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APRIL 24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 16

Kitsch Report

An Intriguing Mix of Past and Present
With more than half of its residents under 25 years of age, Ho Chi Minh City is one of Vietnam's most youthful cities. Yet it's still making a career largely from its past.

Looking for a value-for-money meal in Ho Chi Minh City?

Hot Spot
There are many roads to sainthood, and not all of them lead through the Catholic Church.

Kitsch Report
More than just a phone number

Web Crawling
If you're seeking the offbeat side of Vietnam this is the site for you.

In Vietnam, the telephone company's directory-inquiry service provides a personalized touch above and beyond the call of duty. In Vietnamese, English or French, charming female operators answer questions about new restaurants, where to buy antique jewelry, how to find a veterinarian or practically anything else. Locals use the service to get up-to-the-minute football scores (to see if they won their bets), weather reports, exchange rates and cinema schedules. Children ring up to listen to fairy tales and folk stories (to lighten operators' workloads, the company recently switched to taped renditions).

The service started in 1994 in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and is now available, fully computerized, in most provinces. The dial-up number used to be 108, but due to the high volume of callers who just wanted to chat up the operators or talk about their personal problems, it has been split into two services. Dial 1080 for "ordinary" queries--and yes, operators also do the standard work of giving out phone numbers and addresses--and 1088 for psychological and medical needs. The latter service, staffed by professional counselors and doctors, costs 10 cents a minute, four times as much as 1080. For curious visitors, the only challenge is finding a telephone.

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