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Love sick? Vietnam's 411 can help

Directory assistance in communist Vietnam goes a lot further than America’s 411, offering lonely hearts advice with a force of female operators ready to take on just about anything, 24/7.
/ Source: The Associated Press

What’s the best way to sue my neighbor? How big is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum? Is surgery necessary to remove a bunion? Am I pregnant?

For answers to these questions, call 1080.

Directory assistance in communist Vietnam goes a lot further than America’s 411. It’s a combination of a lonely hearts column, Dr. Ruth and general information service, with a force of female operators ready to take on just about anything, 24/7.

In a country where information — including the Internet and media — is tightly controlled by the government, the service fills a big gap. And its popularity attests to a level of telephone penetration that reflects Vietnam’s growing prosperity — 9.3 million telephone subscribers in a nation of 82 million.

75,000 calls a day
The service started in 1992 in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, as a way for the Communist Party to explain social and economic policies. More than a decade later, exchanges in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City alone field 75,000 calls a day asking for everything from college exam scores and soccer results to advice on finding love.

“One day I got a call from a man who said that two people were quarreling on Hang Bong street,” said Tran Hong Ha, 30, an operator in Hanoi for 10 years. “That old man asked me to come there immediately because they were quarreling with each other very fiercely and he hoped that with my sweet voice, I could help...”

A sweet, clear voice is a must, along with a good education. Those selected then undergo intensive training on how to answer questions quickly and cheerfully.

In Hanoi, about 40 women in matching blue smocks and headphones sit side-by-side in a crowded room filled with shelves and cabinets of reference books and files.

They chat and type furiously on computers at their desks, and each sits before a large mirror.

“If they have a bad temper, they can look at themselves in the mirror and change their attitudes,” said Bui Minh Chau, director of Hanoi’s 1080 service. “It’s very stressful. Sometimes the operators get shouted and screamed at by the client.”

The job pays about $65 a month — par for the Vietnamese civil service — and isn’t taken lightly. The army of operators have become final arbiters of many a dispute or barroom argument. (Ho’s mausoleum? 10,344 square feet).

“Over the years, we have gained prestige among our clients for our accurate information,” said Nguyen Xuan Phuoc, deputy director of Hanoi Telephone Company. “Some people, when they’re in groups or discussions, if there’s some topic they do not know or do not understand, many of them will agree to go to our service asking for the answers.”

The service has become so popular in Hanoi that more than 80 phone trees have been added to provide recorded answers about flight schedules and other tourist information.

Doctors and lawyers dole out medical and legal advice, and psychologists tackle thorny questions most Vietnamese wouldn’t dare ask in public. They can be reached during business hours by calling one of the automated numbers and selecting from a list of experts.

Confidential topics, too
Sex is a big issue. In a country where it’s never discussed openly in schools or homes, operators provide a confidential alternative. They also advise on marriage, pregnancy and drug addiction. Those contemplating suicide also turn to them.

Callers don’t have to give names and their questions remain secret. “That’s why many of the clients consider us a very reliable friend,” Phuoc said.

They also can order songs to be sent over the phone for special occasions. The 10,000 on offer include everything from Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” to Britney Spears’ “... Baby One More Time.”

And it costs just 6 cents for the first minute and 2 cents for each additional minute.

Each city and province has a 1080 offering various levels of service, and it’s become so popular in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that busy signals and long waits are common.

The No. 1 request? It’s still telephone numbers.