Vietnam, a police state where freedom of expression can come with a multi-year prison term, is awash in cell phones. Whether for talking, texting or taking photos, Vietnamese are buying up mobile devices at a rate exceeding the country's own population.
A sign of the communist nation's rising affluence, it is also undermining the state's monopoly on information.
For years Vietnam has been a major producer and exporter of cheap cell phones. In 2010, it reportedly exported $2.3 billion worth of phone sets. Two years later, that figure jumped dramatically to $8.63 billion, up 122 percent from a year earlier.
Now, with phones available for as little as $20, ordinary consumers are buying up sets that would otherwise have been bound for foreign shores.
According to the latest statistics reported by TechniAsia, there were 145 cell phones for every 100 Vietnamese in 2012. For a country "whose population is just over 90 million," it adds, "that amounts to more than 130 million mobile phones."
And buyers aren't limited to the middle class. Everyone has them, from elementary school kids to impoverished pedicab drivers. Teenagers have them, too, of course. On motorcycles, Vietnamese chat on their mobiles while weaving dangerously through traffic with one hand on the handlebar. They don't even turn them off in movie theaters. In cafes, at restaurants, they have a rude habit of talking to you while looking down to check and send messages.
For the government in Hanoi, which maintains a vigorous Internet firewall similar to the one in Beijing, it's a troubling trend.
Because beyond the daily chitchat, Vietnamese are increasingly using their hand held devices to document and share scenes that authorities would prefer remain out of the public spotlight. Police wrongdoings are routinely reported, tweeted and shared online. Protests against police corruption and government land confiscation, and even against China's expansionism in the South China Sea, are now organized by cell phones and videotaped by cell phones.