By now, and “now” meaning two-digit entries and billions in sales later, Grand Theft Auto can “address” any subject it wants to and emerges unscathed. Mostly. The uproar comes to the DMA Design-to-Rockstar Games franchise when it applies its button-pushing and edge-of-good-taste strokes onto communities rather than brands or ideals, such as women (throughout) or those of Haitian heritage (in Vice City). The company had addressed both by way of a comment for the former, folded into the New York Times’ review of V, and a statement for the latter, some apologetic paragraphs to gaming publications after feeling the heat from Haitian-Americans.
For San Andreas, GTA eyed Vietnam, making the country the roots of three gangs in its San Francisco parody San Fierro: Butterfly Children, Shining Razors, and Da Nang Boys. Although they are audibly mentioned by The Truth (Peter Fonda), only the third group is visible in the game world and interacts with CJ (Young Maylay) in main missions, namely those from Wu Zi Mu (James Yageashi) and Jizzy B (Charlie Murphy).
Vietnamese committing gangland massacring, trafficking, drug-dealing, and kidnapping on U.S. soil, even if in digital form? The community practically had a case to file against Rockstar for the negative portrayal here, as Haitian-American groups had done.
But nothing happened—then or since.
Testing this Da Nang
When I asked fellow Vietnamese who also played San Andreas back then, I received a range of views: “Who cares.” “It’s just a game.” “They aren’t Vietnamese to me.” That last one intrigued me the most; it wasn’t a shake-it-off kind of response like the others, but there was an explanation of sorts. At first, it was impossible to think how can they be of any other nationality when right in the Da Nang Boys name is the region and city of Đà Nẵng in central Vietnam—and, if you know your San Francisco history, they were likely inspired by the Vietnamese and Cantonese-centric gang called Jackson Street Boys. The dissociation became clear: the developers were perhaps confused Vietnamese with Chinese. In their broken-accented and characteristically lewd “Asian” snippets in English, it was difficult to determine that the speaker was someone of Vietnamese heritage.
The Boys’ boss, Snakehead (voice actor unknown), whom you must kill to complete The Da Nang Thang mission, extra-complicated things when he is (widely accepted as) Vietnamese in identity, Japanese in weapon choice, and Chinese(-leaning) in appearance. Clearly, the attention to detail was not as needed here, but in this vague-esque manner of giving the world extra color, Rockstar had dodged a bullet. How sound is the claim of misrepresentation when there are no clear-cut examples?
Would it be worthwhile to be upset over a footnote-level of significance, even with the pointed build-up (“This here’s Vietnamese gang territory … Watch yourself, dude, these cats are real serious,” The Truth said in the mission Wear Flowers in Your Hair)?
The lack of action doubled as the answer. To this day, however, I’m still wondering whether the Snakehead and the martial arts master of the San Fierro gym are twins. Speaking of, is he to be addressed as sensei or shifu? Are his moves karate or gongfu, or just impressionistic Asian chops and sweeps?
Meanwhile, Vovinam, the country’s official martial arts, watched from the sidelines. One can imagine.
Moving on up, sorta
Vietnam returned when GTA heightened its definition for IV, although more reliant on the enduring-if-dated portrayal of it as a former battleground—unlike the majority of U.S. media. Assuming you remember Niko (Michael Hollick) can watch TV, put on the Weazel channel and see a taped performance of comedian Ricky Gervais (as himself) at Split Sides where he thought Vietnam is favorite war because it has the “best soundtrack.”
While driving around town, one of the radio ads for prospect State of Liberty Governor John Hunter (Henry Strozier) revealed in 1968 he didn’t answer the call to fight in Vietnam but now takes many bachelor trips there and Cambodia. But it is also in the HD universe that GTA hosts its best usage of Vietnam to date: establishing the origins of The Lost Motorcycle Club based in Alderney. Per its website, eight U.S. Marines met in Hanoi in 1964, just four years before the major Tet Offensive, and afterward formed the club to satisfy their addiction and aggression in honor of their departed friends.
Why best? Before this, Vietnam is, like many things in GTA, a real thing with its mickey taken out—mainly by association—rather than treated with some degree of seriousness. Historically, thunderous motorcycles and returning soldiers are as linked as bread and butter, emblematic of what writer Tony Tekaroniake Evans described as a rechanneling of mid-combat’s “camaraderie and adrenaline rush.” Support, notably, is central to the workings of the world’s largest military motorcycle club, the Viet Nam Vets Legacy Vets Motorcycle Club, or VNVLVMC.
Although players don’t get to control the original leaders of The Lost, and from there dive into the Vietnamese connection that they have, the foundational brotherly, outlaw-tinged bond remains the core of The Lost and Damned’s plot.
A grittier, more solemn plot.
That’s all, folks, for the presence of Vietnam in GTA. Only so far, of course, because a particular charm of the series is its affinity to bring things back—when you least expect it to.
As a result, it gives me hope that Vietnam will make a return, possibly in a more wholesome or at the least refreshed form. Yes, it will be futile to add in “sensible”—this is GTA. Yes, in an official and from-the-devs capacity, so far the praiseworthy showcases of Vietnam are traceable to local modders, with works such as a driveable VinFast in V and a fully localized III. San Andreas’ Da Nang Boys upended the dearth of Vietnamese presence in high-profile games, but it wasn’t a total success; either creative apathy or technical limitations affected our time in the series’ chaotic, satirical spotlight. The initial specificity didn’t lead to a substantial inclusion. IV, meanwhile, was an improvement, but players must do some digging to see it or—like me—stumble upon it.
I doubt the Definitive Edition of San Andreas will give me a refined form of the most prominent Vietnamese element in the game. That requires deeper detailing, which is not the case here when all the upgrades boil down to improved graphics and modernized gameplay. Well, since this damn train is too far to follow now, let’s wait for the next one, as in the one after the forthcoming VI—or even after that, should the franchise decide to re-tackle the Japanese setting it had done some preliminary work on.
Whatever the case, it is with the hope that Rockstar Games will realize if you are to feature something, you do so with oomph. With flair. I’m talking about more presence of the Vietnamese language, voice actors of Vietnamese descent, perhaps a Vietnamese side character. Needless to say, I eagerly await the moment my country reappears in one of the titans of gaming.
It won’t be one of the thousand things I forget every day.