By John Boudreau
Article Launched: 06/14/2008 01:30:31 AM PDT
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Excitement over the Internet in Vietnam is such that members of the new wired generation wait in line for hours to surf on PCs installed in cafes throughout the dense city.
“I can find any kind of information about jobs, entertainment, my friends. I can go to other countries. And all I have to do is sit here,” said Nguyen Thu Ha, a 20-year-old plucking away at a keyboard at the 8X Game Internet Cafe. She admits to spending as much as seven hours a day in front of a computer.
While the government keeps tight control on traditional media, this generation gets access to relatively unfettered information through the Internet. Some 20 million Vietnamese are now online – up from 500,000 in 2000. And within two years, an estimated 16 million more are expected to join the young Internet masses looking for love, chatting with friends and learning about the world outside Vietnam.
“We are in the middle of an Internet revolution here,” said Henry Nguyen, managing general partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam.
Internet companies must be licensed, and most assign staff to scrub Web sites of sexual and political material sure to draw the ire of communist officials, who do not permit public criticism of their one-party rule.
“We cooperate fully with the government,” said Santa Cruz native Bryan Pelz, chief executive of VinaGame, Vietnam’s most popular online game that is branching out to social networking and other online services.
“We are a local business. That’s what we have to do. We try to be upfront with our users: Don’t use this for anything illegal or culturally inappropriate.”
Internet service providers must have a close relationship with the government, said Ho Quang Khanh, managing director of Cyvee.com, a new networking site for Vietnamese professionals.
“You don’t want to have a sour relationship with them,” he said. “They can find a thousand things wrong with you.”
Still, the Vietnam government is far less intrusive than some other countries, including next-door-neighbor China.
“Vietnam has the same policies as China, but Vietnam doesn’t enforce them,” said Henry Nguyen, whose firm backs a number of Internet start-ups in the Southeast Asian country. “There is no great firewall in Vietnam. There is neither the will nor the resources.”
The government censors some content, but it would need to spend huge sums to monitor all Internet communications. Also, it may not feel the need for vigilance because young Vietnamese are generally content and patriotic, say entrepreneurs and bloggers.
Most online criticism of the government comes from abroad, said blogger Thuy Tien. “Harsh views of the government tend to be those of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) living outside the country,” she said.
Overseas Vietnamese are more critical than locals “because they have the freedom to do so; whereas in Vietnam, you can be sent to jail,” said Duy Hoang, a spokesman for Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, which has an office in San Jose and is opposed to Communist Party rule.
In November, six of its members were detained. Among them was Sacramento resident Nguyen Quoc Quan, who was deported May 17 after being sentenced to six months in jail on terrorism charges for planning to circulate anti-government pamphlets.
Officials also were riled last year when a sex video of a teen TV star with her boyfriend was posted online, resulting in the arrest of four students and the end to her career. Then in December, a dispute between Vietnam and China over control of the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea triggered rare street protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City organized by nationalistic bloggers.
Increasingly, though, the government is permitting criticism on an array of local issues, such as traffic and double-digit inflation.
The real test of its tolerance will come if the economy takes a dramatic turn for the worse or something else threatens social stability. Already, there are signs of economic strain as soaring prices have triggered strikes among workers demanding more pay.
“The trick is, what will happen if we go through a difficult situation? I don’t know,” said Ho, of networking site Cyvee.com.
For now, most young people use the Web as a source of entertainment in a country where TV “stinks,” venture capitalist Henry Nguyen said. “It’s imported shows from China, Korea and retreads of American movies.”
The Vietnam Internet experience lacks the rancorous disputes common in the United States, blogger Tien said.
“It’s more polite,” she said. “Vietnamese don’t want to waste time arguing with someone they don’t know.”