Wall Street Journal
January 18, 2000
By STAN SESSER
Internet Cafes Flourish in Vietnam,
Presenting a Puzzle About Policy
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
THE EMOTION CAFE is as slickly run as any Internet cafe in the world. There's karaoke, a giant-screen television set and a bar on the ground floor. One floor up are a dozen computers, with a knowledgeable staff constantly at hand. If you look away from your computer screen for merely a moment, someone will run over to you, ready to bring you a drink or help you with your surfing.
It's almost phantasmagoric -- that's a $1.25 word that an editor once inserted into one of my articles, and it fits perfectly here -- that the Emotion Cafe is located in Hanoi. The very same Hanoi that houses a government bent on keeping total control over everything, including the flow of information. Bear in mind that it was only two years ago that Vietnam reluctantly allowed access to the Internet at all, other than e-mail.
Yet at the Emotion Cafe, there's a constant parade of Vietnamese customers surfing the Net. They don't have to sign in or show any sort of identification. All they need do is sit down at a computer and start clicking away, paying 600 dong a minute (four U.S. cents) when they leave.
It would be easier to account for the existence of the Emotion Cafe if it were one-of-a-kind in Vietnam, getting some sort of dispensation because of the political connections of its owner. But this isn't the case. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are overrun with Internet cafes, some with rows of computers, others mom-and-pop ventures that consist of a single computer shoehorned into a tiny storefront. In fact, judging from the apparent decline in patronage in the year between my visits, the Emotion Cafe is losing business to new competitors that are charging 300 dong or 400 dong an hour.
THE BOOMING Internet cafe business in Vietnam poses a real puzzle. I keep reading articles about Vietnam threatening to ban satellite dishes, about various government crackdowns on the Internet, and about the police going public with fears that "subversive" correspondence is taking place via e-mail. And I have no doubt that entire buildings in Hanoi are filled with government censors agonizing over every word that will appear in the country's newspapers and magazines. Yet despite all this, anyone can walk into an Internet cafe and learn anything about what's going on in Vietnam or the rest of the world.
To be sure, the government blocks the Web sites of dissident Vietnamese groups, largely in America and France; by one estimate, about 500 sites are blocked at the moment. But even the elderly rulers of Vietnam must surely realize that this represents little more than an empty, symbolic gesture. Any one of Vietnam's hordes of technically savvy young people could tell them that there are numerous ways of getting around a blocked site. One of the easiest is by calling up www.anonymizer.com or many similar sites, which fight censorship by retrieving a requested Web site and sending it to you. The Internet service provider -- in Vietnam there are already five, but all are government-owned -- knows only that you're corresponding with something called anonymizer.com, and what you request anonymizer to transmit to you remains confidential.
I TRIED this in Ho Chi Minh City with http://freeviet.org ("Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam"). When I typed in the address, a box came up asking me for an ID and an authorization code. But when I requested it through anonymizer.com, it was on my screen in less than a minute.
Why are the Internet cafes allowed to flourish? I think the paranoia of Vietnam's rulers is so well known that we can eliminate one explanation: that they've come to the realization that the free flow of information over the Internet is not about to imperil their existence. Vietnam's Internet is still so slow that when I check my e-mail, I have an eternity of time to peek at what my neighbors are doing. I can also click the arrow to the right of the address box on the browsers of the various computers I use, and see what previous occupants of my seat have been looking at. The answer is first, e-mail, and second, computer games. The smattering of other requests are generally related to business or sports. One of my neighbors at Emotion Cafe, for instance, was about to buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle to take tourists around the country, and he was researching various possibilities. What they're not looking at is dissident Web sites.
When I mentioned this to an American resident of Hanoi, he wasn't surprised. "The average person on the street doesn't know who the dissidents are," he says. "And besides, how many 23-year-olds do you see in Internet cafes in the U.S. plowing through documents in U.S. government archives?"
Then what is the explanation for the government's relative tolerance? I think the answer is that pure and simple greed is outweighing ideological zealotry. In Vietnam, as in China, the government telecommunications monopolies are immensely profitable, and we can safely assume that some of these profits are finding their way into the pockets of government officials. Yet Vietnam has only 40,000 Internet users, with a potential market of millions in just a few years. If ever there were a case for keeping alive the goose that is laying the golden eggs, this is it.