Saturday, September 08, 2007

Blogs sweep Vietnam as young push state-run media aside

HANOI (AFP) — Pop stars are doing it, so are millions of teenagers and even Communist Party politicians -- blogging has taken Vietnam by storm and spawned an alternative communications universe to dusty state media.

In an online phenomenon that has exploded in a little over a year in this youthful and booming nation, millions of net surfers now reveal all as they share daily gossip and thoughts on their fast-changing society.

Vietnam may be a one-party state that censors its official media and the Internet, but this hasn't stopped millions of yong people embracing a world of carefree online chatting their parents could only have dreamed off.

"Blogs were nothing two years ago and suddenly everybody's got one," said 28-year-old Canadian expatriate Joe Ruelle, a celebrity in the local blogosphere.

"The number of people who have blogs is baffling," he said. "It's kind of like the Wild West right now. People write everything."

When Hollywood star Angelina Jolie came to adopt a child here in March, in a visit celebrated by state media, bloggers hotly debated the merits of her trip -- and whether she really is the world's most beautiful woman.

When Vietnam hosted world leaders for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit last year, student volunteers and state-paid staff provided behind-the-scenes looks at the event.

Bloggers have fought wars over the cultural divide between Vietnam's north and south, but they have also raised funds for the needy, arranged organ donations and given support to people suffering deadly diseases.

Blogger Cuoi HK, aka Tuyen, a Vietnam Airlines employee, touched thousands as he chronicled his fight against cancer on a blog, and supporters held real-life "offline parties" for him before he died earlier this year.

"I read your blog to learn how to live and fight," wrote blogger Phuong Thanh. "Thanks for your smile. I know you will be with us forever."

Pop stars such as Phuong Linh use blogs to share details of their daily lives, and unknowns such as blogger Ha Kin have become minor Internet stars through blogs such as her 50-part "Love Story in New York".

National assembly deputy Duong Trung Quoc, a prominent historian, recently became the legislature's first blogger, posting an assembly diary as well as historical tit-bits about the 1,000-year-old capital city.

Even Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has shared details of his personal life in a one-off online chat to reach out to young and tech-savvy citizens.

"Some people said that as a senior leader, one may feel very lonely," Dung wrote. "But I have never felt lonely. I don't know what other people think, but I feel life is always beautiful."

Vietnam's rulers have also been parodied in fake blogs using their names, in which unknown writers have sung the praises of the Communist Party -- leading the goverment in August to affirm that Dung has only one official website.

But for the most part, it is youngsters who have pioneered the form, usually with non-political chit-chat.

Phan Kim Ngan, a 13-year-old student from Hanoi, said at least half her 40 classmates now have a blog. Some even have two.

"Those who don't have blogs are mostly those without a PC and an Internet connection at home," she said. "They can use an Internet cafe, but that makes it harder to regularly update their blogs.

"I write about my life, what I think, and what happens at school. I don't share my blog with my parents and never with my teachers. We sometimes complain about them, so they can't know about our entries."

Writing diaries has a long tradition in Vietnam, a country with a strong and ancient literary heritage, and the tragic Vietnam war diaries of female army doctor Dang Thuy Tram have become a recent best-seller.

But for Ngan and many of her class-mates, written diaries are as passe as the Vietnam War that ended in 1975, long before she was born.

"It's old-fashioned and I already have to do too much hand-writing at school," she said. "On a blog we can express ourselves more freely. Writing a blog is a good break from study. It's entertainment."

Blogging has rapidly caught on in Vietnam, where two-thirds of people are under 30 and most are happy technology-adopters who casually text-message each other while riding mopeds through chaotic city traffic.

The number of Internet connections has mushroomed to 16.7 million in the country of 84 million people, with cybercafes and wi-fi spots widespread.

"In Vietnam, once something comes along in the way of technology or information, people take to it really very quickly," said Ruelle.

"There's a whole language of Internet Vietnamese that's completely different, with abbreviated words, slang and word plays. Someone who doesn't read on the Internet a lot probably wouldn't get half of it," he said.

"But blogging is really just an extension of the Vietnamese chatting culture. There is a real satirical bent here. People like to joke and wind each other up about silly things. Vietnamese are the ultimate chatters."

Ruelle should know. His blog -- a series of quirky takes on daily life, and originally a way to practice his Vietnamese -- has received three million hits and made him a household name here.

"I had written a few things, mostly for my friends," he said. "There was an entry about old ladies doing exercises in a park to that song "boom, boom, boom boom -- I want you in my room." And I wrote about why I thought that was funny.

"An online newspaper found my blog and put it on its front page, and it immediately went from 10,000 to 100,000 hits. I got so many emails from readers that at first I thought my inbox was full of spam."

Ruelle has since published a best-selling book of his blogs and parlayed his online stardom into a job as host of a VTV6 youth show and a leading role in a soon-to-be-screened tele-romance.

The authorities have taken notice of the blog boom. State and party censors have threatened fines and other penalties for "black blogs" with pornographic and "out of stream" content or "information against the party and the state".

"There's been debate about whether there should be some kind of censorship," said Ruelle. "The main conclusion was, 'What on earth would you use as an acceptable standard?' It's pretty much a free-for-all at the moment."