I go to your beauty clinic?

So I’ll get a special Red River tour promotion if I go to your beauty clinic?

In the wake of the revelations, Cat Tuong clinic was discovered to have been operating without any of the necessary licenses and  Dr. Tuong was revealed not even to be certified as a cosmetic surgeon. The clinic was closed, but despite pressure to resolve the case and explain how it could have happened, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health offered their condolences to Huyen’s family but deflected suggestions that their office had erred. They countered that private clinics are under the City of Hanoi Department of Health’s control, not the National Ministry of Health’s. One Facebook comment, which earned more than 300 likes, snapped: “The world’s medical record will note: A surgeon had no certificate, caused a death, ditched a corpse into the river, and authorities said, ‘Sorry!’”

Hanoi City’s Department of Health, in turn, countered that Cat Tuong clinic had pulled some unidentified “tricks” to operate under their radar. Netizens again raged: “That’s bullshit. In any region, any little shop or sidewalk vendor, as soon as it opens, will for sure receive visits from two groups: ward police and neighborhood mobsters.”

“The world’s medical record will note: A surgeon had no certificate, caused a death, ditched a corpse into the river, and authorities said, ‘Sorry!’”

Weeks rolled by with Huyen’s family seeking help from authorities, divers, and even psychics. The search has resulted in the discovery of no less than six corpses in the river, none of them Huyen’s. Mystery remains, just as it does with the three post-vaccination infant deaths in July, a highlight among a litany of this summer’s public health controversies.

The Cat Tuong fiasco quickly inspired a Facebook fan page entitled 1 Million Likes for Dr. Tuong to Operate on the Health Minister. Created about a month ago and having shared merely 15 articles, the page already has 2,082 likes. Whimsical and flippant as it sounds, the page’s message exemplifies the sour mood that permeates Vietnam’s Internet over this and the other crises the Ministry of Health has faced this year. When the laughs subside, the nations netizens lament that “the public faith has drained” and that “a revolution is called for” in public health sector.

A Facebook page entitled "1 Million Likes for Dr. Tuong to Operate on the Health Minister."

A Facebook page entitled “1 Million Likes for Dr. Tuong to Operate on the Health Minister.”

Meanwhile, another Facebook page created soon after July’s Hepatitis vaccination scandal entitled Resign, Minister of Health has continued to act as an ersatz watchdog over Vietnam’s public health sector. Since its inception, the page has garnered a fanbase of 103,000 (as of December 6) and its appeal has been widely discussed across forums and the blogosphere, prompting heated discussions of Vietnam’s lack of “a culture of resignation,” in which many complain that no public official is ever held accountable for any failure, no matter how glaring or egregious.

Prior to the Cat Tuong scandal, on October 9, as that page was still diligently collecting and posting public health news, Nguoi Dua Tin, a state-controlled news site, fired a direct attack on social media activists with an editorial entitled “How To Judge Those Who Deface Ministers on Social Media?” In it, Nguyen Thu Nga, identified as a “psychological specialist,” was quoted:

“While sharing information on Facebook is one thing, preposterous and perverted acts by the young are plaguing all social networking sites. Conspicuously, some pages have been recently created, in which their members carelessly express opinions by reviling and humiliating those who hold the top prestigious positions of an industry. Although it’s not certain how these acts will help ‘improve’ our social picture, they definitely leave more than  a few harmful consequences.”

On October 25, however, as the Cat Tuong scandal was at high boil, Petro Times, another online mainstream newspaper, published “The Health Minister Should Resign,” an opinion piece that was quickly removed. Even so, screenshots of the censored article were widely shared around the web, providing generous fodder for polemics and discussion.

A screen capture of the now deleted opinion article at the state-owned Petro Times calling for the Minister of Health to resign.

A screen capture of the now deleted opinion article at the state-owned Petro Times calling for the Minister of Health to resign.

“Occurrences after the case at Cat Tuong clinic show that Health Ministry leaders passed the blame to the Hanoi Department of Health, and that department, in turn, passed it on to the district department. […] In our country, resignation culture seems too foreign to many state executives. […] But if we keep behaving in this please-all fashion, nobody will ever take responsibility, and events, such as the one at Cat Tuong or the vaccination mistakes that killed several infants, will continue to happen in a great number.”

“Resignation of a public official is as far out of Vietnam’s reach as a dream.”

The article was immediately shared and reposted across a plethora of  state-controlled and independent websites, and personal blogs — and just as quickly removed from them all. It was also cited as evidence of the first time in memory that state-run media aired an appeal for ministerial abdication. Skepticism piqued many online commentaries. A typical remark read: “Any resignation of a public official is still out of Vietnam’s reach.”

During a monthly press conference the following day, October 26, Minister and Chairman of Government office Vu Duc Dam faced questions from the press on whether the Health Minister should resign under the pressure of Vietnam’s online public sphere. His response: “Personally, I don’t think that as soon as some particular problem emerges, a minister should immediately think of giving up her position. […] The most crucial thing is to have determination and a plan, an itinerary to improve everything. I believe that most, if not all, ministers agree on the same thought.”

Following a news story about the conference, one commenter got 361 likes with a sarcastic retort: “Personally, I don’t think that as soon as some particular problem emerges, the Minister should immediately think of giving up her chair. Instead, she ought to right away think of how to cling tighter to it.”

A mock quote attributed to the Health Minister references several recent sore points for citizens: “Electricity can be cut.Internet connection can be shut down. Facebook can collapse. Patients can float down rivers. Kids can die from vaccination. But (my) position is entrusted by the party and institution, so I never give it up.”

A parody quote attributed to the Health Minister references several recent sore points for citizens: “Electricity can be cut. Internet connection can be shut down. Facebook can collapse. Patients can float down rivers. Kids can die from vaccinations. But (my) position is entrusted by the party and institution, so I never give it up.”

Today, more than six weeks after reports of her death, Huyen’s body has still not been found. Without an autopsy, no investigation can be concluded into the doctor charged with her murder. Friends, family, and strangers continue to offer help in finding her body. On November 29, Huyen’s 77 year-old father wrote a letter that was warmly embraced by Vietnam’s online community. In it, the grieving father expressed sorrow and thanked the Health Minister and the investigating bureau for offering condolences and trying to help. The family is preparing for Huyen’s memorial service even without the body.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, with 103,000 fans and growing daily, “Resign, Minister of Health” keeps posting failures in the national public health sector every day. Every single post receives hundreds of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on Facebook.

A variety of fines and other punitive methods less harsh than arrest and jail terms may now be levied upon those who post online content that ‘goes against the nation’s fine traditions and customs’ or “proves unfit for the country’s benefits.’

During last month’s meeting of the National Assembly, which ended in November, the Health Minister was reportedly excused from a scheduled question-and-answer session to prevent a feared loss of face for her over the ongoing crises. And although the assembly and its much touted “revised” constitution received most of the media attention, a new decree regarding Internet use was also announced in late November. The new law will hand out fines of 100 million dong ($4,740) to anyone criticizing the government on social media.  A variety of fines and other punitive methods less harsh than arrest and jail terms may now be levied upon those who post online content that “goes against the nation’s fine traditions and customs,” “proves unfit for the country’s benefits,” “exposes private secrets or other secrets of individuals and institution without their permission,” among others. The new law on social media use will go into effect on January 1 , 2014. Happy New Year, Vietnam.

– Mai Huyen Chi