For those seeking status and the all-important ‘face’ in Vietnam, acquiring the latest iPhone 5 is sometimes worth their life. Words by Derek Milroy. Photo by Nam Quan

 

We’ve all seen it, that little message at the bottom of an email or text message: “sent from my iPhone.” Apparently this is the new status symbol in Vietnam and according to Dong Ngo of www.cnet.com, since the first generation of the device, the iPhone has been a much sought-after gadget.

 

In the beginning, the phone wasn't officially available in the country (local providers, including Viettel and VinaPhone, started carrying the iPhone 3GS just early 2010) and most were smuggled in from the States and had to be unlocked before they could be used, courtesy of Apple's tight controls and exclusive deal with AT&T.

 

And because of its somewhat unattainable and limited availability, it has become part of a list of luxury accessory must-haves along with the Hermes Birkin bag, Jimmy Choo shoes and Prada sunglasses.

 

Bragging Rights 

 

Brand conscious fashionista Thuy really enjoys the fact she is one of the few in Vietnam who currently owns the new iPhone 5: she was willing to pay six months’ salary for it, forgoing paying her bills and rent. For the Vietnamese, forget bragging about how much of a bargain you’re saving on a luxury item, lauding that you’ve paid more than the other person is a sign of achievement and success.

 

When the iPhone5 was first launched in late September it cost a whopping VND25 million with some city outlets even claiming they had pre-orders at VND35 million. In nearby Hong Kong the phone is going for around VND14 million and in Singapore it’s estimated at VND21 million.

 

Property developer Jasmine Le, 25, admits the first day it was out she rushed to buy it in Singapore.

 

“It has everything and I cannot leave home without it. It is hard to explain why I had to have it, but I knew if I didn’t I would feel so jealous and sick of anyone who had one before me. It is maybe an obsession. I would feel naked without it.”

 

Ironically, iPhones brought from overseas or sneaked into Vietnam are harder to use, with some apps not compatible with the networks here. If a user accidentally upgrades the phone's operating system (some people upgrade the phone's firmware without knowing what they are doing), it will be locked again and become useless until a new unlock method is available.

 

Whereas some like Le can afford to splash the cash without losing much sleep, others don’t have that luxury but still manage to get their hands on the latest model by hook or by crook.

 

Dial F for Fraud

 

25-year-old Thi works for a Saigon-based network marketing company and when his team leader got the latest iPhone a few weeks ago, he had to do the same. But why is this so important to him?

 

“It cost me a month’s wages but I am so happy to have the iPhone 5. I think in my business environment it enhances my profile and makes me feel more important,” he explains. “If a potential customer sees the phone, their eyes light up and I think it helps me gain more business. It is maybe psychological, but I think it helps me reach my goals.”

 

Phuong, 30, is a mother of one, jobless and lives alone on the outskirts of the city, but has a foreign boyfriend to take care of her. He sends her installments of VND42 milliion a month to ensure she and her son are looked after, but last month she spent most of that allowance on, you guess it, the iPhone 5.

 

However, after a quick call overseas a little extra cash was forthcoming when Phuong’s mother was “sick and had to go to hospital”.

 

She admitted: “He would have probably sent me money anyway if I said I had none left, but if I say my mother is ill how can he say no? I don’t feel too bad because my mother is very strong and will live a long time. My boyfriend is very rich, so it is only a little money to him but a lot to me. I’ll just have to remember to hide my phone next time he comes to visit.

 

“He will probably buy me an iPhone 5 when he comes next month. I can always sell it to a friend and buy some clothes for my son. I need to have the latest iPhone for face. Face is very important to Vietnamese, we can never look poor in front of our friends.”

 

Time for Payback 

 

Then there is Hung, 20, who admitted she borrowed VND30 million from a money lender who offered her a ‘deal’ of 15 percent per month. She was so desperate she accepted it for the latest iPhone model. But after the first few days of happiness, reality sunk in.

 

Hung only earns VND5 million a month working in a local store and she is far from her home in Danang. She also fears if she doesn’t pay back the money she may be harmed.

 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. My first payment is due but how can I afford to pay VND4.5 million? A neighbour would have offered me a better rate, but as my friends were all getting the iPhone I had to get one or I wouldn’t be able to face them,” she laments. “My boyfriend asked me where I got the money and thought I was cheating on him. When I told him the truth he was so angry at me. But he doesn’t have the money to help me. He wants to ask his family, but I am so embarrassed, and if he does they will hate me. I feel like running away but I love living in Saigon and don’t want to go back home as I will feel like a failure.”

 

Barring a miracle, she is stuck in a vicious circle all for that must-have item and ‘face’, but her circle may be expanding based on predictions that smart phone penetration is rising fast, especially in large cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hai Phong and now Danang. As many as 21 percent of mobile phone users in Vietnam will use smart phones by the end of this year, according to Qualcomm, the US's leading phone chip maker. In addition, Ericsson ConsumerLab, a subsidiary of Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, reports that the download rate of mobile applications from Vietnam's smart phone users could also see a boost of 35 to 40 percent in the next six months.

 

With the inevitable launch of newer models, the obsession looks like it will stick around for some time to come.

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