In the dying days of February, an audience gathered in the foyer of the Phu Sa Lab performing-arts space in Hanoi’s Tay Ho District. Representatives from the American embassy and other members of the diplomatic corps rubbed shoulders with activists, musicians, artists and a small but excitable handful of journalists. Foreigners and Vietnamese alike, they were there to witness the launch of Dissent, Mai Khoi’s aptly and bluntly-titled new album. Many wondered aloud whether the police, too, may make an appearance. It wouldn’t be the first time that one of the dissident-musician’s concerts has been raided.
The American entourage, in particular, was well aware of Mai Khoi. In 2016 she was blocked—along with hundreds of other independent candidates—from running in Vietnam’s National Assembly elections and was among a small group of activists invited to meet then-president Barack Obama. In November, as President Donald Trump visited for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, she and her Australian husband, Benjamin Swanton, were evicted from their Hanoi apartment by men she believes were agents from the secret police. As the presidential motorcade passed, she had held up a sign reading: “
PeacePiss On You Trump”. “I protested Trump because he is a racist,” Mai Khoi says. “He came to Vietnam, didn’t recognise civil society, and did nothing to promote human rights. I wanted to stop talking about freedom of expression and start practising it.”