Much vaunted information revolution has failed to budge loudspeakers from their high perches
A loudspeaker is seen in front of an advertising billboard on the streets of Hanoi November 8, 2006. Loudspeakers have proved very useful in the past, disseminating important information to the public; but with more modern means of communication available, they should stop intruding into people's private lives with "˜unearthly hour' broadcasts, irate citizens say.
It is 4 a.m.
Her husband closes his eyes to try to sleep. He is suffering the final stages of liver cancer and has been groaning the whole night.
Vu Thi Lien's head is spinning. Sleep deprivation has worn her out. She lies down to rest a little.
It is 4:45 a.m.
The racket begins, as it does without fail, every single day. From the electric pole in front of her house in a little village of Tien Hai District in Thai Binh Province, the loudspeakers blare loud music and announcements.
In all the years she has lived here, Lien has never been able to get used to it.
"One, two, three... Inhale, exhale... four, five, six, seven, eight... left hand, right leg..." morning exercise instructions from the loudspeaker fill their bedroom.
Her husband turns over, groaning in pain. Lien springs up, anger boiling within.
"I'm going to tell them to shut it off," she fumes, ready to rush off to the local government building.
"Are you crazy?" her husband says weakly. "It's the government's policy. Do you dare?"
A few weeks later, Lien's husband is no more.
The loudspeakers though, are alive and kicking, going through their daily routine with gusto, impervious to the effect they have on residents' lives.
Public loudspeakers have been a ubiquitous sight in Vietnam for the last four decades or so. During the long resistance war against the Americans, they served a valuable and crucial function, airing warnings about bombing raids and so on.
For a country impoverished by the rigors of war, the loudspeakers were also a welcome source of encouragement, entertainment and even inspiration.
Vietnamese Hungarian Hoang Linh, 41, founder of Nhip Cau The Gioi magazine, recalled his childhood in Hanoi, when all the children in the neighborhood shared a worn-out rubber ball. Everyday, they waited for the loudspeakers to start their din and rushed to the common ground to play football.
"I must say that at the time, when there was not much fun, the music blasting from the quarter's speaker really lifted the kids' mood."
Today, they still have their uses, especially in rural areas, where storm warnings and other important information are disseminated to the public through the system of loudspeakers, including exhortations to maintain public hygiene, protect the environment and so on.
This propagandizing has elicited a well-known quip about the "government in the trees being better than the one on the ground."
This "social service" is still being provided to residents all over the country, despite radios and televisions being found in most households, urban and rural.
But the patience of residents is wearing thin.
Le Ngoc Thang of Hung Yen Province wrote on the Tien Phong news site that some local governments played the loudspeakers from dawn to dusk. "It pollutes the environment; it irritates people. The kids need quiet to study," he fumed.
Even the major cities are not spared.
"There is one every 100 meters or so. On each electric pole. Blaring since 5 a.m. to praise the 1,000th Thang Long-Hanoi anniversary," said Ngo Hai Long, a student living on the campus of Hanoi Polytechnic University.
The loudspeakers attract a lot sarcastic comments.
"Now I happen to know all about how Ly Cong Uan King relocated the capital from Hoa Lu to Hanoi," Pham Thanh Huong of My Dinh, Hanoi told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"They broadcast twice a day, morning and afternoon," said Loan of Hang Duong Street, in Hanoi's famed Old Quarter. "My neighborhood is a cultural center."
Others do not bother with sarcasm.
"Please don't torture us," said Tran Trong Tri in Hai Phong City. Sometimes Tri had to work double shifts and only got home at 4 a.m. He would want to get some sleep before getting back to work at 8 a.m. But the loudspeaker near his house would open up at 5 a.m. and continue until 7 a.m. every morning. "Public loudspeakers are nothing but uncivilized intruders," Tri said.
"What a nuisance! Nowadays city households have at least one TV set each, and Internet access. What's the point in torturing people with public loudspeakers?" wrote a person nicknamed Me Be Ngan Thuong on the "service" in her District 12 neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City. She was responding to an online poll conducted by Thanh Nien Weekly.
Visitors to the country are also not spared the loudspeakers' charms.
Federico Arrizabalaga Sandoval, who has traveled to over 60 countries, wrote on the travel site www.maitravelsite.com about his 2009 Vietnam experience: "Since we were very much deadbeat we were looking forward to a good night's sleep and some well deserved rest. Ha! Less than three hours later loudspeakers were blaring music and speeches in the street [ ... ] Ear plugs and ducking under the pillow proved useless. [ ... ] We soon learned that in Vietnam it is normal to have loudspeakers at full volume in a central square or in the streets to wake people up sometime between 5 and 6:30 a.m. To this date I still do not understand the reasoning behind it."
"Three times a day a melody begins to play in my area. What is this sound? Is it a kind of alarm bell to let people know the time or know
when they have to get up?" wrote a person nicknamed mimimi on http://newhanoian.xemzi.com, a social networking site for expats in Hanoi.
Linh, the Vietnamese Hungarian, was shocked when he returned home late 2009, almost 20 years after he left the country, to find that the speakers were still being used on Tran Hung Dao Street in Hanoi, where his parents live. "There's the Heart Hospital near there. Yet, they don't care."
Linh said he has nothing against someone getting up and exercising at 5 a.m. but he hates being woken up at that time. "If people want to listen to the radio, let them turn their own on. I don't enjoy watching the moon collectively," he said, adding that the public loudspeakers today are a cruel violation of people's privacy.
Earlier this year the Ministry of Information and Communications launched a nationwide survey on telecom infrastructure. The overall statistics are yet to come out, but one of the poorer provinces in the country, Bac Giang, has announced individual findings.
The figures show that 37 percent of the locals have at least one working cell phone, 38 percent of the households are landline subscribers,
6 percent of the families have computers, and 95 percent of the households have one TV set or more.
The availability of information sources today provides the audience with a wide range of choices. They will unhesitatingly discard whatever they find uninteresting, said Tran Ba Dung, an executive board member of the Vietnam Journalist Association.
One person told Thanh Nien Weekly: "Whenever I visit my family in the countryside, I climb on the pole and cut the wire. That's the only solution."
A farmer in Hop Hung Commune, Vu Ban District, Nam Dinh Province covered the speaker with the lid of a cooking pot. He believes that the untimely commotion stunts his pigs' growth.
Officials from the Ministry of Information and Communications could not be reached for comment.
But some local officials did respond.
"Public loudspeakers are a cultural legacy from the past. They were necessary and they are still necessary," said Do Van Thuy, director of the Culture and Information Department of Hoai Duc, Hanoi.
He said the district had just invested VND7 billion (US$355,000) in a new public audio system. Poles with only one loudspeaker before are now equipped with two, three or even five.
In Tram Troi Township, at the center of Hoai Duc District, Hanoi, clusters of loudspeakers blare at full volume, three times a day beginning at 5:30 a.m., broadcasts from the Voice of Tram Troi Township are followed by the Voice of Hoai Duc District, then by The Voice of Vietnam.
Collectively, the loudspeakers have so far succeeded in drowning out the growing public clamor against them.