Plan to Blare Propaganda Meets Resistance (and Eye Rolls) in Vietnam
HANOI, Vietnam — For most of his life, Nguyen Lap listened to scratchy announcements from loudspeakers that were affixed to utility poles around Hanoi, draped in electrical wiring and shaded by subtropical foliage.
“In the old days, the loudspeakers worked well because people lacked information,” Mr. Lap, 75, said last month here in the Vietnamese capital. “They were loud all day, but it didn’t bother me.”
That does not mean he wants them back.
During the Vietnam War, the loudspeakers warned Mr. Lap and others in Hanoi about American B-52s approaching on bombing runs. For decades afterward, they blared Communist Party propaganda and updates on pension payments, power outages and other municipal minutia.
Hanoi’s city government suspended regular broadcasts in 2017 but said recently that it planned to reinstate them and expand the loudspeaker network. Critics say that the plan reflects old-fashioned thinking by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, and that the speakers no longer have a place in the one-party state’s civic life.
“I don’t like them anymore because they’re too intrusive,” Mr. Lap said. “They play revolutionary music full of unnecessary lyrics.”
A Long History
During Vietnam’s French colonial period, Communist Party cadres used portable loudspeakers in the northern countryside to recruit supporters or warn of French troop advances, the Australian journalist Peter Mares wrote in an essay published in 2000.
After Vietnam won independence by defeating France in 1954, loudspeaker broadcasts became a regular feature of the Communist Party’s sprawling, Soviet-style propaganda apparatus. They later provided crucial updates in Hanoi, a city where American bombs damaged a hospital and other infrastructure and often forced residents to shelter underground.
Loudspeakers also piped propaganda into the Hanoi prison holding John McCain, a young Navy pilot whose plane was shot down in 1967 by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile.
On a visit to the city 33 years later, Mr. McCain, then a United States senator, said that he remembered listening to daily broadcasts by Trinh Thi Ngo, a soft-spoken radio announcer known to Americans as Hanoi Hannah, on loudspeakers that hung from the ceiling of his cellblock.
“She’s a marvelous entertainer,” he said. “I’m surprised she didn’t get to Hollywood.”
A Fading Ritual
For decades after North Vietnam won the war in 1975, officials used loudspeakers to broadcast party propaganda, patriotic music and municipal announcements. In the early postwar years, most Vietnamese families were poor and did not own televisions, so the broadcasts were an effective way to reach them, Chinh Duong, an architect and political analyst, said in an interview.
The broadcasts continued even as Vietnam grew wealthier and wired to the internet. For decades, they started at 6:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. sharp and opened with a polite greeting to “ladies and gentlemen.”
By the turn of this century, there were about 900,000 loudspeakers across Vietnam, Mr. Mares wrote at the time, and the broadcasts had come to symbolize the party’s failure to “generate revolutionary fervor.”
Yet the Communist Party still controlled the type of news, ideas and information reaching its citizens, “blocking criticism of the regime and critical debate about its policies and performance,” he added. “In this sense the morning loudspeaker ritual is a daily reminder that the party’s power still reaches deep into society.”
Plan for Revival
Loudspeakers still operate in about a third of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and major cities. But over time, they have come to seem anachronistic to younger generations of Vietnamese, who get much of their information through Facebook and other social media platforms.
In a 2017 survey organized by Hanoi’s city government, 90 percent of respondents said they thought the city’s loudspeaker network should be abolished. City officials said that year that while the speakers would stay, they would be used only for emergencies.
“If the loudspeakers are no longer effective, then I strongly suggest we scrap them,” said Hanoi’s mayor at the time, Nguyen Duc Chung, who was removed from his post in June in a corruption scandal. “They have fulfilled their mission.”
Although the loudspeakers made a cameo during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic, when officials used them to distribute real-time updates and fight medical misinformation, they have otherwise been dormant.
But this year, Hanoi’s city government approved a communication strategy that includes a plan to revive regular broadcasts and expand the loudspeaker network by 2025. It is unclear exactly when the speakers will crackle to life, and officials have not provided much of a rationale for the plan. Some analysts say it is an effort at social control by the city government.
After a public outcry, a spokeswoman for the Department of Communications and Information told reporters last month that the broadcasts would happen just twice a day and only on weekdays.
Many Hanoians are still annoyed by the plan, though. Vietnam’s state-run news media has acknowledged that critics see it as “backward and inappropriate.”
In Vietnam’s grim postwar years, an era of food shortages and rationing, waking up to a cheerful patriotic song on a public loudspeaker was a nice way to take one’s mind off hardship, said Pham Ngan, 52, a museum curator.
Ms. Ngan said that loudspeakers could still occasionally be used for important announcements, but that it makes no sense for them to broadcast news and other information that people can easily find on their cellphone screens. “The reality in this day and age — being in the middle of a big, capital city — makes that clearly unnecessary,” she said.
Dan Doan, 19, a college student in Hanoi, described the loudspeakers as an “extremely obsolete technology.”
“Just imagine: You’re trying to sleep, and your house is next to the speaker,” she said. “What would you do? Personally, I wanted to throw rocks to shut it up.”
Chau Doan reported from Hanoi, and Mike Ives from Seoul.