I began 2015 with a few weeks off the grid in Vietnam and Cambodia. The trip was all about learning and exploration — touring, reading, reflecting — and a break from the hyperconnected day-to-day. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the rapid encroachment of technology, and compare digital behaviors to those back in the U.S.
Asia will be a major contributor to the next billion internet users coming online, and this shift will have ramifications for internet language and culture. Vietnam, in particular, is eagerly adopting the internet and is investing in a strong tech sector to bolster its economy. Today, 43% of Vietnam’s population is connected to the internet, compared to 87% of the U.S. and just over 5% in Cambodia.
A few observations:
- Internet Cafes are still popular in both Vietnam and Cambodia, and popular for those seeking convenient online access, P2P gamers, and high school students looking to avoid their parents — a universal shared value. Internet at home remains costly — white collar professionals gain access through their offices, and rely on mobile. In Vietnam, one in three adults has a smartphone, compared to over 60% of adults in the United States.
- Mobile technology is visible everywhere. Texting and driving are nefarious enough in cities with wider streets and recognized traffic signals — it’s utterly terrifying in a sea of motorbikes, cyclos, and cars. Mobile access is not prohibitively expensive; in Cambodia, the cost of a data plan is $5 USD/month — out of reach for many, but affordable for middle class professionals in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.
- Facebook is a universally acknowledged platform and service. In both countries, people nodded in comprehension at a mention of Twitter as something they’d heard of, shrugged at Instagram, but lit up at Facebook. Facebook and Messenger were mentioned repeatedly. Messaging services like Line and Skype also came up, and very occasionally Viber. In Vietnam in particular, Facebook URLs showed up on storefronts.
- In Cambodia, we saw a few informal gaming spaces set up for kids. These were desktop games, not yet internet-enabled, and drew an eager crowd. These boys were playing something called Age of Naga.
- And in Cambodia’s Smart telco retail store, staff assured me that the iPhone was the most coveted device. Check out those prices — they’re in U.S. dollars! Hard to believe that price point is tenable beyond an affluent minority.