Vietnamese wartime communist propaganda posters featuring the goateed face of Ho Chi Minh or heroic images of Viet Cong fighters have become popular souvenirs for tourists, but not for Vietnamese.
The posters are common items alongside jewelry, clothing and more routine memorabilia like elephant figurines and keychains in the narrow, congested streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter tourist district.
“It is a souvenir with a style element, at a reasonable price, more interesting than a cheap ‘fashion’ bag that you can find in all these shops,” said a German tourist, who gave his name only as Fritz.
He had stopped at an Old Quarter shop where his eyes feasted on poster portraits of Ho, the country’s revolutionary leader who died in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War against the US.
“I like socialist design in general, propaganda art. Whether you agree or not with the content is not really the point,” said Fritz, 32, who lives in China.
The sale of propaganda posters began in the 1990s when Vietnam’s economy opened to the world and the number of tourists started to explode.
“Foreign tourists wanted to buy things linked to the war,” said Nora Taylor, a specialist in the history of Vietnamese art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
She said from Chicago that while many buyers think they have found a treasured, authentic historical object, a unique item from the war era is extremely rare.
An authentic poster dating from the conflict against French colonizers about 60 years ago, or from the later war against the Americans, sells for between US$300 and US$2,000, according to owners of galleries which display the originals as well as cheaper copies that sell for as little as US$5.
Pham Ngoc Manh, 33, who owns two Hanoi shops, said he owns about 100 original posters obtained from their creators or from people close to them.
“I sell very few originals, mostly reproductions,” said Manh, who estimates that only between 2,000 and 3,000 authentic posters survive.
“When Uncle Ho says ‘Victory,’ then we will win,” declares one poster under a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of Vietnamese communism, on a red background.
“Nixon must pay the blood debt,” shouts another, which shows the former North Vietnam being targeted by a bomb carrying a picture of former US president Richard Nixon.
Some posters, newly reprinted, include slogans translated into English to please the visitors.
“For many tourists, it’s a souvenir of the war rather than an object of art,” Taylor said.
Among Vietnamese, though, there is little interest.
“Without tourists there wouldn’t be any business,” said Nguyen Bach Tuyet, 48, a gallery owner.
Manh also has few Vietnamese customers.
“They see enough of those things in the street,” he said.
The communist regime still hangs its slogans throughout the country. Billboards featuring Ho Chi Minh or war-era fighters do not dominate the landscape, but they can be seen in some places. Key political and social events are heralded with red banners strung across main streets.
“Vietnamese suffered incessant wars for generations. Maybe by the time the fighting finally ceased, they did not want to be reminded too much,” said Richard di San Marziano, curator of the private “Dogma Collection” of original posters from the 1960s and 1970s available for viewing only on the Internet.
“Maybe they will become interested” one day, added the Briton, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
San Marziano said foreign visitors are greatly interested in Vietnamese propaganda art because it is “vigorous, fresh and interesting compared to other countries, and the work itself is an historical document.”
However, Taylor thinks it will be a long time before Vietnamese develop foreigners’ passion for the pictures.
“These posters still have a message, so they can’t become an object of decoration. That will only be possible when the image no longer has meaning, when the image changes status from propaganda to art,” she said.
One 45-year-old Vietnamese expatriate from Canada, who gave her name only as Thao, had a more down-to-earth reason for avoiding works such as a poster of a woman in a rice field with the slogan: “Agriculture, it’s the future.”
“Who would want to hang something like that?” she asked. “Maybe it will be priceless in 30 years, but for now, if I hang that kind of propaganda at home, if the other expatriates see it, they’ll burn down my house!”