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Facebook in Vietnam: Social-networking blues

CNET's Dong Ngo reports from Hanoi on troubles that local users have been facing in accessing the social network. But is the government to blame?

The lack of access to Facebook has created a lot of anguish among young Vietnamese. Dong Ngo/CNET

HANOI, Vietnam--Vietnam's access to Facebook has been intermittent at best for about a month. However, after two weeks here in Hanoi, I haven't been able to get an official answer as to whether the popular social-networking Web site is being blocked here.

Internet service providers in Vietnam blame the spotty access on "technical issues," without offering an estimate for when the problems will be resolved. A representative from Viettel, a DSL and cell phone service provider, told me "there might be something wrong with Facebook."

None of the government personnel I was able to talk to during a recent trip back to my homeland would give me an answer, either. Some seemed to be unaware of the outage. However, during a media briefing on December 3, Nguyen Phuong Nga, a representative of Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, affirmed that agencies have been evaluating the contents of certain social Web sites because "many people in Vietnam have been upset that a number of social Web sites have been misused," basically posting information of an undisclosed nature that is deemed inappropriate.

I'm unaware of any misuse, but the upset seems much louder from the other side. With more than a million users and counting, the limited access to Facebook has created a lot of anguish. Lan Nguyen, a 23-year-old English student in Hanoi said, "I use Facebook daily. Now, it feels like something just got stolen from me." She uses FPT Telecom, one of the biggest DSL providers in Vietnam.

Ha Do of Ho Chi Minh city, another mid-20s, self-proclaimed Facebook addict who has some 1,800 friends, put it simply: "This sucks big time!" She revealed, however, that she still could access the site from some cafes, though definitely not from home. Upset and disappointment are common feelings among those I talked to about the matter.

This also affects a lot of small businesses in Vietnam, especially bars, restaurants, and tourism agencies that use Facebook to promote themselves to the outside world.

A curious silence
The week before I arrived in Vietnam, I was wondering why most of my Facebook friends in the country completely ignored my poking and never updated their pages. I'm afraid things won't get any better.

However, not everyone here thinks the blocking of Facebook--if it is in fact being blocked--is a bad thing. Long Tran, a 33-year-old editor for a Hanoi newspaper, said the situation would help boost local Internet services. He referred to how, thanks to similar tactics, China's Internet services have gained much local market share from foreign counterparts, such as the case of Taobao versus eBay or Baidu versus Google. Tran has never used Facebook or any other social-networking site, however.

Media in Vietnam, apart from citing ISPs' "technical issues" claims, now have started spreading rumors that Facebook is going out of service. The Thanh Nien, one of the most popular newspapers in Vietnam, ran an article Monday with the headline "Facebook in grave illness." It hinted that this is similar to the process of what happened to the now defunct Yahoo360, suggesting maybe it's time to look to other social Web sites.

Unfortunately, there aren't many Facebook alternatives in Vietnam, apart from Yahoo360Plus, which Yahoo created solely for Vietnam prior to the closure of its global Yahoo360 Web site. Yahoo360Plus is nowhere close in popularity to the original Yahoo360, mostly because it doesn't offer the interface in any other language except Vietnamese.

It's been about a month now that most computers in Vietnam can't access Facebook. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Facebook has been the fastest-growing social Web site in Vietnam, with the number of users increasing from just around 100,000 in June to almost 1.1 million in November, according to the company. It has been a daily tool for young Vietnamese, especially those with family and friends studying or living overseas, to stay connected. According to Facebook, 95 percent of Facebook users from Vietnam are 30 years old or younger and 60 percent are females.

The reason you can't accurately say outright that Facebook is blocked in Vietnam is because there's no official statement on the matter, and once in a while access is still possible.

Personally, while I couldn't access the site via Viettel DSL at the house I stayed, I could still access Facebook via a Viettel cellular data connection. Accessing the Internet via the cell is still in the early stages in Vietnam, however. Users of other Vietnamese broadband providers such as FPT, VNPT, and Viettel also report that once in a while, like for a few hours during weekends, access to Facebook is allowed.

Finding a workaround
Like Ha Do, I, too, could access Facebook from some cafes and hotels in Hanoi and other cities in Northern Vietnam. However this is likely because these places use third-party proxy services or change the DNS of their gateway to bypass that of the ISP. And this is what a lot of people in the country have done.

Trung, a 15-year-old high school student, taught me how to change the DNS. "I figured it out myself," Trung said proudly "I just Goggled it." Indeed, after a few Google searches, I found plenty of simple ways to by pass the ISP's DNS settings. "Now it would be really sad if Google is blocked," Trung added.

Blocked Web sites are new to Vietnam. However, this seems to be the first time people are out in big numbers looking for ways to bypass. This shows the popularity of Facebook and the desire of young Vietnamese to reach out and stay connected with the rest of the world. It might be just a matter of time before all Facebook users in the country successfully find a way to keep using the site. I wonder what the new "technical issues" will be then.

Nonetheless, so far the current limited access has dissuaded a lot of users from using the site and prevented new users from signing up. Personally, I am now assigned with finding a way for my college friends, most of whom are in Vietnam, to stay connected via the Internet. This is a real irony, as Facebook was originally made exactly for this purpose.

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