Reading in Vietnam: One page at a time  

It’s widely claimed that Vietnamese read one book a year.

Children read books at a bookstore in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Well…we know about statistics in Vietnam, hey?

The real picture is somewhat different. One article from early March pointed out the cost of buying books as one negative while another is the idea that reading is still a solitary, lonely experience. However that can change.

If you regularly scan around the Vietnamese news, stories about individuals amassing private libraries on many subjects are commonplace. Retired teachers and book lovers invite strangers to come and explore their collections. And urban schools in many cities are providing mini-libraries for their kids.

Recently, a Swiss company sponsored a project to create a library in southern Vietnam from a shipping container!

Book fairs are now growing in size, frequency and the variety of materials offered to readers. It’s big business. According to ‘thenewpublishingstandard.com’ website, book fairs in Southeast Asia are attracting revenues approaching some of the big book fair events in Europe. Back in mid-March, Vietnam held its biggest event, the 2018 Ho Chi Minh City Book Fair.

Second-hand bookshops are expanding in Ho Chi Minh City and there are a small but rapidly increasing number of online sellers specializing in English and other foreign language books for children.

Strangely however, there’s no Kindle VN store and an iBooks VN store in Vietnam and although many online Vietnamese book sellers use Amazon, neither Apple nor Amazon has shown much interest in developing and promoting their book markets in Southeast Asia in general. Kindles are available to buy in the major cities and are popular with foreign travelers yet I’ve rarely seen them used by locals.

One trend now is the realization by many affluent parents of the value of home-teaching and reading to their kids, thus the demand for creating home libraries is becoming popular.

One advantage of this is providing access to materials that the kids don’t have at their schools, when the school is closed or the problem of traveling far to get to suitable libraries.

When I was an English teacher (I’ve recently temporarily retired!) I’d ask the typical question to late elementary and early high school kids, ‘What do you do with your free time at home?’ Surprisingly a lot of students who didn’t seem that interested in studying said they liked to ‘hide’ in their bedrooms and read. The word ‘hide’ was used a lot and I eventually discovered that they preferred time alone from the family in a quiet space with a book.

Although I can’t comment on Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, Da Nang has a growing number of deliberately ‘quiet’ coffee shops offering books to read with an arty interior design and music to read by. Many of my older students enjoyed doing this and even invited friends to just read together. Titles include the ever-popular love novels, mystery and fantasy novels. Quite a few sell Manga-style illustrated novels yet I don’t know if they are widely sold in the Da Nang-Hoi An area.

In a little informal poll I did with some of my adult Vietnamese friends, generally better educated and with a degree of fluency in English, I asked about what they like to read. Almost everyone liked travel books and ‘get rich/how to be successful’ books. Recipe books were considered too difficult and too much effort (!) however home improvement topics were keenly read. Traditional Vietnamese was fairly unpopular but everyone pointed out that they hated the subject at school, a sentiment shared by my younger students from before.

With the growing realization by many parents to start their kids’ education early – kindergarten picture books and early elementary fun topics are in high demand and two of my Vietnamese friends in Da Nang now have side businesses selling freshly imported English and Vietnamese materials via Facebook. Good on them!

But please… why is it that I can’t buy lovely big Western bookcases around here? The local carpenters smile like sharks when I walk in the door…

So it’s all good. Contrary to what most Westerners might think, reading is growing in popularity as prices continue to fall and wider ranges of materials become available across the nation. It’s one page at a time, isn’t it?

But perhaps the nicest thing about a book is you never have to re-charge it, ever. But it will re-charge you!

(Do you have a favorite book store? Write into the comment section below!)

Comment

Please type something to send.

Send