The demonstrators suspect the government deployed the dancers as a way to stop them from getting close to the statue and make their speeches inaudible. The few who tried to get close to the statue of Ly Thai To, the founder of Hanoi and a nationalist icon, were shooed away.

The protesters were marking the 35th anniversary of a bloody border war between China and Vietnam, where anger over Beijing’s increasingly assertive territorial claims on islands in the South China Sea that Hanoi insists belong to it is already running high.

Relations with China, Vietnam’s ideological ally and major trading partner, are a highly sensitive domestic political issue for Hanoi’s rulers. They don’t want anger on the street against China to spread to other areas of its repressive rule.

Nguyen Quang A, a well-known dissident, and others attending the rally in Hanoi on Sunday said the government deployed the dancers at the statue of Ly Thai To, and at another statue nearby, to prevent them gathering there. The tactic appeared to be part of a low-key approach to policing the event to avoid confrontation. There were scores of plainclothes security officers at the rally, but very few wearing uniform.

Quang said he asked the dancers to stop for a few minutes but that they refused.

Last year the government organized old women to hold a street protest to prevent a visiting U.S. government official from reaching a dissident’s house, where he was due to talk to him about Hanoi’s human rights record.

Around 70 people took part in Sunday’s rally close to Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi.

They shouted anti-China slogans, and took video and photos of each other to be posted on dissident blogs and Facebook pages. After around 90 minutes, they managed to lay their wreaths commemorating the Vietnamese dead in the war at a pagoda before dispersing.

Earlier anti-China protests in the capital have resulted in demonstrators being dragged into buses or scuffles. The government is keen to avoid such images spreading on social media because they make it seem it is defending China against nationalist anger, which is widespread among many Vietnamese.

The Associated Press - February 16, 2014

Vietnam anti-China activists mark 1979 border war

Hanoi - Vietnamese activists on Sunday marked the 35th anniversary of a bloody border war with China, chanting slogans, singing patriotic songs and laying flowers at a temple in central Hanoi.

The two communist countries are locked in long-standing territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea, and often trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration and fishing rights in the contested waters.

Beijing's increasingly assertive stance in the South China Sea has triggered public anger and rare protests in authoritarian Vietnam where the demonstrations are sometimes allowed to go ahead and on other occasions forcefully broken up.

China invaded Vietnam's northernmost provinces in February 1979, angered by Vietnam's ouster of the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

The short but bloody conflict claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides and ended with Chinese forces withdrawing and both Hanoi and Beijing claiming victory.

Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until 1989.

Although Vietnam fetes its military victories over the French and American armies, it has not arranged any official events to mark the China border war -- much to the chagrin of veterans and activists.

"Vietnamese leaders may have received pressure from China, so they don't want to talk about that war. They seem to want to deny the past," Nguyen Trong Vinh, a former Vietnamese ambassador to China, told AFP.

China has long been one of Vietnam's largest trading partners, state media has said, with bilateral trade at more than $40 billion in 2012.

On Sunday, around 100 activists tried to lay flowers at a statue of Ly Thai To the founder of Hanoi and a nationalist figurehead in the centre of the capital.

But dozens of people had been at the monument since early morning, playing loud music and dancing, which prevented the protesters from holding their planned ceremony -- in what activists said was a counter protest.

"It was deliberate... they (authorities) hired many people," economist Nguyen Quang A told AFP at the protest.

Protesters, wearing red headbands and carrying white roses with black ribbons saying "the people will never forget", then walked around the central Hoan Kiem lake.

They laid their flowers and made brief speeches at the Ngoc Son Temple a popular tourist destination before peacefully dispersing.

Plain clothed and uniformed police closely monitored the event but did not make any arrests.

Nguyen Tien Gioi, who fought against the Chinese in Vietnam's northern Lang Son, bemoaned the lack of official recognition for the conflict's anniversary.

"My comrades and I we feel sad and angry but what can we do? We still had to fight to protect our country," the 57-year-old told AFP.

There has been some coverage in Vietnam's tightly controlled state media of the 35th anniversary of the China war but no reports on Sunday's protest.

Agence France Presse - February 16, 2014