Computing in Viet Nam: Transitions and Choices

Communications of the ACM, Vol 38, No 1, pp 11-16, January, 1995. Reprinted in Dien Dan, April, 1995, pp 20-23


Nguyen Dinh Ngoc and Dang Huu were among the senior national leaders at the Fourth Informatics Week conference and exhibition held in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in August, 1994, an event that swarmed with teenagers, young techies, and businessmen.

Senior Colonel (Brigadier) Professor Doctor Ngoc is in charge of computing and telecommunications at the Ministry of Interior, which combines the functions of the French Gendarmerie, the Soviet KGB and Border Guards, and the American FBI and Secret Service. He served through the entire 30 year war to form the current Vietnamese state, starting in 1946 as a 13 year old courier in the Viet Minh, the nationalist front formed by Ho Chi Minh to resist the Japanese during World War II and the French afterward. His subsequent career as an intelligence officer included over a decade in France where he earned three professional engineering degrees and two doctorates; another decade in South Vietnam as a professor, a spy for the North, and clandestine "communications consultant" to the Liberation Front (Viet Cong); and as a security officer after the communist victory in 1975. The 1967-vintage IBM 360/40 used by his defeated South Vietnamese counterparts is still used in his directorate today.

Now, Sr. Col. Ngoc is more concerned about international drug cartels and Russian sex ring "mafias" in Vietnam than he is about Western imperialism. He participates in international anti-crime networks operated under Interpol, and one group in his directorate was even cited for cooperation with the US DEA and FBI. He is an advocate of the widespread use of the information technologies (IT), and an active member of Vietnamese technical societies.

Dang Huu is a civil engineer by profession and, like Col. Ngoc, a member of the generations who struggled to create a unified and independent Vietnam. During the "American Wars" he worked on the first mainframe in North Vietnam -- a Soviet-made Minsk-22 -- doing structural analysis for bridges being built along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and spent a year in the field building those bridges. He rode in on the heels of the North Vietnamese victory in 1975 to "liberate" universties in South Vietnam.

Today, Dang Huu is head of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MOSTE), and as such is the most senior person in the country with full-time responsibilities in these areas. He also chairs the National Council for Science and Technology Policy and the Steering Committee for the recently created Agency for the National Program on IT (ANPIT).

Vietnam is unusual in that the members of the fighting, founding generations of the country are still in charge. During much of this century, such generations, especially in communist countries, have been characterized more by their abilities to struggle and prevail against internal or external enemies -- and by their subsequent efforts to canonize their struggles and to hold on to highly centralized forms of power -- than by their abilities to build viable and prosperous modern economies.

To date, the experience in Vietnam has been somewhat similar. For example, nearly 20 years after victory and unification, they have not yet built a first class highway, railroad or telecom system linking Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi which, since the country is long and narrow, would also link much of the rest of the nation.

But there is reason to be optimistic. The Vietnamese have demonstrated their tenacious competence at building appropriate and innovative infrastructure. For example, during the 1946-75 wars, the communists were able to build and maintain communications and transportation systems under incredibly difficult conditions, notably around Dien Bien Phu, in the Cu Chi tunnels, and along the Ho Chi Minh trail. They have also been more pragmatic in managing their economy than most communist nations. The many thousands of small, often family-based, enterprises in the cities and villages remained private, and efforts to collectivize farming were abandoned when it became clear they were not working. Vietnam is now a rice exporter.

Vietnam's leaders still have a chance to be an exception to the legacies of other founding generations. Drs. Huu and Ngoc and others now seem to recognize the need for reform, restructuring, and the infusion of technology. There is also an increasing appreciation that today's external world is politically and economically very different from the one that existed only 10 years ago, that IT has had a prominent place in fostering these changes, and that Vietnam must somehow come more in line with these realities.

IT in Vietnam Today

Vietnam shares serious problems with many other less developed countries (LDCs): a large and growing population (48 million in 1977, an estimated 75 million today) that is overwhelmingly rural and agrarian; an economy based on a non-convertible currency; weak infrastructure in electrical power, transportation, finance, health and telecommunications (e.g., in mid-1994 there were 3.7 phones per 100 people in Hanoi, 5 per 100 in HCMC, and less than 1 per 100 nationwide); and unclear and discouraging laws and regulations governing business compounded by their sometimes capricious or corrupt application.

Since the late 1980s, the government has loosened constraints on the

private sector and foreign participation in the economy. Vietnamese society appears to have more food and consumer goods than many of its current or former socialist brethren and other developing countries. But efforts to create a manufacturing industry have come to little, and almost no sophisticated technology is produced in the country. Most consumer electronics and computing equipment is imported.

A small indigenous industry and only a tiny fraction of existing private enterprises are in any position to use IT effectively. These limitations were evident at the Fourth Informatics Week exhibition where much of the domestic industry and most interested foreign companies could all fit into 50-odd small booths[1]. (With the end of the US embargo, for the first time participants included American companies: Cabletron, Compaq, Dell, Digital Equipment, HP, IBM, IDG.) Many of the enterprises that do use computing, like the international airlines, some hotels, and the embryonic petroleum industry, have a sizable foreign component.

Sr. Col. Ngoc estimates that about 50% of the country's computing is within the government, while others estimate as high as 80%. The colonel's ministry is generally regarded as a relatively advanced and high priority user. From what we were able to see, use in most other government organizations is fairly rudimentary and not very extensive. Even the military has never been overly enamored or well endowed with high technology. Unlike some developing countries, Vietnam has no world-class port, canal, petrochemical or tourism industry that provides at least one demanding sector for IT.

One of the largest indigenous computing companies, Gen Pacific, pointedly illustrates the limitations and changes taking place. Founded in 1988 as a joint venture between the government's Ministry of Heavy Industry and an unnamed French partner, it was mainly a screwdriver assembly plant for 5000 286-based PCs per year, almost all of which went to the Soviet Union as part of a bilateral government barter agreement. Both the USSR and this agreement disappeared in 1991, and Gen Pacific had to scramble to find a new French partner, the computer giant Bull, and a new main line of work as a software developer and systems integrator, often using Bull hardware. Bui Quang Do, director general of the firm, claims it has about a 25% market share of the US$20 million 1993 Vietnamese computing market. That's not much of a market for a country of 75 million, and we suspect that a sizable portion of demand comes from the Vietnamese government. But a rapidly growing domestic market has led the company to decide to reopen its newly upgraded screwdriver assembly plant to make 386- and 486-based PCs.

IT education is minimal. There are no full-fledged graduate CS, MIS, or computer engineering programs at any of the universities or polytechnics. The limited undergraduate programs that do exist, have plenty of students doing elementary programs on 286-based PCs. But some real talent is there as evidenced by prize winning performances at the International Mathematics and Computer Olympiads. There are acute shortages of well qualified instructors. One is Dong Thi Bich Thuy, Director of the Computer Science Center at HCMC University, and a rarity in at least three ways: as one of fewer than a dozen PhDs in Computer Science or MIS in the country (she obtained hers in Switzerland); as one of the few "overseas Vietnamese" to return permanently in a capacity other than as an employee of a foreign firm; and as one of the few professional women in a male-dominated field. More people like her will be needed if IT education at the university level is to be substantially improved. The situation is as bad or worse at the pre-University levels, and almost everything that exists is concentrated in the three largest cities (HCMC, Hanoi and DaNang).

There are some bright spots. Market pressures are resulting in the creation of private schools and universities. These help companies obtain skilled employees and provide technical educational opportunities for more students than can be accommodated in the State universities. Lotus College (not affiliated with the US software company) is a small private 2-year school for 350 full time and 500 part time students in "informatics" (mainly male) and "office management" (mainly female). Lotus is partially sponsored by a consortium of Vietnamese and foreign companies, who provide internships and prospective employment. Another in the process of creation is Van Lang University, which is to have a focus on high tech and business training, and is also partially sponsored by industry.

Finally, the Vietnamese IT community has suffered from extensive isolation. This has been the result of larger national circumstances (e.g., conflicts with its nearest neighbors, a unique national language, ideological considerations), an economy based on non- convertible currency, and the U.S. embargo. The Vietnamese IT community has few, weak, and fragmented connections with the rest of the world. These include straightforward purchases of hardware from other Asian countries, piracy of American software, educational links (mainly in the form of study abroad) with France and the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (now much decreased), and a mixed bag of connections with overseas Vietnamese (which brings in hard currency from family and friends living mostly in the U.S., France, Canada and Australia). International networking links are minimal, the most notable being an Australian- financed UUCP link via the Australian National University, and a Vietnamese-funded gateway via the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand.

Planning National IT Policy

Essentially by definition, a socialist government denies the possibility that the private sector can be counted on by itself to serve the overall interests of the whole nation, and therefore a great deal of government "guidance" is needed. Vietnam is a populous and poor country, and neither domestic nor foreign companies have the motivation nor wherewithal to deal with overall national IT needs. If left entirely to private companies, it might be argued that IT would become an elitist technology, serving a very small and wealthy fraction of the population, which seems to be the case so far. Guidance is going to take the form of the Information Technology Program of the Year 2000 ("IT 2000") to be developed under MOSTE as mandated by Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet in August 1993[2,3].

Minister Dang Huu chairs the National IT Program Steering Committee (NITSC), and substantial additional leadership and energy is provided by the Deputy Chairman, Phan Dinh Dieu, a French-trained professor of mathematics who lead earlier, but essentially stillborn, government IT planning efforts in 1976 and 1984. Other NITSC members include senior officials from the government bodies -- notably other ministries, the PTT, and the State Planning Committee -- whose participation would be necessary to formulate, finance, and implement any plan. Although there appears to be no formal structure for obtaining advice and input from outside the government (the private sector, foreign experts, the "overseas Vietnamese"), we were assured that this has been done extensively. Input at the grass roots level is available through the Vietnamese Association for Information Processing (VAIP), an independent professional society. Undeterred by the frustrations of the two earlier efforts, the indefatigable Dr. Dieu pushed the draft of a plan by August 1994 [4].

The draft plan calls for almost everything the Steering Committee has heard about from other developing countries, excepting the creation of a sophisticated hardware industry. The proposed program is in a 3-level top-down format with the following top two levels[4]:

        I.      Building Infrastructure for IT
                1.      Education and training
                2.      Research and development
                3.      The development of an IT industry
                4.      Construction of a data communications network
                5.      Standards

        II.     Application of IT in State Management and 
                Socio-Economic Activities
                1.      State management
                2.      National security and defense
                3.      Support for activities in the market economy
                4.      Agro-industrial production branches
                5.      Applications in other branches of the economy and

        III.    Policies Encouraging the Development and          
                        Application of IT
                1.      The construction of infrastructure
                2.      Training
                3.      The development of networks
                4.      International transfer of technology 
                        and cooperation
                5.      Capital-generation and expenditures
                6.      The protection of intellectual property

The final level of detail generally lists more specific goals. For example, under I.1 (Education and Training) there is an estimated need for 20,000 IT professionals by the end of the decade, half of whom would be programmers and a quarter systems analysts. The education list also calls for strengthening programs from high schools to advanced university training, the need to train more teachers, etc.

The draft document essentially calls for the creation of a fairly complete IT establishment over the next half dozen years -- quite an ambitious plan for a large, poor, primarily agrarian country starting with such a small and undeveloped IT base. This is not an operational plan that specifies means for attaining its goals, nor one that explicitly recognizes the serious limitations on all forms of resources: time, expertise, existing infrastructure, and money. As Drs. Huu and Dieu and others realize, the next step will be much harder.

Moving Forward

A National IT plan must serve broader national goals -- it is not an end in itself. So far, the draft National IT Program does not seem to have a clear role within a larger vision of social and economic reform. Without such context, the argument for a centralized, socialist plan is questionable.

The stability of Vietnamese society is partly due to extended family structures, especially outside of the main cities, that hide and cushion a great deal of underemployment if measured by Western productivity standards. A poorly conceived or executed National IT Program could produce some forms of higher productivity that would also convert some of this stable hidden underemployment into more overt unemployment, rootlessness, undesirable urban migration, and increased crime.

In our view, it is important to determine reasonable priorities, to deliver something appreciable fairly quickly to an expanded user community that will constructively use that something, and to sustain a program of deliverables that fits into a coherent longer term plan. Year 2000 is not far away, and the government needs to establish some credibility with regard to discernible progress.

The Vietnamese plan discusses applications -- particularly in government departments -- as well as infrastructure. This is natural in that to date the government has been the primary user of IT, and each ministry has a staff with ideas for applications they would like to implement. We feel it would be more effective to concentrate on building widely accessible, nationally binding infrastructure than bureaucracy-serving applications, allowing ministries, schools, businesses, and other users decide how to best utilize the infrastructure.

Of course, infrastructure should be thought of broadly -- it includes computer users, technicians, networking hardware and software, the telephone system and other communication links, and PCs spread around the country[5]. The PTT must plan for increased capacity and set rates to facilitate the achievement of national goals, rather than to seek to maximize their revenue. Import policies should encourage widespread IT use.

For example, with a weak telecommunications system and personnel base, Vietnam cannot immediately aspire to a high-speed digital TCP/IP network. At least until a much more modern, reliable and extensive telephone system is established, it might be more appropriate to begin with a UUCP network connecting the 53 provincial capitals. This would provide email, Usenet News, and file transfer using the current phone system. The cost would be a PC, modem, and a trained person in each province. That person would have to install and operate the system, train users, and help them find ways to use the system. Such a network could be deployed quickly, have immediate benefit, and help seed a balanced IT infrastructure snowball. It would not necessarily use outdated technology, but rather powerful PCs, high quality modems, and graphically-oriented end-user software customized for Vietnamese users. This network might form a component of a network of more general information centers spread around the country to serve large numbers of IT have-nots as is now being considered for South Africa[6].

IT education needs to be balanced with the rest of the infrastructure as well. Historically, Vietnamese professors have been trained as researchers at major European universities and often in esoteric fields (Drs. Ngoc and Dieu were trained as pure mathematicians). The same resources might be better applied to obtaining practical Masters level education for a larger number of people who would be able to build the emerging infrastructure and applications, and to train others.

One key deficiency has been insufficient investment in software for local needs, with secondary effects such as too much emphasis on more tangible forms of IT (hardware), little value given to intellectual property, and a lack of up-to-date technical information. Since the Vietnamese language is based on Latin characters (augmented for such things as tonal sounds), the necessary effort to "Vietnamize" computing for large numbers of users is not as difficult as required for other East Asian languages. In this regard, solutions are also needed that both meet indigenous needs but also integrate well with technology development in the rest of the world. French and US companies have an opportunity to play important roles in this regard. These needs are much more important than the more fashionable quest to develop an export- oriented software industry, a very competitive undertaking where Vietnam currently has major disadvantages.

Vietnam has barely begun developing a modern IT infrastructure. At this time there is little demand-pull for IT on a nationwide basis, and there are limited incentives for the supply-pushers to push very hard. There is a long way to go, but reasons to be optimistic.

Vietnam has advantages over many other LDCs. The basis for much of everyday life is well established and stable; and the government is in control (and not nearly as repressively as in the past) and widely regarded as legitimate. Thus civil society and order are comparatively healthy, the basic economy is more-or-less self sufficient, and many international analysts predict that Vietnam will be one of the next "Asian Tigers." There also seems to be much foreign interest in investment.

However, the most important advantage may be a leadership and a people who have a proven history of hard work, flexibility, tenacity, and respect for education. Given the relatively strong form of government and the recognized need for "national reconstruction," people like Drs. Huu, Ngoc and Dieu will necessarily play determining roles. There will be worldwide interest in how well they do.


1. Fourth Vietnam Informatics Conference and Exhibition. _Handbook'94_, 1994. (Descriptions of participating Vietnamese and foreign companies). In English and Vietnamese.

2. Government of Vietnam. Resolution of the Government on the development of the information technology in the country during the 1990s. Resolution No. 49/CP, Office of the Prime Minister, Hanoi, 4 August 1993. English translation by ANPIT.

3. Government of Vietnam. National Information Technology Steering Committee and National IT Program Agency. Decision No. 212/TTg, Office of the Prime Minister, Hanoi, 6 May 1994. English summary provided by COMPAQ.

4. Government of Vietnam. Steering Committee of the National Program on Information Technology. Development and application of information technology in the national reconstruction program (presentation of the information technology programme of the year 2000). Draft document, August, 1994. English translation by ANPIT.

5. Press, L. Developing networks in less industrialized nations, IEEE _Computer_, in press.

6. Wood, G.A., Goodman, S.E., and Roos, J. The information technologies in South Africa: progress and problems. IEEE _Computer_, to appear, 1995.

Notes and Pointers

Vietnamese names start with the family name, but individuals are frequently addressed by their given name. Thus "Phan" is the family name of Prof. Phan Dinh Dieu, but one would normally call him "Prof. Dieu" (actually pronounced more like "Zieu"). Overseas Vietnamese often reorder their names in keeping with the practices of their adopted countries.

The Vietnamese computing community has established two independent, nonprofit professional societies. The Vietnam Association for Information Processing (VAIP) has about 2000 members (but according to Prof. Dieu VAIP has yet to figure out how to collect dues from about half of them), is involved with the production of several publications, and is one of the primary sponsors of the Informatics Week conferences and exhibits held every other year, alternating between HCMC and Hanoi. They now hope to make these annual events. VAIP may be contacted through:

        Dr. Nguyen Quy Son, General Secretary of VAIP                  
        36 Ly Nam De                                                                    
        Hanoi, Viet Nam                                                               
        (fax: 84- 4-256849) 

The Ho Chi Minh City Computer Association (HCA) serves the largest urban area in Viet Nam (the central city is still called Saigon; HCMC is a larger urban district) and may be reached through:

        Le Ba Quang, General Secretary of HCA                           
        79 Truong Dinh,1 District                                                        
        Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam                                                      (fax: 84-8-291957)

Much of this article is based on information obtained during visits to Vietnam in July-August 1994. We would like to especially acknowledge the assistance provided by James Do, Do Van Loc, Chu Hao, Diane Goodman, Le Ba Quang, Nguyen Huu Anh, Nguyen Minh Hung, Pham Thi Duong Nguyet, Tran Ha Nam, and Vu Duy Man.

Readers are encouraged to send comments, suggestions, anecdotes, insightful speculation, raw data, and articles on subjects relating to international aspects of IT. Correspondence should be addressed to:

Sy Goodman 
Center for International Security and Arms Control 
Galvez House
Stanford University 
Stanford, CA 94305 


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