Pirate's heaven in Vietnam

Combine a hardworking, gadget-happy population with grinding poverty and you get an explosive combination. Western corporations: Good luck.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
HANOI, Vietnam--Contrary to popular belief, you can't pick up a pirated DVD of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" on this city's streets within five minutes.

First, the Vietnamese street vendors don't categorize their movies, so relatively recent films such as "Vanilla Sky," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Moulin Rouge" are mixed in with "The Big Sleep" and the famed "Red," "White" and "Blue" trilogy from Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Second, the pirates here have adopted the just-in-time manufacturing ethos of Dell Computer. Often, you have to make your selection first and then a guy on a mo-ped runs off with your order to his friend with a burner.

In the end, it took me about an hour, and I had to visit three stores. They charged me $2.08 (30,000 dong) for "Harry Potter" and $2.08 more for "The Lord of the Rings." The color is a bit bright on both films--the official DVDs aren't out yet--but both work. Coincidentally, the Viet Nam News on the same day reported that Potter's Asian distributor still hadn't decided whether to bring the movie to Vietnam because of piracy concerns.

"At first, they would encode these for Chinese machines, which meant it wouldn't work on U.S. computers. It took (the pirates) about a day to figure that out. Now everything works fine on American stuff," said Patrick Morris, a former IT manager at VentureOne and currently the director of VeloAsia, which runs bicycle tours. "I'll never forget the time I bought 'Mr. Yee's Windows 98.'"

Western corporations have their work cut out for them when it comes to stemming piracy. Combine an industrious, hardworking population fascinated with all things electronic with grinding poverty, and you get an explosive combination. What do you think underemployed undergraduates and high-school students are doing with their ample spare time? Rewriting the "Windows Tricks and Tips" manual, that's what.

Internet cafes dot the street. Many are filled with tourists, but also with Vietnamese teenagers. The 12-year-old granddaughter of the owner of the cafe where I am sitting now reconfigured the networking protocols so I could get online.

Creative marketing
Local pirates have even come up with ways to give their pirated software seemingly legitimate serial numbers, Morris said. In other words, if you buy a copy of Adobe Photoshop, there is a strong likelihood that you could then register it to get legitimate updates.

Nearly every software title, film and album is available on the streets of this city, which itself is a backwater compared with Saigon. Windows XP sells for $1.67, the same as Red Hat Linux. Windows Me is cheaper, but it doesn't sell well. "Buggy," said a woman who ran one of the stores. A disk containing 35 music-compression and recording applications goes for $2.33.

Norton appears to have a strong edge over rivals in terms of market share, and Visual Basic looks to be the toolkit of choice. The folks at Macromedia should be glad to know that Dreamweaver is incredibly popular too.

Music abounds as well, although it's a little more out-of-date. Most stores feature artists such as Louis Armstrong, The Police or Van Morrison.

And they don't just stop at simple piracy. When the Vietnamese illegally copy a film, they copy protected material from other sources to make the package seem that much more professionally done. On the back of my "Harry Potter" DVD, the movie is described as follows:

"Jackson Pollock was America's Greatest painter. Children will thrill to his story so come on, let's go have an adventure."

The credits on the "Lord of the Rings" disc say the movie stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and is based on a story by Larry Ferguson.

PCs a tough sell
Although the software makers are up a creek, the hardware guys are facing a different problem: penetration. PCs remain expensive. They cost the same as PCs in the United States. A Viet-built Celeron PC goes for about $750 with monitor, and a Pentium III sells for $800.

Still, $800 for a family in Vietnam is a far larger portion of the family budget, so most people depend on the computers at home or pay by the minute in cafes. Access is dirt cheap. An hour of Internet time ranges from 12 cents to 75 cents, and those are the tourist prices. Locals pay less.

Rather than computers, "white goods" are what most families are investing in: The streets are lined with stores selling stereos, TVs, fridges and washer-dryers. Cell phones are also big (and if you'd like, you can get a fake Nokia phone cover featuring a scantily clad Catherine Zeta-Jones for 18 cents).

PCs are actually tough to find. In two days, I've found only one store that sells PCs, and it was in the luxury mall. They sold Hewlett-Packard notebooks and desktops, and roughly for the same price as in the States. A complete desktop system with a flat-panel screen and printer went for $1,507, and Celeron notebooks sold for around $1,200. On the highway, I saw one sign for Compaq Computer.

The hardware makers in some ways are doing to the Vietnamese what the local population is doing to the software makers. That is, sticking it to them. All the HP desktops were configured with Rambus memory--the 800MHz variety. Rambus memory has been hounded out of the States, but you can't avoid it here. Seems like someone is doing some component dumping.