Pham Bao Huy read a nonfiction book last year. He had set himself a target of eight.
“I just lost interest in the middle of the second book and turned to mobile gaming to do something in my free time,” the 14-year-old said.
Like many other students in Vietnam, Huy spends 8-10 hours a day at school and to attend extra classes. In his limited free time, the only thing that gives him joy is his smartphone, a birthday gift from his parents two years earlier.
“Books make me sleepy, but the phone can keep me entertained for hours. Gaming, browsing the internet and swiping up and down my Facebook feed makes me feel like I’m more connected with the rest of the world than reading,” he said, glancing at his phone as a notification popped up.
When it comes to reading books, Huy’s case is the rule, not an exception. Despite many efforts to improve the reading habit of local citizens in recent years, the Vietnamese government has failed to dislodge a tech-savvy population from an obsession with social networks.
The average number of books Vietnamese people read a year has barely changed in the last six years. A 2013 survey by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism showed that each Vietnamese reads 0.8 books a year, excluding textbooks.
This number only increased to just over one book this year, according to Le Hoang, vice chairman of the Vietnam Publishing Association.
The average number of books a Vietnamese reads a year is much lower than that of a Japanese at 10-20 books a year and Chinese at 4.7, according to official figures from the two countries.
The Vietnamese government had set a target for each person to read six books a year by 2010, but nine years later, the country is nowhere close to that goal, Hoang said at a recent forum.
Only 0.06 percent of the population now use libraries, while the target is to have 85 percent of the population use libraries by next year, he added.
Although the Vietnamese economy has been growing fast over the 30 years, the country’s reading rate has barely risen, said Nguyen Manh Hung, Minister of Information and Communications.
Only 30 percent of the population read regularly, while over a quarter do not read at all, he said, citing a 2016 survey by the Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City.
Going by the book
The government responded to the reading crisis with several actions. In 2014, the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung established April 21 as National Book Day. It has been celebrated annually ever since, with book fairs and forums launched in major cities and provinces.
In 2016, Ho Chi Minh City introduced a book street in the city center, which soon became a popular travel destination where 2 million copies were sold as of last year, generating revenues of over VND105 billion ($4.5 million).
Hanoi followed the same strategy and opened a similar book street in May 2017, with the aim of cultivating a reading culture among its residents. Used book markets and imported book fairs are organized along the lane.
These and other efforts to improve local libraries and the publishing industry have made some impact, with number of published copies rising by 55 percent and number of book titles by 22 percent in the 2014-2018 period, according to official figures.
But in the ultimate mission of increasing the number of books read per person, the country has come a cropper. In coffee stores and bus stations, the number of people glued to their smartphones far outnumbers those reading books.
In coffee stores, the number of people glued to their smartphones far outnumbers those reading books. Photo by Shutterstock/Asia Images
In fact, the smartphone, seen as the symbol of a tech-savvy population in a country that is promoting new technologies and global integration, has become a stumbling block in changing Vietnamese people’s reading habit.
Vietnamese digital advertising firm Adsota earlier this year assessed that 73 percent of the population uses mobile phones, of which 42 percent use smartphones and 50 million people use mobile social media.
Vietnam last year had the seventh highest number of Facebook users in the world, over 58 million, up 16 percent from 2017, according to marketing agency We Are Social.
Le Hoai Thu is an avid Facebook user. Working as a secretary at a South Korean firm in Hanoi, Thu constantly uses social networks to keep up to date with partners and new products.
“I work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and sometimes continue at home in the evening. The rest of my day is spent on chores and cooking for the family. Reading, for me, is a luxury,” said the 29-year-old.
Thu’s weekend is spent on chatting with her friends, online shopping and watching TV series, all of which can be done on her latest iPhone model, which she saved for three months to buy.
“My phone allows me to multitask, while reading is a lonely activity.”
Parents don’t read
Another reason that Vietnamese have a low reading rate is that parents and teachers fail to encourage and develop a reading habit among children at an early age, experts say.
Busy parents are unable to set an example for their children by reading. Photo by Shutterstock/Vietnam Stock Images
Nguyen Nhat Anh, a famous Vietnamese author whose works have been translated into various languages, said that the best way to encourage a person to read is to inspire him or her when he/she is small, through stories and through books.
Giving a book to teenagers who are hooked into computer games might just be too little, too late, like “forcing a passenger to switch aircraft in the air,” he said.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Minh, who teaches literature at the Hanoi National University of Education, said that heavy work pressure takes time away from parents who are unable to set an example for their children by reading or joining them in their reading activities.
Experts have proposed that Vietnam establish a reading time during a day as a school activity, but the idea has never been implemented nationwide.
Huy, the Hanoi student, said that his family has a bookcase, but it has been used mostly as “a decoration” to keep books his parents receive from friends and colleagues.
“My dad usually watches TV after dinner, while my mom browses on her phone. I don’t think I’ve seen them read at all last year.”
Earlier this year, after watching a motivational Youtube video, Huy made a resolution to read again. This time, he lowered the goal to five books.
“But four months in, I haven’t finished the first one. Maybe I should lower the target to three.”