Vietnam, whose population notches around 90 million, has about 130 million mobile phones. There are also 19 million mobile Internet users, equating to penetration of around 21% — not bad for a rapidly developing Asian nation that’s not named China. That’s a lot of smartphones, and they’re multiplying quicker than you can say hột vịt lộn.

IMG_1411[1]

A KakaoTalk promotional booth at Galaxy Cinema in Saigon

Subscription plans among Vietnam’s state-owned telecoms are as rare as 40-year-old-virgins, and a la carte 3G data packages can be had for next to nothing compared to typical rates in the West. But those telecoms — Viettel, Vinaphone, and MobiFone — are getting increasingly anxious, as  the free chat app ecosystem in Vietnam has been blowing up recently, cutting heavily into their profits. That’s because these smartphone apps allow users to send text, image or audio messages for free via any wifi connection — with which Vietnam is saturated — to other subscribers. And if there’s one thing the Vietnam Communist Party (the ‘state’ in state-owned) cannot abide, it’s lost revenue.

A year ago, the chat app landscape in Vietnam was dominated by the American players: Viber and Whatsapp. But today, things look rather more interesting. Asian rivals have begun popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. There’s Japan’s emoji-infested Line, launched there after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. There are homegrown versions as well, the main one being Zalo, birthed by Zing Me owner VNG. One of the bigger players in this sandbox is Korean gorilla KakaoTalk, making a hard-not-to-notice new marketing push in Hanoi and Saigon in recent weeks. TVCs and cinema ads featuring Korean K-pop idol Big Bang, billboards, and interactive promotional booths staffed by a swarm of hip Vietnamese youth wearing the app’s signature yellow and pushing flyers on anyone who comes near.

Image source: www.vir.com.vn

But by far the 900kg gorilla in the field is China’s Tencent-developed WeChat. Seeking to do what China’s search giant Baidu has so far been unable to do — break out of China and into foreign markets — WeChat has ambitions to be the dominant global mobile messaging app and, while they’re at it, a Facebook-threatening social network as well. Of their 300 million current global users, no less than 40 million live outside of China.

But Vietnamese users are wary, to put it mildly, of anything that’s coming out of China these days, whether it’s tainted milk or fake antibiotics. Local users have been vocal in their condemnation of WeChat. In a much-read post in January, Vietnamese celebrity and ‘hot teen’ Thu Minh wrote:

“I used to have WeChat app and chit chat with my friends sometimes, but since I heard some bad information about this app, I immediately deleted this application!”

At the Facebook fan page Nguy Hiem Qua, users even created the biting slogan, “Better to throw phones into the rubbish can than to use WeChat from China!” (Thà vứt điện thoại sọt rác, còn hơn dùng WeChat China!)

Rumors of cancer-causing imported Chinese fruits and veggies aside, the main sticking point for local users has been the ongoing Hoang Sa Island dispute with Big Brother to the north. The territorial spat has had Vietnamese in an ultra-nationalistic fervor for at least two years, believing, rightly or wrongly, that China wants to make Vietnam another Tibet (which, to be fair, Vietnam once was, for around a thousand years — old memories apparently die hard around here).

“Using WeChat means that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa belong to China. Delete WeChat, say no to ‘bọn khựa’!” wrote user nick M4ito4. (‘Bọn khựa’ is a highly derogatory slang word for a Chinese national.) Ahie nick commented, “WeChat is very hot right now. For our country’s dominion, please delete WeChat.”

Many users point as evidence for a Chinese conspiracy to the map that’s built into the WeChat app. That map purportedly refers to the Hoang Sa islands as the ‘Xīshā Islands’ and presents them as part of Chinese territory. A user who goes by the name Emily Bui wrote,

“Such impractical and unreasonable thoughts of China, that people in the world would believe in that sovereignty just by using WeChat.”

In February, hugely popular online teen news magazine Kenh14.vn posted a video from Vu Thuy Linh, a Vietnamese student living in China, which shows her using the WeChat map to identify the “cow-tongue-shaped” territory of China that apparently includes the disputed islands. “This is clear evidence of a U-shaped graph on WeChat application,” post author Genk writes of the video.

Rumors that Tencent is censoring ‘sensitive’ words and phrases from the China-based platform haven’t done much to endear it to local users, either. Tencent has denied doing so, stating that users who received a message saying their chat entries contained “restricted words” had merely experienced a “techical glitch.”

Nineteen million-plus smartphone users are a tempting target for anyone in the world with a new app to hawk, and Vietnam can expect to be romanced by many more such paramours going forward. Whom they choose to kiss, however, may in the end depend less on the benefits than it does on the nation of origin.