December 4 was not a slow news day in Vietnam. The National Assembly’s “revisions” to the nation’s Constitution, which had been approved less than a week previously, for example, were still stirring discussions and debate, both at home and internationally. The land law, which had also been amended in the Assembly’s November meeting, continued to raise eyebrows. Questions as to how 230 kilograms of heroin had passed custom officers’ inspecting eyes at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat airport had been left to hang.
But there was also something much easier that day for Vietnamese netizens to pile onto, quite literally.
It all started with a commercial truckload of Tiger beer. At high noon on December 4, driver Ho Kim Hau made an unfortunate turn around a roundabout in Bien Hoa province and flipped his truck onto its side, spilling thousands of cases of Tiger beer onto the highway.
Within minutes, a crowd of hundreds had descended upon the site, like ants to spilled chocolate, and began pillaging nearly all cans and cases, even fighting with each other over the spilled goods. Some went as far as boarding the truck to grab their share. Through it all, the horrified driver pleaded with people to stop. He was ignored. Witnesses said some even fetched tip-carts for easier transportation of large quantities of the loot.
“Within minutes, a crowd of hundreds had descended upon the site, like ants to spilled chocolate, and began pillaging nearly all cans and cases, even fighting with each other over the spilled goods.”
The sordid incident was, naturally, captured on film, both by stationary security cameras at the roadside and via the cellphone cameras of many passers-by, who uploaded videos to YouTube.
Almost as quickly as the original crowd gathered at the accident site, Vietnam’s online remix community got busy. Image macro memes spread across the Vietnamese net faster than pink eye. Reactions took the form of a single, echoing refrain: appalled disdain mixed with a healthy dose of sometimes black humor.
For many, the fact that Christmas was just ’round the corner was too great a temptation to resist.
One viral video depicted a man dressed as Santa on his way to deliver gifts. When he trips, however, the people surrounding him run to steal the contents of his sack.
In many of the photos and videos shared across the net, individual faces could be seen and recognized. The public shaming quickly switched to more personal attacks, singling out random individuals photographed at the site, such as this unfortunate young woman:
Pick Up Your Butt and Go! Book 2: Don’t Die Next to a Beer Truck (another memification of a controversial travelogue that was fodder for another recent online outbreak we mentioned a few posts back.)
Four days after the looting, which by this point had shaken the nation to its roots, a curious event happened offline, adding an interesting twist into the discourse. A citizen erected a banderol which read: “As one from Bien Hoa, as a Vietnamese, I am ashamed of those who stole “a few cans of beer” here at midday on December 4”.
At this point it became clear that the enormous online reaction to the incident had changed the narrative: no longer was this merely about the shame of a lone town (Bien Hoa); it now encompassed that of an entire nation. Online discussion of the event also evolved, from a tone of mockery and satire to one of activism. On social media, both individuals and organizations sent out fundraising calls for the unfortunate driver, whom Tiger Beer was insisting should compensate the company for more than $14,000 in lost inventory.
“No longer was this merely about the shame of a lone town; it now encompassed that of an entire nation.”
Many in Vietnam’s online communities used image memes and social media to express solidarity with the driver. WeGreen Vietnam posted an image with the appeal: “Let’s join hands to help the beer-looting victim and save the Vietnamese people’s honor.”
Others proposed a campaign to support Tiger Beer if the company agreed to reduce or forgive the financial compensation being demanded of the driver.
Faced with the enormous outcry against the looting, local authorities said they were considering prosecuting the perps, many of whom they claimed to have identified from photos and video. Numerous online commenters joked that at the seeming pointlessness of that threat, given the eye-bugging level of endemic theft and corruption at every level of officialdom in Vietnam.
“On December 13, after being bludgeoned for more than a week in Vietnam’s online social sphere, Tiger Beer finally deigned to release the poor driver from his obliged compensation.”
But the volume of the online engagement had other results as well. Following the online expressions of frustration and disgust that snowballed down social media’s steep hill, news reports emerged that one of the looters had apologized and admitted to feeling shame over participating in the affair. On December 13, after being bludgeoned for more than a week in Vietnam’s online social sphere, Tiger Beer finally deigned to release the poor driver from his obliged compensation. (The driver initially intended to give all the 228 million dong (US$10,600) received from donors to charity. Yet after receiving a numerous phone calls from unidentified donors asking for their money back, Hau is said to have asked the bank to return all the money to each person.)
In the following weeks, the media started to report cases of accidents in which looting did not occur. On December 26, Thanh Nien online reported thousands of bottles of beer spilled on the street, none of which was stolen. The following day, Tuoi Tre recorded a truck spilling hundreds of cartons of milk on another highway, none pillaged. The incident apparently even made its way to a student’s high school term paper.
The looting and its very public fallout, hashed out across Vietnam’s social web, bruised the nation’s consciousness to a degree never before played out so publicly. But it also seems to have inspired a cathartic upwelling of national introspection, as well as no small number of encouraging individual stories. While social media’s fruits can, at times, be bitter, in this case, they seem to have played a role in encouraging a thirst for better social ethics.
- Mai Huyen Chi