Slowly but steadily: The demise of print media in Vietnam

The reason becomes obvious when you look at how much the few remaining newspaper vendors are struggling.

“Hello. Newspaper?” Tran Quoc Cuong, a blind vendor in downtown Saigon asks passers-by in English. Not noticing the small, dark-skinned man standing with stacks of Time, Le Monde and the New York Times in his arms, they just walk past.

Cuong has been selling foreign newspapers and magazines for over 20 years, and can recognize each publication by its size. He also plies his trade in one of the best spots to sell papers in Saigon - Dong Khoi Street in the main tourist area - adjacent to fancy restaurants and hotels. But this hasn't stopped customers from slowly slipping away.

“Hello. Newspaper?”

“If there used to be ten, now there are only three,” he says, describing the decline in customers in recent years. “I heard they read the news online instead," he said, listening to the change in pace of the footsteps around him to zero in on potential buyers.

The decline of print media in Vietnam becomes more obvious when you look at how much the few remaining vendors are struggling on the streets of big cities, such as Hanoi and Saigon.

Dung, who has owned a news stand on Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3 for the last 18 years, remembers how the area used to be crowded with kiosks and vendors.

“It was only five years ago,” she recalls. “Back then I could sell hundreds of copies a day. Now if I sell a few dozen papers, I consider it a good day.”

Dung plans to quit the business soon. “Not enough people are buying newspapers, so I think I’ll switch to a housekeeping job or something like that,” she says.

Dung's news stand on Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3.

20 years after Que Huong, Vietnam's first online newspaper, was launched, Vietnamese readers are looking more to the internet for their news, especially younger audiences.

With over half of its 90-million population online, Vietnam was listed in the world’s top 20 countries with the highest number of internet users in 2016.

At the same time, with around 35 percent of the population owning smartphones, the devices are rapidly replacing papers as the main source of news.

In fact, recent research conducted by TSN and Google shows that 65 percent of Vietnamese cellphone users look at mobile apps to check news and weather reports everyday.

65 percent of Vietnamese cellphone users look at mobile apps to check news and weather reports everyday. Photo by Cuong Tran


As a result, fewer advertisers are willing to pay for a spot in a newspaper, and the main revenue behind Vietnam's newspaper industry is declining.

To understand the pressure on the print media industry, VnExpress International took to the streets of Saigon, Vietnam's economic hub, to capture the stories of its last newspaper vendors.

It's 4 a.m., and Ngan and her family are sorting through the early editions in District 10, readying them for distribution around the city. They should be finished at 5 a.m., just before sunrise.

A customer stops by Ngan’s stand. “Most of my customers are old,” she says. “They wake up early to buy a newspaper to read with their morning coffee.”

At 7 a.m., Hung's stand is ready for business in District 3. “I have been selling newspapers and magazines for 17 years,” he says. “There used to be loads of kiosks on this street, but now there are only five." 

“I've been reading print newspapers for so long now it's become part of my daily routine,” said Tran Tam, a local in District 10. “Young people are more reliant on the internet for their news.”

When business was booming, Ha Hu Thoai Vu ran a big newspaper kiosk in District 10, but the recent sidewalk cleanup campaign has forced him to switch to selling papers from a motorbike tricycle. “Selling newspapers a few years ago was a great way to make money. I could easily sell a thousand copies a day,” the 58-year-old says.

The harsh reality is that younger readers are going online, and his main customer base is slowly dying of old age. “My only customers are old men, and many of them have already died. I have to deliver door-to-door to keep the business going,” he says.

Colorful flyers for fashion magazines are also having little success attracting young readers.

One of the two newspaper kiosks left on Nguyen Tri Phuong Street, District 5, which used to be occupied by dozens of news stands. The owner has started to sell phone SIM cards to earn some extra cash.

"Nobody can make a living from selling newspapers these days,” said Dung, a local vendor. “I'm lucky my husband has another job so we can feed our family.”

Mai, a vendor on Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3 closes her stand at 9.30 a.m. “People only buy newspapers from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. After that, no matter how long you wait, you won't sell a single copy,” she says.

Saigon's vanishing news stands

By Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen

By Nhung Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen