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In Vietnamese village, tech rewires old traditions

CNET reporter Dong Ngo returns home to celebrate the new year in his remote village and discovers that technology has dramatically changed the way people there interact with one another--and long-held customs.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
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 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
5 min read

A man prays at an altar in the Tran pagoda in Nhan Dao during the first moments of the new year. People bring offerings such as candies, flowers, and fruit to show respect to their ancestors and ask them to grant good luck and health. Dong Ngo/CNET

HANAM, Vietnam--Once you've been gone for so long, the place you come from no longer exists.

The place in question is my birthplace of Nhan Dao, a small village of about 4,700 residents in Hanam province, some 60 miles south of Hanoi. To put things in perspective, when I was growing up here in the '80s and early '90s, a trip to the capital of Hanoi would take eight hours one way. There was no paved road, no electricity, and no running water. For those reasons, until about 10 or 15 years ago, most people in Nhan Dao spent their whole lives within about a 20-mile radius of the village.

I found myself a little lost at home amid all the changes. It's a feeling of not knowing who I really am anymore when all that colored my formative years is slowing fading away.

During that time, the only piece of modern technology I knew of was the lone loudspeaker, positioned in the middle of the village, which broadcast Radio the Voice of Vietnam from 5 in the morning to 10 at night. For years, it was what I woke up to and went to bed with, and it was the voice of one of the VoV newscasters that inspired me to become a journalist.

Life in the village was calm and simple then, and, for the most part, happy, despite the lack of wealth or connections to the outside world. Everybody, apart from working hard day in and day out in the rice fields, always looked forward to holidays, especially Tet, the traditional Vietnamese new year, when relatives and friends visit, children get lucky money, and celebrants feast on dishes including steamed square cakes made of sticky rice, pork, and green beans and wrapped in leaves. In the simplest terms, Tet in Vietnam is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's all rolled into one.

After being in the States for so long and especially after several long days immersed in gadgets at CES 2011, I wanted to go back and experience Tet again for the first time in 10 years. I wanted to try to stay away from technology and the Internet for a while and find glimpses of the simple life I had once known.

The loudspeaker, like this one in Nhan Dao, used to be the only source of entertainment and the sole connection to the outside world for many villages in Vietnam. That's no longer the case. Dong Ngo/CNET

That was not to be. I discovered that while Tet is still here, most of the simple life I remember has gone for good.

My village has completely transformed in the last decade, changing much more dramatically than it did during the 100 years before that, according to my 96-year-old grandmother, who lives here along with my parents. It now takes just about an hour and a half to get here from Hanoi, with the roads paved all the way. During this holiday season, the village's main road is adorned with flags hung on light poles or on top of houses, next to satellite TV dishes and antennae.

In truth, there doesn't seem to be much difference between my village and the city--apart from the rice fields and sounds of livestock, plus smaller houses and much less traffic. Almost everyone here has a cell phone now. In fact, there's no phone service, other than cellular, in the village. Viettel is the most popular provider in Nhan Dao, though anybody can switch to another provider just by swapping out SIM cards, which are on sale everywhere.

Traditionally, during "watch night" (the last night of the new year, which this year was Wednesday), people in the village walk to the Tran pagoda to collect burning incense and small tree branches, symbols of luck and prosperity, to bring home. This is also where they convene with loved ones before the new year arrives.

teens texting
Cell phones are ubiquitous in Vietnam now, even in small villages. Here, a group of teens gather at a pagoda in Nhan Dao waiting for the new year and texting greetings to their friends. Dong Ngo/CNET

It was the same this year--with one big difference. In the past, I remember the pagoda being overcome with people, especially kids, running around looking for one another. Now, with the proliferation of cell phones, things are much more organized--everyone was calling and texting one another to locate and meet up with their groups.

I ran into a group of teenagers sitting together, every one of them with a cell phone in hand (mostly Nokias, it appeared), busily typing away on the tiny keypads. At their age, I had no idea what a telephone even was. As it turned out, they were preparing "Happy New Year" messages so that when the first moment of the new year arrived at midnight, they could send them out immediately.

And when the first day of the lunar calendar came this year, I walked back from the pagoda, along the well-lit road, and there was happy new year music coming from all directions, and here and there I could hear Abba's "Happy New Year." For a moment, I forgot I was in a small village in Vietnam.

The most interesting thing, however, is what cellular Internet brings to the village. Phuong Nguyen, who is in his mid-30s and works in Hanoi but comes back to Nhan Dao often, is (like many in Vietnam) addicted to an online game called Nong Trai Vui Ve (Happy Farm), a Farmville-like game from Zing.vn.

3G USB modem
A 3G USB modem like this lets you connect to the Internet at decent speeds virtually anywhere in Vietnam, even remote villages. The modem uses a SIM card that can be replaced easily and cheaply to replenish the data bandwidth. Dong Ngo/CNET

On the first day of the new year, when rituals such as praying to an altar and burning paper offerings had been completed, he pulled out his Dell XPS M1330 laptop with a 3G modem from Viettel to "check on my farm"--and he did so while he was sitting amid the vegetables on his family's farm with chickens running all around. "The game should give you extra credit for playing it in the middle of the vegetable garden, you know! Two farms at once, multitasking," he said, laughing.

Though I'm a person who lives and breathes technology in America, I found myself a little lost at home amid all the changes. It's a feeling of not knowing who I really am anymore when all that colored my formative years is slowing fading away.

But not everything has gone digital. The square cakes and other great food, as well as the flowers and well wishes in red envelops are still here. Older people, who don't know how to text, still take time to visit one another and deliver wishes in person. And I did find something that has always been there: the loudspeaker. It's now hung underneath a street light and has a slightly different role. With televisions, computers, and cell phones, it's no longer the source of entertainment and news but used mostly for public announcements.

Speaking of Tet, happy Year of the Cat everyone. For those Vietnamese overseas who've been hesitating to come back for a visit, do it now. The country is always there, but the country you know won't wait for long.

Nhan Dao street
During the holiday season, Nhan Dao's main road is adorned with flags hung on light poles or on top of houses. Dong Ngo/CNET
couple offering branches
On Tet, a couple picks lucky branches from a pre-gathered pile at the Tran pagoda in Nhan Dao. Dong Ngo/CNET

To read Dong Ngo's past dispatches from Vietnam, click here.