Sat 03 Dec
Two years ago, broadband internet came to Viet Nam in a big way thanks to the country’s Ministry of Post and Telematics, which brought ADSL to most urban areas throughout the country. Today you’ll find dozens of small, ramshackle shops marked with signs that say “ADSL,” “Game Online,” or simply “Internet.” It’s hard to miss them because they’re everywhere.
The proliferation of this industry is fueled mostly by Vietnamese kids nursing increasingly pronounced addictions to online gaming. The most popular MMORPGs, like “Swordsman,” are ported from other culturally complementary sources (read: Chinese game publishers) by local upstarts like VinaGame. At just about US$0.19 for an hour of playing time, the result is an apparently ferocious gaming market that wasn’t in evidence just four years ago.
You can use the machines for anything you like, of course, and so it’s not uncommon to spot disproportionately tall and/or well-dressed Westerners surfing next to thin, gangly Vietnamese kids; the former playing at business, the latter at swordplay. Such sights are as close to an advertisement for technologically-enabled cross-cultural bridges as you’ll see this side of an IBM commercial.
Alternatively, you can ratchet up your price tolerance and go to one of a small number of upscale cafés for ostensibly free wireless Internet access, which I’ve done briefly a few times. The proprietors let you plug into a wall socket and surf with your own laptop, so long as you order something to keep up the appearance that you’re not just idling; ordering a soda for US$1.50 will net you as much as four hours of free surfing before anyone gives you a dirty look. It’s still cheap, but these networks don’t even bother with the pretense of security, so you use them at your own risk.
In the States, we’re building an online utopia of Microsoft alternatives, but here in Viet Nam, Windows still rules. These Internet shops are crowded with virtual exclusivity by discolored, generic hardware running Windows XP. There’s no Linux and not even a copy of Firefox to be found anywhere. It’s a disheartening reality, but a useful lesson for any Web developer (like myself) anxious to write off Internet Explorer; in many ways, that browser remains the only option to loads of people.
You can forget it, too, if you’re looking to find a publicly available Macintosh. Bringing your own PowerBook is the only way you’ll get within 100 kilometers of the platform while you’re here, which makes me doubly glad that I brought mine. Again, it’s another unfortunate reminder for Mac fans; the Mac OS remains a niche platform available to a vanishingly small number of those abroad, which is to say, the rest of the world. I wish that wasn’t so, but it is. And it’s one of a few reasons that, as much as I adore it here, I’ll be glad to leave for home tomorrow. Next stop: New York City.