If you don’t think Vietnam has arrived yet as a player in the global economy, consider the case of Flappy Bird. The sensational smart phone app dominated downloads of games on android and iTunes until its creator yanked it from the Internet last weekend.
The Flappy Bird inventor is a Vietnamese software engineer named Dong Nguyen, who lives with his parents in Hanoi. He withdrew the app — even though it was bringing in up to $50,000 a day in ad revenue — because he was tired of the notoriety that was ruining his tranquil life.
A few years ago, millions of people in Vietnam didn’t have electricity, land lines, computers or access to the Internet — much less smart phones, and nobody in the Western world could have imagined a 29-year-old Vietnamese geek inventing a silly game that would consume hundreds of millions of hours that could otherwise have been spent on something more productive. Yet that is exactly what has happened since Dong released Flappy Bird to the global economy last May.
Dong’s critics — and there are many of them — question whether he withdrew the game from the market as a publicity stunt to get people to focus on his next act. He says the game disappeared because it is too addictive and because the international attention caused him too much grief.
A broader explanation might be cultural: Vietnam has changed so dramatically and so fast that sometimes its ways of life cannot catch up with technology and market realities. One of the cultural attributes of traditional Vietnam is a tendency not to bring attention to oneself — to be unassuming, modest, shy. Could that be part of the reason Dong wants to get his life back?
The lesson for Western investors is they are well advised to learn the difference between cultural modesty and lack of initiative. Vietnam is full of Dong Nguyens — millions of brainy entrepreneurs prepared to transform their own country and, in the process, infuse the world with Flappy Birds.