Artistic Freedom Report Vietnam: An ever-changing terrain

The key findings and analysis of artistic freedom in Vietnam from the Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database Project, 2010-2022.

Overview: 2010-2022

As a socialist republic country with one single party—the Vietnamese Communist Party—ruling since its founding in 1945, Vietnam is not commonly known for freedom of expression of any kind. In an effort to maintain the party’s legitimacy and absolutism, the public’s opinions and awareness are tightly monitored. Alternative narratives and viewpoints are not tolerated. Over the years, Vietnam has been known to detain and charge various democracy activists and political dissidents, whose last chance of survival is to seek asylum. This report, based on 81 violations of artistic expressions documented from 2010 to 2022, shows that cultural workers in Vietnam, though not always facing severe challenges from the authorities, do face potential institutional censure as their works enter the public sphere.

Figure 1 Number of cases documented from 2010-2022 shows that governmental censuring took place every year.

With a total of 81 cases over a 12-year period, there certainly are many cases not included in the data collection process for various reasons such as lack of verifiable information, and creators/stakeholders’ decision to withhold information relating to their cases. The data collected demonstrates the general climate for artistic expression in Vietnam: all creative productions in publishing, film, music, and visual arts at some point are subject to (re)-examination by institutional bodies, often because their contents are said to violate moral codes, or suggest different political views (Figure 2). Information about these cases was collected mostly from secondary sources, news and scholarly reports, and interviews since many cases are not widely covered in mainstream media. 

As popular forms of recreation in Vietnam, both local films and international blockbusters are subject to a rigorous evaluation process conducted by The Central Committee of Film Appraisal and Classification, a regulatory body formed and approved by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, to secure a distribution licence. This research revealed that the main trends in film censorship was to prohibit works due to immoral and corrupting influences (movies with gang fights, and explicit sex scenes), violence and gore (horror movies, and thrillers), and political and nationally destabilising intents (wartime movies from other perspectives, socio-political issues).

Since 2016, as the dispute over China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea intensified, the Vietnamese government has started banning all movies or series—mostly international productions—which feature maps acknowledging the nine-dash line. This is believed to be a tactic to ensure the country’s diplomatic relationship with its powerful neighbour, while reaffirming its territorial rights. The Vietnamese government’s unwavering attempt to ban anything with the nine-dash line is praised by its citizens due to heightening anti-China sentiment within the country. This is, ironically, one true moment of nationalist solidarity.

Figure 2 Number of violations by forms, which show that popular forms of artistic production are subject to screening in Vietnam.

Vietnamese are reportedly not avid readers. So, why did publications top the chart of violations by form? As this study reveals, most publications became controversial after they hit the shelves. This is due to lax regulation of publishing licences, which is the by-product of the integral publishing model. For a long time, state-run publishing houses do not produce their own books. Instead, they sell licences to private-own publishing companies. This leads to comical situations, when a book enters the market, and then, readers or the media raise questions about its content, which subsequently alerts the Bureau of Publishing. The publishing house itself might not be clued into the book they have licensed, and so puts all the blame on their business partner. However, this model does create a loophole for independent radical thinkers, writers, and artists, who wish to print their books in larger quantities at affordable prices. (Digital printing does not require a publishing licence but the costs are prohibitive, even for a small run of 100-200 prints).

Figure 3 Reasons for challenge

One collective, One ideology

As an authoritarian state, any expression that jeopardises state legitimacy is non-negotiable in Vietnam and the state makes sure the message is getting across. On 25 April, 2011, at the 37th International Book Fair the poet Bùi Chát, a member of Mở Miệng group and one of the founders of Giấy Vụn Publishing, received the Freedom to Publish Prize for pioneering a movement of poets, thinkers, and artists whose works do not abide by the government’s law. Upon his arrival at Tân Sơn Nhất airport on 30 April, he was detained at customs for two days, with his laptop, passport, poetry books and award confiscated. Before this incident, Bùi Chát was known for his ‘trash poetry’ and ‘filthy poetry’,  poetic concepts in revolt against the state-sanctioned pure and propagandist language in literary production. Later, his criticism of the communist regime became more prominent and overt, particularly in his poetry collection entitled A Poem of Single Rhyme (2010).

After his detention at the airport in 2011, it seemed the names Bùi Chát and Giấy Vụn Publishing receded into oblivion only to resurface 11 years later when Bùi Chát made his official solo painting debut at Alpha Art Station in Ho Chi Minh City. The exhibition, entitled Improvisation, featured 29 abstract expressionist paintings, and opened on 15 July 2022. According to the artist, a few days later, officers from the Office of Internal Political Security (Ho Chi Minh City’s Public Security Department), and the Department of Culture, Sports Ho Chi Minh City came to visit the exhibition. Three weeks later, on 22/7/2022, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City sent him a report of administrative violations for showing the works without having an exhibition licence. Cited Section 4, Article 19, Decree number 38/2021/NĐ-CP on the handling of administrative violations in Arts, Culture, Sports, Tourism and Advertisement, the artist was fined 25 million VND, and was requested to destroy all the paintings himself.

As soon as the decision was made public, there was an outburst from Vietnamese artists residing within the country and elsewhere as such a harsh attempt to punish a violation has had no precedence since 1975. Perhaps facing public outcry—the case was extensively covered by both local and international press and media—the ‘request’ for the destruction of these paintings was rescinded in a press conference held by The Department of Culture, Sport of HCMC on 17 August, 2022.

Figure 4 One of the paintings in Improvisation, Bui Chat’s solo exhibition at Alpha Art Station, Ho Chi Minh City. Image courtesy of Alpha Art Station and the artist.

In an article on BBC News Vietnamese, Bùi Chát denied that the decision was informed by his past involvement in Mở Miệng and Giấy Vụn Publishing even though he has been barred from leaving the country for 10 years, and has had trouble renting a place or doing business.

It is worth noting that though holding an exhibition of a relatively modest scale without a licence is an offence, creators and organisers often will not face charges if the content is purely an aesthetic and stylistic experiment. Inspectors will issue a warning and ask creators/organisers to close the show until a licence is granted. However, in Bùi Chát’s case, the involvement of the higher-ups from the beginning, namely the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, as well as the severity of the charges (destruction of work) led to speculation of the real trigger, and the practice of multi-level blacklisting among the community. It is safe to say, Bùi Chát’s activism through his poetry and independent publishing effort rallies for an alternative consciousness, one that diverges completely from that of the state. In the process, he has managed to gain support from local readers, writers, poets, and artists, as well as international recognition and solidarity, and thus forming a new collective. This is threatening to the mass that the state has carefully moulded and manicured since its first days.

In the name of preserving the Vietnamese identity

As ‘straightforward’ as censorship for socio-political contents is (such an acknowledgement is alarmingly concerning and depressing), it is moral policing that often renders creators/organisers and bystanders baffled as to why a work or a practitioner is being subjugated. The terms “vi phạm thuần phong mỹ tục” or “violation of original traditions and fine customs” is used loosely and frequently to sanction controversial works and figures in order to preserve the Vietnamese identity. However, no one knows what those traditions and customs actually are. In 2020, a YouTuber based in Bac Giang province was fined 7.5 million VND for cooking a whole chicken without removing its feathers. The video documenting the entire process, made by the YouTuber to troll his siblings, garnered 1.2 million views with many comments criticising the YouTuber’s unsanitary cooking method. Five days later, he was summoned to the Department of Information and Communications in Bac Giang province. There, he admitted to his ‘wrongdoing’, and agreed to take the video down indefinitely. In this case, “original traditions and fine customs” could be understood as following traditional cooking methods and hygiene protocols.

On 12 July, 2021, it was announced that the film Taste, Lê Bảo’s directorial debut, was banned in Vietnam for containing a 30-minute nude scene. In addition, a fine of 35 million VND was imposed for not obtaining a distribution permit from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism before entering to the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. Despite containing no apparent sex scene, the prolonged nudity, which was an important part of the film’s storyline, exceeded all viewing restriction ratings and therefore, was deemed unfit for Vietnamese culture, thus violating the Cinema Law. Nakedness, whether sexual or not, goes against what constitutes the Vietnamese identity. In the end, director Lê Bảo and producer Đồng Thị Phương Thảo (Le Bien Pictures) had to forfeit the film’s Vietnamese nationality, and transfered the film ownership to their Singaporean co-producer Lai Weijie.

Figure 5 Still image from the said prolonged nude scene in Taste. Image courtesy of Vietnamnet.

From the 1990s, Vietnam transitioned to a market economy with a Socialist orientation to boost its underperforming economy and restore international ties. The economic reforms not only improved the country’s financial situation, but also impacted its fabric socially and culturally, as more and more popular cultural products from other parts of the world were imported through television and later, the Internet.

With a determination to be “on par with great countries in the five continents” and “integrate internationally”, its censuring agenda reveals the country’s awkward stance on embracing global modern lifestyles and innovations. The message is clear, while its parameters still remain unclear: do strive to be modern and learn from other countries, but do not stray too far away from traditional values and practices. A debut art house film that won international recognition for its cinematic mastery, but failed to abide by existing classification is not needed. A local music video that emulates the concept of sexual freedom championed by Western popular culture is not tolerated, while the country’s bandwidth is already full of such content from elsewhere.

The Legacy of Socialist Realism

2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Vietnam’s victory in Linebacker II Operation. To commemorate this occasion, Hanoi-based painter Mai Duy Ninh launched his solo exhibition entitled Dien Bien Phu featuring the paintings and sketches that the artist had produced from 2011-2021. Just a few hours before the opening, the artist was summoned to a meeting with representatives from The Department of Culture and Sport Hanoi, The Bureau of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition as well as the University of Fine Arts Hanoi (the venue). The Department told the artist that the exhibition would be temporarily closed due to complaints that some of the works “might cause misunderstanding”, thus revoking the exhibition licence that they had issued prior. According to a member of the Department of Culture and Sport’s examination committee, Mr. Nguyễn Đỗ Bảo, told the press that the department received a complaint from the Bureau of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition that morning without stating any specific reasons. However, he conjectured that it was the depiction of the tattered Vietnamese flag, and bony farmers/soldiers that led to the re-examination of the exhibition.

Figure 6 The controversial painting from Mai Duy Ninh's solo exhibition Dien Bien Phu.

Unlike other cases discussed above, Mai Duy Ninh did not violate any political or moral protocols. In fact, his works demonstrate unconditional patriotism and passion for upholding traditional and historical values. The censorship did in fact catch the artist and parties involved off guard, as the exhibition had undergone a proper evaluation procedure. How does the depiction of a ragged flag and malnourished soldier become a threat?

Perhaps, in order to answer this question, it is necessary to revisit an aesthetic doctrine that the Vietnamese Communist Party implemented in 1945: Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism is different from Social Realism which is an artistic movement that aims to highlight real socio-political conditions as a means to critique the existing power structure. Socialist Realism instead, was a vehicle to promote and strengthen the Party’s ideology. Its aesthetics focused on the idealist and optimistic portrayal of collectivism, as well as the working class, thus making worker, farmer and soldier a popular subject matter in visual arts, literature, and film. Individualism and Western modern art movements such as impressionism, cubism and the like were considered “the rotten wood of the imperialist culture.” While the term is no longer in use nowadays, its legacy still endures as reflected in the way certain things should look like.

Mai Duy Ninh’s work was based on a real photograph, taken of a Vietnamese soldier carrying the Vietnamese flag as he stood on top of a trench indicating Vietnam’s victory over the Americans. As a realistic and dramatic reinterpretation of the iconic war photograph, Mai Duy Ninh set out to re-enact the glorious and heroic moment of the Vietnamese army as they won the impossible war. Yet, it was too real. Even in chaos, the flag should remain intact and clean; even in hardship, the soldier should look plum and happy. The exhibition did not violate any political or moral codes, but it compromised the ideological representation of the revolution and its soldiers.

In 2013, Bui Doi Cho Lon, a thriller-martial arts movie directed by Charlie Nguyễn, was banned for containing too many bloody gang-fight scenes in Cho Lon area (Ho Chi Minh City), without having any members from the local authority intercede. According to the Central Committee of Film Appraisal and Classification, this does not reflect the true nature of the city. While it did not suggest that there was no gang culture in the bustling trading hub of Saigon, the ban indicated that it was utterly unrealistic that the authorities would not be informed when such commotions took place. This movie failed to secure its distribution licence as it failed to justify the potency and efficiency of the public security force, which in turn failed to abide by the principles of Socialist Realism.


I would like to conclude this report in the first person as a way to acknowledge and remind readers that my observation and analysis could be partial. During my period of data collection, I encountered scepticism from my interlocutors as to whom I was doing the research for. This is not at all an unreasonable or uncalled-for reaction. Over the years, censorship in Vietnam has been a hot topic in many leading human rights and democratic forums to the point that it has even become an exotic emblem of the country. Sometimes, discussion on this topic risks oversimplifying the problem as when the one-size-fits-all formula is deployed: an authoritarian state equals no freedom of expression.

As a cultural worker in Vietnam, who has had first-hand experience dealing with institutional challenges, I want to say the issue is ever more complicated and manifold. As the country progresses, at times it is still stuck in a limbo between maintaining an orderly, well-behaved mass, and the pride of an innovative and forward nation. Though I proposed that Socialist Realism mandated an unrealistic depiction of the regime and its ideology, I cannot negate the fact that for many people at a certain period in the turbulent history of Vietnam, such aesthetics did give them hope and reasons to live and to fight.

Late last year I met a colleague from Hanoi, who is my senior in the field. As we talked about my research, she concluded that things are much easier now as compared to the years before my research period (2010-2022). I partly agreed with her, but I do not think things are getting better. Before this period, artists and writers, who violated any of the above mentioned reasons would face severe punishment, namely imprisonment and estrangement. One notable example would be the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm literary movement in 1955, formed by notable writers, artists and thinkers from North Vietnam, which demanded freedom of artistic expression. The movement was suppressed and ended in 1958 with its members, once committed members of the Vietnamese Communist Party, being jailed, exiled, and barred from publishing their works for decades.

Figure 7 Method used to challenge
Figure 8 Response from creators/presenters

However, I must disagree with her comparison. “Better” or “worse” is insufficient to describe this situation. As shown in Figure 7, most challenges during the period from 2010-2022 resulted in full banning/censorship/destruction. And the reality could be worse than the figures displayed here. Figure 8 tells us that among the 81 challenges, 73% of creators/organisers had to alter their works to comply with the regulatory bodies in order to reach a local audience. This is a practice of voluntary self-censorship. It tells us that whatever is available to us now, has been vetted. In a highly-regulated environment like Vietnam, creators and organisers have developed creative tactics to avoid the watchful eyes of the authorities. This means instead of public staging, they often have to limit access, distribution channels and use strategic promotional content. Some even make a conscious decision to not show their work in Vietnam to avoid getting into trouble. Though a celebrated trait—or an exoticised characteristic of cultural workers in authoritarian states—the use of creative tactics are not always foolproof.

Once, the Internet was a safe haven for people to express their thoughts and viewpoints, and explore ideas that are not usually accepted. Now it is being closely monitored. Though Facebook, YouTube and Netflix have not set up their offices in Vietnam, they actively remove content when requested to do so by the Vietnamese authorities. Despite being criticised by social media users, removing content on demand is not much of a sacrifice, as long as they can operate in a prosperous market without having to pay tax. In recent years, policing has become a recurrent activity in cyberspace. A personal musing or a speculation on one’s Facebook wall can be taken down any minute. My observation suggests that the policing of artistic expression, which at one point focused on a small group of practitioners, now has expanded evenly to other fields, both online and offline. According to Figure 2, 9 out of 81 cases were online/broadcast, most of which happened between 2020 and 2022.

In an authoritarian state, Goliath represents the state and David the people, and their fight is never-ending. Once David gets smart and learns how to move around, the colossal Goliath too evolves. So where can we, people with our own minds and beliefs exist? I would like to quote a sentence from Bùi Chát’s poem Brackish Water Fish: “We survive in their wavering.”

All graphs and illustrations were created by illustrator, Jun Kit. To learn more about the SEA Arts Censorship Database Pilot, go here. To read about SEA censorship, go here.

About the author(s)

Linh Le (b.1993) is a curator, researcher and writer from Vietnam.

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