Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Tea stalls in Hanoi keep gossip alive

IN THE KNOW Despite all the reform taking place in Vietnam, the best place to get all the capital's gossip is still along the roadside


While the pace of change in one-party Vietnam can sometimes appear dizzying, one thing remains the same, all media remain under the control of the government.

However, for decades in the capital there has been a constant source for salacious stories about Hanoi's elite that you would never read in the newspapers or see in the frosty nightly news bulletins.

Known collectively as "the pavement news agency," countless thousands of small tea stands dot the capital, and for the price of a cup of bitter green tea, the owners will often share the gossip and rumors that they have heard.

The stands have their roots in the revolution, says Professor Ngo Duc Tinh, from Vietnam's Institute for Cultural Studies.

After the founders of modern Vietnam kicked out the colonialist French in 1954, thousands of soldiers and cadres flooded into Hanoi from underground bases. The cafes left over by the French were considered too bourgeois, and the tea stands began to appear.

Talk has always come easier at a tea stand, Professor Thinh said.

"These places are good for talk because it is not like the office where people cannot express their ideas freely, nor the family environment where sometimes it is hard to talk. It is a place where people become much more open," Professor Thinh said.

All selling more or less the same thing -- tea, soda, a few confectioneries, cigarettes and water pipes of rough tobacco -- the tea stands are not designed for comfort. Customers perch on tiny plastic stools, drinking iced tea in summer, and hot tea in winter.

Nguyen Van Hong has been running a tea stand in the heart of Hanoi's government district for the last five years. He never reads a newspaper, but knows better than most what is going on behind the closed doors of Vietnam's elite.

"Places like ours, pavement news agencies, can spread news very quickly, even faster than newspapers," said 45-year-old Hong.

Recently, the talk has been about the ongoing crackdown on young people using drugs in bars, karaoke parlors and nightclubs. The offspring of connected Hanoians have managed to evade arrest, Hong alleged.

"These instances involve youngsters from wealthy families, whose parents hold high positions. It has been said that in most of the cases, people have been tipped off before the police came. Some of them have parents working at police agencies so the parents know the information in advance, and leak it to their children," Hong said.

More often than not, tea stand gossip has more than an element of truth. Journalists sometimes use the tea stand information as the basis for stories, according to Son Lam, who works for the state-run Thanh Nien newspaper.

"These places are often our first source for hot news," Lam said.

It is not just news that the pavement tea stands supply. Between 80 and 90 percent of them are agents for Le De, an illegal game based on the national lottery.

Every day just before six, the stands are crowded with people betting on the game. Tea stand owners confirm that the odds are better and the prizes bigger than the legal version.

But as Hanoi's streets grow increasingly crowded with cars and motorbikes, and people get used to higher standards of living, the tea stands could become a relic of the past, Professor Thinh, believes.

However, for now, you can still get a three cent cup of bitter green tea, bet on your lucky numbers, and hear juicy stories that would never make the front page.

This story has been viewed 4329 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top