The Writing on the Wall

by hai minh

In Feb. 2010, my buddy “5hadows” and I rolled up to the run-down Long Bien neighborhood in Hanoi, Vietnam on his old charcoal-colored Soviet Minsk motorcycle, sputtering and spewing its way along dusty roads filled with kids, occasional chickens, honking horns and mud splatters. After reaching our destination, the scene changed to rap music and youths dressed in punk and hip hop attire—individual styles influenced by western media. Our mission? To participate in a graffiti block party-battle event, which is banned by the government, but also covered by the national media.

Despite the fact that graffiti is illegal, 5hadows’s crew “S5” and seven other graffiti crews knocked on more than 200 doors and negotiated with the local police to put up more than 36 murals commemorating Hanoi’s millennial anniversary. They organized a series of family-oriented block parties in this Long Bien neighborhood that had been condemned for demolition.

One particular piece sparked my interest, for it read: “Graffiti is about letters and street art is about whatever you want to do.” Being able to “do whatever you want to do” in an authoritarian state lacking free speech is almost non-existent. Permission granted by the local police also surprised me. Perhaps community art may be a form of both youth expression and neighborhood empowerment?

After researching graffiti in Vietnam for more than a year, I found that most graffiti and street artists still did have to deal with police corruption. They shied away from political speech, though they emphasized that graffiti art conveyed “how we view our history and the world.”

This summer, I had the fortune to meet collective organizers from Saigon’s “Station Zero,” a collective that for two weeks painted an entire neighborhood. This one, however, was not slated for the bulldozer. The purpose of their “graffiti in the alley” project, according to its founders, was to liven the community, knowing full well that the artwork would be deleted and redrawn, “thereby emphasizing the ephemeral nature of street art practices…as well as the progress of a public art project which is not (only) based on the aesthetic object, and (still) mainly on the relationship and the openness of dialogue.”

Are these the makings of a Vietnamese generation who, thanks to the internet and the disbursement of knowledge and media, might create a real forum for free speech and democratic participation?

Back in Berkeley, most of my Vietnamese American friends have no knowledge of the “new” Vietnam—a mutating market-driven beast, still branded with the sickle and hammer, though very different from the Vietnam their parents lived in. Most Vietnamese Americans still see their homeland as a conservative bastion of communists whose officials extort bribes at every juncture. While this Vietnam does exist, the country’s 14-year economic boom and young population (half the population is less than 35) signify a future end to the ideological purity and isolation that existed before 1997.

Many young Vietnamese Americans have protested in their communities to demand democracy in Vietnam (while waving undemocratic flags) and recall elections over the name “Saigon.” Are there smarter ways of reclaiming democracy and capitals? With easy internet access and travel options, a young population seeking freedom of expression in Vietnam represents a chance for Vietnamese Americans to perhaps put aside the bitter memories of their parents and return to and support their homeland.

In recent years, Vietnamese Americans have returned. University study abroad programs, VIET Fellows, Vietnamese Medical Outreach, and even UC Berkeley’s hosting of the Agent Orange and Addressing the Legacy of the War in Vietnam Conference this Oct. 28th-29th are examples of positive reconnecting.

Vietnamese Americans owe it to their community and ancestors to go back and move beyond the family circle. Travel, make local friends, form solidarity with organizations, collectives or crews in Vietnam. Returning to that faraway place is a way to bridge the divide and explore the Vietnamese part of one’s Vietnamese American identity.

 To those interested in making Vietnam a freer place, you are not alone. There are other Vietnamese youths out there who also share this dream, even if its testament has to be erased from the walls and redrawn countless times over.