At 8 p.m. on the dot, Hong Phuong plunks herself down on a couch with her family in front of a TV set in the roadside cafe she owns in Hoi An, an eastern Vietnam port city. She tosses an embarrassed smile or two at her customers. It’s a little awkward, maybe, but, c’mon … her stories are on.
On the screen is standard soap-opera fare — tonight, the tantrums of mothers-in-law are playing out loudly and melodramatically. But the characters aren’t Vietnamese; nor is this an episode of Days of Our Lives. The actors pitching fits are women in traditional Indian saris with bindis. This show, Balika Vadhu (“Child Bride”), has topped Vietnam’s TV soap charts since 2013, drawing in thousands like Hong every evening. And it is only one among multiple tele-serials from Vietnam’s Asian neighbors — China, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea, apart from India — jostling for screen space across the country. Forget the tasty TV screen for a moment: What the other countries are really jostling for is cultural influence.
Vietnam is at the crossroads of the major tensions over Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. That influence can in turn yield economic and strategic gains — or cut losses, in China’s case — as Hanoi tries to reduce its dependence on Beijing, its largest trading partner, amid a spat over islands claimed by both countries. The latest Pew poll on Asian perceptions suggests only 19 percent of Vietnamese hold a favorable view of China, as opposed to 82 percent who like Japan, 66 percent India and 82 percent South Korea — the other three big economies in Vietnam’s neighborhood. And more than 85 percent of Vietnam’s households own a TV set, but homegrown programming just can’t compete with the quality of overseas productions.
Fans mobbed Indian stars of the show Balika Vadhu, like lead actress Avika Gor, when they made a promotional visit to Vietnam, even handing them their jewelry as a mark of love.
“The shows stimulate interest and awareness, certainly,” Lisa Drummond, associate professor in urban studies at Toronto’s York University, tells OZY. To be sure, foreign television soaps have played on Vietnamese screens before. Brazilian, Mexican and American shows were the early entrants into Vietnamese living rooms in the 1990s, when the communist country first opened up its entertainment sector. But economic reforms, cheap labor and attempts at diversifying trade with partners other than China have made Vietnam’s neighbors sit up and eye the country’s economic opportunities more recently. Vietnam’s steady growth — the economy grew 6 percent in 2014, a trend expected to continue — has helped, and it is today seen as a “bright investment spot in Southeast Asia,” says Julio S. Amador III, deputy director general at Manila’s Foreign Service Institute, the Philippines’ training school for diplomats (who was not speaking on behalf of the school).
In July, Thailand and Vietnam agreed to nearly double their trade by 2020 — from $10.8 billion in 2014 to $20 billion. India’s Tata Group inked a deal in 2013 with Vietnam’s government to set up a $2 billion coal-fired power plant, the single largest Indian investment in that country. And just in November, Vietnam and the Philippines signed a strategic partnership, with trade as a key focus. It’s in selling these new strategic and economic relationships to the people of Vietnam, experts say, that the television soaps can prove critical. “Having a sense of appreciation and understanding of each other’s culture and values can potentially broaden and deepen mutual understanding between states through its people,” Amador says.
The Filipino show Vietnam Rose, which traced the journey of a woman whose family was divided by the Vietnam War, was a major success in Vietnam in the mid-2000s. Fabulous, another soap from the Philippines, currently shows on VTV, Vietnam’s state-owned cable television network. The Chinese show Scarlet Heart, about a young 21st-century girl reborn as a medieval woman, has remained a draw on Vietnamese TV since 2011. And Korean shows have spawned an entire hallyu (“Korean wave”) subculture in Vietnam. The results are visible. Young Vietnamese couples in Hanoi walk in his-and-her T-shirts and shoes, and Drummond recalls seeing entire families on a weekend outing wearing matching clothes. It may not sound surprising to an American reader, but these are rituals emphasized in Korean dramas — ones that have never been a part of Vietnamese culture. Canadian researcher Danièle Bélanger from the University of Western Ontario found Korean shows had influenced Vietnamese women who decided to marry Korean men.
Now Indian shows like Balika Vadhu are competing for that clout. In June, fans mobbed Indian stars of the show, like lead actress Avika Gor, when they made a promotional visit to Vietnam, even handing them their jewelry as a mark of love, recalls Sonia Huria, head of corporate communications at Viacom 18, the Indian producers of the series. The Asian shows have a cultural edge over their Western counterparts — common values like family honor and respect for elders resonate in Vietnam. There’s enough in the shows that’s different from Vietnam to intrigue the audience, Huria says, “but there’s also enough in common for them to be able to relate to the story.” Shows from more developed Asian nations like Thailand or South Korea also cater to an aspiration for modernity that Vietnamese youth find relatable, Drummond notes.
It’s a curious battle for hearts and minds playing out on a battleground that’s either mildly absurd or a little too Ray Bradbury. Excuse us while we go ponder that fine point in front of Making a Murderer …