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Social Networks

A café culture of business: Facebook use in Vietnam

Over the last decade, Vietnam has seen the gradual elimination of the extreme poverty that has plagued the country for decades. In tandem it has witnessed a massive lift in average incomes (which reached $1,910 in 2013). And the future looks even brighter.

In fact, if the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is passed later this year as expected, Professor Robert Z Lawrence from Harvard’s Kennedy School has estimated that the country could enjoy 13.6% GDP growth by 2025. Under the free trade deal, Vietnam will benefit from the elimination of many tax barriers, allowing it to boost exports to the United States and Japan.

Like many developing countries growing out their cocoon of destitution, the average Vietnamese now has a comparatively significant disposable income. While big-ticket items such as land (prices are inflated by an influx of overseas remittances) and cars (high taxes) remain out of reach for most, much of this cash is being spent on consumer electronics, especially smartphones.

There are 130 million phones in Vietnam out of a total population of 90 million. Of these, 22 – 32 million are smartphones, according to TechinAsia, the region’s leading technology website. When walking down the streets of Hanoi or traveling through the snowcapped mountains of Sapa, these figures seem reasonable as everyone from office workers to rice farmers can be found with a phone in hand.

Mary Meeker’s exhaustive State of the Internet presentation released last May found that Vietnamese spend an average of 466 minutes per day in front of a screen, ranking just ahead of the United States at 444 minutes. Of the four screen categories included in the report - TV, tablet, smartphone or laptop/PC – Vietnamese spent the most time with their smartphones at 168 minutes per day.

The role of café culture

It is in the country’s cities where iPhones and Samsung Galaxies dominate the market. iPhones in particular have become a powerful status symbol for most urban dwellers with sales of the devices tripling in the fiscal first half of 2014. Apple executives now consider Vietnam the company’s hottest market.

When entering a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, nearly all of which offer free WIFI, it seems as though a smartphone is a perquisite for entry. Many Vietnamese aren’t shy to flaunt their wealth after decades of economic hardship and smartphones symbolize that they have arrived.  

“This phone represents two months worth of my salary,” said a 23-year-old officer worker, Truc Bui, pointing to her iPhone 6. “But I need it. With an iPhone in my hand, I feel more confident when hanging out with friends and colleagues,” she added.

Cafés serve as catwalks for these displays of affluence. Deeply ingrained in Vietnamese culture, sipping on glasses of cà phê sữa while talking with friends or professional contacts is one of the most common forms of social contact.

Though this tradition shows no signs of being endangered by rapid modernization, social interaction at coffee shops no longer includes only those present, but the vast network of friends in one’s palm.

Facebook is especially popular and in Vietnam, it is common to accept friend requests from people you’ve never met but seem to hold some potential for professional development. Just like moving up in the ranks of the country’s Communist Party, the key to professional success is based on whom you know.

Long Dang runs a successful IT company on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. “I built my business on connections I’ve made through Facebook,” said Dang as we sat at a Trung Nguyen coffee shop, Vietnam’s version of Starbucks.

“My initial contact with a number of my clients was via friend requests. I’ve also recruited staff from local, tech-focused Facebook groups. It’s been a valuable asset. I’ve haven’t spent a Dong (US$.000047) on recruitment websites,” Long added.

Part of the reason Facebook is so useful for this type of communication is because pretty much everyone between 18 and 40 uses it. In October 2012, Facebook overtook Zing, Vietnam’s homegrown social network, with 8.2 million users. According to a 2014 survey by Epinion, of the country’s 36 million internet users, nearly 25 million have a Facebook account.

LinkedIn is also part of the conversation and is popular amongst Vietnamese who want to pad their professional networks, but it lacks mass appeal and many of the social features that Facebook provides.

Tu Anh Nguyen, a student at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences said that she had been using social media since 2008, but deactivated her accounts on Zing and MySpace once Facebook gained popularity.

“Managing three social media accounts became a part time job. It was just ridiculous,” Nguyen lamented. “After a while, it was a pointless anyway since most of my friends had joined Facebook.”

It stands to reason that the role of social media and mobile devices in Vietnam will continue to increase based on the country’s continuing economic ascension and investments in the tech sector.

And it is the mingling of two social devices, one hardware and one software, that will ultimately dictate the future of interpersonal communication in Vietnam.

 

Brian Letwin is a Co-Founder of Saigoneer, a Ho Chi Minh City-centric blog that focuses on news, tech, events, food, culture and other local coverage.

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