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From 'Freeze' to 'Avcngcrs': Inside the Wacky World of Vietnam's Bootleg Toys

In Vietnam, you can find a Lego set in official Lego stores or any big toy shops at high prices; but if you take a different route, you can find Lego sets being sold by small vendors for much cheaper. But those sets are a little bit different; they are branded as “Lele'' or “Lepin,” or just white Chinese characters on a red square. For decades, these bootleg toys have been a widely popular option for Vietnamese kids.

“Bootleg,”  “fake,” or “counterfeit” toys belong in the shady, unlicensed section of the toy world. Some are made to imitate specific authentic products, while others are unauthorized toys merely resembling characters, objects, etc. from popular franchises. These bootleg items are the arch-nemesis of many global toy manufacturers.

A quick Google search of the term “bootleg toys” will give you a general idea of how these items are perceived. Unofficial merchandise is generally criticized for its unknown origins, copyright violations, and subpar quality, but it still has a big presence in many Vietnamese children's lives.  

I learned about bootleg toys when I was old enough to go to class and saw them being sold by bicycle vendors in front of the school or nearby grocery stores. Back then, I had no concept of what were real or fake toys; all I knew was I could spend my pocket money on Beyblades, yo-yos, Pokemon figurines, and toy versions of popular TV characters.

The quality of those toys was not great, but everyone around me was playing with bootleg toys, so I viewed their shortcomings as the norm. For example, when it came to Beyblade battling tops, real Beyblades were superior to counterfeit ones, but since my friends all had fake Beyblades too, we were on a level playing field. We simply grabbed one or two Beyblades for VND20,000 each and used a plastic basin or a Danisa cookie box as a battling stadium.

Bootleg toys have an unpolished charm that captivates children. To better understand the appeal, I visited the toy market to explore the current landscape of fake toys. I observed a recurring theme: the crossover between popular icons.

Since bootleg toys don’t abide by any copyright limitations, manufacturers have the freedom to mashup any pop culture character or property you can think of, as long as it appeals to children. Kids love Thomas the Tank Engine, but have they ever seen Thomas in a badass robotic form? Minecraft is popular on YouTube Kids, so here is Superman as a blocky Minecraft character! Famous mascots such as Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Marvel & DC superheroes are stamped on almost every type of toy, phone, car, helicopter, tambourine and puzzle. It feels like bootleg toys were made based on the wild imagination of a child. 

It's also fascinating to see the quirky side to counterfeit toys’ branding. To avoid copyright lawsuits, bootleg manufacturers use various tricks, such as deliberate typos, including “Diensys” and “Mineecraft.” There are also clever switcheroos that you have to inspect closely to spot, like “Avcngcrs.” To skirt the copyright rules, some licensed brand names get changed into related topics, like One Piece is named “Pirates”; and my personal favorite is how the Frozen franchise gets changed into either “Fashion” or “Freeze.”

Bootlegs are very cheap, which is ultimately why they are so popular. The toy market I visited sold the biggest, most expensive toys within the VND100,000–200,000 range, while cheaper options were quite affordable at only around VND15,000—50,000. Back in my school days, I remember buying them with ease if I refrained from getting sodas and snacks for a day or two.

Messing around with bootleg toys, having Beyblade battles and playing Đập hình with friends were fun, but parents, teachers and school supervisors advised us against buying them because they distracted us from studying and could even be dangerous. At the time, I only took it as grown-ups not knowing how to have fun, but as I got older, my feelings changed.

news article from 2015 uncovered some unsettling features of specific bootleg toys sold in Hanoi markets. The toys could play audio telling stories, reciting poems, and more, but some of the content was inappropriate. There was an apple-shaped toy broadcasting vulgar comedic stories, for example. The dark recordings can get quite intense, as the report found toy iPhones containing messages touting substance abuse, and worst of all, a Doraemon figure with an angry monologue encouraging self-harm and suicide.

With all this in mind, I have a love-hate relationship with bootleg toys. The knockoff universe is large and wacky, comprising anything from top-notch entertaining items to downright unhinged, terrifying products that shouldn’t exist. I despise how their unregulated nature results in some unsafe situations for children, but at the same time, I do appreciate them for being a part of my childhood, and a source of joy for me and my friends.

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