Vietnam is a fantastic place: mostly tropical with cooler parts up North, very good food that’s an excellent mix of Vietnam, China, SE Asia and Europe and a drive towards developing through technology.
You notice that last aspect early on in any visit to the country. An exporter of labourers, Vietnam is very much on the internet. Considering that the country is still poor, with a GDP per capita thought to hit US$1,500 this year and inflation running at 20% annually, the fact that some thirty million Vietnamese are on the internet is remarkable.
That’s a third of the population of 91 million, and goes to show the importance of the technology-borne freedom of taking part of and sharing information.
The practical aspect of this is I was able to find Wi-Fi everywhere - usually free in cafés and hotels to lure customers - and also fast 3G at 21/5.76Mbit/sec nominal speeds.
What’s more, the 3G is cheap and performs very well. To start with, I ended up with a Viettel SIM. That’s a bit like going with Telecom, as Viettel is the telco incumbent in Vietnam. You buy a prepay SIM for 65,000 Vietnamese dong, which equals about NZ$4 (based on an exchange rate of NZ$1 = VND 16,357).
Calling rates nationally are about 10c a minute, with overseas calls costing 22c per phut. Top ups are easy with 25,000, 50,000 and 100,000 dong scratch cards and I went through three of those in two weeks, with lots of data usage courtesy of a 3G smartphone that also acted as a Wi-Fi hotspot for a laptop and a tablet.
Viettel isn’t the only 3G game in town, and probably not the best value either. You can get thirty day deals from other providers such as Mobifone, Vinaphone and Vietnamobile that give you 1.5 to 5GB prepay data for 120,000 to 150,000 dong. If you’re careful with data usage, you can stay below NZ$10 a month for fast 3G in other words.
All things considered, including the use of the same technology as here, I wish a Vietnamese telco would come to New Zealand to shake up the market. Provided of course said telco would leave local policies at home or even lobby Vietnam’s government to relax them.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Vietnam is considered ”an enemy of the internet„ by Reporters without Frontiers. This may seem surprising, considering the low pricing and widespread adoption of the internet, but Vietnam tries to censor the internet.
None of the sites I accessed were blocked, most likely because they are not in Vietnamese, nor was I apprehended for tweeting about a Sukhoi SU-22M4 attack aircraft taking off from what I thought was the purely civilian Noi Bai airport in Ha Noi. I did encrypt as much of my data traffic as I could, but can’t say if any of it was intercepted.
The censorship drive is serious though: the country jails bloggers and internet dissidents, being the third most enthusiastic regime to do so after Iran and China. Over 120 people are currently behind bars for disagreeing with the government, or for advocating human rights.
The idea behind the policies in Vietnam is to encourage self-censorship by the populace and while the authorities are tightening the screw, I hope it won’t work - or, for that matter, that our nation’s politicians aren’t reading this column and getting ideas for how to enforce other types of internet legislation.
Speaking to people in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City is the official name, but it’s often not used by locals), there’s plenty of awareness of social media. Facebook has taken Vietnam by storm, whereas Twitter isn’t as popular.
Facebook is, however, now firmly in the sights of Vietnamese authorities, as is Google. The government there wants both internet giants to locate data centres in the country for easier access to, and suppression of, material deemed objectionable.
Even with the spectre of harsh government intervention hanging over their heads, the Vietnamese people flock to the internet. Restaurants and other small businesses are very aware of how powerful the internet is, and you see URLs painted graffiti style everywhere. For the tourism trade, mentions on the TripAdvisor website are requested at places visited by foreigners, sometimes on bills and restaurant menus.
I doubt Vietnam’s communist government can have it both ways though with the internet, just as it couldn’t with the economy. The Doi Moi socialist-oriented market economy introduced in 1986 has considerably reduced poverty after twenty years of war; now Vietnam needs to relax and stop fighting the internet economy, to reap the benefits of that.
Chúc may mắn, Việt Nam và di dễ dàng.
Juha Saarinen, firstname.lastname@example.org