Chapter 1
Information technology (IT) in today's Vietnam

By any international standard the level of 'computerization' in Vietnam is low. Five years ago Vietnam compared unfavorably with other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Singapore, where numerous, relatively advanced implementations of IT were in place both in industry, the service sector, and in public institutions. Today, the situation in Vietnam has improved, but the gap with neighboring countries has, if anything, widened. As a country located in a resourceful and newly-industrialized region, Vietnam is unquestionably a latecomer in the systematic use of IT. Among both end-users and computer professionals in Hanoi and HCM City for exam- ple, there is a well-recognized need for more up-to-date workstation equip- ment and a need for better access to data communications.

Vietnam has a relatively small number of computers installed. In rela- tion to its population of more than 72 million, the number of computers are extremely few. Our most recent estimate for the first quarter of 1994, based on a series of visits to industrial firms, higher education institutions and government agencies during the second half of 1993, as well as interviews with Vietnamese and foreign experts, is that some 40 000-45 000 computers, mostly PCs and other microcomputers, are in use in Vietnam.

A more conservative estimate, provided by persons working in the Vietnamese IT service sector, is a national total of 35 000 computers. We think that the latter figure is too low, considering the rapid rate of expansion during the last four-five years.

In 1989, while one of the authors of the current report prepared a policy oriented, case study-based report for UNIDO on the application of microelectronics and information technology in Vietnam, (1) the national total of microcomputers was estimated to be only 3 000-3 500. According to estimates for the year 1988 the number of microcomputers in use in the HCM City area was 300 plus about 500 in Hanoi and vicinity. (2) However, this and other estimates did not take full account of the direct imports by industrial and other companies as well as the transfer of all kinds of electronic equipment through private channels and donations from abroad. The total figure was actually about four times higher.

If our estimate for the first quarter of 1994 proves to be correct, a total of 40 000-45 000 computers implies a remarkable growth rate of more than 12 times in less than five years. The bulk of the growth came in the last 2-3 years, when large numbers of PCs were brought into the country. As was the case five years ago, our recent figure can be confirmed only in retrospect, because of lack of current data and very limited information on "non-official trade". With the US trade embargo lifted in February of 1994 (reducing the need for "non-official trade") and with the general improvement of Vietnamese techno-economic statistics, figures may soon be available.

If Vietnam may seem poor in terms of computer and peripheral equip- ment, it is relatively better off in IT professionals. The level of training is good, where staff are trained, but there is now a pressing need for more professionals such as programmers and systems analysts. Until recently, access to softy are has not been a significant problem, because the US trade embargo "ensured that software could be pirated, rewritten for local condi- tions, and sold at reasonable local prices with impunity".~ There is a predom- inance of DOS-based application programs with extensions into the graphical user-interface and memory-management features offered by the Microsoft Windows operating system. While visitors to Vietnam have often noted a fair amount of enthusiastic local software production activity, very few of these products have been exported due to lack of marketing capacities and access to international distribution channels.

In spite of the limited numbers of computers and other information technology are already transforming parts of the industrial landscape of Vietnam. Increasingly, manufacturing industry is applying electronics to its production processes and, more significantly, to its administration. Banks and other credit institutions are beginning to use data communications and com- puterized databases. In several sectors of the central government there is a strong move to modernize administration with information technology. At other levels of government, such as in the provinces, the administrative services are being improved by systematic use of microcomputers. Many other examples of diffusion of modern IT could easily be listed.

Electronics and information technology in Vietnam: The need for policy coordination Nonetheless, it is obvious to any observer of today's Vietnam that the country remains a late-comer in the use of microelectronics and other infor- mation technology. Five years ago, in early 1989, experience accumulated through UNDP-funded projects in Vietnam indicated the following problems for the diffusion of information technology in Vietnam (3):

Since 1989, impressive changes have appeared in certain areas and for certain applications. Most of these changes have come through new educational and training opportunities and more effective -- often informal -- transfer of know-how and other specialized information related to the application of computers and other information technology. Yet, despite these recent changes, the prevalent characteristics of IT in Vietnam -- implicit in the five points listed above -- are the same. It is our impression that the IT situation may soon change dramatically to the better. One of the preconditions for change is the new policy platform for the country's IT development.
Foot Notes:
  1. "Microelectronics and information technology in Vietnam: An overview", (Vienna: UNIDO Regional and Country Studies Branch, PPD (Spec.), 1990), 58 pp., based on Jan Annerstedt, "Microelectronics and information technology in Vietnam: Towards a national policy framework", (Lund: Nordic. Center for Innovation, 1989), 72 pp. For the current study, selected data and other material from these two reports were updated and included in the text that follows.

  2. For the year 1988, a sum of 300 microcomputers in the Ho Chi Minh City area was provided by the Ho Chi Minh City Committee on Science and Technology. It was an estimate and no information is available on how it was once calculated. According to our 1989/90 sampling of data in both northern and southern Vietnam, the figure was too conservative.
    Observation made in 1993 by Rob Hurle of the Australian National University.

  3. The terms-of-reference for a study formulated by UNDP in April, 1989, as an "Overview of computer utilization - a programme note," p. 2.

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