This is Vietnam’s Renovation Generation. Sonic portraits of young minds re-shaping the country’s future.

Policy researcher and columnist Khắc Giang Nguyễn believes there is a need to give civil society a voice and that this can happen without major political reform. We live in a post-ideological world in which there is no one-size fits all answer for complex situations. Small victories need to be acknowledged. Like seeing the positive changes to the energy in downtown Hanoi achieved by turning the busy area around Hoàn Kiếm Lake into a pedestrian zone on evenings and weekends. It may not be enough, but it’s certainly something.

It’s very relaxed.

It’s nice. So this is the first time you’ve seen a development like this.

You know in Hanoi this is a total breakthrough because this area is very big.

There are no motorbikes, just street musician, skate boarders and young families taking their kids out for a day. For our 18th episode we took a walk with Giang around the lake.

Ok, My name is Nguyễn Khắc Giang. I’m 28.

I don’t disagree with other activists, really like strong activists that are opposed to the government opposed to the way that the government is controlling the society. But I think that in the big society you have the people at the periphery – you know the people who actually try to break it. And then you have the middle man you know the people at the middle who want to be activists but actually they approach a way that could accommodate the government and the people in a milder way.

Is that where you are?

Yeah I think so. I think it’s more effective to work that way.

The new pedestrian zone proved to be louder and livelier than we had anticipated and we quickly retreated to the café at the Hotel de l’Opera on Tràng Tiền street to continue our conversation.

Let’s go find a coffee somewhere

Yeah sure.


Yeah, we’ll just have… can we just have a coffee?

Giang was born to a mother who worked for a state-owned candy factory and a father who was a builder and he was raised in Nghệ An, most famous for being Hồ Chí Minh’s place of birth.

Possibly even I wouldn’t be born if Đổi Mới didn’t happen.

You said you wouldn’t be born if Đổi Mới didn’t happen.? Why?

Because Đổi Mới happened is 1986, I was born in 1988, so if there would to be such a good change like that in the society maybe my father and my mother didn’t meet each other.

And there are other things in Giang’s life that wouldn’t have been possible pre-Đổi Mới. He got his master degree in Journalism, Media and Globalisation in the UK and Denmark and has made a name for himself writing about a broad range of issues. His day job is at the Vietnam institute for economic and policy research.

The university is actually the biggest state owned university in Vietnam. On paper I work for the government, but my institute is a kind of like an independent a quasi independent institute within the university. So it means they make room for us to work, but they don’t pay the salary so we have to go out and do research projects with the government or with the international agencies or with international NGOs, stuff like that.

Researching policy, writing about political issues, being opinionated about what changes Vietnam needs. Is Giang a politician in the making

Anything can happen in the future, but right now I think I’m not really suitable for a political career. Possibly I want to be a political advisor, but not really to be a politician.

Why don’t you think you are suitable for a political career?

Because there is several reasons. For example personal reason, I think that my personality is a bit like low key you know not really extrovert, not really outspoken, not to communicative to the public life. And for the second reason in Vietnam if you want to be a politician you need to have really strong network. If I don’t have really strong connections, then it’s really hard for me to start from the scratch and get into higher decision-making mechanism of the state to make some change.

So how can the individual make a change?

It depends on the capacity of different people in society to decide which kind of way you want to work for the greater good of the society. Some people are good at economics, some people are good at politics or some people you know are good at playing music.

But when it comes to creativity and the arts something is lacking in Vietnam.

Vietnamese has long forgotten that arts or literature can have a huge impact in your life. Before we only think about economics and business that are something that can change your life. Maybe because of that approach for the past 30 years we neglected the more personal, the more emotional side of the Vietnamese people.

And that – he believes – means something is amiss.

Money can change you from your appearance, the way you wear, the way you think about something. But when you change your emotion, change your personality inside it would have long lasting effect.

Changes in personal taste and emotion is something he is well familiar with.

[Archival Recording of Hồ Chí Minh speaking]

As many other Nghệ Anist, you know, the people from Nghệ An I also admire Hồ Chí Minh from when I was quite young, until I went to university also. So when I get a little bit more mature and understand a little bit more about politics and then I stopped really idolising anybody.

Keeping critical distance is key.

It’s better to not idolise any kind of people or any kind of policies, but when you idolise the person himself, then you will make excuse of the mistake that he or she will possibly make. But when you analyse at their policy or their speeches or at their actions, then it’s better to know that which is good and which is bad and then you can learn from it.

When did he start thinking differently?

So it also coincide with the time when I graduate from my university. So at that time it’s kind of like very contradictory feeling about what you learn from university and what actually happens outside. Some people who have connections you know get very good place to work and some very nice very very bright young people from my class or from my generation they’re excellent but because they don’t have any kind of connections they can’t get into some of the work place that they really want to.

It took quite a lot of cobbling together information he hadn’t encountered through official channels for Giang to get a fuller picture of the situation. Made possible by the abundance of online sources.

We watch it on the Internet. That’s the good thing about globalisation and the Internet. I think most of the young people now in Vietnam, young people they don’t watch television they watch YouTube, they watch Internet, they use PirateBay.

What do you think about all this illegal stuff that people download?

Of course it’s morally wrong to steal from other people, like intellectual property. But I would think it’s kind of like a necessary evil to within the case of Vietnam.

The problem with the content produced in Vietnam he says, is that there is not enough diversity of information and history, especially when it comes to the long period of war.

In Vietnam we only have one side of history so it’s a victor’s narrative, the Communist Party, they think they won the war and they write the history, according to their ideology and it makes you know less diverse literature, books, arts and films, for the people to actually look into this specific period of history in Vietnamese history.

So what does this result in?

80 or 90% is lack of eagerness or lack of their willingness to actually look at the past. I don’t blame it for young generation. They you know are gradually; they get a little bit bored of learning history. They don’t really want to look into that and say ok that is all victory, all glory, and that’s it, there is nothing else in the war. We lost like 2 million men, young bright men and we won the war. We won against the biggest country in the world and that’s it.

Giang has some ideas about how this can improve for future generations…

So if you want the young generation to be more aware of what is happening in the world or what happened in the past or what gonna be happen in the future, the state should give more you know freedom for the society to do what is the best capacity is to give the public what they want to hear, what they want to listen. For example, the state cannot like sponsor a writer to write a book about the history of Vietnam and then you know make other people interested in it.

Is he ever worried that voicing his opinion in this way and publishing it on his blog could get him in trouble?

I think it’s not really too dangerous to be as outspoken as I am, because I think I’m kind of moderate.

That is to say that though Giang is calling for more freedom of expression and the creation of a functioning dialogue between the civil society and the state, he doesn’t think this needs to mean that the whole system be changed.

Ok, if you want to overthrow the regime then what’s next? Ok you want to have democracy, but probably it could be like Duterte, like the Philippines and it doesn’t make sense for us to have that kind of chaotic society. So the thing in my opinion is I want to take a de-idiolised approach. I don’t want to get into a trap that our ancestors or fathers took that we focus too much on ideology.

He thinks there is another way

I don’t think it’s important to define which country or which system is more or less democratic than other, but to make it you know a better place, by implementing the policies, that are benefiting the people. I want to take a more pragmatic approach, like the way that Singapore has been doing. If you want to make a better place, better country, a better society, you better change it step by step. Oh this policy is bad, you have to voice out your concerns. You have to use your critical thinking to make it better policy. Not to overthrow anything else.

His musing that democracy may not be the only workable future is very much in line with thoughts of his current reading material, which is…

The Origin of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama.

A scholar Giang admires for his ability to admit he was wrong.

When he wrote The End of History in 1989 he decided that the ideological war ended with the victory for the Liberalism, but after 20 years he you know he kind of like reverse this kind of idea and he know that the world is more complicated. And that’s what I think is, I think that he is a very very great intellectual because of that. Because he can face the fact that he perceived wrong in the past, but he is kind of brave enough to voice about that and to dig in more of the issues that he think that is important.

Giang believes he is not the only one thinking along the lines of post-ideology.

I have the feeling, that because we were born during the time that are a little bit mix of everything, capitalism, communism, globalisation, Internet, everything is happening. I think that the next generation is a little bit more like you know departing from what we are now. That they have no ideology at all.

And that makes him cautiously hopeful.

I think that for the next generation it’s gonna be you know hopefully a better Vietnamese society for us to live in. But it’s I think it’s dependent on what we are now, on what the current generation is doing, because if we can’t do anything to improve our life, to protect our environment, to protect our forest and to demand for more positive changes from the regime, then the next generation would be worse of. You never know, because the future is uncertain.

This has been The Renovation Generation. Follow us on SoundCloud or subscribe to The Renovation Generation on iTunes, Stitcher or MixCloud to never miss an episode.

It is produced by Eliza Lomas and Fabiola Buchele, our production assistants are Trang Nghiem and Trang Ngo. Jacques Smit is our photographer and narration was done by me Maia Do.

For episode 19 we finally catch up with our long-held lady-crush Suboi in her native Hồ Chí Minh City to talk to the fierce rapper about being a female role model, reading Thích Nhất Hạnh and the lessons learned from having your trust abused.Be sure to listen!