Braving a New World

Former junior high school students open up about their first experience with the internet in Vietnam

I rushed home after class, said hi to mom, grabbed a quick bite, ran to my room, threw my schoolbag on the floor and sat down in front of the computer. The CPU started, the screen lit, and I would sit there at that exact position for at least five hours, drowning myself in that whole new world across the screen. It was 2005. I was 12, free and more alive than I’ve ever felt before.

That was a typical day in my life 10 years ago. I was an online game addict, and a proud one, too. In that virtual world I was a hero – someone who was stronger, braver and much more powerful than the real me could ever be. I battled against other warriors, defeated monsters and demons of all kinds, gathered rewards whenever a mission was accomplished, hunted rare equipment that only the best of the best could lay his hand on. In my own mind, I was omnipotent. In fact, once I stepped foot inside that virtual world, I could become whoever I wanted to be. Why be an ordinary junior high student living in Saigon, suffering all the pressures of studying more than eight hours a day, when I could live another life in the land of heroes and dragons? For my 12-year old self, this miraculous thing called ‘The Internet’ that daddy hooked up one evening had been the best present ever.

As a hero on my virtual journey, I wasn’t alone. There was a huge community of online gamers and we gathered on platforms called forums. “You could ask for all kinds of information on those forums and people would answer in less than an hour or so,” remarks Son Le, a fellow gamer of mine who is currently a student at RMIT Vietnam. “There were forums for anything, from music, movies, fan clubs and sports to technology, and even my junior high school had its own forum.”

The forums were our hub of information before we discovered Google. Son himself was an active member of six different forums. “Sometimes people would start a random post on their daily life and others would come flooding in to reply whatever, pretty much the same mechanism as that of Facebook I guess,” he adds. “I didn’t have many friends back then so I considered the forum members my friends. I would feel sad if my post didn’t have many views or replies so I would constantly refresh the page hoping for some.”

Call me Yahoo

For others, the internet had much more to offer. “Yahoo was the craze back then,” says Tram Nguyen, now a student at Stony Brook University in the US. “I loved it so much I wanted to change my name to “Yahoo” and I would ask my parents and friends to call me so.”

Tram was a close friend of mine back then, and yes, I did call her “Yahoo.” She was my class’ queen of blogging on Yahoo 360° – the super popular, and also the first-ever, blogging platform of the time. “I spent most of my time after class updating my blog, improving its design and stalking other people’s blogs,” she recalls. “I couldn’t help it, you know. I was normally a shy kid so the whole blogging thing really allowed me to express myself and have others acknowledge my existence.”

It was also Tram who introduced me to Yahoo! Messenger. I found it fun to chat with my friends now and then but, for her, she was aiming to earn another title – the class’ queen of Yahoo! Messenger. “I would chat with several of my friends at the same time and somehow the conversation would never die unless I was too sleepy to keep it going,” giggles Tram. “It was much easier talking via a screen than directly in person, and I just loved the emoticons and online teen code so much that I would use them in my daily life.” That had also become one of her trademark; hearing someone say “hem bít” instead of “không biết” and you could be sure that was our queen.

We were only three out of a countless number of others whose lives had been impacted by the mighty internet during its rapid growth in Vietnam in the mid-2000s. It lured kids, teenagers and even adults in front of the computers, sitting there for hours, and sometimes, for days. There were boys who would kill and steal just to sustain the life of their virtual characters in game, while their bodies started to shiver, craving for a rest from the screen. There were girls who ran away from home, searching for strangers on random chatrooms to come and pay VND50,000 for her fee at an internet café, all that in exchange for her body. Employees started to neglect their jobs, kids stopped going to schools and families began to break. The local news was flooded with calamities. People were warning each other about ‘the internet,’ about how it could take away anything it touched.

And no, it wasn’t the Internet’s fault. Now that I am 22 and a bit wiser, thinking back, I realized that we had taken advantage of the internet to hide away from reality because it was easier living in the cyber world, because it was too difficult to get up every single day to face ourselves. With the internet, we had found joy. But it didn’t last long.

Son almost got expelled from school for beating up a classmate who had trash talked him on a forum.

Tram was bullied because people didn’t like what she wrote on her blog.

And I was hospitalized after spending 12 straight hours hunting a rare item. I was so close to getting it, I swear! Having it would make me stronger, allowing me to explore undiscovered lands, to smash monsters with ease, to be admired by fellow players, to stand on top of the world.

Stepping inside this world, I could become anyone who I wanted to be, right? Anyone but me.

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