The Vietnamese are a remarkably social people, even by Asian collectivist standards, which is saying something. Gossip, speculation, and rumor-mongering are cherished communal traditions going back millennia, and whose roles in the arts of conversation and business are pretty much indispensable. Dirty laundry in this Southeast Asian nation is the preferred kind, and the grapevine stretches from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon to many) in the south; across the numberless rice paddies and silt-stained estuaries of the Mekong delta to the Gulf of Thailand; from the Ho Chi Minh Trail’s curving spine, where it spoons against the Laotian border, to the 3,000-kilometer coastline of the East Sea (not, we repeat, not the ‘South China Sea’).
For the thousand-year history of this nation, it has been so. And since the advent of mobile phones and broadband Internet access a little more than a decade ago, it has been even more so. Today, Vietnam’s 91 million residents (54% of whom are under the age of 30) carry an estimated 127 million cellphones. Roughly 34% are on the Internet regularly — that’s a 12,000% climb over the past decade, and about equal to what you’d find today in more developed nations like China, Thailand, or the Philippines. Conversations that for generations have taken place on doorsteps, sidewalks, quans and cafes, bia hois and badminton courts, have migrated to the online sphere, where they play out on myriad blogs and microblogs, on social media platforms (both foreign and domestic), on forums and discussion boards, newspaper comments sections, and countless other public and private spaces.
At the same time, Vietnam remains a tightly controlled, single-party authoritarian nation, where the Communist Party frowns on dissenting voices and opinions. Netizens here tend to tread carefully when online, as a wrong word can result in the kind of trouble nobody wants.
Yet for the Vietnamese, the political is inherently social as well, even familial in a Confucian sense. Vietnam thinks of itself, from the uppermost Party official to the lowliest peasant farmer, as one big family. And who can resist talking about family?
These two cultural imperatives — one an immoveable object, the other an irresistible force — work together in Vietnam to produce a unique online conversational environment — creative, subversive, opinionated, honest, sometimes infuriating, and never not interesting. In it, tradition is butting heads with modernity; young people are more willing to speak out rather than merely listening to their elders; authority figures are expected to be accountable; long-held traditions are both vilified and exalted; and the age-old East vs. West ideological tug-of-war has found a new playing field, one in which millions can participate. It’s fascinating, and chaotic, to watch and try to make sense of.
VIETMEME is an attempt to bring a little order and perspective to this great spectacle. Our mission is to parse the torrent of scuttlebutt, opinioneering and dish, sifting it for the bits that best represent what Vietnam’s online community is saying about the issues that are most on their minds at the moment. We don’t pretend to be either market researchers or public opinion pollsters — we offer only a highly subjective take on a microcosm of the vast ocean of Internet chatter going on at any given moment. But in doing so, we hope to be able to provide a representative look at the diversity of ideas, opinions, sages and crackpots that comprise Vietnam’s online civil society. And, hopefully, we can have a little fun in the process.
We hope you’ll join us.