The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 2000


Where Coke and Michael Jackson meet Ho Chi Minh

for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
Imagine sitting in a wood-and-bamboo hut. Thatched roof. Floor of packed clay and buffalo dung. A fire pit is dug in the ground. Buffalo parts hang from the rafters to smoke.

There's no running water or electricity, and you're squatting on a wicker stool drinking hot lemon juice while the occasional chicken or piglet wanders by. You are watched curiously by the people who inhabit the house. They belong to the Hmong tribe and live in the hills outside of Sapa in northwest Vietnam near the China border. There, playing among the children dressed in their everyday clothes - traditional wraparound tunics handwoven from hemp with elaborately embroidered trim - is a single boy sporting an Adidas-style sweatsuit.

This is exactly the sort of odd East-meets-West juxtaposition I kept encountering on a recent trip to Vietnam. I expected to see global influences in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the large, developed cities on opposite ends of the country, but I was constantly surprised by the collision of cultures at points in between, in small villages or in hill tribe areas where the last thing you would expect to find is a poster of Michael Jackson hanging next to a Ho Chi Minh calendar.

Apparently the Vietnamese are fans of many things Western: I saw such labels as Versace, Nike, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Fila on all manner of clothing and accessory. This next to conical hats, ao dai flowing tunics, military uniforms and traditional ethnic tribal ensembles.

Word on the street is that most of the items with designer logos are knockoffs made in either China or Vietnam. Some logos are creatively spelled - such as "Leves" on a T-shirt instead of "Levis."

American companies have made inroads since President Clinton lifted the embargo in 1994. I was told by a tour guide, Chau Huynh Hoa, that Coke set up shop 24 hours later and Pepsi soon followed. Now Philip Morris makes Marlboros in a factory outside of Ho Chi Minh City, and you can't escape advertising for such brands as Nizoral, Wrigley's, Close-Up, Kodak and the other big three in carbonated beverages, Fanta, 7-Up and Sprite.

Chau also said that McDonald's was currently in negotiation with the government to begin its fast-food infiltration, but so far, no deal.

With so many products that didn't exist just a few years ago surfacing in the country, what does the government currently censor? According to Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese-American writer who recently moved back to Ho Chi Minh City after more than 20 years in the United States, what's blocked is anything written in the Vietnamese language by Vietnamese people living abroad.

That includes Web sites, literature and film. Dinh said that "the most famous Vietnamese filmmakers are not known in Vietnam." Movies like Tran Anh Hung's Cyclo and Tony Bui's Three Seasons are banned.

This censorship of divergent ideological viewpoints extends to television as well. The four basic (noncable) channels broadcast such programs as folk opera, drama, singing, knowledge games, soccer matches and a popular program called Foreign Recreation that showcases sports not found in the country, such as snowboarding and skateboarding. Of course, in hotels and bars that cater to tourists, cable (which most Vietnamese cannot afford) is readily available, and you can watch CNN and the ever-perplexing MTV Asia, which seemed to run Celine Dion and Britney Spears videos in constant rotation.

Of all the examples of cultural convergence I saw, none could match the scene at Club 106 in Ho Chi Minh City, an upscale cocktail lounge frequented by trendy Vietnamese youth who looked as if they were auditioning for a Gap commercial. There, among the fancy drinks with exotic garnishes, top-shelf liquors, marble bar and free snacks of fresh pineapple, grapes, lime slices on ice and fried squid, were the mobile phones, dyed hair and expensive watches.

In between Vietnamese pop songs, the band played "Yesterday" by the Beatles, then played part of a song and then ran a contest to guess the correct name (which turned out to be "Mickey" by Toni Basil). Between sets, they showed video performances of Taiwanese house music with Chinese subtitles and Korean rap on a big-screen TV. And yeah, they played Elvis too - Elvis Phuong, who is The King in Vietnam.

Maybe it's not unusual for foreign artifacts to begin to penetrate countries like Vietnam. But it's still disconcerting to see a pair of Nike sandals left at the entrance to a 13th-century Hindu temple, or a motorbike on a dirt road near rice paddies with 20 chickens tied to the handlebars driven by a man wearing a Chicago Bulls jacket.

If McDonald's ever gets here, we'll soon have Big Macs served next to noodle soup. Maybe some things are best kept to ourselves.


© 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.