A few years ago in the outskirts of Hanoi, I watched as a well-dressed, middle-aged woman burned paper offerings to her dead husband. Along with traditional mock gold bars and horses, one item stood out: a paper cell phone.
"Why are you burning a paper cell phone?" I asked.
"So that in the spirit world he can have everything that we have now," she answered matter-of-factly.
A car and a laptop are the lyrical symbols of the American Dream, but for the Vietnamese they remain impossible luxury items. Not the cell phone. In Vietnam, cell phones are so plentiful that vendors sell them on sidewalks. Teenagers have them. On motorcycles, Vietnamese chat with one hand on the handlebars and weave dangerously. In cafes, they have a rude habit of talking to you while checking and sending messages on their cells. They don't even turn them off in movie theaters.
Or try this classic, modern-day image of Saigon: a husband and wife riding on a motorcycle down a tree-lined boulevard on a Sunday morning. He's in a black suit, driving while talking on his cell; she, in a traditional ao dai dress, holds onto his waist with one arm and chats on her cell with the other.
According to TechniAsia, there's a 145 cell phones for 100 people. "For a country whose population is just over 90 million, that amounts to more than 130 million mobile phones," it notes.
Vietnam mass produces cell phones. In 2010, it reportedly exports 2.3 billion dollars worth of phone sets, according to Vietnam Economy News. "In the first nine months of 2012, the phone set export turnover reached 8.63 billion dollars, up by 122 percent in comparison with the same period of the last year."
These days, the insidious cell phone has invaded even the most sacred space in Vietnam -- the Buddhist temple. I went to one such temple to immerse myself in quiet meditation and incense smoke when, suddenly, the muffled theme of Star Wars chimed from a young monk's saffron robe nearby. Buddha smiled down benevolently on us all, but the abbot wasn't pleased.
Vietnam came out of the Cold War and ran smack into the Information Age. To own the latest communication technology, therefore, is a must, a status symbol that many urbanized Vietnamese can't do without. Internet cafes in every city are full, fax machines twitter in every office, and the ringing of cell phones never seems to stop. It's a paradox -- in a country known for its lack of freedom of expression, where political dissidents are routinely arrested, people can't seem to keep their mouths shut. And its effects on the government is a country full of people who could text images of political protest and arrests at any given time, despite the state controlled media.
Before the U.S. embargo was lifted in 1994 and travel was allowed between the United States and Vietnam, a letter or care package sent from America would take up to six months to arrive in Vietnam. Back then, my mother and I would roll $20 bills into tight, compact sticks smaller than cigarettes and hide them in tubes of tooth paste, which we would then send home along with other goods to help our relatives survive. No more. These days, Vietnam has a 7 percent annual growth rate and a growing middle class. Vietnamese can shop in newly built supermarkets, money is easily wired and e-mails zip back and forth as if the ocean doesn't exist.
While I was in Vietnam, a cousin in Hanoi insisted that I rent a cell phone. For about a dollar, he said, we could be in contact every day. Never mind that we hadn't been in touch for almost a decade. Now that I was here, somehow we needed to stay constantly connected.
For Vietnamese, the latest cell phone is ultimately more than a status symbol. Vietnamese are clannish, and for many, the family and extended family are all the social network they will ever have. Connecting to one another is more than just a fad -- it's a cultural imperative. Bonds are never to be broken and relationships are to be built upon continuously. The cell phone facilitates that task quite well. And the latest model must be seen. At dining events it's a habit of Vietnamese to take out the cell phones and place it on the table so every one else can see it -- which leads to some materialistic soul to be under the pressure to buy a new one every few months or so.
I once read in a newspaper in Hanoi about a popular young medium who talks to the dead. How does she reach them? You guessed it -- she calls them on her cell. No one else hears the dead but her, of course.
But if her phone really does connect with the spirit world, I must say I find it regrettable. After all the stresses they suffered in life, the dead deserve some peace and quiet. With the new technology and the Vietnamese impulse to stay connected, however, they may be out of luck.
New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award and where the above essay is excerpted, and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost" is due out in 2013. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.
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