HANOI, VIETNAM – Inside one of Hanoi’s more than 3,000 online gaming houses, gamers clad in coats and scarves pass the hours shooting at each other on their screens, oblivious to the wintry gray and 10 celsius evening outside. This is southeast Asia, but the French colonial architecture and the proliferation of tourist-market socialist kitsch — all covered by a wet blanket autumn gloom — give the place a slightly European feel.
With the Vietnamese economy growing at an average of seven percent per year over the past decade, and companies such as Microsoft and Intel announcing major investments, there is a limit to how European the ambiance is. There’s no downturn or recession here. Although average per capita incomes are little over $1,100 per year, Vietnam is moving up the international economic ranks.
The growth of online technology and Internet usage in the country is a signal that change is taking place. According to the government, about 25 percent of Vietnam’s nearly 90 million people use the Internet. By comparison, I found it extremely difficult to find cafés or bars with WiFi access when walking around Rome last April. In a stretch from the Colosseum to St.Peter’s Basilica, the well-worn tourist and pilgrim hub of the Eternal City, I counted five places with WiFi. Yet in downtown Hanoi, almost every decent-sized hotel or eatery has fast and free WiFi. It is a flip of a coin as to which place has the better food, however.
Back inside the gaming house, I asked the manager (who requested his name not be published) how to access Facebook. I saw that a few of the gamers take a break from shooting down Japanese World War II soldiers in order to log in to the social networking site. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, though no official explanation has been offered by the authorities as to why. Nonetheless, the gamers on downtime were doing any of a number of things that apparently all Facebookers do, such as paying undue attention to pictures of cute young women among their contacts, or posting insulting remarks on their friend’s pages.
The manager’s answer came with with an air of incredulity, and a good measure of self-satisfaction. “We just change the DNS,” he said.
The likely reason for the blocking of Facebook is the upcoming Five Year Congress of the ruling Communist Party. A one-party state, the Vietnamese government harbors no dissent, and over the past two months, 20 activists, lawyers, bloggers and religious minority figures have been arrested or jailed for various forms of alleged sedition or threats to national security. Some were denied access to legal representation at what looked like little more than show trials. Human rights groups and overseas Vietnamese say the government is trying to shut up any and all opposing voices in advance of the Congress, when a new leadership could emerge.
Removing Facebook from the equation could be a help to the government’s agenda. Blogging has become increasingly popular in Vietnam, and one cause celebre has been a controversial bauxite mine in the country’s Central Highlands. Writers criticizing the government’s policy have been arrested, while others remain under surveillance. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to close down one vocal website featuring blog posts flaying the authorities for allegedly kowtowing to China over the project, while anonymous cyber-vandals launched distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) hack attacks on some of the critical blogs and websites.
Mainstream media in Vietnam is affiliated with the government or the ruling Communist Party, and state censors control what can and cannot be said. So online content offers a new, more nimble and fast-paced challenge to the authorities.
GOVERNMENT-RUN FACEBOOK CLONE
In trying to take on Facebook, the government has launched its own social networking website, which is said to be the country’s biggest-ever IT project. Users have to register with their official ID details, meaning that the government can monitor content and activity on the site.
Vietnam currently has 1.8 million Facebook users and the number of account holders has doubled in the past six months. In absolute and relative numbers, Vietnam is well back in the southeast Asian social networking league. Indonesia has the world’s second-biggest Facebook user base after the U.S, with over 32 million users, while almost 20 percent of the citizens in the Philippines are on Facebook. That said, Vietnamese seem to be taking to the social networking giant, meaning that the government faces a challenge to get people away from Facebook and onto go.vn.
I asked the gaming room manager what he thought of go.vn. Nose and brow furrowed, he asked, “What is that?” I asked around the shop, and all but two of the nineteen gamers said much the same.
Big brother might have to work hard to make new friends here.Show