The wired Hanoi

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be in the know in Hanoi. I learned this the hard way because I didn’t turn to Google when I settled in the city about 11 months ago. I ended up whining about how difficult it is to find places to eat and to buy stuff.

As it turns out, most local knowledge is available online. Anything you need to know about Hanoi can be Googled. The city, its people–locals, expats, and tourists alike–are more connected than what they seem.

This is all thanks to mobile tech, social media and other online community message boards that make the city smaller and noisier than it already is. And the noise is all good: from announcements of local events in blogs and forums, smartphone apps, to Facebook queries about where to find a lightbulb or Western food in the city, all these online communities and entities, largely driven by wired local knowledge, have the answer.

For instance, there’s The Hanoi Grapevine–a website that has become a platform for announcing and promoting contemporary art scene in Vietnam. Since its inception in 2007, it’s been providing information about art exhibits, music concerts and festivals, dance and theater performances, film screenings, and fashion shows in their online calendar.

There’s The Word magazine (geared towards an expat audience) that has content available online in their website and through a digital magazine that’s free to download. The publication also has print copies of their magazine circulated in expat hubs.

iPhone apps also have their share of contribution in producing local knowledge and making this accessible to tech-savvy residents of Hanoi. Nha Nha prides itself to feature huge amount of local content and pins these on either Apple’s or Google’s map app. The result is a hyperlocal version of Foursquare that uses your smartphone’s location to determine nearby places of interest. Foody, another app, has a 40,000-strong food and restaurant review database. No one ever has to be left undecided where to eat with the app in their hands.

There’s also The New Hanoian (TNH)–Hanoi’s “community-produced local reviews and answers guide” website that houses information about virtually any business and establishment in Hanoi: from restaurants to hotels, coffee shops and public spaces, to health services and shopping stores, and publications and organizations. It’s like Yelp for Vietnam.

The website’s flow of user-generated content, however, experiences episodes of hiatuses; Hanoi expats say that TNH is only active during some seasons when job vacancies in the city are at their peak; when expats return to their home countries in large numbers (often in winter holidays) and find the need to sell their possessions; or when droves of European foreigners fly to Vietnam to teach English and look for apartments.

TNH’s forum style structure is becoming outdated in comparison to more convenient options in Facebook that doesn’t require users to sign up for an entirely new account.

Hanoi Massive

An expat group in Facebook has just grown over 10,000 members this month. Jules Oi (who chooses not to reveal his real name) was spot on when he named the group Hanoi Massive 18 months ago.

“Yes, it’s always been called Hanoi Massive. If I’d known it was going to get as big as it has I maybe would of put a little more thought into the name but it’s worked out well,” he said in a Facebook conversation.

“It was just me who created it. There really wasn’t a lot of thought behind it, I just started the group on a bit of a whim one day,” the English language teacher from England went on.

Jules had one purpose in mind when he created Hanoi Massive: “I created the group as a way for my friends and I to leave messages to one another without having to always tag everyone in them.”

His idea was to share decent restaurants, night spots and other good places to hang out in Hanoi. Jules also felt that there was a need for a platform to announce teaching hours that needed filling; this helped freelance English teachers looking for extra work a lot.

The members in the group grew from 25 to more than 10,000 as people started adding their friends, and friends of friends–even Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) and European travelers who are still planning to visit Hanoi.

Hanoi Massive, which is largely community driven, has answers that Lonely Planet and Wikitravel doesn’t have. This makes travel plans easier to make and expat life questions easier to answer.

“I think the group has been very helpful to people in Hanoi, hence the success of it. Hanoi can be a confusing place even after a couple of years. There really isn’t much in the way of information available. Simple things like buying lightbulbs can be virtually impossible unless you know the right street to go to,” Jules explained.

The flow of information works very simply: people can post questions and members can answer (topics range from finding jobs, Western-sized clothing, apartments, and preferred restaurants; to reaching organizations and services; arranging travel itineraries; discussing housekeeping and logistics; and buying/selling motorbikes and electronics).

NGOs and event organizers get to promote their cause or activities for free. Local companies/businesses have the same privilege but their posts are limited to once a month.

“I love the way that people are, in the most part, really helpful to one another. We are all in this together and the exchange of info and tips helps,” Jules said.

The convenience of being able to ask a horde of 10,000 has its own drawbacks. Jules specifically pointed out one innate feature of Hanoi Massive, being a group created in Facebook. “The thing with Hanoi Massive is that unlike the rest of the Internet, this group isn’t anonymous.”

Hanoi Massive is a closed group. Anyone who wants in is screened by Jules and the other moderators of the group to filter out trolls and fake profiles. Current members participate in discussions using their personal Facebook accounts.

“If you ask stupid questions you will be attacked! There has been a run of people taking this to the next level lately by leaving obvious stupid questions to see if people will fall for it,” Jules narrated. Discussions in Hanoi Massive, as it turns out, require a certain level of social media literacy, wit, and content.

Queries are often ignored and given less answers by the community if these have been previously asked, if these have less importance to other users, or if the post just seems silly and have obvious answers. The search function of Facebook groups (which allow users to pore through an archive of posts) is often overlooked by many because of the tiny size of the button. Others don’t know it exists.

“‘Where can I buy rice?’ was one of my favorites,” Jules said. “People were leaving maps to supermarkets, debating the best kind of rice to buy, how much it costs etc… Makes me laugh.”

And as with all online groups, spam and trolls are dealt with accordingly. They’re often deleted or kicked out of the group.

Running a Facebook group that is as active as the people of Hanoi, apparently, takes a lot of effort and patience.

“I try not to remove too many posts but I have to scan most days to get rid of fake accounts and other posts which I think are not appropriate,” the English group admin continued. “I now run the group with two other guys and we share the burden.”

But as with other growing online communities, Hanoi Massive has a long way to go to fulfill a promise often claimed by social media (that it will make the world better or something like that according to Maria Ressa).

Earlier this year, someone named Charlene posted a message in Hanoi Massive, seeking advice in behalf of Mai, a Vietnamese girl who was about to be legally deported from Sweden. Mai will be coming home to Vietnam for the first time in her life—but without a family or a home.

“Not much has happened since the last time I wrote,” Charlene posted recently.

Charlene turned to the Facebook group with hopes to find answers that Google didn’t have. Within hours of her post, comments came rushing in, directing her to all sorts of NGOs in Hanoi that covered her concern.

Hanoi Massive brews that sense of community. But that’s just one step to getting things done in the real world. For now, I’m just so glad that there are over 10,000 people ready to answer the most important question of the day.

I’m hungry. Which sushi place do you recommend, Massive oi?

(Jesse Pizarro Boga is a fellow of FK Norway’s communication exchange program in Asia. He’s currently in Hanoi and oversharing photos of his experiences there in his Instagram: @jesiramoun)