A Vietnamese noodle vendor who made a viral video mocking a senior minister for eating a $2,000 steak has been imprisoned for five-and-a-half years for “anti-state propaganda.”
Bui Tuan Lam, 39, a long-time pro-democracy activist who runs a beef noodle stall in the central city of Danang, was convicted yesterday under Article 117 of the Vietnamese penal code, an elastic provision that has been used to sentence dozens of dissidents to lengthy prison terms.
It outlaws “making, storing, spreading information or materials that contains distorted information about the people’s government.”
According to a BBC report that cited Lam’s lawyer, he must also serve four years of probation after being released.
Lam broke the Vietnamese internet in November 2021 after he filmed himself slicing beef and sprinkling spring onion on a bowl of noodle soup in the same absurd fashion as “Salt Bae” (real name Nusret Gökçe), a Turkish celebrity chef based in London. While Lam presented the video without comment, the Vietnamese internet recognized it as a hilarious reference to the video that had emerged several days earlier of Salt Bae hand-feeding Vietnam’s powerful Public Security Minister To Lam a gold leaf-encrusted steak at his ludicrously overpriced restaurant Nusr-Et. Law was immediately questioned by police and later arrested for breaching Article 117.
Lam’s video, which led some to dub him “Green Onion Bae,” prompted many netizens to question why a senior official would indulge in such aggressively ostentatious consumption in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign. To heighten the contradictions, according to a BBC report, the steak outing took place after To Lam visited the tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery in north London.
Lam will now join the estimated 170 people currently in Vietnamese prisons for expressing views unacceptable to the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.
Prior to making the video for which he will now probably always be known, Lam had been a political activist for nearly 10 years, taking part in anti-China and pro-democracy protests and posting frequently on these themes on social media. His advocacy has come at a heavy price. During that time, according to the rights group Human Rights Watch, he has experienced intimidation, surveillance, and physical attacks. He has been blocked from traveling abroad since 2014. His political advocacy cost him his job in Ho Chi Minh City and forced him to open a sidewalk noodle stand in Danang, his home city, in order to earn a living.
Lam was targeted for more than just the Salt Bae video. In its indictment against him, HRW reported, the Da Nang People’s Procuracy accused Lam of publishing 19 posts on Facebook between April 17, 2020, and July 29, 2021, and 25 videos on YouTube between December 4, 2021, and September 7, 2022, that “affect the confidence of the people about the state’s leadership.”
At the same time, it is also likely that the viciously funny parody of To Lam’s gustatory adventure was viewed as especially dangerous by his ministry. Humor has been among the most effective, and therefore the most threatening, solvents of authoritarian pretensions. For that reason alone, the Vietnamese authorities felt they had to make a harsh example of Green Onion Bae.