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The Rehabilitation of an Uncomfortable Past: Everyday Life in Vietnam during the Subsidy Period (1975-1986)


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In 2006, the Museum of Ethnology organized a special exhibit on everyday life in Hanoi during the “subsidy period”, the term increasingly used to describe the decade of high socialism that began in 1975 with the reunification of a divided Vietnam and ended in 1986 with the official introduction of market reforms known as Đi mi (Renovation). The representational strategies, which linked the collectivism of the past with the individualism of the present, prompted a nationwide discussion regarding the significance of a moment that previously had no clear name or place in official accounts due to the severe hardships it produced. The details presented demonstrate how the rehabilitation of this decade has expanded the political boundaries of what state institutions can present as having historical and ethnographic value in Vietnam as well as opened new avenues for comparative studies with (former) socialist states elsewhere.
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The Rehabilitation of an Uncomfortable Past: Everyday Life in Vietnam during
the Subsidy Period (1975-1986)
Ken MacLean
Online Publication Date: 01 September 2008
To cite this Article MacLean, Ken(2008)'The Rehabilitation of an Uncomfortable Past: Everyday Life in Vietnam during the Subsidy
Period (1975-1986)',History and Anthropology,19:3,281 — 303
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History and Anthropology,
Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2008, pp. 281–303
ISSN 0275–7206 print/ISSN 1477–2612 online/08/030281–23 © 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/02757200802449915
The Rehabilitation of an
Uncomfortable Past: Everyday Life in
Vietnam during the Subsidy Period
Ken MacLean
Taylor and FrancisGHAN_A_345159.sgm10.1080/02757200802449915History and Anthropology0275-7206 (print)/1477-2612 (online)Original Article2008Taylor & Francis
In 2006, the Museum of Ethnology organized a special exhibit on everyday life in Hanoi
during the “subsidy period”, the term increasingly used to describe the decade of high
socialism that began in 1975 with the reunification of a divided Vietnam and ended in
1986 with the official introduction of market reforms known as
[Dstrok] i m i (Renovation).
The representational strategies, which linked the collectivism of the past with the individ-
ualism of the present, prompted a nationwide discussion regarding the significance of a
moment that previously had no clear name or place in official accounts due to the severe
hardships it produced. The details presented demonstrate how the rehabilitation of this
decade has expanded the political boundaries of what state institutions can present as
having historical and ethnographic value in Vietnam as well as opened new avenues for
comparative studies with (former) socialist states elsewhere.
Keywords: Socialism; Time; Historiography; Material Culture; Museum
The children quickly made their way down the steps to the entrance of the special
exhibit in the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology, but did not go directly inside. Instead,
they stopped abruptly at the diorama located to the left of the main door to the exhibit,
which featured four life-sized mannequins waiting patiently in line outside a state store
to exchange their ration coupons for rice (Figure 1). The children, all under the age of
fifteen, were not interested in the large black-and-white photograph on the wall above
the mannequins that depicted what these lines looked like in Hanoi during the “subsidy
Correspondence to: Ken MacLean, IDCE, Clark University, 950 Main St. Worcester, MA 01610-1477, USA. Email:
Downloaded By: [MacLean, Ken] At: 18:16 27 October 2008
282 K. MacLean
period” (th i bao c p). The phrase increasingly used to describe the decade of high
socialism that began with the political reunification of a divided Vietnam in 1975 and
ended with the official introduction of market reforms known as
[Dstrok] i m i (Renova-
tion) in 1986.
Nor did the children comment on the poignant expression written above
it: “The face is as sad as though the rice coupon was lost” (Mt ngh t nh m t s g o).
In all likelihood, the comparison was lost on them, as more than half of the country’s
eighty-four million people were born after the reforms had already dismantled key
elements of the centrally planned economy, including the rationing system that placed
extremely tight limits on what goods Vietnamese citizens could obtain each month.
The children were instead preoccupied with what they believed the diorama to be
missing—a salesperson in the window of the store.
Figure 1 Re-creation of a Line outside a State StoreCredit: Author, July 2006
When their parents and grandmother arrived at the diorama shortly afterwards, the
children excitedly asked why people would wait in a long line outside if no one was
there to serve them. The question provoked a hearty laugh from their grandmother,
who explained it was normal to wait at least a half-day to obtain one’s rice ration from
surly state employees. Provided of course, she added, there was anything left by the
time you reached the front of the line, which could sometimes reach a half-kilometre
in length. The children were clearly confused by her answer, as it bore no relation to
their lived experience, and a moment of stunned silence followed. After it became clear
Figure 1 Re-creation of a Line outside a State Store.
Credit: Author, July 2006.
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History and Anthropology 283
her response was not in jest, they shook their heads in disbelief, and then moved noisily
on through the entryway into the special exhibit on the “subsidy period”.
Such exchanges were not limited to this particular family. The objects in the special
exhibit provoked a vast array of emotional responses among the nearly 300,000 people
who visited the museum between July and December of 2006 or read about it in the
state-controlled media or online forums. The significance of these responses, however,
was not limited to the special exhibit’s contents, which one repeat visitor enthusiasti-
cally described to me as the “jetsam of everyday life”. Instead, the formal presentation
of the period’s material culture and the kinds of socio-cultural commentary it
produced helped make visible what had been to date largely invisible in histories of late
twentieth-century Vietnam: the lived experience of ordinary people. The importance
of this, I argue, is several-fold.
First, the special exhibit helped establish this decade (1975–1986), which previously
had no name or clear narrative connection to events either before or after it, as a
distinct “period” in its own right. At the same time, its hybrid formulation conceptually
linked what heretofore had been kept apart—the historiography on the Second
Indochina War and the
[Dstrok] i m i reform process, respectively. Second, Vietnamese
who endured these difficult years have found themselves able to “emplot” (White 1987:
52–3) their everyday lives in explicitly historical terms as a direct consequence of this
new periodization. Indeed, several proudly referred to themselves as “historical eyewit-
nesses” (nhân ch ng l ch s ) during interviews. This shift has made it possible for them
to find meaning in events previously thought to be uneventful, particularly their efforts
to “make do” (de Certeau 1984: 29–42) during a decade in which inflation peaked at
775 percent, an estimated 70 percent of the populated lived beneath the poverty line,
and chronic food shortages meant fifteen million people nationwide were either
severely malnourished or on the edge of starvation due to insufficient calories (Luttrell
2003: 2). Third, the transformation of disconnected private experiences into shared
public ones has also contributed to a broader trend. Namely, the gradual diversification
of the processes that shape historical production (Trouillot 1995: 26), many of which
increasingly fall outside the direct control of the Party/state and its agents (MacLean
2008: in press).
The reasons for the proliferation in the number of different pasts and the forms of
commemoration that mark them are complex. However, only a small percentage of
these new articulations can accurately be described as counter-histories that express
opposition to official accounts of state socialism, either directly or indirectly (Watson
1994; Oushakine 2001). While dissident voices certainly exist (Abuza 2001), the vast
majority of historical narratives continue to fall well within the boundaries of those
authorized by the Communist Party, albeit in often unorthodox ways and with a level
of detail that was unthinkable only a few years ago (e.g. Hue-Tam Ho Tai 2001; Giebel
Such is the case here, as the special exhibit reinforced some of the dominant
narratives found in the country’s state-run museums, but undermined others (Hà N i
Mi 2006a). This strategy has enabled the exhibit’s curators to recuperate what had
been previously marginalized and, in the process, expand the political boundaries of
what these institutions can present as having historical and/or ethnographic value.
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284 K. MacLean
To support these claims, the essay focuses critical attention on the queue, both as a
metaphor and as a lived experience. I first present further background on the revalori-
zation of the “subsidy period” to illustrate how it has come to serve as a conceptual
placeholder that connects the collectivism of the past with the individualism of the
present. Next, I summarize the “exhibitionary complex” (Bennett 1995) state socialism
produced in Vietnam and the ways the Museum of Ethnology has diverged from it.
This is followed by a series of examples concerning queues. The ethnographic details
illustrate why queues had such a profound effect upon everyday life during the “subsidy
period” and the strategies people devised to overcome the constraints these lines posed
on them. In lieu of a conclusion, the essay outlines several areas where further histori-
cally informed studies of the culturally familiar are still needed. Research on these
ethnographic concerns promises to deepen understandings of what actually existing
socialism in Vietnam was like as well as what it is becoming now—the details of which
will open new avenues for comparative studies with (former) socialist states elsewhere.
The Revalorization of Time
Ad hoc efforts to revalorize the “subsidy period” first began in 2005. Prior to this point,
mainstream accounts of the country’s recent history directed very limited attention to
this decade (1975–1986). University textbooks, for example, devote little or no space to
three of the most geopolitically significant events of this decade (Lê M u Hãn, Tr n Bá
[Dstrok] , and Nguy n V[abreve] n Thu 2000: 288–307). These include the invasion of Democratic
Kampuchea in 1979, which toppled the Khmer Rouge, but instigated a lengthy civil war
backed by Cold War powers and their proxies in the region that lasted until 1991 (Elliot
1981); the 1979 border conflict with the People’s Republic of China, which claimed the
lives of an estimated 100,000 people within the space of twenty-seven days (Westad &
Quinn-Jude 2006); and the departure of approximately one million Vietnamese, who
fled the country in boats during the late 1970s and 1980s to fashion their lives elsewhere
(Cargill & Huynh 2000).
There are many reasons why these traumatic events, which directly contributed to
Vietnam’s political isolation and economic stagnation, are not yet fully incorporated
into the state curriculum. Chief among them, the process of normalization (bình
th ng hóa) remains very much an ongoing one. Consequently, official discourse
continually emphasizes the benefits to be gained through closer bilateral relations with
both countries and downplays or ignores entirely the causes of the problems that
prompted their violent dissolution during the late Cold War period.
A similar tempo-
ral orientation also informs government policies towards Overseas Vietnamese as well.
Thanks to a number of constructive policy changes, it is now substantially easier for
Overseas Vietnamese not only to visit the country, but to actively and directly contrib-
ute to the country’s economic development in ways that were not possible earlier due
to lingering suspicions about their political intentions and cultural values.
The vast majority of Vietnamese, regardless of where they currently reside in the
world, no doubt welcome these developments. However, the focus on the near future
over the recent past comes with a certain cost since it divides the second half of the
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History and Anthropology 285
twentieth century into two distinct periods that fail to meet one another. Official narra-
tives concerning the Second Indochina War (1959–1975) continue to stress the selfless
heroism of those who participated in the collective effort to reunite a divided Vietnam
Contemporary accounts, by contrast, applaud the entrepreneurial achievements of
individuals and other private entities that have made significant contributions to the
country’s national development since the market reforms were adopted (1986–
present). Of course, neither narrative fully captures the complexities of the two periods.
But more crucially here, the historical disjuncture they create leaves out what falls
between them.
Since the lived experiences of those Vietnamese who endured the chronic shortages
and other difficulties that characterized everyday life during this missing decade does
not easily lend themselves to either of these meta-narratives, it is not surprising that
little effort has been made to commemorate them in official memory (Duara 1993).
This tendency is not limited to state historians, however. Many though by no means all
Vietnamese I spoke with also preferred to gloss over this decade. During conversations
with me, they frequently described these postwar years as “dull” (vô v ), “backward”
(lc hu), “gloomy” (bu n t ) and as “having no value” (không có giá tr )—though
they often added the period was “impossible to forget” (không có th quen
[dstrok] c) and
that the contradictions of everyday life frequently left them “uncertain as to whether
they should laugh or cry” (d khóc d c i).
These attitudes began to change in 2005 when the Party/state organized a series of
official celebrations to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Second Indochina War. That
same year, a number of prominent dailies—Tu i Tr (Youth), Báo Hà N i M i (New
Hanoi), and Ti n Phong (Vanguard), Lao
[Dstrok] ng (Labour), among others—separately
published retrospectives on everyday living conditions during the first decade following
national reunification. The articles continued through 2006 and gradually included still
controversial topics, such as the works by Ph m Th Xuân Kh i and Phùng Gia L c,
two well-known writers whose careers were adversely affected by their depiction of
everyday of life during the “subsidy period” (Tu i Tr 2005, 2006d, 2006e). D Ngân
Sông’s novel, Gia
[dstrok] ình bé m n (Small Family) (2006), which is set during the “subsidy
period”, was similarly well received. Importantly, the focus on the “subsidy period” was
not limited to the cultural sector. By the end of 2006, the Party/state had also sponsored
a series of events to mark the twentieth anniversary of the reform process. These included
three high-level round-table meetings the Academy of Social Sciences organized to crit-
ically assess the source of the problems that led to the official introduction of market-
based reforms to revive the centrally planned economy.
Together, these otherwise unconnected events enabled a new narrative to emerge,
one that increasingly defined the years between 1975 and 1986 as a distinct period
marked by not only great collective hardship and suffering, but by individual creativity
and cleverness as well.
This hybrid formulation, frequently expressed through the
Vietnamese saying cái khó ló cái khôn (Necessity is the mother of invention), was
twofold. First, it accorded historical value to experiences that had been previously
marginalized. Second, it conceptually linked two radically different narrations of the
nation that had otherwise failed to meet one another.
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286 K. MacLean
Perhaps the most explicit attempt to synthesize these distinct narratives and thus the
militarized past with the commercialized present was a special exhibit the Vietnamese
Museum of Ethnology (VME) mounted in collaboration with the Museum of the
Vietnamese Revolution during the second half of 2006.
The exhibit, entitled “Life in
Hanoi under the Subsidy Economy (1975–1986) (Cu c s ng Hà N i th i bao c p),
featured nearly two hundred objects on loan from different museums and private indi-
viduals, who had either saved or collected them. Although some of the objects were
featured in isolation, many were placed into well-crafted dioramas that recreated
scenes from everyday life. Complementing these large displays were two community-
based films, “S n
[abreve] ng [dstrok] ng v t khó” (A Time of Difficulty) and “ c m bình d ” (A
Time to Remember), which interspersed stock footage and photographic stills with
excerpts from interviews VME researchers conducted with older residents of Hanoi,
who movingly recalled what life was like at the time.
Together, these materials
offered what noted historian D ng Trung Qu c described as an important lesson—
one that revealed “the heroism of the people as a whole as well as the creative efforts of
some individuals who knew how to overcome difficulties”, which, he added, “was a
major factor that advanced the reform process”.
By Vietnamese standards, the museum exhibit was very well attended.
300,000 had visited it over a six-month period, the vast majority of whom were
Vietnamese rather than foreigners. Periodic surveys of those present, the comments
written in the visitor’s book, and media coverage of the exhibit reveals why. All three
sources extolled the exhibit’s form and content, which departed sharply from that
found in the country’s other museums given their continued focus on the theme of
resistance to foreign aggression (Pelley 1995). One consequence of this representa-
tional shift from the extraordinary to the ordinary and thus the over-determined to the
contingent was the creation of a new symbolic space—one that allowed for “the
common recollection of diverse narratives” (James 1999). The changes that made this
shift possible are summarized below.
The Socialization of Cultural Production
The VME opened to the public in November of 1997, the same year the Communist
Party issued Resolution 90 to encourage the cultural sector to seek new funding
sources. The resolution did not come as a surprise. State subsidies to this sector had
declined markedly since the reform process began.
Despite the ten-year decline, only
a small percentage of this sector had been able to develop predictable revenue streams
from non-state sources. Resolution 90 was in this sense a deliberate attempt to
strengthen the cultural sector’s ability to compete in an increasingly market-oriented
environment driven by consumer demand rather than centralized plans. Resolution 90
did not, however, require that cultural production be wholly outsourced to the private
sector, as occurred in many former socialist states. Resolution 90 instead called for the
“socialization” (xã h i hóa) of cultural production, by which the Communist Party
meant the more efficient mobilization of existing public as well as private resources
(Visiting Arts 2008).
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History and Anthropology 287
The difference between socialization and privatization is significant, as it highlights
an area where the ideas and practices drawn from the pre-reform era continue to influ-
ence how contemporary policies are formulated and implemented in the Socialist
Republic of Vietnam. But the long-term sustainability of such an approach, which seeks
to unleash the entrepreneurial skills and energies of individuals yet contain them at the
same time, remains an open question. It also points to a broader problem. Namely, how
should the egalitarian ideals of the revolutionary past be reconciled with forms of socio-
economic inequality that have gradually re-emerged in the increasingly commercial-
ized present? This problem is not unique to Vietnam. Other self-proclaimed socialist,
late-socialist and post-socialist states have had to confront this issue in one form or
another. Nonetheless, it presents particular challenges to the Communist Party of Viet-
nam given the structure and content of the nationalist discourse it has enshrined.
Despite the profound changes that have taken place both in Vietnam and in the
world since the end of the Second Indochina War, official narrations of the nation
continue to emphasize the country’s unchanging “national essence” (qu c túy), its
“national unity” (dân t c Vi t Nam là m t), and “tradition of resistance to foreign
aggression” (truy n th ng ch ng xâm l c) that stretches back four millennia (Pelley
1995: 2002). This is not to suggest these themes, which help the Communist Party posi-
tion itself both historically and morally at the end of a long line of national heroes, are
no longer important or deserving of careful scholarly analysis. Rather, it is to note these
themes and the kinds of personal sacrifice they legitimized are now somewhat less self-
evident and personally meaningful to those born after the various armed conflicts of
the twentieth century ended, if only because they did not experience such hardships
directly themselves.
These generational differences constitute a dilemma for many of the country’s muse-
ums. As the Vice-Director of the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi noted, “We need
history to respect the past and not forget. But at the same time, we are also concerned
with economic development. We want to look to the future…. We forget everything in
order to make friends for the future” (cited in Schwenkel 2004: 267). Complicating
matters further, most museums have yet to update their heavily didactic representa-
tions of the “nation” despite the fact those who manage them frequently express a
desire to attract larger domestic as well as international audiences to their permanent
collections and special exhibits (Sutherland 2005; Huong Le 2007; Nguyen Thi Tuyet
2007: 75–76). Staff, when asked why this is the case, provided me with a lengthy list of
obstacles that prevent them not only from expanding what they put on display for these
different publics, but in how they present the materials to them as well. Due to these
constraints, they explain, efforts to renovate museum practice and management have
not gone much beyond those that refurbish existing buildings and improve the accu-
racy of the translations on the materials found therein. There are, of course, exceptions
to this general pattern, which suggests the obstacles to more substantive changes
cannot be reduced to either political or financial constraints as is often claimed. One
such example is the VME.
The VME was originally established to showcase the cultural and historical patrimony
of the country’s fifty-four officially recognized ethnic groups and to do so in a manner
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288 K. MacLean
that visually reinforced the master narrative of “national unity”, often expressed as,
Vi t Nam là m t n c có nhi u dân t c” (Vietnam is one country with many ethnici-
ties). While the VME stylishly achieves both goals, it has also sought to transform how
knowledge about these groups, including ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), is produced and
presented to others. To do so, the VME has demonstrated a genuine commitment to
collaborative forms of research that incorporate rather than exclude the personal expe-
riences of the communities it features and a clear desire to convey the value of their
“intangible cultural heritage” (Proschan 2005) to others.
Such strategies mark a significant departure from the “exhibitionary complex”
(Bennett 1995) still found in most state-museums, which strongly encourages visitors
to file reverently past artefacts that depict different aspects of the revolutionary struggle
in a chronological and highly didactic fashion. This teleological movement through
time serves two important purposes. Most obviously, it symbolically reinforces the
Communist Party’s claims to be the latest in the country’s long line of heroes who
fought to preserve the nation’s independence (Sutherland 2005: 160; Taylor 2001). But
it also, as Bennett noted, makes a “public” visible to itself through the forms of deco-
rum and etiquette required from those who move through these institutionalized
In the Vietnamese context, this entails learning to emulate appropriate
responses to the banal forms of nationalism found in the collections (Billig 1995), a
process officially believed to transform ordinary citizens into good socialist ones
(MacLean 2005: 18–21). This perhaps explains why Vietnamese only rarely visit their
country’s museums—except as part of organized field-trips arranged by schools and
other state-controlled organizations (Schwenkel 2004: 230). The VME, although it also
hosts such visits, has clearly found ways to present materials that do not always repro-
duce the linear accounts found in other state museums. As one sign of this, the number
of annual visitors steadily increased from 37,000 visitors in 1998 to nearly 300,000 in
2006, a majority of whom remain Vietnamese rather than foreigners.
Further details
on these new representational strategies, drawn from the special exhibit on the
“subsidy period”, follow.
The Rock
As the opening anecdote illustrated, the depictions of everyday life provided opportu-
nities for older Vietnamese not only to recall non-events from their own past (such as
waiting in lines), but to transform their personal experiences into more general
accounts of what life was like during the “subsidy period”. These accounts, which were
often intensely personal yet representative at the same time, were facilitated by formal
presentation of the objects themselves—a strategy that often blurred the distinction
Janet Hoskins has made between “biographical objects” and “historical” ones (1998,
2006). “Biographical objects”, according to Hoskins, are ones that mark a highly
personal relationship with an individualized past; they are by their very nature icons of
individuality and thus serve as an “anchor for the self-historicizing subject” and can
“sometimes seem to take on the role of a surrogate self”.
By contrast, “historical
objects”, she explains, are far more collective in nature since they serve as “material
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History and Anthropology 289
signs of a shared experience that defines or evokes a particular moment or period”.
Although numerous examples of both types of objects could be found in the special
exhibit, perhaps the most striking one was a rock.
During the “subsidy period”, residents of Hanoi used a wide array of objects to mark
their place in the long lines that formed whenever public loudspeakers or chalk boards
announced state redistribution centres had goods in stock. Since red clay bricks were
readily available and of little value, people commonly used them for this purpose. So
much so that the term “line bricks” (g ch x p hàng) became the generic name for this
class of objects, even though small bowls, bottles, hats and rocks were also commonly
used. But the rock in question, unlike other “line bricks”, was not placed on the
ground, which is where one would normally have encountered it. Instead, the rock was
positioned on top of formal, ochre-coloured viewing stand that was more than a meter
in height, and encased in a protective Plexiglas case (Figure 2).
Figure 2 The Placeholder Used by Mr Mai HaiCredit: Author, July 2006
The transformation of the rock into something else was further signalled by the
bilingual explanatory note next to it, which provided details on its unusual features and
provenance. According to the text, Mr Mai Xuân H i was the rock’s original “owner”.
He also had his name engraved on one side along with the number 127, the street
address of the state-owned company where the now retired researcher obtained his rice
during the “subsidy period”, to further distinguish it from other placeholders.
rock later passed into the private possession of Nguy n Ng c Ti n, who, the card notes,
has gradually amassed a sizeable collection of objects from that difficult decade.
Together, the presentation and accompanying details suggest the rock’s historical
value is not limited to its past functional purpose or the personalized “biography” it
has acquired over the years (Kopytoff 1986). Instead, it extends to include its formal
Figure 2 The Placeholder Used by Mr Mai Hai.
Credit: Author, July 2006.
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290 K. MacLean
properties as well, which a programme officer from the Ford Foundation noted was not
substantially different from many works displayed in museums of modern art around
the world.
Interestingly, the rock did not generate a heated debate among Vietnamese
over its “true” status: an ordinary object or objet d’art akin to the “readymades” such as
those popularized by Duchamp (Obalk 2007). It did, however, provoke lengthy discus-
sions among those who visited the VME. To some extent, these discussions can be
attributed to the rock’s formal presentation, which was profoundly at odds with how
people actually used such objects. Moreover, the rock’s physical location, at the
entrance to the special exhibit, made it impossible to miss. Yet, both of these factors
were perhaps less important than the way the rock functioned as a visual mnemonic.
In many instances, the mere sight of the rock clearly triggered memories and long
dormant emotions about the “subsidy period” from older Vietnamese, who then
turned to younger family members, friends and other passers-by to relate stories about
everyday life in the capital during this decade. One of the most common topics was the
impact lines had upon their ability to live their lives.
Seizing Time
Chronic shortages were not unique to Vietnam. Rather, they were the inevitable
outcome of a centrally planned economy, as power within the system was based on the
hoarding of materials that could be redistributed for other goods and services in the
unspecified future (Kornai 1980; Verdery 1996: 19–35). This redistributive logic, which
organized socio-economic relations in similar ways across national boundaries, offers
one underutilized means to compare actually existing socialism across Europe and
Asia. It also provides a way to explore how different kinds of temporality were
constructed, experienced and understood (Munn 1992; Kaneff 2004: 8–10). Yet, very
little ethnographic attention has been focused on the effect these shortages had on
ordinary people in socialist states.
Katherine Verdery, to offer a notable exception, has described how chronic shortages
enabled the socialist state to “seize” a person’s time by forcing them to stand in lines—
a process she described as the “etatization” of labour-time since it highlighted situations
where the interests and needs of the socialist state were at odds with the nation or
“people” (1996: 39–57; 1992). According to Verdery, the etatization of time raised the
costs of consuming goods without affecting the price of labour. But more crucially, she
argues, the seizure of time made it extremely difficult for people to obtain sufficient
food for their own consumption, to fulfil their ritual obligations to others, to earn
supplemental income, or to devote energy to social interactions with family and friends.
Ordinary people thus found it increasingly impossible to plan their daily lives, much
less fully reproduce themselves as social beings. Verdery’s insights, although based on
her fieldwork in Romania, are applicable elsewhere, including Vietnam. But, as the
examples below suggest, the socialist state’s ability to seize time was far from complete.
When asked, many older Vietnamese at the special exhibit pointed out that the
chronic shortages created a range of opportunities for those able to provide goods and
services the planned economy did not. Altogether, they recalled forty new “occupations”
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History and Anthropology 291
(ngh ) that enabled people to supplement their incomes—many of whom repaired or
mended items that prior to the subsidy period were easily fixed or replaced when worn
out or broken. They had to be “meticulous to the point of being stingy” (cân
[dstrok] ong [dstrok] o [dstrok] m
[dstrok] chi), explained one former “ink pumper”, who had made a modest living refilling the
plastic tubes in ball-point pens with a hand-made syringe. During another interview, an
amateur tailor described how she learned to fashion shirts out of industrial-grade flour
sacks and to turn their collars inside out, as fabric for new clothes was both tightly
rationed and grossly insufficient for what was needed. (A single item often had to endure
five to seven years of heavy use.) Others, she remembered, preferred nylon shirts, which
could not only be turned inside out when badly worn, but glued when ripped or torn.
Trousers, she added, were also cut apart and reversed from front to back when it was no
longer possible to discretely patch holes and other worn areas, much less re-dye them
to match. Yet another person listed the skills he developed as a back-alley bicycle
mechanic, which included the ability to sew and graft damaged inner tubes together and
to machine cog wheels by hand. But by far the most challenging and respected repair,
he stressed, entailed turning the rivets and bushings of worn bicycle chains literally inside
out so they could continue to be used.
Officials generally construed these “occupations” to be politically harmless since
they helped people to make do with less. Other “occupations”, by contrast, posed more
of an ideological problem since they blurred the boundary imagined to mark where
licit (socialist) forms of economic activity ended and illicit (capitalist) ones began.
Subsequent studies have suggested the relationship between them was far more
complex and mutually interdependent than originally thought for two reasons
(Nagengast 1991; Lampland 1995; Creed 1998). First, the illicit economy was not
simply a physical place where “black market” activities occurred, but comprised inter-
personal networks that operated through as well as around the very state institutions
and practices that defined the planned economy (Nordstrom 2000). Second, ordinary
people regularly participated in these exchanges. Indeed, they often had no choice if
they wished to gain access to basic goods, services and bureaucratic favours, which
were otherwise unavailable to them through “normal” channels due to the chronic
shortages (V
[utilde] Qu c Túy 2007).
This is not to say illegal activities such as the theft of state property, embezzlement,
smuggling, waste and other forms of corruption did not regularly occur. Indeed, the
large number of mass campaigns that sought to reduce these problems during the
“subsidy period” suggests they were in fact quite widespread. Rather, it is to note that
more nuanced explorations of such behaviour offer an important and underutilized
means to understand how people conceptualized what the (socialist) “state” was; where
it was located; and how its officials, policies and bureaucratic procedures shaped the
terms of everyday life during this period (Gupta 1995).
Those individuals who worked at the interface of the two economies offer an excel-
lent example. In Vietnamese, such individuals are commonly said to
[abreve] n theo—the
phrase, which normally carries negative connotations, means “to be dependent upon
another for one’s survival”. During the “subsidy period” the number of such occupa-
tions that fell into this category grew substantially. Perhaps the most visible of these
d d d
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292 K. MacLean
new occupations were those who made a living by buying and selling “time”. Since civil
servants were required to report at their work units at designated times, they frequently
had to find alternative ways to obtain their rations at state distribution centres. Young
children were a common choice as were older, retired members of the family because
both could leave home well before dawn to claim a place in queues that had already
begun to form in anticipation that goods would be available. Early arrival also
increased the likelihood you would obtain your allotted goods before supplies were
exhausted. For these reasons, it was not unusual to encounter lines that exceeded a half-
kilometre in length. One woman, who remembered the first time she saw such a line as
young girl, optimistically hoped everyone was waiting to participate in a giant version
of the “Dragon-snake dance”, a popular children’s game. Her hopes, she quickly added,
were dashed when her aunt explained it was simply a line for cooking oil.
For those unable to spend at least a half-day in line, it was possible to “transfer”
(nh ng l i) their spot in the queue to someone else for a minor fee, who then used an
object to mark your place in line until another family member or trusted friend could
return to complete the transaction on your behalf when the time finally arrived. The
rate of this service was quite modest and ranged from five to ten cents per “client” (thân
ch ), an amount sufficient for one individual to buy a meal at a state-run food stall,
which perhaps explains why little effort was made to suppress the practice as an illegal
form of wage labour.
Scalpers (con phe), by contrast, made a living through arbitrage. They bought unused
ration stamps from others and resold them at a slightly higher price (though typically
lower than that charged on the “black market”) to those who needed a particular good
but lacked enough stamps to obtain all they required. Although unused stamps came
from a variety of sources, most people firmly believed unscrupulous state employees in
the distribution centres secretly provided them to scalpers in exchange for a portion of
the profits. In their view, this was simply an extension of the arbitrary and rude behav-
iour the employees regularly subjected them to, which reportedly ranged from “indif-
ferent” (mt lnh lùng) to “dictatorial” (
[dstrok] c tài).
As a further sign of their privileged
place in the order of things, no one I spoke with could recall a state employee being
disciplined for diverting ration stamps to scalpers or the “black market”, whereas police
routinely carried out sweeps to arrest them both.
The system for renting spots in the lines, although it worked surprisingly well, was
not without its problems, however. Arguments were common, particularly when other
people tried to secretly advance their spot within the queue, to “steal a place” (cp ch)
by forcing their way into the line, or to falsely claim someone else’s generic-looking
placeholder for themselves. The last problem, which was a constant one, prompted
people to find, create or buy objects with unusual characteristics to make it harder for
others to assert a given placeholder was their own.
Such placeholders helped reduce accidental as well as deliberate “confusion” over
whose placeholder belonged to whom; but it did not end disputes. Hence, the presence
of guards who were assigned to maintain public order outside the distribution centres.
Their presence meant scalpers had to solicit business more discretely than they might
otherwise. But again, few could recall any instances where the guards intervened in the
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History and Anthropology 293
arguments over who had violated “line discipline” (mt bng ch [dstrok] ng), which
frequently became heated and sometimes turned violent. Several people, for example,
described the melees that would periodically occur when others, either out of frustra-
tion or fear the distribution centre was about to run out of goods for the day, picked up
and threw away the placeholders belonging to those ahead of them to get to the front
of the queue. Not surprisingly, the guards simply retreated inside and shut the doors
when confronted with such situations. This strategy was highly effective, as visitors to
the exhibit noted, since it meant no one would be able to obtain any rations until
people restored order themselves.
Of course, many people refused to passively submit to this situation. Instead, they
devised a number of ways to reduce how much time was “seized” from them. For
example, it was sometimes possible to pool ration stamps, as long as they belonged to
the same “class” of goods. This enabled one person to buy goods on behalf of others, a
tactic known as “eating shares together” (cùng
[abreve] n chia). The more energetic obtained
places in two separate lines and spent the day running back and forth between them in
the hopes of obtaining double the number of goods in half the time—though this ran
the risk that their place would be discarded as a brick without an owner.
engaged in deceit. One person explained how an acquaintance with a minor disability
routinely masqueraded as a wounded war veteran by growing a beard and donning an
old uniform that had a real medal attached (huy hi u thu ng binh). Since state policy
gave these veterans “priority” ( u tiên), he never had to wait in line, which meant he
was able to obtain several loaves of obtain hot, crusty bread, and then share them with
friends (Tr ng Quang Th 2007).
Yet another made us aware of his personal talents. An elderly gentleman apparently
made it a habit to arrive at the distribution centre serving his neighbourhood in Hanoi
after the long lunch-break, when everyone was tired from having stood in lines for
many hours. Once there, he would improvise folk poems in 6–8 syllable couplets, the
content of which varied in accordance with what the centre distributed: rice, tofu, meat
and so on. If the verse was inspired, those in line permitted him to go to the front of the
line. One of the best examples, which Tr n Th Anh Tú (2006) recalled two decades
after she first heard it, follows:
Cái [dstrok] u v a m v a m
Nu ta
[dstrok] c c n c [dstrok] êm v n them
Nõn nhà nh c tay em
Ai mà ch ng mu n tòm tem tí tì?
(The tofu is both soft and warm
Even if eaten the entire night, it is still craved
Silky velvet like a young girl’s neck and arms
Who wouldn’t covet a tiny bit?)
What are we to make of these various anecdotes about the lines and the strategies people
used to obtain the goods they needed? First, many people noted that the quotidian
objects people used to hold their place in lines were not simply symbolic representa-
tions but a physical extension of their owners, highly reminiscent of the “biographical”
ones described by Hoskins (1998). This perhaps explains why the rock placed at the
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entrance to the special exhibit was so evocative for many older Vietnamese. As one
person explained (Bí Bo 2006), “The bricks fully represented the person they stood in
for” (
[dstrok] i di n toàn quy n). Another went further and likened the bricks and rocks to a
“juridical person” (pháp nhân), by which he meant they possessed the legal right to act
on behalf of their owners.
Such formulations make it clear that we still have a very
limited understanding of how urban residents conceived of personhood, the situated
forms of agency they possessed, and their individual rights during the “subsidy period”.
This oversight is particularly glaring given current interest in the ways neo-liberal
values and practices are being adopted, modified and rejected in different late-
and post-socialist contexts, including Vietnam (Li Zhang & Ong 2008; Dunn 2008;
Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo 2008). Yet, without a clearer sense of the lived past, ethno-
graphic efforts to document the emergence of neo-liberalism with late- or post-socialist
characteristics will remain misleadingly “thin” (Ortner 1996) in historical terms.
Second, people waited in lines for a variety of goods, but first and foremost for food.
Given the centrality of shared meals to the social lives of most Vietnamese, further work
is needed on what people ate during the “subsidy period”. For example, conversations
with older Vietnamese reveal a fascinating, if unappetizing menu based upon stale and
frequently mouldy rice, which was cut with husks, bran, wheat flour or sorghum.
Noodles were usually available, as were vegetables, though the selection was often
limited to water spinach, pennywort, corn, sweet potato and cassava. By contrast,
sources of protein were rare—ordinary people were typically allowed only three
hundred grams of meat per month. Indeed, food options were so limited and bland
that one of the most popular gifts to give others was MSG, which guest workers brought
back to Vietnam after they completed their labour contracts in the Soviet Bloc.
the special exhibit had surprisingly little information on this quotidian topic.
Instead, the exhibit featured a diorama of an apartment in collective housing, which
included details on the widespread practice of using part of one’s bathroom to raise
pigs or poultry.
After slaughter, the meat was sold on the “black market” to supple-
ment the household’s income and/or to obtain much needed protein. To help visitors
imagine what it was like to share such close quarters with farm animals, a recording of
grunting pigs ran on continuous loop and made ordinary conversation in front of the
diorama somewhat difficult. The sounds were a source of considerable amusement to
visitors, especially fashionable young urbanites who were both surprised and embar-
rassed to learn the extent to which the capital had undergone a process of “ruralization”
(nông thôn hóa) during the “subsidy period”. But the example also highlights that little
is known about how urban residents actually sustained themselves in the face of
chronic food shortages. Anecdotal evidence suggests that long-distance traders, who
smuggled food in exchange for consumer goods within and across national borders,
played a significant role in their survival (Truong Huyen Chi 2001).
However, further
details are needed since these unofficial subsidies arguably forestalled the collapse of
the planned economy even as they paradoxically contributed to the very shortages that
produced the queues in the first place.
Third, closer attention to material culture of the “subsidy period” also provides
insights into changing hierarchies of desire. During the “subsidy period”, most residents
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History and Anthropology 295
of Hanoi considered themselves lucky if they could eat three small bowls of rice a day
and owned two complete changes of clothing, much less any of the luxury items at the
time: a hot-water thermos, a radio or a bicycle. By the mid-1980s, the guest worker
programme had expanded these possibilities to include pressure cookers, refrigerators,
medicine, winter coats, ball bearings and other items from Soviet Bloc countries. But
in sharp contrast to the socialist states in Europe, where the consumption of Western
fashion and music were widely viewed as a form of ideological resistance (Verdery 1996:
2–29; Yurchak 2006: 202–237), Vietnamese desires remained firmly focused on the util-
itarian. This is not to suggest Vietnamese were indifferent to such things; rather, it
underscores the severity of the shortages they endured. A popular poem sung by young
women makes this point nicely, as it identifies what their suitors were instructed to own
before courting them: a singlet, some dried fish, a towel to wash one’s face, and a pair
of shorts with floral designs. A longer version, which appeared in the early 1980s after
the worst hardships of the immediate postwar years had passed, offers a slightly more
elaborate list:
Mt yêu anh có Sen-ko
Hai yêu anh có P -gio cá vàng
Ba yêu anh nhà c a
[dstrok] àng hòang
Bn yêu h kh u rõ rang th
[dstrok] ô
[abreve] m yêu không có bà bô
Sáu yêu V
[abreve] n [Dstrok] in ông bô s p v
By yêu anh v ng tay ngh
Tám yêu s m t i
[dstrok] i v có nhau
Chín yêu g o tr ng phau phau
Mi yêu nhi u th t ít rau hang ngày.
(One, my love has a Seiko [watch]
Two, my love has a Golden Fish Peugeot [bicycle]
Three, my love has a comfortable house
Four, my love has registration certificate to live in the capital
Five, my love doesn’t have a mother [i.e. no mother-in-law]
Six, the father of my love is about to return to V
[abreve] n [Dstrok] in [a cemetery]
Seven, my love has a stable profession
Eight, my love returns early to be together
Nine, my love’s rice is very white
Ten, my love has lots of meat and only some vegetables to eat daily.)
Two decades of reforms have so profoundly transformed living conditions in Vietnam
that such a list now appears quaint to those born after the Second Indochina War ended.
Indeed, when I asked young women at the special exhibit whether any of the items still
applied to their suitors today, they burst into laughter. But after they regained their
composure, many noted that although some of the items had been upgraded—bicycles
into the latest model scooter or car, for example—others remained extremely impor-
tant such as a stable job, a good apartment, and, if possible, no mother-in-law. Such
lists point to the need to historicize the social production of consumer as well as sexual
desires during the “subsidy period” and their reconfigurations since then, without
which it will remain impossible to distinguish changes from continuities in Vietnam or
place them in comparative context with shifts that have taken place in other late- and
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296 K. MacLean
post-socialist states (see, for example Farquhar 2002; Patico & Caldwell 2002; Cowley
& Reid 2002; Pun Ngai 2003; Lankauskas 2006; Rofel 2007).
The Culturally Familiar
What made the “subsidy period”, long neglected by state historians and ordinary
people alike, suddenly possible to recollect? And what do the forms of remembering
discussed here reveal about how different Vietnamese conceptualize what actually
existing socialism was and, importantly, what it is becoming?
Given the recent emer-
gence of the “subsidy period” as a historical moment that links the collectivism of the
past with the individualism of the present, definitive answers to both questions remain
quite tentative. But one of the more significant features of the commentary to the
special exhibit was a keen nostalgia for the sociality that shared hardships produced—
an emotional closeness to others that many find distressingly absent in the present.
“Although we know we lacked many things during the ‘subsidy period’, it was not
possible to forget the human value of other people”, one elderly visitor explained.
retired engineer developed this same theme further, “I recall [the subsidy period] as a
time of hardships, but also greater equality in society”.
Such sentiments are surprisingly widespread; but they have not yet led to the
commodification of memorabilia from the high socialist period, as has occurred else-
where (Berdahl 1999; Blum 2000; Lankauskas 2006; Hubbert 2006). While a small
market for socialist-era kitsch has slowly appeared in Vietnam, it presently serves an
almost entirely foreign audience according to staff who sell the T-shirts, coffee mugs,
propaganda posters and other collectibles found in these shops (Figure 3). In their
view, local demand for such items was unlikely to change, as people born during the
1980s were far more interested in consuming the future rather than commemorating
the past. As one bored twenty-something who worked at one such shop in H Chí
Minh City explained, “The evidence and the stories from this period are unforgettable,
but we Vietnamese people always hope for a brighter future”.
Figure 3 Socialist Souvenir Shop, Ho Chi Minh CityCredit: Author, December 2007
Her conclusion may or may not become dominant over time, especially among
younger generations that have no personal memory of everyday life during the “subsidy
period”. Nonetheless, such responses to the exhibit described in this essay highlight why
more nuanced studies of the culturally familiar are needed in Vietnam.
The Kinh
constitute approximately 86 percent of the country’s population, but are rarely included
in studies by Vietnamese ethnologists, who instead focus on the country’s fifty-three
other “ethnic nationalities”. Consequently, the study of the Kinh “self” is largely left to
other disciplines such as history, rural sociology and folklore, which typically locate its
authentic origins in the pre-colonial, rural past.
Many of these disciplinary divisions
can be attributed to the theoretical training earlier generations of scholars received in
the Soviet Union and the fact that ethnologists have historically worked quite closely
with the Party/state to help manage the socio-economic and cultural development of
these predominantly upland populations (Evans 1985; Pelley 1993: 143–181).
This body of research has made many positive contributions to government policies.
However, this longstanding intellectual division of labour has also meant that the
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History and Anthropology 297
cultural forms, values and practices of the Kinh remain largely invisible to members of
the ethnic majority since they form the unstated and highly essentialized norm against
which difference is measured. This omission prevents questions of Kinh privilege and
power from being posed, much less theorized.
As one sign of this, research by Kinh
on the Kinh focuses on socio-economic issues, popular religion and public health
concerns, but not how the category of the Kinh “self” is culturally (re-)produced in
relation to the different groups that constitute its ethnic, religious and transnational
“Others”, which include ethnic Chinese as well as Overseas Vietnamese. The same can
be said about important people, events, periods and processes that resist easy incorpo-
ration into official narratives about the past and their relationship with the present
such as the “subsidy period”. Until these concerns are more fully taken into account,
our understanding of Kinh-ness as it appears in other contexts besides the stereotypical
rural northern village will remain ethnographically incomplete and, in an ironic twist
given the prominence accorded to the discipline of history in Vietnam, timeless.
Research on the special exhibit was primarily carried out in Hanoi during July–August
of 2006, but draws upon prior fieldwork conducted in Vietnam during 2000–2002,
Figure 3 Socialist Souvenir Shop, Ho Chi Minh City.
Credit: Author, December 2007.
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298 K. MacLean
2004, and 2005. Generous funding from the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation
Research Abroad Award and the Wenner-Gren Foundation made the initial fieldwork
possible. I would like to thank the many Vietnamese who shared their experiences
during the “subsidy period” with me over the years. I am also grateful for the feedback
I received from Hy V
[abreve] n Luong, his colleagues at the National University in H Chí Minh
City, Nguy n V
[abreve] n Huy, Ly Hoang, Wendy Erd, Janet Hoskins, Erik Harms, Michael
DiGregorio, Frank Proschan, Diane Fox, Christina Schwenkel, Ann Marie Leshkowich,
Nora Taylor, and Melissa Pashigian. Their suggestions greatly improved an earlier
version of the essay presented in 2007 at an international conference entitled
“Modernities and Dynamics of Tradition in Vietnam: Anthropological Approaches.”
The mistakes and short-comings that remain are entirely my own, however. All
electronic citations are current as of August 2008.
[1] There continues to be some disagreement on the precise temporal boundaries of this period,
as efforts to create a centrally planned economy started several decades earlier in the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1954–1975) and major changes to the system did not begin
until the cessation of aid from the Soviet Union in 1991 (MacLean 2005: 333–336; Vuong Trí
Nhàn 2006: 3).
[2] Rations in urban areas were determined by several factors: occupation and rank (if a
state employee) in addition to the number and age of the dependents within the household.
Typically, 70 percent of the pay packet consisted of ration stamps, while the other 30 percent
was salary. Many noted this hierarchical system maintained class distinctions with the socialist
state. One visitor to the exhibit wryly explained the distinctions as follows: “First comes the
king and his mandarins (vua quan), followed by their sycophants (trung gian n nh th n),
black market traders (th ng nhân th tr ng chui), and only then the people’s heroes (nhân
dân anh hùng)”.
[3] I am grateful to Frank Proschan for sharing this anecdote (personal communication,
16 December 2007).
[4] While neither the “Communist Party” nor the “state” should be viewed as a unified and
coherent entities that think and act like people, I use the combined term here to indicate
instances where both seek to strategically present themselves to others as such (MacLean 2005:
[5] To help maintain these boundaries, the government issued Decree No. 56 (2006), which
enables it to impose substantial fines (up to 30 million Vietnamese
[dstrok] ng) on individuals who
deny the revolutionary achievements of the Communist Party or defame the nation and its
heroes in any way.
[6] Of course, not everyone agrees. For critiques, see the fourteen pages of commentary that
follows an interview conducted with L u Hùng, the Assistant Director of the VME, on the
special exhibit (BBC 2006).
[7] See, for example, reports posted on “Các V n [Dstrok] Quan Tâm”, available at http://www.mofa. (accessed 31 May 2008).
[8] B Ngo i Giao Vi t Nam, “Overseas Vietnamese”,
nvnonn/ (accessed 1 June 2008).
[9] Most Vietnamese speakers refer to this conflict as the “War of Resistance against the United
States to Save the Nation” (cc n c to cu n c). This name, however, elides the important
role played by more than a dozen different countries in this Cold War era conflict as well as its
regional nature.
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History and Anthropology 299
[10] For an insightful perspective on how everyday practices in rural areas affected national poli-
cies, see Kerkvliet (2005).
[11] References to “postwar reconstruction and rehabilitation” can still be found on faded captions
in some of the country’s museums and official texts published prior to this point. This
framed the immediate postwar years not as a distinct period, but as a continuation of the
conflict through more peaceful means as a consequence of the international trade embargo
the United States imposed on Vietnam (1975–1994). I am grateful to Christina Schwenkel,
who reminded me of these earlier representations (personal communication, 18 December
[12] Professor Nguy n V[abreve] n Huy, the Director of the VME, oversaw the exhibit, which was put
together by Dr Mai Thanh S n, a researcher also employed by the VME. Major funding was
provided by the United Nations Development Programme Vietnam, the Embassy of Sweden,
the National Center for the Social Sciences and Humanities, and the Ford Foundation.
[13] The films relied on the participants rather than the researchers to determine the content, a
process that marks a sharp break from the documentary practices customarily used in Viet-
nam. Wendy Erd (interview, 22 August 2006).
[14] Có c m t ch ngh a anh hùng c a nhân dân, c a nh ng con ng i bi t v t lên cái khó, n y
n nhi u sang ki n, và
[dstrok] ó c ng chính là nh ng nhân t [dstrok] ti n t i [dstrok] i m i”. Quoted in Hà N i
Mi (2006).
[15] After many years of decline, government funding began to rise in 2003 and 2004. However,
the funds allocated to this sector still represent less than 2 percent of the national budget
(Visiting Arts 2008).
[16] As one indication of this, many of the contributors to the VME special exhibit as well as older
visitors noted in conversation with me that the “generation gap” makes it difficult for younger
Vietnamese to comprehend what everyday life was like only thirty years ago, much less the
sacrifices they made during different armed conflicts.
[17] The most extreme example of this is, of course, the H Chí Minh Mausoleum.
[18] Dr Nguy n V[abreve] n Huy (interview 7 July 2006).
[19] Email communication with author (6 May 2008). For related discussion, see Albano (2007).
[20] Ibid. For related discussion, see Blum (2000) and Berdahl (1999).
[21] Field notes (July 2006).
[22] Dr Michael DiGregorio (interview, Hanoi, 23 July 2006).
[23] Three to five cents would purchase a bowl of noodle soup without meat (ph không ng i lái)
or a plate of “smelly” rice (go hôi) topped with a small handful of water spinach that had
become black from being cooked in a cast-iron pot. Both meals, as it turns out, also required
lengthy waits in not one but two lines: the first to obtain the food, the second to find a place to
eat (Bùi Xuân D
[utilde] ng 2006).
[24] Many bitterly recalled that these encounters ran directly counter to the slogans painted on the
wall above them. The two most common were: “We give our customers satisfaction” (Vui
lòng khách
[dstrok] n, v a lòng khách [dstrok] i) and “With all our heart, with all our strength, we serve the
people!” (Ht lòng, h t s c ph c v nhân dân!).
[25] Interview (27 July 2006).
[26] Interview (31 July 2006).
[27] While many people remembered the joy they felt when their rice did not have a terrible
musty smell, one former state employee explained that this was actually a bad sign since fresh
paddy indicated stockpiles were exhausted and localized famines imminent. Interview
(12 August 2006).
[28] For an account of the challenges of preparing a meal during this period, see [Dstrok] Hoàng Chinh
[29] At the time, these collective housing blocks, largely built during the 1970s with foreign assis-
tance from the Soviet Bloc, were considered the height of socialist modernity. Large
apartments (28 square metres) included a kitchen area and a toilet, while small apartments
d d
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300 K. MacLean
(24 square metres) had shared spaces on each floor. For a comparative perspective, see
Crowley and Reid (2002).
[30] For a humorous account of a man who smuggled a 60 kg pig into town by camouflaging it as
a sick person in urgent need of medical treatment, see Bùi S C
[abreve] n (May 2007).
[31] The Communist Party asserts the socialist-oriented market economy will enable the country
to make the transition to socialism and not capitalism at an unspecified moment in the future.
[32] Du bi t th i bao c p thi u r t nhi u, nh ng có l không th quên [dstrok] c giá tr nhân vân c a
con ng i”.
[33] Tôi nh l i th i gian kh mà bình [dstrok] ng c a xã h i”.
[34] Ch ng kiên th i k y, ch ng th nào quên [dstrok] c. Và nay, m i chuy n [dstrok] ã qua [dstrok] i, nh ng ng i
Vi t Nam chúng tôi luôn hy v ng v m t ngày mai t i sang”.
[35] For a recent survey on other ethnographic gaps, see Hy Van Luong (2006).
[36] This is not unique to Vietnam. Socialist states elsewhere divided the study of the “self” in
similar ways (Kaneff 2004).
[37] As has long been the case with “whiteness” in the United States (Hill 1997).
Anonymous (2004f), “Hòn [Dstrok] á” Báo Hà N i M i, 5 September [Online] Available at: http://
Anonymous (2005), “Phùng Gia L c – Gi
[Dstrok] êm Hôm y… [Dstrok] êm Gì?”, Tuo i Tr , 21 December
[Online] Available at:
Anonymous (2006a), “V n ng Chia S , S u T m Hi n V t Th i Bao C p: Tái Hi n M t Th i
Gian Khó”, Hà N i M i.
Anonymous (2006b), “Th m l i hình nh m t th i bao c p”, BBC,
vietnam/story/2006/06/060620 baocap trienlam.shtml [accessed 1 June 2008].
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... In the context of authoritarian Vietnam, I demonstrate how nostalgia is recruited in an emotive and affective way to expand socialist memoryscapes and make dissonant feelings known about urban equality (Watson 1994). While the number of people living in poverty may have declined nationally since the economic reforms of the doi moi period in 1986, economic growth has also widened the gap between urban dwellers and rural communities, the rich and the poor, and has left many questioning government policy, especially as land grabs and corruption appear commonplace in the news (Harms 2012;Maclean 2012). Thus, I want to demonstrate how the past has increasingly become a means to register discontent with the ways things are done, especially from those who command more precarious livelihoods. ...
... Similarly, Bodemer (2010) documents how the Vietnam National Museum of Ethnology incorporated first person testimony into a temporary exhibition on the economic subsidy period in Vietnam, which opened in 2006. Focusing on personal experiences during a period of intense rationing and hardship known as bao cấp, Maclean (2008) writes how this exhibition was widely regarded as a landmark event, bringing the collective experience of austerity into the public domain for the first time, and thus transforming public opinion and discourse. ...
... She explains how museums, memorials and documentation centres are either split between narratives of state oppression and suffering or a nostalgia for GDR everyday life and consumer objects. This paradox registers conflicting memories, of difficult and traumatic pasts, and yet also a wistfulness for the simplicity of life under socialist normalcy, much in the way that the subsidy exhibition in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology did (Maclean 2008;Bodemer 2010). Yet, any hint of conflict Figure 4 Photograph from the exhibition Tales from the Riverbank. ...
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This article explores how the topics of fishing and urban development are addressed in a Vietnamese social history museum. Drawing on a project taking place in the Museum of Danang, it describes the way the museum represented the voices of a displaced fishing community who were moved from traditional fishing huts on the riverside to a social housing complex as part of Danang’s urban development plan in the 2000s. Capturing the impact of the community’s relocation on their fishing livelihoods through an exhibition of objects, photographs and texts, the article reveals ways in which nostalgia is recruited to make social, political and moral commentary on urban equality and livelihood change in a rapidly developing city. Methodologically, the project explored the limits of critical representation in an authoritarian state and how nostalgia can be understood as a subtle call for ethical action.
... However, it is not exclusively external factors driving change in museums. Bodemer (2010) and MacLean (2008), in contrast, focus on the agency of museum workers as producers of new historical knowledge. Their research underscores how temporary exhibitions are a kind of experimental activity that acknowledges the personal and collective memories of Vietnamese people (Macdonald and Basu 2007;Marstine 2006). ...
... This essay draws on field and archival research conducted in, 2008-2012 and Germany (Berlin and Halle) with labor and education migrants, both female and male, mostly in their workplaces and homes, but also at diplomatic "friendship" events.3 For example, the narrative of Vietnamese workers isolated from German society and confined to their overcrowded dormitories, an image that migrants themselves often challenged in my interviews with them. ...
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The rich body of literature on the cultural legacies of East Germany has privileged white German perspectives on material culture at the expense of non-white and non-European encounters with socialist things. In shifting the spatial lens to the global South, and to the foreign students and workers who lived for extended periods in East Germany, I trouble the implicit whiteness in the study of GDR cultural memory. Popular identification with GDR goods extended beyond the borders of Germany to newly decolonized countries that were the beneficiaries of the GDR’s solidarity policies. Using the example of Vietnam, I challenge formulations of Ostalgie as a site of white German memory production only, highlighting consumption of East German products by racialized foreign Others. In examining the objects that Vietnamese migrants amassed and transported back to Vietnam, and their subsequent use and circulation through today, I offer a different take on the temporal and spatial relationship between people and commodities, one that assigns value and agency to imported socialist things. In contrast to reunified Germany, where socialist-era goods were deemed disposable and obsolete, in Vietnam, East German products did not lose their utility and associations with modernity. The essay argues for a more inclusive exploration of memory and approach to Ostalgie that takes seriously the alternative logics of time, space, and materiality that informed the circuits of consumption, trade, and meaning of GDR things.
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A finales de los años cincuenta, los programas de vivienda en la Unión Soviética y Vietnam se enfrentaron a la necesidad de redefinir el programa funcional y estético del espacio doméstico. Para acompañar las nuevas viviendas se habí­a de crear una industria de bienes de consumo y, además, inculcar nuevas nociones de decoro y modernidad en la población. El lapso entre la narrativa oficial de la modernidad y sus limitaciones convirtió los espacios del dí­a a dí­a en terrenos de confrontación soterrada. De entre todos ellos, sin duda las cocinas compartidas de las viviendas colectivas serí­an el lugar más determinante debido a su complejidad tecnológica y su condición como encrucijada de los acontecimientos sociales y familiares. Esta investigación desarrolla, a partir de las conexiones entre los programas de vivienda en la URSS y Vietnam del Norte, el origen y evolución de estos espacios pasando de ser pulcras manifestaciones de la eficacia estatal a ser intensamente modificados por la vida cotidiana de sus habitantes.
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While the mainstream discourses about Vietnam’s Subsidy period (1975-1986) are mainly unfolded through the lens of adults, children’s narratives and their childhood memory receive little attention, especially in literary studies (Maclean, 2008). This article seeks to explore the Vietnamese Subsidy’s childhood memory through Ta Huy Long’s (2014) graphic novel—Window, particularly examining how the ideas of children and childhood have been reflected in this work. Three ideas of children: children as the socialisation subject, children as authors of their childhood, and children as agents of their own representatives will be identified and analysed in this article. Through which, the authors that Vietnamese childhood in the Subsidy era has been shaped by contemporary cultural-political factors (i.e., the constraints of collectivisation mechanism, the poor material life, or social norms towards children). Children also contribute to the understanding and reconstruction of the Subsidy period’s history, as well as challenge the dominant narratives that are usually constructed from adults’ perspectives. Placed in the broader context, childhood memory in Window also contains compelling details of Asian childhood, such as fears and taboos. Considering Window as the pioneer of children’s books exploring children’s experience in the Subsidy era, the authors intend to pave the road for further studies concerning indigenous children and their childhood in Vietnamese literature.
This essay revisits Hal Foster's essay in Marcus and Myers’ The Traffic in Culture (1995), “The Artist as Ethnographer,” through the lens of the Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo's practice of collecting historical material. While Foster problematizes Western artists’ “primitivist fantasies” in the 1990s world of “postcolonial and “multinational capitalism,” I will consider Vo’ 21st century method of acquiring objects through auction sales, negotiations with their owners, and excavating them from their sites of origin, as reversing the roles of “self” and “other.” In purchasing White House memorabilia dated to the Vietnam-American war at auctions and salvaging antique statues from Vietnamese Catholic churches as artistic practice, Danh Vo illustrates what Hal Foster considered the problem of “othering” the self instead of “selving” the other. This essay will consider how Vo could present a case of alterity that returns the gaze and projects Vietnamese history back to the Western viewer. In her review of Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo's Guggenheim retrospective in February 2018, Roberta Smith hesitated to call the artist an artist Instead, she dubbed him, somewhat pejoratively, a “hunter gatherer” and called his collection of historical objects to be illustrative of the “usual fate of non-Western countries: the debilitating progression of missionaries, colonization, military occupation and economic exploitation.” The tone of her review is precisely the kind of attitude on the part of the contemporary art world that an artist such as Danh Vo, and others who have been marginalized from institutions such as the Guggenheim, have been fighting against Yet, Vo's very presence in a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim serves to disprove Smith's own “assumption of outsideness” (Foster, 1995: 304).
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This paper explores the charitable work of Buddhist women who work as petty traders in Hồ Chí Minh City. By focusing on the social interaction between givers and recipients, it examines the traders’ class identity, their perception of social stratification, and their relationship with the state. Charitable work reveals the petty traders’ negotiations with the state and with other social groups to define their moral and social status in Vietnam’s society. These negotiations contribute to their self-identification as a moral social class and to their perception of trade as ethical labor. K E Y W O R D S : charity, social stratification, petty traders, postsocialism, Buddhism
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This paper explores the interweaving of Buddhist practice, old age and women's gendered roles in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Given Vietnamese gendered norms that empha- sise women's lifelong attachment and responsiblity to their families, this paper shows that Buddhist practice is a way of life in old age for women. Old age is a time in life when one continues to hone relational personhood and negotiate between gendered roles at home and individual self-culti- vating practice. Inspired by Sarah Lamb's (White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and Body in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2000) discus- sion on entanglement and disentanglement in West Bengali women's old age, this paper shows that Vietnamese women draw on the Buddhist notion of 'karmic debt' to define the boundary of their household duties. With the Buddhist Way, old age is not merely a continuing devotion to the family, it is a time marked by both self- and family-nurturing. KEYWORDS Buddhism, gendered roles, karmic debt, transition into old age, Vietnamese women
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The book establishes a "second wave" of work on whiteness, tracing the transformation of the concepts from the invisible, transparent norm that absolved white people of individual responsibility for racism to a target of criticism from many different sides. The collection of essays is organized into setions on white politics, white culture, white bodies, and white theories and examines whiteness in phenomena as disparate as film, literature, militias, music, and even Rush Limbaugh.