It's early morning, Sunday. Hanoi's citizenry has been up for hours, exercising beside downtown lakes, eating rice-and-bean breakfasts in sidewalk cafes, and now, here on Tran Nhan Trong Street, lining up by the hundreds for the 9 a.m. performance of the Vietnam National Circus.
In war and peace, in good economic times and bad, the circus has played to capacity crowds. It is arguably the nation's most important cultural institution, a favorite of the late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and praised effusively on its tours of Asia and Europe.
But in the early 1990s, Nguyen Tam Chinh, the circus director and artistic manager, received news that she feared would end the troupe's long run: As part of Vietnam's move toward an open-market economy, the Communist government was slashing subsidies for the arts.
"Before, the government paid for everything, and without that help we weren't sure we could survive," said Chinh, 56, who came to the big tent as a teenage acrobat and is considered Vietnam's most famous modern circus performer.
Competition was a new concept to her. But she cut expenditures, balanced the $2-million annual budget, introduced new acts, recruited fresh talent, spruced up the 1,600-seat arena and even started advertising. For the first time, she was allowed to send the troupe on foreign tours without government approval.
"Moving into a free-market economy meant we had to be more creative to attract an audience," Chinh said. The result, she added, is that business is up, the acts that had been called stagnant are new and lively, and Western circus buffs say the performers--the acrobats, jugglers, clowns--are world class.
The circus is a small but telling example of Vietnam's ability, when its people are allowed to use initiative and pursue their entrepreneurial instincts, to make the shift from a state-controlled monopoly to a free-market economy.
By Western standards, the circus is a real bargain. Ticket prices range from the equivalent of 70 cents to $2, and rice popsicles cost only 10 cents. Earnings for performers start at about $15 a month and top out at about $65 if they reach star status. Many run shops or hold odd jobs to make ends meet.
The circus--widely regarded as the best in Southeast Asia--still bears the influence of its former Soviet advisors, and 20 of its top performers trained in Moscow. Its acts include those familiar to American audiences as well as skits dealing with Vietnamese folk themes.
To the Vietnamese, the circus was an important cultural tool during the country's long struggle for independence. Its message was nationalistic and politicized from the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II through what is called the American War here.
The Japanese, in fact, closed the circus as a threat to their control of Vietnam. Later, during the 1946-54 war of independence against France, small circus troupes traveling the countryside were instrumental in spreading propaganda and gathering intelligence.
When U.S. forces began bombing North Vietnam in 1965, Chinh closed operations in Hanoi and moved to the front with her husband and other performers to entertain the troops.
Chinh believes that the performances helped boost troop morale.
"At first, we traveled to the front on foot," said her husband, Le The, a 38-year circus veteran. "We walked for weeks, carrying the props and equipment on our backs. When the planes came, we became medics, helping the wounded, burying the dead. Then, when it was quiet, we did our performances."
The circus followed the North Vietnamese army's rapid advance south in the spring of 1975.
Chinh and The's 11th-grade daughter has became a star circus acrobat. "But the circus is not enough anymore for a young person," Chinh said. "My daughter is very smart, and we are saving to get her the best education available. I hope she goes to Harvard."