HANOI -- A 2013 survey showed Vietnamese read 0.8 books, manga or magazines a year. To the central and local governments, this pointed to a cultural problem: Vietnamese had become too glued to their smartphones.
The results of the survey, conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, were striking. Japanese, who are reading less than they used to, still manage to get through 10 to 20 books a year, a Japanese ministry has reported.
Chinese adults read an average of 4.66 printed books last year, according to a survey by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication.
In 2014, Vietnam's then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung established April 21 as national book day. He chose the date because it is the anniversary of the 1927 release of "Duong Cach Menh (The Road to Revolution)," a collection of speeches by Nguyen Ai Quoc, who later became known as Ho Chi Minh.
But national book day proved to be no match for the smartphone. In 2017, 15 million of the devices were sold in the country, more than double the 7 million sold in 2013.
Along the way, Vietnamese became voracious consumers of Facebook and other social media; they do very little reading in cafes or other spots. The government, knowing it would have to get more aggressive, decided on a book streets and special events campaign. Private companies pitched in.
In May 2017, the Hanoi People’s Committee put about 20 bookstores along a several-hundred-meter-long path next to the People’s Court. A place where cars used to park became the capital’s first bookstore street. Now used book markets and imported book fairs are held along the lane.
Ho Chi Minh City in 2016 gave rise to a similar bookstore street that a year later attracted 2.5 million visitors who bought a total of 750,000 books.
Bookstore cafes are also part of the government's campaign, and their numbers have increased rapidly, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Now there are hundreds of these cafes across the nation, in big cities and rural areas.
Vietnamese habits are also beginning to change. This can be traced back to 1986, when the doi moi economic reforms were initiated with the goal of opening the country's markets and allowing foreign capital into the country. The shift began to bear fruit around 2000, and young people from the generation that first benefited from doi moi are now parents intent on giving their children a good education.
Nhung, a 39-year-old German teacher in Hanoi, visits the book street near the People's Court with her 8-year-old daughter, Nhat Anh, every week. She limits her daughter’s smartphone usage to no more than two hours a day. Nhat Anh also has to read each day.
The daughter said she reads at least one book a week and likes biographies of famous people. She mentioned German composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
Japanese books are proving somewhat popular in the country. According to online bookseller Fahasa, four Japanese titles were among Vietnam's 30 top-selling books in 2017. "Kimi no Na wa (Your Name)," the novelized version of the hit anime, was No. 10.
In April, More Production Vietnam (Hanoi) began selling 15 Japanese children’s books, including titles by Taro Gomi, famous for his "Kingyo ga Nigeta (Where’s the fish?)."
In May, Yumiko Kawanishi, head of EAP Research Institute at Randstad, one of the world’s largest recruitment companies, published the Vietnamese version of her book on the importance of mental health care at companies. It is rare for Japanese business books to be published in Vietnam.
"Hashi o Kakeru (Building Bridges)," a book written by Japan's Empress Michiko on the reminiscences of childhood readings, will be published in Vietnamese in October.