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Gadget-obsessed in Ho Chi Minh City

In cafes across Vietnam's largest city, young people huddle in groups with laptops, cell phones, and game consoles. Sometimes, they even talk to each other.

This is how some young people in Ho Chi Minh City socialize at cafes--by firing up their gadgets and being antisocial together.
Dong Ngo/CNET Networks

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

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam--I visited Ho Chi Minh City for the first time in 1998 with no laptop, no cell phone, and no idea what the Internet really was. Ten years later, I am here in HCM again, accompanied by an unlocked iPhone 3G, a Dell XPS 1330 laptop, and a Nikon D80 camera.

I thought it might seem like a little much to carry all my gadgets around in my backpack at all times. Very soon, however, I found out that young people in Vietnam's biggest city are a lot more aware of technology--and to some extent even more obsessed with it--than I am. Most interesting of all, they can afford tech better than I expected.

The first moment of truth came when my new friend, Xuan Nguyen, a 23-year-old student, told me what she considered to be a deal breaker in my iPhone 3G: it doesn't have a front-facing camera. "It can't do video calling," Xuan said, "and if I pay that much for a phone, I would want to be able to do all that 3G has to offer."

(Xuan, by the way, graciously spent much of her school break showing me around the city, which I really appreciated.)

Once in a while, they stop to send a text message, sometimes to a person sitting right in front of them.

Like most people my age, I started out with MS DOS and typewriters and mobile phones as big and heavy as bricks. But over time, people like me grow to overappreciate technology, becoming so enamored with it that we sometimes overlook its mediocrity.

This is probably why we are OK with Apple's deliberately crippling the iPhone and iPhone 3G so it can gain control over their usage, and why cell phone carriers in the United States can get away with charging for incoming calls and text messages. (Little does Xuan know, I would be very happy if I could just use my phone's 3G mode at all times in the States. Most of the time, I have to turn it off to have stable voice connections.)

Anyway, her comment about a front-facing camera made me realize just how demanding the new generation in this country is, when it comes to technology. This is probably because its young people grew up as cell phones, laptops, and the Internet became commodities. And yet they live with parents who don't know or care much about e-mail or instant messaging.

Tech users here look at technology with the eyes of owners who want to get the most out of their devices, rather than just conform with what is given to them from the vendor or carrier. They also spend a lot of time with their gadgets--possibly too much.

Xuan took me to one of her favorite cafes in Quan 3 (the third of 22 districts in HCM) called -18*C (Minus 18 Degrees Celsius). Like the name, the popular cafe is rather unusual. It consists of a few floors, each converted into a close, air-conditioned gathering area. You have to leave your shoes outside, and smoking is not allowed (a rule I really appreciated. It's hard to avoid smoking in Vietnam). Tables and chairs are arranged somewhat as they would be in a Japanese restaurant--lower to the ground and comfortable.

This is my new friend and tour guide, Xuan Nguyen, showing me a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City. Dong Ngo/CNET Networks

What I found most unusual, however, is something that's quite a common practice here. On each floor, you'll find young people sitting in groups, just like at any bar in the States. The difference is, almost all of them have a laptop in front of them or a mobile gadget in their hands. Some have both.

They sit there, enjoying a drink while multitasking between the computer and real-life conversation. Some even play a portable console game at the same time. Once in a while, they stop to send a text message, sometimes to a person sitting right in front of them.

I've seen a lot of people in cafes in Hanoi with laptops, working away, but seeing a group of friends hanging out together with their gadgets in hand sort of weirds me out. It hit me how much technology has changed socialization practices in big cities here. Socializing can now mean gathering up and being seemingly antisocial together.

The truth is that this is actually a more efficient way to hang out, as people outside the cafe--or in any part of the world, for that matter--can also join the conversation via instant or text messaging.

It was a big question to me, though, just how young people here can afford gadgets that cost up to 10 or even 20 times the official average salary (which is about $100 per month in the city--an easy figure to arrive upon, as most people here reveal their salaries openly). After almost three weeks, I think I found the answer.

First, people in big cities generally have multiple sources of income. For example, Xuan's brother, Chi Nguyen, works for a VoIP company making a very good wage of about $500 a month. However, he also has a little side business trading cell phones and electronics, and that gives him another significant sum. Xuan herself teaches piano part-time.

Almost everyone you meet here in the city, be they students or regular professionals, does something on the side like that. Sometimes, what they do is not as clear or honorable as what Xuan and Chi do. But that's a different story.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, one of many famous landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City. Dong Ngo/CNET Networks

All things considered, it's safe to say that on average, a working person in the big cities makes about $300 to $500 a month when salary and other sources of income are combined, which still is not much. This is where the second, very important, factor comes into play.

Traditionally, Vietnamese only leave their homes when married. This means they share one place with the rest of the family, which helps cut down on the biggest expense, rent, and reduces significantly each person's other home-related financial responsibilities.

Chi, again, could keep pretty much all of his salary for himself, as everything is paid for by his parents. In America, although we might make a lot more money, most of us don't have $500 of disposable income to spend each month.

This explains the buying power of HCM and of Vietnamese cities as a whole. And this is why you will see people with cell phones everywhere, and why laptops, game consoles, and so on are always in high demand. Personally, I could sell my iPhone 3G here anytime for a lot more than what I paid for it new.

(According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, as of September 2008, the country has about 53 million cell phone subscribers. This number is expected to be higher than the actual cell phone subscribers due to the fact that cell phone carriers offer a lot of promotional SIM cards that don't get refilled and used after the promotional time is over. Nonetheless, cell phones are very popular here.)

Jasper Waale, the owner of Skeye, a start-up in HCM focused on GPS-based management systems, who happens to be a big fan of CNET (including my beloved Inside CNET Labs podcast) told me: "I don't think there will be any real economic downturn here ever, Dong. People have a lot of real cash to spend and they do. Vietnam has a very young population, and everyone is excited about tech. This is a good place for business."

It's not hard to see how exciting and excited HCM city is, when it comes to technology. However, I have to say that the large numbers of people moving here from different parts of the country has made it very congested.

It's hard to believe, but I actually did most of my e-mailing in HCM while sitting in taxis, waiting to get where I was going. The traffic was so bad that I could actually rely on gleaning and holding a stable connection to a free Wi-Fi connection with my iPhone.

I found it interesting that although the same Internet can be found everywhere here, it means different things in different places. Inside -18*C, it's cool, trendy, and up-to-date. However, being able to get Wi-Fi inside taxis, thanks to the slow-moving traffic, shows the Vietnam that's so behind the modern world. HCM, and Vietnam as a whole, need much work when it comes to civil engineering.

After all, all the Wi-Fi in the world can't help you when you need to get across town fast.