Writers Test the Limits of Vietnam's New Freedoms


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- By curtain time, only street-corner scalpers have tickets for the plays of Luu Quang Vu.

The pacesetting 40-year-old playwright was killed in August in a traffic accident on the highway from Hai Phong to Hanoi. But even in death, he is stirring up controversy.

In late 1988 three of his plays were on stages in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon. Others had been produced earlier in the year, and at least one was circulating on videotape.

The production filling Ho Chi Minh City theaters three times a day was Loi The Thu Chin -- The Ninth Vow -- one of Vu's last scripts.

The title refers to the ninth point in the oath every Vietnamese soldier takes -- the pledge to "respect the people, protect the people, do not take what belongs to the people."

As the play opens, it appears those violating this pledge are Xuyen and Don, two young guards on the Vietnam-China border.

The apparent victim is a corpulent, gray-haired man they have found strolling near the border, carrying a large briefcase but no identification papers. Assuming he is a black marketeer with a satchel full of cash, they let him go but keep his bag.

They quickly learn that the man with the briefcase is the father of Hien, a third member of their squad. Not only is he not a black marketeer, he is the provincial governor, and he is complaining directly to their commander.

When the governor files his complaint, he asks why today's young people seem to have forgotten the ninth vow.

But Vu's tale turns the charge back against the accuser. The governor's administration, it turns out, has become highhanded, corrupt, cut off from the people.

Among the victims is Xuyen's father, who was arrested unjustly and locked up in a hole in the ground.

The script includes a half dozen especially stinging lines, criticizing officials who behave like overbearing mandarins or common thugs. At each rebuke, a round of uninhibited applause sweeps through the theater.

Vietnamese writers and theater fans say no one else writing for the stage can match Vu's combination of talent and daring.

But other authors are pushing energetically at the limits of literary freedoms allowed by the policies of doi moi -- renewal -- extended to literature by a November 1987 Politburo resolution.

Besides criticizing abuses of power, writers now explore themes of cynicism, aimlessness and despair in Vietnamese society -- topics that once would have been considered too negative for publication.

Poet Le Chi, for example, meditates on drinking a brew of coffee mixed with roasted rice, basing his metaphor on a budget-stretching practice Vietnamese know well.

"At first they mixed in 20 percent rice and it was bland, unfamiliar, but eventually I could drink it," he writes. As the ratio rises to 40, then 60 percent, "I no longer react. It seems tasty."

By the time the "coffee" contains no coffee at all, he can no longer tell the difference between coffee and rice, "until suddenly one day for some reason I can no longer swallow it."

"Why," he asks, "is it so easy to get used to this phantom coffee?"

Writers have had to change their attitudes to meet popular demand, says poet Vien Phuong.

Vien Phuong

"In the past, the bad was always on the enemy's side, and our side was always good," he says. But now "right here in Ho Chi Minh City we have cadre (government officials) who are very rich, from who knows where. Meanwhile ordinary people like us writers are poor. We have to struggle against this inequality.

"This is hard," he continues. "You're saying to these people, 'You have been my comrade in struggle for years. But now you are oppressing the people, so you are my enemy.'"

Vu Hanh

The new, more critical works are popular with Vietnamese readers, says novelist Vu Hanh. And with the economic changes under doi moi -- which require publishing houses to show a profit -- if publishers do not give people what they want, they will go under.

"People are asking for so much that our authors can't satisfy the demand," Vu Hanh says.

Novelist Le Luu says some students of Vietnamese history have asked whether he is not afraid there will be a crackdown like the one in 1957 that crushed a similar literary movement.

Le Luu

He, like other writers, seems confident that will not happen. In 1957 the overriding national objective was reunifying the country, he says. "If you harmed that work, it was unacceptable."

Now the war is over and the demands of modernizing the country, bringing it into the age of technology, are paramount. In these circimstances, Vietnam's writers believe, the new openness is more than a passing fashion -- it is a fundamental necessity.

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 14, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

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