The world is home to seven billion people, one third of which are using the Internet. Over the last five years, developing countries have increased their share of the world’s total number of Internet users from 44 percent in 2006, to 62 percent in 2011. Internet user penetration in Asia and the Pacific grew from 3.3 percent in 2000 to 22.5 percent in 2010, bringing it close to the Internet user penetration in Europe nine years earlier (23 percent). By 2010, Internet user penetration in Europe had grown to 67 percent. All the statistics disclosed are based on ITU’s reports.

Vietnam is one of the major emerging markets of the Southeast Asia region and one of the underpinnings of this growth has been the expansion in telecommunication networks. Over the past five years, Vietnam has sustained an average fixed line network growth of 26.8 per cent, slightly ahead of China and one of the highest in the region. By now they have nearly 140,000 internet hosts and 30 million internet users, 30 percent of its total population, injecting around USD 6.3 billion into internet market last year in order to meet the penetration target, according to the same report. Despite the late start, the Internet was first permitted in 1997, they have ousted other Asia Pacific countries with their staggering internet growth rate of 12,000 percent over the past 10 years. The other thing that might catch our attention is the total number of mobile services subscribers in the most populous country among the mainland Southeast Asian countries. 165 million with 22 percent average annual growth.

Their government has attempted to reconcile free-market characters of the Internet by implementing a national-system-based on state control. Only few countries are protected by these national firewalls. Tight licensing regulations to those companies that would like to operate as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) are applied.

As researched recently by TNS, a market research company, their top consumer trends in the last ten years are fashion, beauty, health, personal care, entertainment and high-tech consumer goods, and health and beauty products. Meanwhile News, General Search, Music, Research and Chatting are their top five online activities.

A report from Yahoo! – TNS Net Index 2010 has shown that the social networking scene in Vietnam is primarily occupied by the younger generation with the range of age of 15 to 29 years old. Majority of these users access it through computers, while 33 percent access it via mobile. Their top three social networking platforms in Vietnam are Facebook, and two Vietnamese service sites, ZingMe and Go.vn. Surprising, since Facebook is blocked in the country.

We interviewed Nguyen Ngoc Hieu, one of Vietnamese most prominent technology figures who is an experienced digital media executive, a well-known speaker and also a founder of three of the biggest online communities, to hear his perspectives and opinions on Vietnam social networking sites.

There is opinion that go.vn site (www.goonline.vn) was developed as a result of allegations that Vietnamese communist government restricted Facebook and hacked numerous political websites?

I don’t think so, I’m not speaking for the government, but I think the reason is much more important than just to develop a local social website: that is national security – I’m not saying it is right or wrong because each country has different ways to manage, but definitely the reason is not to develop a local websites.

How is the current condition of a movement called “Bring Facebook Back” through Facebook fan page started at the end of 2009?

Almost useless! I can say that. It is just a fan page by a small group of people (most people choose to bypass the blocking). And no one takes responsibility to hand over their voice to our government. Therefore I can say it is just a voice.

There’s an insight that I can share with you is Vietnamese online users are very loyal when they get familiar with a website, an online service. They don’t want to change to another one. That was the case of Yahoo! 360, three years ago when Yahoo announced that they were going to terminate Yahoo! 360, Vietnamese users refused to stop using it and they petitioned for it not to be shut down, they still stayed there until the last minute. That’s the same for Facebook’s users now, when they get familiar with Facebook and they cannot access – they start to call for a campaign to “Bring Facebook Back” – but it is just a fan page and their voice was not reach the government. So there was no result for that.

Go.vn can serve more than four million users at once, and aims to attract up to 50 percent of social network users by 2015, as told by The Minister of Information and Communication Le Doan Hop. How do Vietnamese internet users respond it?

Clearly that project is sponsored by The Department of Information and Communication. And in any project, we must have a target, and it’s the same for this case. Mr. Minister had to set a target for the whole project, every leader needs a big vision and I think there is nothing wrong with a big vision.

Do Vietnamese users believe it or not? Just like any start up project said they will win the big existing, I think mostly they don’t believe. But there’s an reality: “social network battle” in Vietnamese is tough, it’s very difficult for any new player to join and compete with the existing services (Zing, Facebook,…)

We have heard that Vietnam blocks websites at DNS level, unlike China which blocks at ISP level.  It’s easier to circumnavigate, by changing our DNS provider to publicly available one such as Google DNS. Internet users cans still access “foreign” social networking site and portal such as Yahoo, Google and Facebook? How affected are Go.vn and Zing.me with this “circumvent”?

From my personal opinion, our government doesn’t intend to block foreign websites completely, they just tries to “warn” them and asks for their co-operation. If they (foreign companies and the government) can find a way for co-operation, surely the government will be more open. The point is, what’s the balance point between the companies and the government.

There’s another funny fact about that: Vietnamese internet users are now the most experienced users in changing DNS in the world :)

What is your opinion on the motives behind, when government developed local websites, and on the other hand, tried to block foreign websites but quite easily to circumvent?

As I said, they care about the national security more than developing local websites. Anyway, I think they don’t intend to block the websites for a long time, that is not their long term strategy. Vietnamese government is quite open and they are trying to call for the investment from the foreign companies, they are just “defensive” when they see something threatenening the national security. If the government and the companies can find a way to cooperate, I believe there will be no more blocking – that is also the reason why Facebook now has their own Government Relationship Director in Vietnam.

How about local music sharing website, Nhac Cua Tui and local social network, Yume? Do you have any latest figures to share?

Nhac Cua Tui is growing very fast. There are two leading players in that market, Nhac Cua Tui and ZingMP3 and they are strongly fighting each other. NCT is making a new move by purchasing licences for Production Companies in the world, they also produce movie clips for singers – which I think a potential sector.

With a population of 90 million and Internet penetration rate of 30 percent, Vietnam is definitely a focus. Last year, Facebook tried to seek for an experienced professional in government relations work and navigating government agencies along with an extensive network of contacts in the government and the technology space. Is he/she on board now?

Yes, he is onboard. Mr. Tuoc used to work for Google for a long time and has a wide relationship with our government.

By now Vietnam’s total Facebook users are 2.5 million members with 2.81 percent penetration of population and 10.39 percent penetration of online population as reported by socialbakers.com. What do you think Government perceive and what will they do about it?

As I said, government is paying high attention to ICT industry, I’m sure what they wanted is just to get a connection/cooperation with ICT companies like Facebook. Blocking is not a solution and is the last choice.

Noticing that almost 55 percent of Vietnam’s internet users are social media users, based on Vietnam Social Media Survey conducted by VietnamSurvey.com, but it is reported that only 0.4 percent of  Vietnamese companies use Facebook, 0.07 percent use Youtube,  and only 0.2 percent use LinkedIn, Twitter, and Other Vietnamese social networks for business. It looks like there is a room for big improvement in implementing Social Media Marketing in Vietnam? What are the key challenges and constraints?

Definitely, that’s the reason why I often go to many many conferences to call for more attention from the companies about social media marketing. The biggest constraint is from the client, this is quite a new channel for marketers and even for agencies.

Do you realize that it’s only 9.5 percent of Vietnamese are using Twitter? If yes, could you explain why this phenomenon could happen?

Twitter’s community in Vietnam is very small, it is because of the simplicity of Twitter. Vietnamese users (and we can say Asian users) like something more colorful, more emotional, more attractive… Twitter focuses on the simplicity – which attracts the Western people. That explains why Weibo is so successful in China. In Vietnam we don’t have services like Weibo.

Aside from the figures that Zing.me is apparently a teenage social network with majority of its users, 77 percent, are between the ages of 13 and 24 while 38 percent of them are between the ages of 13 and 17 compared to Facebook’s 64 percent and 12 percent respectively. What are your personal and professional opinions about Zing Me, as the largest social network in Vietnam at the moment with 5 million users? Do you prefer it over Facebook? Are the environment and connections too limited compared to Facebook?

In term of functionality, there is no limit in Zing. The problem is from its young community. Young community generates the young culture, young culture attracts more young users, and that’s a loop. Mature users are not attracted by Zing, they use Facebook. Of course, youths have their advantages of their own. If Zing can utilize their advantages, then I think it’s good. If they want to move their target to another segment, there will be very challenging.

And these teenagers just want to play Nong Trai (a game similar to Facebook’s Farmville) and not do many activities instead of the game? Are there any activities they hunt for in this (local) social network?

Playing games and chatting, but just between young users. That’s one of the biggest problems Zing facing. It’s because of the core value of Zing comes from Game, they utilize that strength, like I said above, it’s generated a young community that attracts more young users.