When I arrived in Vietnam nearly a year ago, one of my new co-workers at the country's English-language newspaper gave me a substantial clue about what was to come during the ride from the dilapidated airport into Hanoi.
This was my first time in Asia, and I didn't want to be caught staring goggle-eyed at the actual peasants wearing conical hats herding actual water buffalo across the country's most modern highway. Asking "So, how many people work at the newspaper?" seemed like a neutral enough diversion.
Lan Huong, a soft-spoken 25-year-old assigned to fetch me and my luggage, said, "We have eight reporters and 34 editors."
This was not a joke. It turned out that the latter category are mostly recent foreign-language college grads who translate astonishingly crummy stories from domestic papers with names like "The People's Army" and "Liberated Saigon" into English so we can slap them into our paper without attribution.
When the realities of working for a branch of the Ministry of Culture and Information finally soaked in, my idealistic intentions of holding Journalism 101 seminars withered on the vine pretty quickly. Still, it's a rare day that goes by without at least one on-the-spot civics lesson.
Today, if you had peeked into the office around 3 p.m., you might have thought the "editors" clustered near my desk were watching an IMAX movie, not listening to me natter on about the First Amendment. They flinched en masse at the very thought of being allowed to write anything you want, however shocking or negative, about the government so long as it is true. My description of reporters willing to go to jail to protect a source elicited a satisfying round of oohs and aahs.
The contrast actually is that dramatic. Having now been away from it all for a year, the very concept of news being something out there on the savannah which must be stalked, slain, and dragged back to the tribe so everyone else can enjoy a juicy morsel seems pretty weird to me, too. Look around the office here and most of the staff appears to be lounging around the port, waiting for the shiploads of news to be unloaded.
That's because propaganda isn't a bad word here; it's a job description. There are no private newspapers in Vietnam, and the idea that the press exists to disseminate information for the good of the State is not to be snickered at. The result can sometimes be quasi-Orwellian masterpieces, and my hands-down favorite task each day is writing headlines for said stories. A few recent examples of house style, a deadpan titration of summary and commentary:
TOMORROW IS "ALL PEOPLE TO BUY AND CONSUME IODIZED SALT DAY"
VIETNAM'S FIRST STOCK EXCHANGE OPENS TODAY IN HCM CITY (Subhead: "Trading to begin in 10 days")
MYTHICAL DRAGON NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR RECENT MEKONG DELTA FLOODING, METEOROLOGISTS SAY
THE MINISTRY OF INDUSTRY HAS SEEN THE FUTURE, AND IT'S MADE OF ALUMINUM
and my personal favorite:
OVER 3 MILLION FARMERS OUTSTANDING IN THEIR FIELD
So, if the lovely, smart, young staff is rarely allowed to report their own stories anyway, why did I leave Newsweek in New York to come here? Because there is a value to sparking discussion with throw-away lines like "Hey guys, did you know voting isn't compulsory in America, and less than half the eligible voters will probably show up to choose the leader of the free world in November?" Because I can explain why it isn't OK to type press releases straight into the computer and run them as stories. And, in the end, because English is my first language and someone has to edit sentences like "The company has 40 production units in Thu Dan Mat commune producing such products as frames and flower vases."