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Revisiting Vietnam's Bootleg DVD Stores, the Dethroned King of Local Entertainment

Once upon a time, it was really, really hard to halt the growth of pirated DVD/CD stores in Hanoi. Nowadays, if you take a peek into the window of Hàng Bài Street’s former counterfeit/bootleg DVD stores, here are a few things you will see: CD covers of Taylor Swift albums before her bleached-haired era, a copy of “Now That’s What I Call Music 54,” a Dawn of The Planet of the Apes knock-off, a recording of “Cats” (the musical album, not the film). The entire store is stuck in a not-so-distant past, without any seller or customer. In a bustling Hanoi, the once so-called “Capital of Bootlegs” now lies humbly, nestled quietly in a dormitory’s front corner.

In the 1980s and 1990s, devices such as video recorders, CD players, and televisions used to be pretty strange and new to those of my parents’ age. Now, such things are only remnants of the past. People no longer need them for media screenings. If one mentions the era of pirated DVDs now, everyone will probably recognize it, but few will be able point out on a map where to find these past relics.

As Tết is already around the corner, I am reminded of the many headlines I saw when I was younger discussing the pressing issue of bootlegs and counterfeits — stories of the local police unearthing thousands of pirated CDs around Tết, as comedy knock-offs were much more sought-after in the absence of TV reruns. The general journalistic viewpoint of the day was that these products brought about unfair competition to genuine record companies and raised serious censorship concerns. 

But as a person who grew up with bootlegged media, I do not think that pirated discs were merely something irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. Instead, I believe that the practice of buying bootlegs has its charms that one can only understand by having experienced it.

Hanoi's cheap entertainment capital

In the early 2000s, the prevalence of pirated discs in Hanoi was at an all-time high. Vendors of pirated DVDs were everywhere across “chợ Giời” and chợ Đồng Xuân, or were scattered across the facades of residential buildings on streets such as Thợ Nhuộm and Hàng Bài.

Pirated discs were a lucrative business back in the day. In 2007, an article on Quân Đội Nhân Dân reported that while authentic music CDs were sold for VND28,000–35,000, a bootleg version could sell for a fraction of the price at VND6,000–8,000. Using a CD burner was the go-to technology to transmit data onto blank discs, each costing only VND4,000, in the 2000s. Authentic DVD shops were only patronized if one wanted to buy rarities, such as Hollywood classics or Decca new releases.

A DVD and electronics shop in Huế. Photo via Hue Tourism.

Above all, genuine discs of Paris by Night, the absolute pinnacle of overseas Vietnamese entertainment and a household favorite of the time, were expensive and hard to find in Vietnam. The show's evergreen popularity was what drove many viewers to the arms of bootleg sellers. Apart from Paris by Night DVDs, video recordings of live shows by big names such as Mỹ Tâm, Bằng Kiều, and Lệ Quyên came second. Teenagers and young adults in the late 2010s were the primary audience for foreign films. Posters of The Mummy Returns, Mission ImpossibleHarry Potter and other Hollywood blockbusters were plastered all over DVD stores to attract passersby.

Lastly, an enduring variety of bootlegs, embraced mainly by older Vietnamese unfamiliar with the internet, were ABBA and Boney M CDs. To this day, owners of the few pirated DVD businesses left on Hàng Bài Street still keep these two European classics as mainstays in their collections.

The quirky charm of the bootleg experience

Buying DVDs hearkens back to a nostalgic age before the advent of streaming sites or even internet downloads. In Hanoi's DVD stores, people once gathered on tiny plastic chairs reminiscent of typical trà đá hangouts, striking a balance between this practice's makeshift and communal nature. Meanwhile, the physical appearance of these CDs is essentially camp. The maximalist visuals, with all the performers on the cover, was jarring. The designs were a mix of signature Vietnamese typographies with attention-grabbing color palettes ranging from lush green to sunset orange, creating an iconic expression of camp that could easily be part of a course called Exploring 2000s Vietnamese Aesthetics 101.

True to the spirits of counterfeit media, the employees were often obviously bored and unexcited about their products. Unlike one “specialist” film guy who sold authentic DVDs for a living — but primarily for passion — that I met in Hanoi, who would update his regular customers about the new Marilyn Monroe box set that he just got off Amazon, shopkeepers at bootleg stores could not care less about the content of the DVDs that buyers were looking for. 

Due to the high number of customers, especially near the year-end season, bootleg stores were manned by a bunch of 20-somethings, most often members of the owners' family. Customers would ask for a specific DVD just to receive a stack of CDs of the same genre tied together with a classic rubber yellow band, alongside a half-hearted instruction: “It might be in here, just pick one.” Picking DVDs, however, could also be a game of chance, as one may stumble on unexpected hidden gems.

Once popular everywhere, in today's age of YouTube and streaming sites, DVD shops are on their last legs. Photo via Hue Tourism.

The widespread existence of bootlegs in households speaks volumes about the mindset that many Hanoians I knew adopted, at a time when entertainment was far from abundant. In other words, because the selections were less diverse than they are now, it was common to watch one DVD or listen to one CD repeatedly. This repetition creates a strange sense of emotional attachment to the object — a sense of treasured ownership makes the entire experience of keeping bootlegs so endearing.  

Like any other form of nostalgia, that of bootlegs can also be easily blown out of proportion. In all honesty, there is no denying that the quality of the bootlegs was quite bad and could easily harm the DVD players because of their low quality. At times, I've experienced scratching noises, overwritten human voices in children's films, and discs with only Portuguese subtitles — this was particularly bizarre because it happened to me twice. However, these peculiarities became unique to the bootleg experience, constituting its charm. Any buyer of pirated DVDs accepted their flawed copies as is.

However, perhaps the most hilarious part of watching pirated DVDs was how terrible the Vietnamese dubs were in most cases. Not only was the dubbed Vietnamese noticeably inaudible, but it was commonly out-of-sync. Anyone, even non-English speakers, could immediately pick up on this. Despite this flaw, the purchase of a new disc usually meant an occasion to invite one's best buddies over for a viewing session together.

Remembering bootlegs — both the bad and the good

It is worth noting that I'm not writing this fond reflection to defend piracy or make any definitive case for piracy as a part of culture. At the same time, one can acknowledge the helpfulness of these DVDs in providing entertainment to underprivileged people with no expenses for genuine discs. While bootlegs and counterfeits made films and recordings more accessible to the impoverished, it is essential to acknowledge their negative effect on Vietnamese creatives. Historically, bootlegging has prevented many musicians and filmmakers from profiting from their intellectual products, and online piracy is still very much a concern for artists today. This rather contentious issue raises the question of how they should be remembered.

In my mind, bootlegs and counterfeits occupy a unique space in a cultural memory that is neither romantic nor particularly ethical. If the campy and maximalist aesthetics still stand out for anyone today, it must be among the geeks who were so psyched about CDs that they grow up to be film majors, or older Vietnamese who struggle to navigate cyber media. In the end, bootlegs and counterfeits are not to be condoned but rather remembered as folds in time, representing an era in which cheap means of entertainment such as fake CDs had their own aesthetics and quirky charm — an endearing period of adolescence for many.

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