Việt Nam’s January News Roundup

January has been eventful for the country of Việt Nam. Here is a roundup of all the news you need to know.

1.  A nation mourns the death of a beloved turtle

The death of Cụ Rùa, the great-grandfather turtle, has led to nationwide grief.

The people of Hà Nội crowded around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, trying to catch the last glimpse of Cụ Rùa as officials pulled the turtle out of the water on January 20.

The nearly 400-pound Yangtze giant softshell turtle held both cultural and conservation value. According to The Guardian, scientists believe it was one of four remaining species left in the world.

For centuries, Hanoians have passed on the tale that Cụ Rùa is the incarnation of a giant turtle that rose from the local lake to reclaim a magic sword from Emperor Lê Lợi, after he used it to defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty that occupied Việt Nam in the 15th century. The legend also explains the name of the lake: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm -- “The Lake of the Returned Sword” or Hồ Gườm -- Sword Lake.

The sacred turtle has been a national symbol of Việt Nam’s struggle for independence, and it’s believed to protect the country from foreign invaders. Many took the timing of Cụ Rùa's death as a bad omen, as Nguyễn Đình Hà, a young Hanoian explains:.

“As someone who was born and raised in Hà Nội all my life, I feel the strong bond between the people of Hà Nội and the turtle from Sword Lake. The death of the turtle is a warning sign as to the environmentally pollution of Sword Lake. The turtle has had health issues and has had to undergo treatment in 2011. In reality, Sword Lake was too polluted. Spiritually, people have considered the death of the turtle a day before the Communist Party Congress to be a bad omen for the future of our country.”

2. A showdown at the 12th National Party Congress could see a powerful prime minister sidelined

Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng welcomes more than 1,500 delegates at the start of the 12th Communist National Party Congress on January 20th. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed that Dũng was on a roll to even greater power. Many political analysts believed that the powerful prime minister was the top contender for the Party’s top post of general secretary.

What a difference a few weeks makes!

BBC reports that instead, the conservative and China-friendly incumbent, General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng, will likely be reelected. He's the Party’s only candidate. Generally considered a progressive, Dũng was left off the nomination roster.

The behind-the-closed-doors infighting is evident in tell-tale leaks and has fueled the rumor mill. However, a loophole might still allow the reformist Prime Minister to come from behind at the last minute.

Here's some background in case you are confused:

A 2014 rule to avoid last minute surprises at the Party Congress bars any candidate who is nominated at the Party Congress, which goes on until January 28, to accept the nomination. The loophole? The delegates at the 12th Party Congress have the authority to accept or reject the candidate’s withdrawal.

There is a slim chance for Dũng as he would need at least 1,000 out of 1,510 delegates present at the Party Congress to secure his power. The final outcome is still unpredictable, but what is certain is that whoever wins the top position of Việt Nam's ruling Communist Party will affect the country's social, economic and political landscape for years to come.

Professor Thomas A. Bass summarizes the process in a Foreign Policy article titled “The Ugly Thugs Running Việt Nam Aren't Experimenting with Democracy.”

3. Authorities arrest a prominent human rights lawyer

Nguyễn Văn Đài, a prominent human rights attorney, is the latest victim of the Vietnamese  authorities. Đài is the founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy. His arrest comes ten days after he and his colleagues were brutally assaulted in Nghệ An province after conducting a human rights workshop in observance of International Human Rights Day. He was charged under Article 88 of Việt Nam's penal code: “conducting propaganda against the State" for his advocacy work.

Đài gave a personal account of the violent assault before he was arrested.

“They intended to twist and break my left arm. One of them shouted, ‘I will break your arm.’ They tried several times unsuccessfully, so they stopped. There was another well-built young man, locked my neck in one position, while the other one punched my face repeatedly.  Luckily, I was able to cover my face with my free arm, to prevent the punches from hitting my eyes and nose.”

Đài’s arrest is the latest example in a series of aggressive state-sponsored actions taken against him.

Dai’s wife, Vũ Minh Khánh launched a petition on asking the international community to call for the release of her husband. She spoke to VOA about her husband.

“I sincerely hope that everyone (the international community) will advocate and put pressure on the Vietnamese authorities to secure the freedom of my husband.”

U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby expressed concerns for Đài at one of his daily briefings:

“We are deeply concerned by the arrest of human rights advocate Nguyễn Văn Đài under national security-related Article 88 of Việt Nam’s penal code. We urge Việt Nam to ensure its laws and actions are consistent with its international obligations and commitments, and we call on the government to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience – I was right in the middle – all prisoners of conscience and allow all individuals in Việt Nam to express their political views without fear of retribution.”

Just last week, 23 Burmese and Vietnamese pro-democracy and civil society organizations came together to call for the immediate release of Đài and his colleague Lê Thu Hà, who was arrested in the same incident.

4. A solemn memorial to mark China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands from Việt Nam is rudely disrupted

On the morning of January 19, activists across Việt Nam gathered in various city centers to pay tribute to 74 soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Việt Nam who died defending Hoàng Sa, the Paracel Islands, against Chinese naval forces in 1974.

The commemorations took place just one day ahead of the 12th National Party Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Việt Nam which prioritizes comradeship with its Chinese counterpart.

In Sài Gòn, authorities sprayed water and forced activists to leave the area. Security forces detained the event's organizers but released them later that day.

Meanwhile, in Hà Nội, during a commemorative atmosphere, paid and uniformed thugs disrupted a planned event with music and instructed people to dance right in front of commemorators.

Disregarding the distraction, Lã Việt Dũng, a member of the anti-China soccer club No-U Hà Nôi, read a statement in honor of the fallen Hoàng Sa soldiers.

“Today in this sacred, emotional moment, we gather to honour our patriotic men who sacrificed their lives to protect our country. May they rest in peace in these tumultuous waters. We wish for their families and loved ones to be respected in the hearts of all Vietnamese people.”

Lã Việt Dũng and his fellow activists came together to protests against China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea.

“We believe the majority of the Vietnamese people have become aware about the dangers of China, with few who have turned a blind eye in order to maintain power and profits. On one side, they have tried to hide and alter history and on the other side, they are puppets of Chinese authorities and have tried to manipulate and remove the freedoms and rights of the Vietnamese people, preventing Vietnam from prosperous development. The work we are doing today is of great significance. We are making an important statement regarding our basic rights; the freedom of association, freedom of information, freedom to remember those who sacrificed their lives to protect our country; we are not afraid about being suppressed by anyone.
On behalf of No-U, I sincerely thank everyone for being here today.
The Paracel and Spratly Islands belong to Việt Nam!”

5. Shoppers are snapping up the best-selling items in preparation for Tết, the Lunar New Year

From Hà Nội, to Đà Nẵng, to Sài Gòn, Tết markets are crowded with shoppers making their last purchases of the year of the Sheep and preparing to ring in the year of the Fire Monkey, which will begin on February 8th.

Tết goodies such as fashionable clothes, footwear, confectionery, beverages (particularly beer), melon and pumpkin seeds, and many types of dried seafood are among the best-selling items around Tết.

In Sài Gòn, shop owners have noticed a trend in Vietnamese consumers preferring “made in Japan" products. According to Nielsen Việt Nam, an information and measurement company, ice-cold Japanese beer is among the hottest beverage this holiday season. Coffee, a nontraditional Tết item, is anticipated to have a 17 percent increase in sales