There's something about the iPhone that wins it a lot of admirers, though reasons differ.
Mr. Van Thoai was keen to give his girlfriend an iPhone 6 for her birthday, so after squirreling money away from his low monthly income of $200 he then flew to Singapore to get one of the very first iPhone 6’s released there, at $950. Unfortunately, with only rudimentary English skills, he was cheated by the shop owner into also signing an insurance contract that required he pay $1,500 in total. After putting down a deposit he realized he could no longer afford the phone, returning home empty-handed and $400 worse off. The case created an uproar in international media and Mr. Thoai was luckily reimbursed by a fund raising effort of a Singaporean national.
His story is just one of many that illustrate how the desire among many Vietnamese to buy an Apple mobile phone sees them lose all common sense.
As a country where GDP per capita stands at $1,910, according to the latest data from the World Bank, Vietnam is one of Asia’s emerging markets and has a high consumption of iPhones, despite their price being equal to five month’s average income or even more. According to a recent survey of 2,500 mobile phone users in five emerging markets, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, conducted by Jana, an international mobile technology platform, nearly 40 per cent of Vietnamese people prefer Apple mobile phones.
Statistics from Apple in 2014 showed that sales of iPhones in Vietnam increased nearly three-fold, more than in any other market in the world. By way of comparison, iPhone sales increased 55 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively, in India and China in the same period, and 61 per cent and 97 per cent, respectively, in Brazil and Russia.
This is why every second pair of hands in Vietnam seems to be tapping on an iPhone screen, whether they belong to businesspeople, bank officers, taxi drivers, shop assistants, students, or even monks.
When the iPhone 6 arrived in Vietnam last year a monk named Thich Thanh Cuong posted a video clip on his Facebook page showing he was the first person in northern Hai Duong province to own one. His post got a lot of attention, not all of it kind. As one of the comments on his post said, the iPhone has become more than a brand and become an item of adoration in Vietnam.
Stories abound of people on low incomes scrimping and saving to have the money for their “dream” phone. Crazier “iFans” simply can’t wait, and borrow money or pay for one under an installment plan. A large number of others who don’t want to spend such a high amount on a new phone head to secondhand stores. As a result, the market for secondhand iPhones is vibrant. Mr. Minh Phong, the owner of a secondhand store for smart phones, said he sells two or three iPhones a day on average.
The question is, are iFans driven by a need to simply show off?
“Yes”, is the answer of many. Because of its high price the owners of iPhones are usually looked upon as being well-off, according to office worker Ms. Lan Phuong.
It’s not just a matter of financial appearance, though, as having an Apple phone is also considered trendy. “With an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus you look so cool,” Ms. Phuong said. “I just had to hold the most advanced technology and the latest trend in the world in my hands.” So she borrowed money from friends and bought an iPhone 5, despite her monthly income being only $200. “Although it is not an iPhone 6, at least I no longer feel strange and inferior among my friends, who all have an iPhone,” she said.
Although “showing off” is quite common in Vietnam’s iPhone community, as it’s been in the country since 2007 there are other reasons why it has so many fans.
One is that it actually looks quite good. The classy design of an iPhone has become something of a fashion symbol, with its look being held up as the benchmark to which other smartphones must aspire, and it’s also suitable for both men and women of different ages and occupations. Many Vietnamese agree that the size of an iPhone fits more nicely into Asian hands than other smartphones. With an iPhone they can comfortably hold it and use it with just one hand.
The iPhone’s features are also a major drawcard among Vietnamese mobile phone users. Mr. Hoang Lam, an IT engineer, who has used an iPhone from its 2G to 6 incarnations, said he would never change to another brand. “I’ve had a great experience and am totally satisfied with it, so why would I think about changing?” he said. It’s simple and easy to use, he went on. iOS has a simpler interface compared to other smartphones with many menus and sub screens and complex widgets. The physical buttons on an iPhone are only what is necessary. It’s smooth and stable for games or using many apps at the same time. Moreover, the iStore has many apps and software to choose from, and it has unique and convenient features like iMessage, FaceTime, iTune, and iCloud. “With an iPhone you not only have a nice phone but also a perfect service,” he said.
Agreeing with Mr. Lam, Ms. Huyen Chi, another iPhone owner, said that only those who use it can understand why it is worth the price tag. She changed from an iPhone 4S to a Sony Z1 but regretted it pretty quickly, as the Sony just didn’t perform as well. She then picked up an iPhone 5 and hasn’t looked back. “I don’t think using an iPhone is about showing off,” she said. “There are many other phones at the same price or even higher price if that’s your motivation. Why don’t people say similar things about the Samsung S6 or the Sony Z3? I think that if people spend a lot on a phone it’s because they want the best quality.”
Apart from its nice, chic design and good performance, another strength of the iPhone is that it’s easy to offload when the time comes. Apple smartphones are readily found at mobile phone stores, both new and old. Older models such as the 4S, 5 and 5S are still popular. Compared to other brands, a secondhand Apple phone always has a higher price.
So Vietnamese iFans remain loyal to Apple and are waiting patiently, or impatiently in some cases, for the iPhone 7 and the 8, 9 or whatever may come after that.