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Must-Flee TV
The shows suck in Vietnam! (But at least you can get a pirated copy of "Titanic")

Blast San Francisco Bureau

Whenever I travel, I usually pack a light bag and always carry a good book to read. Years of experience have taught me to avoid carrying a heavy burden on my shoulders, especially one that will weigh my mobility down. Having a good book to read, however thick it may be, is an essential survival tool. In moments waiting around airports or train stations, a book can be your best friend. When you're stuck in a relative's home, and you're sick to your stomach from watching the load of crap on television, turning to a book may save your life.

When we were traveling in Vietnam, constantly on the road seeing people and places, I caught a sort of tropical disease and was confined to bed one day. For 24 hours, our travel plans halted just so I could get some rest. We were fortunately staying with relatives in a small, provincial town called Di Linh, located in the central highlands, where I also spent the first seven years of my life.

The town's main attraction is the central marketplace, a Buddhist temple, and acres of coffee and tea plantations. The landscape is magnificent, especially when fog descends and blankets the lush green hills, but life definitely moves at a snail-like pace. Now that Vietnam is going through modernization, many people now own color televisions. And like most households in the country, my relatives like to have the television on all day -- at an unnecessarily high volume.

For someone who likes to watch, I must admit viewing Vietnamese television was initially interesting. It's relatively new, and one can see a hodgepodge of programs on the air. For starters, commercials are a new concept to this pseudo-capitalistic country. And like most other images on the screen, they're imported from other countries and dubbed into Vietnamese. Unfortunately, they are cheap stuff: low-quality, mindless programs meant to brainwash more than to provoke independent thinking.

For instance, my relatives were hooked on a sugar-coated Mexican soap opera called "Las Claritas." The show is about a dimple-faced little girl who helps grown-ups solve their own romantic predicaments. (Right after Las Claritas, a poorly produced and outdated Chinese show featuring the Monkey King comes on).

What is bizarre about watching these shows in Vietnam is that they are presented in their original language -- Spanish or Mandarin -- yet we hear a singular female voice translating it into Vietnamese. She provides a sort of vocal closed captioning service and speaks for all the characters in the show.

The result is a muddled sound system filled with Spanish or Mandarin, mixing in with a monotonous translator explaining all actions and speeches into Vietnamese. She tells us what she perceives, sometimes ignoring some scenes or speeches, and we don't get to hear all the voices. Some scenes occur exclusively in Spanish, for instance, and we are left clueless and in dismay about what exactly is going on.

I tried to watch two or three episodes of "Las Claritas," but grew frustrated with the disorienting sound system, the cheesy plots, and bad performances (not to mention fuzzy images). "How can people tolerate this crap?" I asked myself. I wandered to a corner and read the book I brought along with me, Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting." The novel provided some stimulating diversion amid a zombie-like atmosphere of TV staring. It saved me from dying of boredom.

Then I thought: "Who am I to be a TV critic?" Just because I come from a place where 300 channels exist, where one can choose from MTV to CNN around the clock, or go to bed watching Leno, Letterman or Koppel, doesn't mean I should be quick to judge. In a country starving for information and contact with the rest of the world, the Vietnamese people tolerate watching almost anything on TV. Television has the power to educate, and I suddenly sympathized for their depravity in good programs. They deserve better.

To be fair, the state is sometimes generous and does make an effort to educate the masses. It provides national and international news twice a day (although their idea of "newsworthy" events are, well, different) and features educational programs that teach French and Russian, making it more accessible for people. When we visited Vietnam, we found ourselves in the midst of the World Cup soccer craze, and had a great time watching live telecasts of the games at 2 a.m., feeling a sense of connection to soccer mania happening in France.

While commenting on the lack of quality in information and entertainment programs on television, I should also mention the explosion of pirated material on the black market over there. Pornography, certain publications and CDs are officially banned in Vietnam. One could be punished for bringing these items into the country, yet they abound on the streets. We went to a shopping arcade in Saigon, for instance, and found wall-to-wall stocks of "Titanic" laserdiscs, Backstreet Boys CDs, and other western goodies such as old "Star Wars" movies for sale.

Tourists are not advised to purchase the stuff, since the government screen all printed or recorded material upon departure from the country. My father had to hand over several tapes we had recorded during the trip to the censor police. They held the right to black out any scene, particularly those showing government properties and other "inappropriate" content, from our recording.

A few days after coming back home, we decided to watch the tapes and find out which scenes had been erased. Surprisingly, not much had been censored....up until a scene near the middle of the tape, when unexpectedly some naked bodies appeared on the scene engaging in all sorts of activities except sightseeing. That's right, that darn porno material somehow sneaked their way into our home video, and we were left wondering how the hell the censor police managed to be so careless. Then again, what can one expect from a corrupt police organization who thrives on bribery and black market porno goods? I guess were having a good laugh all the way across the Pacific about that little surprise.