Returning to Ha Noi recently, I couldn’t help but notice a wave of nostalgia about the Subsidy era (“Bao cấp” in Vietnamese). Franchises of Cộng cafe (short for Communist) are everywhere, with their exposed brick walls covered by photos of communist soldiers and Hanoi families, blue enameled iron mugs and tables built out of old sewing machines. Restaurants like Cửa hàng mậu dịch số 37 (State department store number 37) now serve frugal dishes such as steamed rice with yams or pickle cabbage stir-fried with pork fat residue. These are typical family dishes of an indigent time when meat was a constant craving rarely satisfied and rice was in such a short supply that people had to supplement it with other starchy food. Not only cafes and restaurants, artisan textile and fashion industries are also responding to the Subsidy era nostalgia with hand made quilted bedding and clothing. Brands like Flora and Moon, which sell these types of quilted products, attract a lot of young customers despite being pricier than common bedding products.
The Subsidy era was characterized by a centrally planned economy where the state nationalized all means of production, commanded quota and distributed everythingfrom factories’ raw materials to household’s rice portion. The Subsidy period started in 1975 in the South when the Northern communist army captured Saigon and unified Vietnam into a Socialist Republic. But the North entered this era much earlier, after its independence in 1954. The Subsidy culture, therefore, had a much stronger grip in the North, particularly Ha Noi. Even though this period ended in 1986 with the launch of the Renovation policy to reform Vietnam’s economy, many of its characteristics are still present in the region today.
The starting point of the Subsidy policy is war time – the fight against the US aggression. As a result, mechanisms which allow the government to mobilize resources for the war front such as central planning, rationing and collectivization were invented. But even after the war had ended, this mechanism was further consolidated.
“Created base on a repressive production mechanism, the Subsidy process came back and reinforced that repression which was making the sluggishness become even more serious. A lot had been gained but the loss was much higher. The most dangerous thing was that many considered this management mechanism the only suitable way, hence, did not think of changing or even demolishing it when situation had changed.”
(Vuong Tri Nhan, 2011)
Life in the Subsidy era was tough. Material life was poor. Moreover, constraints also applied to people’s personal life and creativity. Attaining an education or a job usually required family background checks to decide if one’s family was, say, bourgeois, peasant or worker. And like the propaganda hung in Cửa hang mậu dịch restaurant said, “Walls here have ears”, in this era, people were constantly watched. Any signs that did not resemble the common stoic lifestyle and spirit, even if those were simply flowers for a girlfriend, a lipstick or a nice scarf, could be labeled bourgeois, thus, contempt for the proletariat. I remember reading a story about a man who was criticized for singing ‘overly sentimental’ pre-war songs after someone heard him singing while hanging clothes on his balcony. Since he loved singing so much, he had to go down to his house’s bunker to sing as much as he wanted.
So it puzzled me as to why Hanoians are nostalgic about this era. As I looked around Cong cafe, glancing at people, trying to find the answer, I realized all customers here were in their twenties or early thirties. They grew up in the late 70s or the 80s and so, only spent few early childhood years in this period. Subsidy era is first of all, their innocent childhood time. A place like Cua hang mau dich with Russian roly-poly toys as decoration and childhood rice with yams is simply a reminder of a warm and comforting time. This childhood innocence is often idealized when compared with “kids these days…”
Is that all there is? To understand this nostalgic trend, we need to take a closer look at Vietnam’s current socio-economy. Seven years after the country’s accession to WTO with further opening of the economy and society, Vietnamese started to look back. No more economic boom with stories of overnight millionaires, Vietnam’s economy has been going through a downturn in the last five years and this year doesn’t show many positive signs. At the same time, Vietnamese society is in flux; values are changing. The media flooded city dwellers with news about food hazards, crimes, corruption and sex scandals. In the economic growth period, these problems didn’t seem to be such a big deal. All were blurry under the halo of a bright and prosperous future. Now accompanied by the gloomy economy which is further magnified by the media, all these issues are more visible than ever.
And in Vietnam, things change so fast, even abruptly. Disoriented and unprepared, Vietnamese do not know where to look for directions. Family members are losing connection. Without a TV, dinners in many families will likely to fall into awkward silence. The government has anything but trust from its people with too many cases of corruption and inefficient management. The media, despite myriads of channels, unanimously focus on superficial news such as celebrities’ Hermes bags or the latest boob scandal rather than anything more useful and interesting for the rest of country. As for bloggers and (more) independent newspapers, the government has been making sure that they are well monitored, repressed or even arrested/closed.
I conducted a research project about Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New year, two years ago. Across groups of consumers I interviewed which included teenagers, students, wives and husbands, a ubiquitous response was “Chán!” (“Boring!”). Teenagers and young adults moaned about having to stay at home all the time without much entertainment. Women complained that they had to cook and clean all the time without much help from other family members, especially their husbands. Men had less to whine, being free to drink with friends and watch TV the whole time, yet kept mentioning Tet in the old days like a golden standard that Tet today could never meet. The one activity that they all missed, even though some of the teenagers had not even experienced, was making “chung” cakes, Vietnamese traditional cake for Lunar New Year, together with their extended family or even neighbors. Under the pressure of a fast life pace, not many families had time to make “chung ” cakes for Tet and so, opt for the more convenient option of ready-made “chung” cakes. Nevertheless, the sentimentality about making “chung” cake is rather symbolic. It is not the act of making the cake that they missed. It is the bond and connection among family members, neighbors and community that they were yearning for. And the anticipation for something so special they have to wait for a whole year as opposed to the lukewarm feel of just another year coming by. All these, they could find in Tet of the Subsidy era.
Hardship and poverty is a common theme in all texts reminiscing about the Subsidy period. Hunger is hardly absent from these stories. From the struggle to get starch to the constant craving for meat, food had become an obsession of people in this era. Such rigorous condition was contrasted with the present and makes one appreciate ordinary things about his current life, however mundane, more. Under romanticized lens, tough living condition is merely a background for communal bonding and altruism to triumph. The Hanoi men I talked to during the research actually longed for the past’s egalitarian society where “everybody is the same” – equally poor because at least, they wouldn’t have to compare themselves with others and thrive to be better. And they are not the only ones who miss that aspect.
Another dominant theme in texts about this era is resourcefulness or “Cái khó ló cái khôn” (“Necessity is the mother of all invention”) as the Vietnamese often say. Since income from their official occupations hardly met necessary needs, people had to do a lot of extra jobs to survive. Raising pigs in collective residential apartments with shared left over food from several households and grafting rags to make bedding products for sale are few of those. Whilst adults made do to feed families, children also had their way to find toys for kids’ games. Unused condoms, even pieces of condoms made great balloons while a pig bladder could be turned into a ball for street football. All these inventions were later recalled with a bittersweet sense over a Vietnamese smile.
By reminiscing about the Subsidy era, Vietnamese show their resistance toward the present. The idealistic world of the old days is always depicted as a peaceful time when life was simple; virtue and high morality prevailed despite hardship to contrast with today’s corrupting and turbulent world.
“I know some central officials who didn’t take reciprocal gifts and scolded acquaintances who came home to thank them. I know my neighbor who gave his precious rationed cigarettes to the young men who were enlisted. And there were teachers, doctors, area police…who devoted wholeheartedly to people who needed them without asking for anything in return. The youth loved reading How the steel was tempered and The Gadfly because they desired to live and devote their lives to the fight for human liberation.”
(Le Chi Trung, 2014)
When the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology held the first exhibition about “Hanoi life in the Subsidy era (1975-1986)” in 2006, Hanoi audience embraced it with such enthusiasm that the museum had to extend the exhibition to a year instead of six months as planned. The exhibition attracted different generations of Hanoian. The old came to recall an unforgettable part of their lives while the young came with curiosity to understand how their parents and grandparents once lived. They all had their own personal stories, either directly experienced or told by older family members. This unique memory not only brings people who lived in the same era together but also connects families’ generations with each other.
In 2006, I was a student, coming to the exhibition with blurry memories of my childhood. And of all the exhibits, one simple sign still stayed in mind and spoke to me, even after 8 years.
“Ước mơ là những gì chúng ta luôn vươn tới và cho ta biết đôi điều về cuộc sống hiện tại.
Sau thống nhất đất nước và trong suốt thời kỳ bao cấp, những mong muốn và ước mơ của người dân thật giản đơn và phản ánh sự thiếu thốn. Được ăn một bát cơm ngon, gạo không bị mốc, đươc đi một cái xe đạp Trung Quốc, được sở hữu một chiếc quạt nhỏ làm dịu bớt sự tù túng và nóng nực, được tắm bằng xà phòng thơm… là những điều luôn lẩn quẩn trong tâm trí của mỗi người. Ngay cả những niềm vui đơn giản đó cũng nằm ngoài tầm với.
Khi cánh cửa đổi mới mở ra, những ước mơ cũng được trỗi dậy. Trong một thế giới tràn ngập hàng hóa với ý tưởng mới, các loại hình dịch vụ đa dạng, hy vọng của người dân vươn xa hơn. Ngày nay, xe máy, máy vi tính, điện thoại di động hiện đại lấp lánh trong các cửa hàng. Học sinh thì mơ ước được đi du học.
Từ xưa đến nay, cha mẹ luôn cầu mong và hy vọng cho con cái khỏe mạnh, hạnh phúc. Những ước mơ đó chưa bao giờ thay đổi.”
“Dreams are things we always reach to and tell us something about our present life.
After Unification and throughout the whole Subsidy period, people’s dreams were often mundane things reflecting poverty. Eat a bowl of fresh, not moldly rice, ride a Chinese bicycle, own a small fan to cool down the heat or be able to take a bath with soap are things hovering people’s mind. Even these simplest pleasures were beyond their reach.
Once the door of Renovation was opened, dreams bloom. In a world fulled of goods and new ideas with varieties of services, people’s hope and dreams go further. Nowadays, motorbikes, computers and mobile phones sparkle in shop windows. Young students dream of going abroad to study.
From past to present, parents always pray and hope that their children will be healthy and happy. These dreams never change.”
Saigon 18th April 2014
Le, C. T. (2014, February 1). Missing the Subsidy time. Baomoi.com. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://www.baomoi.com/Nho–thoi-bao-cap/144/13013890.epi
VƯƠNG-TRÍ-NHÀN: Con người và tư tưởng thời bao cấp. (2011, July 15). VƯƠNG-TRÍ-NHÀN: Con người và tư tưởng thời bao cấp. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from http://vuongtrinhan.blogspot.com/2011/07/con-nguoi-va-tu-tuong-thoi-bao-cap.html