Cultural economy in Vietnam: New approaches needed

Part of Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020, the seminar “Cultural Economy in Vietnam: Challenges and Opportunities” on the 12th of November surprised the audience with its new approach, immense knowledge and diverse perspectives from experts. Different from what people might think of an unexciting scientific research seminar, the seminar was an open platform for creative researchers and practitioners to share their interesting and innovative viewpoints.

The seminar consisted of two sessions. Session 1: Challenges & Session 2: Opportunities. The event started with a keynote by Ms. Pham Thi Thanh Huong, Head of Cultural Department of the local UNESCO Office on the Culture for Development Indicators. These indicators are a tool to assess and measure the influence of culture on seven dimensions: Economy, Education, Communication, Heritage, Governance, Social Participation, and Gender. Until now, this is the first toolkit to quantify culture in Vietnam. However, Dr. Ngo Tu Lap, Director of the International Francophone Institute (IFI) of Vietnam National University – Hanoi, had a different viewpoint on this set of indicators. According to him, this tool has a dichotomic approach, placing culture in contrast to nature, technology and considering it immeasurable economy-wise. When people think of culture, they immediately think of it as the opposite of economy. He believed that a new viewpoint on cultural economy was needed, where culture was an integral part of all aspects in life.

With his excellent hosting skills and excellent ways of positioning issues, Dr. Trinh Le Anh turned the auditorium into a bustling open space for everyone in the room to discuss. Fresh and interesting opinions were offered by the audience, notably that of Associate Professor Dr. Tran Thi Anh. Her coherent, structured arguments touched on three aspects of the cultural economy: theory, investment, and education. According to her, our approach has to first start from theories and researches, which already had models available from all around the world. It is a must to determine our position, which direction we should follow and which theories to apply in order to make the right investments. There are considerable funds for cultural investments in Vietnam, but the outcomes have yet to reach the expectations of the grand public, with projects worth hundreds of billions VND not fulfilling their initial purposes and going to waste. Last but not least, in terms of education, family and community culture needs to accompany one another. Family culture is passed down from one generation to the next, and while not written down, it is deeply embedded in everyday life. Community culture is what is integrated into the educational curriculum and requires even more attention from families, as this is what each individual contributes to society. The question here is how to truly understand and respect art – cultural values and community culture, in order to contribute to the cultural values in our society. She believes that cultural assessment and measurement should have the human factor at its core.

Ending the first session of the seminar, challenges of the cultural economy unveiled as our shortcomings: lack of tools and systems to assess culture; low awareness of Vietnamese people on the cultural economy; resources for development are not placed at the right focus; and more. One of the biggest challenges is the confusion in “liberating the freedom of expression”. Culture is still bound by age-old prejudices. And the gap between local and global thinking poses an issue in creating a product packaging that is appropriate to both Vietnam and the world.

On the second session Opportunities, presenting on stage were familiar faces in the field of creative practice: Film director Nguyen Hoang Diep; Assoc Prof Dr. Tran Xuan Tu, Head of Department of Science, Technology and International Relations, University of Engineering and Technology, VNU Hanoi; and Assoc Prof Dr. Tran Thi Thanh Tu, Dean of Finance and Banking Faculty, University of Economics and Business, VNU Hanoi. Nguyen Hoang Diep shared her thoughts and recounted her challenges in her creative path, from when she wasn’t aware of herself as a cultural practitioner to when she did. She observed that from when she was still in school until the present, the educational thinking on arts and film – which put a divider between arts – culture and the economy – remained the same, and hadn’t caught up with the current reality. Arts and culture is not something measurable economy-wise, or by billions of VND in revenue. Out there, it is on default for the public to consider good works are those that bring back huge revenue. She believed that measures and quantification were making things clearer, but also closing doors. Numbers and economic factors are easy to calculate, but other things aren’t. We need a balance of artistic and economic factors. Everything needs to connect, to be open and intertwine with one another. 

Continuing on Hoang Diep’s stories, Associate Professor Dr. Tran Thi Thanh Thu believed that from the economic viewpoint, Hoang Diep’s experience in the film industry concerning opportunity cost; and economy should be considered as a “tool” for cultural development. Once that tool is in our hands, we need to think about how to harmoniously and optimally put it to use. Alongside economic factors, technology is also a helpful tool for cultural development, added Associate Professor Dr. Tran Xuan Tu. Technology provides immense assistance in bringing arts and culture closer to the grand public, especially in the age of digital transformation like today. The opportunity to develop Vietnam’s cultural economy is right now when it has become the focal point of every field and industry. Cultural practices should not only focus on quantification but also a balanced development of quality for sustainable, long-term growth. 

These perspectives provided by the guest speakers were well-received by the audience. There were also opinions saying that regardless of culture or economy, it is absolutely wrong to put “money” at the focus. This misconception has led to many unfortunate consequences that we now have to face. To put “money” at the focus of culture is even more inappropriate, as culture holds much richer, deeper values. Culture brings about the values of humanity and awakens us all. Culture builds the inner power of every nation. Thus it is a must to think of appropriate, long-term development strategies. While cultural potential can generate money, it is not possible to rush and sell out memories, cultural diversity, and nature.

As the seminar came to an end, everyone was optimistic about the future potential of the cultural economy with tremendous opportunities opening up. The next immediate step is to develop proper methods. This requires the contributions from every field and industry, of cultural researchers, practitioners as well as entrepreneurs. A thought-provoking seminar, Cultural Economy in Vietnam: Challenges and Opportunities was an opening event for a longer, more profound seminar series from VNU Hanoi Scientists Club (VNU Scientist Links).

Chii Nguyen