Some time ago on a trip back to the UK, I had a conversation with a worker in a charity shop. When I mentioned that I live in Vietnam, her response was: “Why would you want to live there?”
More recently the reaction to my connection with this country has changed. Now it’s based on tourism.
“Oh, I went to Vietnam last year. Spent 15 days there.”
Or the food.
“I tried Vietnamese food last week for the first time. It’s really good.”
Beyond that, people know little about Vietnam, and what they do know tends to be associated either with war or bad press relating to imprisoned bloggers or dodgy exports of catfish.
So why are people so ignorant about the 14th most populated country in the world? And why, except for tourism and food, does Vietnam continue to get a bad press?
The Hit Factor
Mainstream media has always been focused on mass readership. In the online press, this is measured by clicks, hits, likes, retweets and shares. The more clicks a link gets or the more shares on Facebook, the more important (at least financially) the contents of that link are deemed to be, even though the actual content may be vacuous, superficial and uninspiring.
This is why, for example, when it comes to football or soccer, the majority of the media space goes to clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich. The smaller clubs don’t get a look in, which means we get to know very little about them.
The same goes for current affairs. Terrorist attacks, North Korea, Donald Trump, China, Israel-Palestine, natural disasters, human rights violations, poisoned food or water sources, bad instances of crime and murder cases dominate the news. All these news items get mass amounts of clicks.
Because Vietnam doesn’t really feature in any of the above topics, the country gets scant media coverage overseas. It’s just not ‘hitworthy’. And it doesn’t fit into that old, Jeremy Bentham concept of democracy, a concept that can be equally well applied to the media: ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number’.
When Vietnam does get coverage, it’s because news emanating from this country is negative. Thus, the bad press. The irony is that in the Age of Information, vast swathes of information is getting missed.
Yet, the bad press or lack of press comes also down to other factors. Key is the fear of the unknown. With the gradual decline of Western hegemony over the rest of the world, so new nations are gaining prominence. China, Japan, India and newly developed economies such as South Korea and Singapore. Up-and-coming nations such as Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia also fit into this category.
In the West, home to only 12% of the world’s population, little is known about these places, the places that now compete for global power. And as such they tend to get negative rather than positive treatment. Look at the press that India gets — gang rape, the arrest and conviction of the rapist guru, a swine flu epidemic that’s killed over 1,000 people, violence between Hindus and Muslims, a video of a maths lesson where a child gets slapped in the face by her teacher. India is home to 17.7% of the world’s population, yet in the West, there is almost nothing positive to say about the place. Other countries suffer a similar fate.
It reinforces a mindset played out by the global media: these are bad places to live, we have it so much better. It also reinforces the dominant mainstream view of the liberal, pro-equality, pro-tolerance mould espoused by the West. Any country who doesn’t follow this mindset is just not a good place.
Which brings us back to publications like ourselves, The Word. Since we are based in Vietnam, our focus is necessarily on this country. Since we require a license to publish every month, our focus is generally positive — although recent relaxations have allowed us to be more critical.
And while our publication gets little online readership overseas — 80 percent of our online hits come from users in Vietnam — the fact that our non-negative, non ‘bad Vietnam press’ content gets out there is positive. It does something, no matter how little, to redress the balance. And it ensures that information about this country that really matters is getting an international voice. Leave it to the global press and it would be silenced.