Information, tips and advice for journalists travelling to Vietnam for work
Vietnam has some 700 newspaper and magazines, but all are essentially Party-controlled. Among the largest newspapers are the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan (the People), which carries English-language pages and has an online presence, Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the People’s Army), Lao Dong (Labour) and Tuoi Tre (Youth). The last two have been leaders in a developing move towards investigative journalism.
However, newspaper editors must attend regular meeting with the Party’s culture and information committee to receive guidance and criticism. Ho Chi Minh City newspapers were dressed down in 2002 after some aggressive coverage of the corruption of state officials implicated in the Nam Cam mafia case, when the head of the Party Committee on Ideology and Culture ordered all newspapers to ‘only print that which is good for Vietnam’.
In early 2005, a reporter for Tuoi Tre was investigated on charges of ‘revealing state secrets’ for her reporting on possible corruption in the import of pharmaceuticals. The charges were later dropped after an outcry by media advocates. In late 2004 and early 2005, two Internet-based publications, Vnexpress.net and Tintucvietnam.com, were briefly shut down by the Ministry of Culture and Information.
A 2006 decree stipulated large fines for journalists overstepping the narrow limits of permissible reporting by actions that include disseminating ‘harmful’ information or ‘reactionary ideology’ and denying revolutionary achievements.
The ministry, and the higher-level Party Committee on Ideology and Culture, have also taken broader steps to control the burgeoning online culture. In July 2005, the government ordered owners of the country’s 5,000-plus Internet cafés to take a course on how to monitor customers and ban them from accessing ‘pornographic and subversive’ websites. Vietnam maintains a firewall against pornography and also political sites (many in the Vietnamese language and run by overseas Vietnamese known as Viet Kieu).
The country has some 14.5 million Internet users, more than 4 million of whom are Internet subscribers, and the rate of new subscribers has been growing at around 200 percent per year. Online cafés are widespread and can be found in even the smallest towns. A number of ‘cyber dissidents’ have been imprisoned, including Pham Hong Son who received a five-year sentence for activities that included downloading the article ‘What is democracy?’ from the US embassy's website, translating it into Vietnamese and distributing it on the Internet. The human rights watchdog Amnesty International claims that the Vietnamese government is using online informers to monitor the activity of web users.
Foreign ownership of magazines is not allowed, although one Swiss company Ringier has invested in Vietnamese-controlled business and fashion magazines. The English-language daily Vietnam News is run by the official Vietnam News Agency. In Ho Chi Minh City, the four-page Saigon Times, established in 1995, is produced by the city’s People’s Committee. Other English publications include the weekly Viet Nam Investment Review, run by the Ministry of Planning and Investment, and the monthly Vietnam Economic Times, produced in association with Ringier in the name of the Vietnam Association of Economists, which carries English-language pages.
Television is the most important medium in Vietnam, which has both national and local television and radio stations, all state-run. Hanoi-based Vietnam Television (VTV), which was set up with Cuban assistance in 1970, broadcasts worldwide via satellite on five channels. The Ho Chi Minh City Television Station broadcasts its own programming to the Mekong Delta. Hotels, restaurants, clubs and other organisations licensed to install satellite dishes show programmes from foreign broadcasters such as Star TV in Hong Kong and Thailand’s UBC. Some foreign channels are also delivered via cable.
Vietnam’s national radio station, Voice of Vietnam (VoV), broadcasts on six channels, on AM, FM and shortwave bands, including programmes in English, French and Russian.
Vietnam seeks to keep close control on both visiting and resident foreign journalists. Journalists wishing to visit the country should apply directly to the Foreign Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for permission, explaining in broad terms the topics to be covered and stating at which Vietnamese embassy the visa will be picked up. The press centre will then fax back a visa number, which has to be shown to the embassy involved in order to collect the visa. This process officially takes seven working days, and although in some cases it can be speeded up, it is best to apply early. The head of the Foreign Ministry Press Department is Le Dung (pronounced ‘Lay Zung’). The fax number for visa application is +844-823-4137.
Some journalists have managed to slip in and out of the country to do cultural or tourism stories. This, however, is not encouraged as the penalty is arrest and deportation. This happened as recently as April 2005 to two journalists who went to interview a controversial artist in Hanoi.
Vietnam’s 1996 Press Law is rather draconian, and, among other things, forbids foreign journalists from leaving the capital to report without written permission. In theory, it also requires specific permission to conduct any ‘reporting activities’. In practice, resident journalists are often able to work around these restrictions unless interviewing government officials or sensitive individuals such as dissidents. This rarely holds true, however, for visiting journalists. In general, the most closely watched are visiting television crews, followed by radio journalists (both conspicuous from their equipment) and finally, visiting print journalists.
A word on assigned ‘press assistants’. There are two government agencies in charge of overseeing foreign journalists: the Foreign Ministry Press Department and the Ministry of Culture and Information. Of these, the Foreign Ministry department seems to be easier to work with. Visiting journalists will be assigned an official translator whose job is to arrange and translate for meetings and interviews. This has been turned into a revenue-generating exercise, with visitors being charged US$30-$100 a day for the work. The quality of press assistants tends to vary. Rarely does a detailed programme faxed through to the press centre weeks in advance result in anything being organised before the journalist or television crew arrives in town.
For trips outside the capital, the Hanoi press department will secure the necessary introductions to provincial press centres. Ho Chi Minh City has its own press centre, and is said to provide a much better service. It should be remembered that all press department assistants will also report back on journalists’ activities. However, the general slackness of the bureaucracy means that visiting journalists are not (always) under constant scrutiny. Interviews with private Vietnamese and with foreign business people, for example, can often be arranged independently. It is possible to be introduced to an independent fixer through resident correspondents, but this is not always allowed, especially in the case of television.
Some visiting journalists have had success by hiring independent fixers to do advance research and then switching to the government-provided translator upon arrival. In some cases, but not always, the Foreign Press Department will claim that it needs to have film leaving the country viewed by the Ministry of Culture. This should always be resisted. Audio tapes can be shipped out via major international carriers, although theoretically they too should be vetted by officials.
AP, AFP, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Time, the South China Morning Post and Bloomberg have correspondents in Hanoi, and APTN and Reuters have television cameras and editing equipment. Several private operators now hire out cameras. Vietnamese citizens are officially forbidden to write or report for foreign news organisations; local reporters are required to translate and arrange interviews only.
The number of accredited correspondents in Hanoi has declined in recent years, with the BBC leaving its office unfilled, Reuters temporarily leaving its Hanoi bureau staffed by Vietnamese reporters (technically illegal, but apparently tolerated on promise of filling the bureau chief position later) and the Los Angeles Times relocating its Southeast Asian bureau to Jakarta. The government normally frowns on freelancers (who are suspected of spying or of being political or religious agitators). Freelancers who wish to report in Vietnam should obtain a letterhead introduction from an editor confirming that they represent a certain publication.
Locally accredited reporters are also expected to hire press assistants through the Press Centre, although increasingly some have been allowed to recruit independently as long as the assistants are screened through the Foreign Diplomatic Corps. Foreign resident reporters require permission to work outside Hanoi. Requests by the news-wires to open offices in Ho Chi Minh City have not yet been granted. There is no foreign press club in Hanoi, though there is a restaurant near the Metropole Hotel named the Press Club that offers overpriced but very tasty food and wine.
Vietnam has been actively working to cut telecommunications costs. However, it is still far cheaper to be called back from outside Vietnam. The country code for Vietnam is 84, and the city codes are 4 for Hanoi and 8 for Ho Chi Minh City. Mobile phones are identified by the code 9. To dial a mobile phone from outside, dial 849 followed by an eight-digit number. Inside Vietnam, a mobile phone begins with 09 followed by eight digits.
The two main reliable mobile phone providers are MobiFone (090) and Vinaphone (091). MobiFone is a joint venture between the state and a Swiss telecommunications company, and Vinaphone is state-owned. There are also the newer, smaller mobile service providers Viettel (098 - owned by the Ministry of Defence) and S-phone (095 - another joint venture with Saigon Postal Service). All overseas calls are routed through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications trunk line.
A quick way to get information fast is the astonishingly helpful Directory Assistance, reachable nationwide by dialing ‘1080’. They have English-speaking operators and often will offer not only phone numbers but addresses (and, occasionally, national statistics).
Despite the efforts of the government to stop the use of dollars, most hotels and restaurants will accept US dollars at the official rate (15,800 dong = US$1). Note: Banks in Vietnam often refuse worn or even scratched US dollars; be sure to bring crisp new notes. Black market moneychangers sometimes offer a limited premium on the official rate, but not enough to risk receiving the increasingly realistic counterfeit notes.
Cars can be hired for around US$50 a day in Hanoi and less in Ho Chi Minh City. Most drivers speak basic English, but in Hanoi it is worth getting a Vietnamese speaker to explain exactly where you want to go if it is off the beaten track. A trip from Hanoi to the airport costs 100,000 dong (around US$6) using Noi Bai Airport taxi (04-886-5615). There is no dedicated taxi service to Ho Chi Minh City’s airport, but it should cost around US$5.
The Vietnamese language has six tones and is a notorious tongue-twister. It is useful to have a local resident write down your destination, as visitors (and many longtime foreign residents) tend to so mangle the tones as to make them unrecognisable to taxi drivers. Many older Vietnamese speak French, and younger people are increasingly learning English.
In recent times, protesters from ethnic minority hill tribes (formerly known as Montagnards) have clashed with security forces in the country’s Central Highland province, and visitors are sometimes not permitted to travel to the area without government authorisation.
Contributor: Kay Johnson | Updated by Vaughan Yarwood
Latest update September 2008