By Kevin Mulqueen
(Filed: 17/05/2006)

Pham Ngu Lao: the backpackers' area of Saigon, a magnet for foreign tourists and local expats like myself.

After sunset, the streets are filled with hawkers and hustlers of every kind: from teenage girls selling copies of The Quiet American to phony beggar-women clasping sedated babies. Young Brits and Americans, revelling in the warmth and freedom of Vietnam, pack the bars and souvenir shops. The prices are irresistibly cheap: 9,000 dong (60 cents) for a bottle of Tiger, $2 for a lacquerware plate. But there is more to Pham Ngu Lao than ambience, beer and souvenirs; for some of us the main attraction is movies and music.

All over Saigon, pirate CDs and DVDs are for sale. It would be wrong to say there is a flourishing black market for them, because they are sold openly. Occasionally there is a token police raid, and a shop is stripped of its illicit wares, but a couple of days later it's business as usual. A backhander has been paid, and the police will not return for a long time.

The epicentre of musical and filmic piracy in Saigon is Pham Ngu Lao. The shop I go to sells a CD for 10,000 dong (65 cents) and a DVD for 16,000 ($1). There is a huge range of music CDs, from the latest hip-hop to Tchaikovsky to John Coltrane. CDs are crudely packaged, often with no information as to track titles or personnel; but for 10,000 dong who cares? The missing info can easily be found on the internet.

All over Saigon, pirate CDs and DVDs are for sale

People these days seem to be more interested in DVDs than CDs. My shop stocks all the latest Hollywood movies. Brokeback Mountain was on sale just a few days after its general release, but, as always with instant copies, the quality was poor. Now, several months later, you can buy the superior pirate version, indistinguishable from the original.

There are boxed sets of the complete X-Files (68 discs for $68), The Office and Star Trek. In short supply, alas, are classic old movies – probably because there is no demand for them, except by me. Every so often, though, my heart skips a beat as I pluck a pearl from among the Hollywood dross – David Lean's Great Expectations or Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves.

A Vietnamese pirate disc – CD or DVD – is either home-produced or imported from China. Being so ridiculously cheap, it is, of course, inferior to a legally manufactured disc, but only in terms of packaging and durability. For a short time it will play perfectly well. And then, six days or six months later, when the plastic coating has deteriorated, you will have to squander a whole dollar on a new one. The golden rule is: buy silver discs, which may last several years, and avoid blue discs, which wear out quickly.

The short-lived pirate DVDs of Saigon have, apart from their price, one distinct advantage over US or European originals: they come with subtitles in a variety of languages, including English.

What about the ethics of buying pirate merchandise? Isn't it morally wrong to buy an illegally copied DVD? Personally, I have no qualms about it. The pirates of Saigon are making a tidy sum from their illicit trade, but they are not millionaires. By contrast, the giant music and movie corporations of the West are making vast fortunes, and any money they lose to piracy is relatively insignificant. By selling pirate discs, many Vietnamese families manage to keep their heads above water.

For a music and movie-lover like myself, Saigon is close to heaven. However, according to some authorities, the days of dirt-cheap CDs and DVDs are numbered. Bill Gates visited Vietnam in April, he discussed piracy with the country's leaders. In July, apparently, piracy will be outlawed.

I'm not worried. Even if the government cracks down hard on illicit DVDs and CDs, the street traders of Pham Ngu Lao will carry on selling them. They will find a way. The police, who are paid such paltry wages, will carry on accepting backhanders. And I will carry on buying cheap copies of old cowboy movies and jazz concerts by Thelonious Monk.

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