Happy ending for computer disaster in Vietnam

A major PC meltdown ends surprisingly well at a local repair shop in Hanoi that offers super-fast service.

Technicians reassemble my broken Dell Inspiron 530s' parts into a new case with a working power supply. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

Editor's note: CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo is spending part of December in his homeland of Vietnam. This is the last in his series of dispatches chronicling his impressions of how technology has permeated the culture there. Click here for more of Dong's stories from abroad.

HANOI, Vietnam--Prior to my trip to Vietnam, I bought a Dell Inspiron 530s desktop computer as a special American gift for my 11-year-old niece in Hanoi.

Despite the relatively light weight and small form factor of the PC, at San Francisco International Airport, I ended up having to pay a $60 overweight fee. This was mostly because the airline significantly lowered the allowed weight for checked-in luggage, and I wasn't aware of that.

Upon arriving in Hanoi, I personally delivered the gift and set it up for the little girl. Everybody gathered around with excitement as they waited for the moment of truth. As I plugged the power cord into the wall socket, we heard a "pop" sound and smoke came out of the tower. I was dumbfounded. "So much for American-standard quality!" I thought to myself.

But it was not America's fault, it was me. As it turned out, Vietnam uses a 220-voltage power standard, while America uses a 110-voltage one. Out of excitement and ignorance, I plugged the computer in without switching the power supply unit (PSU) of the computer to support 220 volts and, of course, it burned! It was pure physics.

What was hard to quantify was my niece's level of frustration and my own disappointment. I personally picked the specs and rebuilt the machine to run Windows XP (from its manufacturer-installed Windows Vista). Just one moment of negligence, and everything seemed ruined.

It would be rather easy to call Dell and get the part replaced in America, but over here it's an entirely different story. There's no Dell support office in Vietnam and it would take weeks, if not months, to have the particular PSU shipped here from America. The scary notion of having to haul the broken computer back to the States entered my mind.

The computer's PSU is Dell-proprietary for a small form factor computer, and therefore it would be very hard to find a generic replacement. After weeks of periodically trying to get help from the States to no avail, just a day before leaving Vietnam, I decided to bring the computer to a local repair shop as a last resort. I didn't harbor much hope.

It was a small shop with a design that showed the owner's effort to look professional. There was a reception desk, glass cases that hold different types of computer accessories, a few staffers wearing ties, and a few desks with chairs where customers could sit and wait. Nonetheless, the place somehow seemed rather disorganized and semi-pro at best.

But the look was misleading.

After hearing me explain my problem, a man named Duy removed the PSU from the PC to inspect. He then told me what I was afraid to hear: the unit was toasted beyond repair and there was no replacement for it in Hanoi. "But you can move the working parts of the computer into a new case with a new working power supply," Duy suggested.

I personally had thought of this but knew it would be a hassle, if even possible at all, to find a case and a PSU that support Dell's proprietary motherboard. "Don't worry, we'll take care of that!" Duy assured me. He then told me it would take only 30 minutes to get the job done and that I was welcome to wait.

I did a lot more than waiting; I decided to watch and time the work with my iPhone. Two technicians came up and tried out different PSUs with the motherboard, and they found one that worked after a few tries. They then started to dismantle the Dell and reassemble its guts into another computer case. Exactly 24 minutes later, the Inspiron 530s had been transformed into a new generic-looking computer, booting up into the system I built a while ago.

While what happened wasn't hard, it took a lot of patience and willingness. More importantly, it was a job well done. And I admired the helpful attitude of the people at the shop.

I couldn't help comparing this to our CNET Labs' intern Sharon Vaknin's experience at Best Buy when she tried to get her unbootable laptop fixed just prior to my trip. Best Buy didn't even try to help her save her documents (which I ended up doing for her) and told her that the process of getting the computer fixed would take weeks.

There's one thing that Best Buy and the local repair shop I visited have in common, however. Both charge in dollars. It was $24 for the job, parts and labor. And it was $24 well spent.

It's too bad the computer is no longer American-looking, but personally, I think it's worth much more. The best part is that if it breaks again, I know it will be properly and quickly taken care of.

Welcome to Vietnam. Unfortunately, I have to say goodbye already.

The PSU that I accidentally toasted; it will stay in Vietnam. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

About the author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

 

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