Redefining the idea of reading in Vietnam today

By Bao Yen   May 7, 2017 | 07:00 pm GMT+7
Redefining the idea of reading in Vietnam today
A student reads a comic book at the newly opened book street in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

It's not about how much you read, it's about what you read.

Hanoi's Department of Information and Communications officially opened the Hanoi Book Street on May 1. The idea is to cultivate a “culture of reading” among its citizens and create a focal point for the country's sixteen largest publishing houses, said Ngo Van Quy, deputy mayor of Hanoi, at the opening ceremony.

Book Street, which runs for 200 meters on what was formerly 19/12 Street next to the City Court, is located on a historical site that was once a burial ground for those killed in the Battle of Hanoi on December 12, 1946. In 1986, the burial ground was relocated and the street was renamed 19/12 as a way to commemorate the event.

It was used primarily as a parking lot until last year when the city adopted the idea of turning it into a book street.

It took around a year of planning and a further four months for the project to be completed.

The publishers have paid for the construction of their houses independently, and the majority of them are already familiar to Vietnamese readers.

The opening of Book Street coincides with a government-funded initiative to promote reading and encourage campaigns and efforts to make libraries and books accessible to more people.

The initiative follows various debates on Vietnam's slowly fading reading culture, with most Vietnamese now estimated to read only a book a year. The goal is to increase the number of books people read, specifically targeting younger groups of readers.

“Compared with previous generations, young people today have much better interaction and more opportunities in terms of information access,” said Nguyen Truong Quy, editor at Tre Publishing House. “But perhaps what’s more important than how many books people read is what and how they read.”

Hanoi Book Street. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

Hanoi Book Street. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

Publishing challenges in Vietnam

Within the industry, there has always been a practical demand to make profits through publishing mainstream books instead of materials considered too difficult to digest.

“Calling for a reading culture in Vietnam is an impossible task,” said Thien Minh, content manager of Read Station (Tram doc), a community project for book lovers currently based in Hanoi. “What does a reading culture even mean anyway?”

“Reading is driven by publishing, and publishing has always been an industry which is basically about investment, turnout, supply, demand and market equilibrium,” he added. “Let’s be practical. The best-selling books in Vietnam right now all cater for specific needs: raising babies, self-help, financial solutions, etc. Those are the things that sell - the fast reads. It’s not even about publishing anymore, it’s about social changes.”

Read Station, which was co-founded by Thien Minh and three other friends in March 2016, has been receiving overwhelming support on social media. Yet after little more than a year, Minh and his friends are considering backing out due to investors pouring in and commercializing the once community-oriented page originally started to share book reviews.

According to Minh, publishers in Vietnam are playing it safe since the industry is already struggling with the fast-advancing online reading habits which are pushing them to source material that is more digestible and popular among young people.

“My friends think books are too serious,” said 19-year-old Minh Thuy, a law student. “They prefer reading online, which is cheaper and easier. I hardly know anyone who goes out looking for certain books anymore, instead they usually read what is made available to them, especially through social media.”

A student chats on her phone while browsing the dictionary section at a book store in Hanois Book Street. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

A student chats on her phone while browsing a book store on Hanoi's Book Street. Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

However, the daily exposure to information does not run in parallel with the quality of knowledge intake. “I started reading from an early age before we were connected to the internet, so my attention span was much longer back then,” said 22-year-old Ha Dao, a communications student. “Now that I’m exposed to a lot more information, I’ve grown more and more impatient."

Industry insider Nguyen Truong Quy said that the digitalization of publishing and online reading habits haven’t had much of an impact on the publishing industry right now in terms of profit, but they have in terms of content.

In order for books to be published in Vietnam, they usually have to go through time-consuming copyright, licensing, editing and printing procedures before they reach their target audience, and publishers have the power to guide readers on what and what not to read.

Another problem is the lack of contemporary Vietnamese writers. One of the major reasons for this could be the low incentives offered to encourage young writers to embark on devoted writing careers. Even Vietnam's best-selling author Nguyen Nhat Anh is not as seriously considered as other international authors, said Thien Minh.

However, there is an emerging market for books some consider to be too serious, too underground or too experimental for the wider public. These books are available from alternative publishers such as Tao Dan or Khai Tam, which are small but cater for a loyal crowd of followers.

“Positively speaking, there are still publishers that pursue real values when it comes to literature. They believe that if we want to have a quality reading market, we need to publish quality material first. We have to start from there if we want to expand the reading circles in Vietnam,” said Minh.

“A book matters when it creates a connection with readers; when each individual could find themselves in the midst of history,” he added. “Instead of arguing whether we are reading more or less, we should ask ourselves what we are reading for.”