Thursday, June 13, 2013


US TV shows can be viewed in Vietnam
I'm watching TV in my hotel room, and I'm surprised by what I see. I'm expecting bland communist programming, but I find television in Vietnam has taken a very western bend. Flipping through channels, I find the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, and many of their familiar shows are dubbed or subtitled into Vietnamese. The rise of satellite TV here has revolutionized the media.  

Even away from cable and satellite networks, even locally produced shows rise from western influences. I was amused one night to watch a competitive dance show, which looked much like ‘Dancing with the Stars’. Another channel had the Vietnamese version of the game show, “The Price is Right”. The popular show had similar games for the contestants, who wore familiar yellow name tags. Even the theme song was the same!

As for popular movies, American made blockbusters are making it to Vietnam’s many multi-screen theaters. If a hit movie can’t be seen there, they can easily be found on pirated DVD’s, sold by vendors on the city streets. Banning movies from theaters, only increases their sales on the black market.

It’s no surprise that most American made movies on the Vietnam War aren't seen
Dustin Nguyen of 21 Jump Street returned to Vietnam
in theaters here, or on Vietnamese TV either. But there are already plenty of locally made war movies showing the Vietnamese side of the war, with the Americans and French depicted as the villains. In recent years, Vietnam has developed a growing local film community, producing privately made films in Vietnamese. Their films aren’t about drab old socialist themes either, but are of popular genres. Rather than flicks about communism, there are comedies, musicals, love stories, and even horror flicks.

I once went to an action movie, with a title that translated as, “The Legend Lives”. The film stars Dustin Nguyen, who made his name as an American actor on the 1980’s teen cop show ’21 Jump Street’. Back then, he starred with none other than future movie star Johnny Depp. Nguyen left Vietnam as a child refugee, and in addition to his American acting career, he recently became a star in his former homeland as a 'Viet kieu', a returning Vietnamese. This local film is a martial arts movie with a message, and highlights a major problem in Vietnam today: human trafficking.

As we meet Nguyen’s character, he is mentally handicapped living in a Buddhist temple. His mother is a martial arts master, and she improbably tells him that his father is the great Bruce Lee.

It's eventually revealed that neither his mother, nor Bruce Lee are his real parents; his actual mom was a single mother exposed to agent orange. The slow witted but quick fisted young man later takes on human traffickers, when he witnesses them kidnapping a Vietnamese teenager. The gangsters aim to force the girl into prostitution. 

Vulnerable homeless man sleeps in Hanoi ATM booth
The movie has a happy ending and the teenage girl is saved, but the message to Vietnamese audiences is clear. In real life, human trafficking is indeed a major problem in Vietnam. Ironically, human trafficking has worsened in Vietnam due to the rise in individual freedoms, mainly the freedom to travel.
Passports for Vietnamese used to be a rarity, now they're fairly common.  

With the opening of Vietnam’s borders, the rise of globalization, and with passports available to average citizens, conditions became ripe for human traffickers to take advantage of poor Vietnamese for their own profit. Many young people leave Vietnam every year, traveling overseas with hopes and dreams of finding better paid work. As a result, thousands of vulnerable Vietnamese women and girls have been forced into prostitution against their will, with many more trapped as forced laborers. They are trafficked not only within Vietnam, but also to numerous foreign countries. 

As to how many Vietnamese have been trafficked, nobody knows for sure. The government has admitted that 2,935 were victims of human trafficking during a five year period, but a spokesperson admitted the problem is worsening. The advocacy group Hagar International puts the number far higher. They say that 400,000 were human trafficking victims since 1990, which included men, women and children. 

In a 2003 ordinance passed for the prevention of prostitution, sex trafficking in Vietnam was outlawed. Recent laws have resulted in the conviction of hundreds of human traffickers, but the problem persists. As long as there is poverty and corruption in Vietnam, it will be difficult to eliminate the scourge of human trafficking.

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