Looking for love in Vietnam: Don't forget to :)

Cell phones and the Internet have changed how Vietnamese go about the business of finding and maintaining love.

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

Hien Nguyen and her trusted love communicator: the Sony Ericson S500i. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

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

HANOI, Vietnam--Love, or the lack thereof, is an ongoing global issue. I offer no solution, but if you want to look for the one here in Vietnam, a word of advice: learn to text and know your emoticons.

While online dating services are rampant in the States (personally, I believe many young Americans aren't really sure what to look for in a partner and being impatient as usual, think spending money somehow helps solve this), things are a little different in Vietnam--in the big cities that is.

"Nobody writes letters by hand anymore, we just text or talk over Yahoo Instant Messenger."
--Hien Nguyen, 27-year-old Vietnamese reporter

Here, there are no dating services (at least none that my friends and I can spot), and young people still mostly meet the traditional way--through friends, school, family, work, and so on. Those who do meet online most often become friends through blogging, forums, or online social activities.

(In small villages like the one in Ha Nam where I was born, dating hasn't changed much in the past 50 years. Kids are sort of matched up at an early age, oftentimes jokingly, by relatives or friends. When they grow up, if neither goes away to find a job elsewhere, chances are they will marry each other.)

But it doesn't matter how a relationship here starts; it seems all of them go through something I'd call the "@ phase of love," in which the courtship continues via cell phone texts and Yahoo instant messaging. Unlike in the States, where couples tend to move in together, people in Vietnam generally only live together once married. In between, they rely on cell phones and the Internet to stay close.

And they do that a lot. It doesn't take much to see how frequently people send text messages here. Go to a popular cafe in Hanoi--and there are many--and you'll constantly hear cell phones' quick ringing to indicate that a message has just been received. Judging from the young demographic of cell phone users, it isn't hard to see how much love and text messaging are intertwined.

Hien Nguyen, a 27-year-old newspaper reporter, told me the difference between dating in Vietnam now and just five years ago. "Nobody writes letters by hand anymore, we just text or talk over Yahoo Instant Messenger." Hien said she misses those handwritten letters, but only when she's on the receiving end. That's the problem. True romantic anticipation has been replaced by instant gratification, with the anticipation being waiting for text messages.

"It's fun to read them and read them again sometimes," Hien said. "I find it easier to express myself (that way) than talking directly. I can choose my words carefully."

I can sort of relate to this. Sometimes it's much less nerve-racking to send a text message than even to leave a voicemail. There's no voicemail service on cell phones in Vietnam, by the way, and most people don't bother to have home answering machines. Text messaging aside, people here generally pick up their phones when called.

Here I am flirting with a girl online. Emoticons in Vietnam can be so confusing that I po' tay (meaning I give up). Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

There's another reason text messaging is preferred; it's cheaper. Each text message costs only around 300 dong (less than 2 cents) or less, while a cell call can cost up to three or four times per minute what a text message does, depending on the distance. Unlike the States, in Vietnam (and many parts of the world) you don't have to pay for incoming texts or calls.

There are no restrictions on cell phone use here; you can use them anywhere, anytime. However, you might want to get out of a crowded restaurant or cafe to answer a call, if only because you want to escape the constant sound of phones ringing and people chatting on their mobile devices.

(There's not much restriction here overall, by the way. Take traffic, for example. You can drive without wearing a seat belt. During rush hour, bicycles and scooters can pretty much get on the sidewalks or sometimes even go into the opposite lanes. The most significant change in the traffic laws I can see here is the enforcement of helmets, which some people just put on for show, without properly tightening the strap.)

While text messages are clearly useful, I find it rather confusing to communicate via Yahoo Instant Messenger. First of all, there's lots of Vietnamese slang, much like the "l33tspeak" in the States. Living in the States for so long, I have to admit that I am behind on the lingo. But most intimidating to me is the use of the emoticons.

People over here have a thing for those cute little digital expressions. I have used Yahoo IM a lot to chat with my new friends during the course of writing this series of CNET blogs. My personal favorite, the smiley face :), is way too boring for them.

Minh Nguyen, a 25-year-old student I met online through family prior to this trip (and no relation to Hien Nguyen), often decorates her sentences with multiple emoticons. So much so that sometimes it's hard for me to know what she really means. Fortunately, I asked Minh and others to do some translating, and I got some very important information.

Though most Yahoo IM emoticons are designed to mean something that's widely understood, there are some that are interpreted here entirely differently from what they are originally designed to mean.

Learning to speak emoticon
For example, the "time out" smiley (formed by :-t characters) is used by some to actually mean "I am going to hammer you on the head". The "talk to the hand" and "bring it on" smileys (formed by =; and >:/ , respectively) are sometimes used to mean "bye bye." And the "not worthy" sign ^:)^ is used to mean "po' tay", which is a trendy not-in-the-dictionary Vietnamese way to say "You are too much, I give up."

Well, I did give up, not on love but on trying to decipher what each emoticon here means. I will continue to be happy with my boring but very clear smiley face :).

With all the technology at their disposal, a lot of young Vietnamese still have problems finding their other half. This is mostly because there's no dating for dating's sake here. Vietnamese are generally out to find love, sometimes in the hopeless-romantic sort of way. This, plus pressure from family and the ever increasingly busy lifestyle, makes me wonder how the dating scene in Vietnam will look in the next few years.

There is a silver lining, though. People in the cities tend to get married older than they did a few years ago. And Vietnam's population growth rate for sure could use some slowing down.

Of course, it doesn't matter whether you're online or offline, Vietnamese or not. In the end, finding love is all about communication and making sure you show who you really are. After all, how can your true love find you if you don't? (Just call me Dr. Ngo. I charge 100,000 dong per session.)