The Vietnamese have some wonderful phrases for describing seemingly hopeless  tasks. There’s Lấy trứng chọi đá, for example, which means “When the egg meets the stone.” Or they might describe a situation as châu chấu đá voi — “a cricket kicking an elephant.”

Both of those phrases, and many others, have gotten a lot of use this week, as Vietnamese commentators took to the Web to discuss the tech story of the year so far — the much ballyhooed entry of Russian-financed search engine startup Cốc Cốc in Vietnam, whose owners have made much of their objective to knock Google off its throne as Vietnam’s number-one website and most popular search tool.

When the egg meets the rock. (Image: tienphong.vn)

The Cốc Cốc story first broke widely back in February on Tech in Asia. The company is apparently a spinoff of an experimental search engine in Russia. Post author Anh-Minh Do noted that CEO Victor Lavrenko and his team of Russian and Vietnamese engineers believe the secret recipe for their success includes one very special ingredient: an engine that they claim can handle the nuances of the Vietnamese language, particularly those difficult diacritical marks, better than Google can. Cốc Cốc (it means “Knock Knock” in English) has an office in Hanoi with anywhere from 300-400 employees, depending on whom you ask, and for several weeks has been gathering photos and video of streets, businesses and other locations for a hyper-localized database they say will beat the pants off what Mountain View provides in the country. What’s even more interesting, Cốc Cốc claimed in that piece to have USD $100 million in Russian financing to play with, indicating they’re in it for the long haul.

Then last week, Hanoi-based reporter Chris Brummitt got on the story for the Associated Press. Brummitt pointed out that any corporate entity based in Vietnam, especially an Internet company, must walk a fine line in doing business while not treading too heavily on “a jittery, authoritarian government seeking to clamp down on freedom of expression online” — the very reason why Google has so far elected not to open an office in the country, despite the lure of Vietnam’s 31 million or so (and growing) active Internet users.

Brummitt observed in that article that search queries for terms the CPV would likely consider “sensitive” were being treated by Cốc Cốc pretty much exactly as they were by Google, suggesting that censorship was, for the moment, not part of the Russian team’s MO. Yet two days after the AP article hit news sites around the world, Brummitt posted another. In the wake of the first AP story, it seems, Cốc Cốc had indeed begun filtering politically sensitive results — not just refusing the search but redirecting them to, of all places, Google.com.vn — possibly in an effort to curry favor with the local muscle.

All this fodder has made for plenty of juicy discussion on the Vietnamese Web in recent days. Much of the discussion has as a central motif the aforementioned proverbs, with commentators suggesting the Cốc Cốc team are deluding themselves if they think they can unseat the world’s most powerful Internet player. Many have cited the string of now-defunct new media carcasses that have impaled themselves upon the sceptre Google wields: Socbay, Xalo, Timnhanh, and the foundering Wada, which just launched last winter but is mainly notable for its lack of notability.

“Arrogant” is a word that’s been used by many commenters, who’ve taken issue with a company seeking not just to compete with Google for market share but to beat them at the game they invented. Writes Blogger Binh Nguyen:

“I don’t need anyone to ‘beat’ Google, I just want an alternative to Google, that’s all.”

Others have noted that much has been made by Cốc Cốc and local Vietnamese press of the “uniqueness” and “subtlety” of the Vietnamese language, and that the country’s residents deserve a homegrown alternative to the American company. Appeals to national pride have indeed been a ubiquitous feature in much of the local press. A Cốc Cốc job posting, for example, says, “Vietnamese grammar Is very difficult, so we can be proud to show that after struggling for years of research, Cốc Cốc engineers have figured out the algorithm that can solve the various problems of Vietnamese language.”

For many, that’s enough in itself. One user named Feelthebeat wrote:

“I must say this work is very welcome. Hopefully not far in the future Vietnam will have a search engine to be proud of.”

User ThanhftChung writes, “1 LIKE vote for the Vietnamese :)” Another commenter going by Yuukiu said, “Just the sound of the name makes me like it better already.”

Numerous other commenters, however, have expressed deep skepticism, suggesting that many of the write-ups they’ve seen online appear to be obvious ‘advertorials’ paid for by the Russian team, and that it all smacks of the same kind of “arrogance” and “overconfidence” displayed recently by Vietnamese coffee magnate Trung Nguyên in his embarassing broadsides against Starbucks’ entry into the country earlier this year.

It’s also interesting that while the foreign press’ coverage of Cốc Cốc has identified the company’s main management and ownership team as all being of Russian extraction, the local press has been pushing a different narrative, one in which Cốc Cốc is the work of three industrious young Vietnamese men who studied in Russia and have returned to the homeland having secured foreign financing for a “locally” grown startup challenge to American imperialism.

An article at tienphong.vn, for example, hawks the following storyline: “The founders of Coc Coc (Nguyen Thanh Binh, Le Van Thanh and Nguyen Duc Ngoc) … are just three ex-students studying abroad in Russia who had the same dream of building a made-in-Vietnam search engine. They studied in the same major and found out that they had the same hobby and ambition. By the last semester, they all applied to work for the company Nigma.ru and together in 2008, they came back to Vietnam to research the market and persuade the investor that Vietnam is a potential land for their project.”

Appeals to national pride have some chance to be a successful strategy, commenters note. But at the same time, they point out that Vietnamese have very little faith in the quality of local brands, and tend to prefer almost any foreign brand (except Chinese) over local alternatives, as they feel they can be more sure of the quality.

As user Le Phan says at Kenh14, “99% of the brands we use originate from outside Vietnam.”

But Cốc Cốc has not limited its efforts to unseat Google with a search engine alone. It’s also released a competing web browser called — stay with us here — Cờ Rôm+ (pronounced like “Chrome Plus”) which, mystifyingly, is based upon Google’s open-source Chromium project. The company claims their browser is superior to Chrome because, like their search engine, it enables “faster natural language typing that takes into account Vietnamese diacritical marks and suggests possible search terms based on those several alternatives,” which Google doesn’t do. Furthermore, they maintain Cờ Rôm+ has a suite of built-in “security” tools that obviate the need for users to to change the DNS settings or use third-party software such as Hotspot Shield or Ultrasurf to access blocked websites such as Facebook. The browser is also said to natively allow downloading of videos from YouTube, something few other browsers can do without plug-ins.

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The new Cờ Rôm+ browser looks, and sounds, eerily familiar

Exactly how including a raft of Internet censorship circumvention tools in their browser reconciles with Cốc Cốc’s demonstrated willingness to cowtow to CPV censorship interests in Vietnam remains an unanswered question.

At Tech In Asia, which ran a story about the new browser on May 16, one reader named CT commented, “It’s a bad joke. CocCoc stole Chrome source code then rename it to Cờ-rôm. They still use Google map’s data in their search service. How can they beat Google by that way? Again, it’s very bad joke.User David replied, “The problem with Co-rom is it looks alike exactly 100% with Google Chrome from the user-interface, logo and even brand name.”

“If they use Cờ Rôm, they would forever stay under the shade of Chrome; then never hope to beat against anyone,” wrote user Thể nào cũng bị trẻ trâ in Hanoi. “Fake product can never win real branded one!”

How the Cốc Cốc and Cờ Rôm+ story will play out in coming weeks and months will be interesting to watch. Vietnamese users seem hopeful but skeptical at the moment, having had their hopes dashed so many times before. But if the Russians are as deep-pocketed and ambitious as they claim to be, and if they can leverage an advantage with the Vietnamese government — and local advertisers (not made any easier by the fact that Google launched Vietnamese language support for AdSense a few weeks ago) — they may be able to make a go of it. If not, well, they won’t be the only startup in Vietnam whose digital remains lie rotting at the feet of the Mammoth from Mountain View.