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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

billboard police help 'preserve' hanoi

HANOI -- Several police officers strode into the Hanoi office of a major European firm last week and ordered the general manager to take his company sign down.

The astonished manager asked for an explanation, but received the reply: "No. And we are the police."

Dozens of similar stories have been making the rounds in Vietnam's tightly knit foreign business community since the government launched a nationwide crackdown on prostitution, drug abuse, gambling and pornography Feb. 1.

Few expected it to include foreign company logos and billboards.

Kodak, Fiji, Coca-Cola, Carlsberg, Heineken, Samsung and British Petroleum are just a few of the brand names that have been covered over, or simply pulled down.

The communist government says the new rules are part of Decree 87 -- passed in December to tighten control on "social evils" -- which may explain why alcohol and companies selling video players have been targeted.

The decree also restricts advertising and the wording on billboards to help preserve "Vietnamese language, order and the aesthetic appearance" of cities.

"This in no way affects ordinary production and trading activities of foreign companies in Vietnam," maintained a foreign ministry official.

The official newspaper Hanoi Moi explained last weekend that foreign firms could use their non-Vietnamese trade names on signs, but the wording had to be the same size or smaller than Vietnamese wording. The rule does not apply to signs at company headquarters and offices, it added.

Judging from the experience of some foreign executives, interpretation of the law has variedwidely.

Foreign investment has flooded into Vietnam in recent years, spurred by the prospect of big returns from the successful transformation of its Soviet-style command economy. Total investment pledges from abroad now exceed $18 billion. That has brought a host of Western products and advertising.

According to one advertising executive in Vietnam, media billings in the Southeast Asian country more than doubled in 1995 from the previous year to $62.8 million. Although equivalent to only 7 percent of the advertising market in nearby Thailand, the growth has been enough to change both social attitudes and the urban landscape.

"Foreign advertising has helped raise the level of local marketing efforts, made the market more professional and supported a number of sports and cultural activities," the state-run Vietnam News wrote recently.

"But it has also stretched the country's laws to breaking point and resulted in serious tax evasions."

Some critics contend that foreign ads also violate Vietnamese customs and cultural norms, the daily added.

Diplomats in Hanoi say the decision to apply the new decree so forcefully stems from concern that market forces loosening the communist party's grip on power.

and to undermine the traditional, national values it preaches.

The government flexed its muscles last month when it instructed news organizations to ensure balance between domestic and foreign advertising and to provide free space for state propaganda.

Western diplomats said that, if it lasts, the move against non-Vietnamese logos and advertising could make foreign investors think twice before putting money into what is otherwise considered to be a promising market.

The representative of an Australian firm returned to his Hanoi office from a visit to Ho Chi Minh City to discover that "the company's name had gone off the building."

"It really gets my back up," he said.