Shifting in Southeast Asia

Vietnamese climate ‘advocates’ tread carefully

350 Vietnam activists with the author in Hanoi
350 Vietnam activists with the author in Hanoi

As I wind down the first section of an around-the-world bicycle tour for climate action, life on the road is shifting. Seasons, climate, gears and landscapes change, and into the mountains we go.

These last months of pedaling have been through the droning summer heat of South China. It wasn’t until Hanoi that I felt the season start to wane. I sat at the low outdoor seating of a cafe, talking with members of the local manifestation of The winds picked up, tailing cool delta air through the city. We drank custardy egg coffee and tugged the conversation back and forth between climate politics and lighter cultural novelties.

Groups like 350 Vietnam are stuck in an odd place in the world. Globally, is unabashedly activist in nature. It promotes actors like Seattle’s kayaktivists and Portland’s bridge blockades. But in Vietnam, people are quick to correct you if you attribute the word to them or theirs. “This isn’t activism,” they’ll say, “We’re advocates.”

For some individuals, the difference is important. A group of us who had stopped to talk outside of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum were shooed away, told we couldn’t gather there on the sidewalk. Activism can carry jail sentences, and people are understandably hesitant to stick their necks out. Most rely on more benign ways of trying for a better future. They work in social enterprise, they go into schools to give lessons on the environment or they talk to their peers.

For others the denial of activism seems semantic, a way to keep toeing the line. Protests are outlawed in Vietnam, but consequences depend on enforcement and enforcement depends on interpretation. So, what is a protest? If three or four people dress up like lumps of coal and dance around holding signs informing passersby about the health hazards of coal-fired power, is that a protest? Holding a funeral for coal energy might offend the coal barons and their friends in the party elite, but what about a baby shower for clean energy? How can you be protesting if all you’re doing is celebrating?

A nation’s people shape the legitimacy of their state. Even in states like Vietnam, where free speech is circumscribed and the government’s voice is strong, wild forces still swirl into collective memory and imagination. Waters rush through delta towns. News climbs to the highland peaks. A murmur rises from the crowd. — Forrest Watkins