While waiting for Vietnam’s first home-grown smartphone to arrive, Khoi Pham talks about Bphone release event, turtlenecks and how national pride plays a role in marketing. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

As the music dies down and lights brighten up in the auditorium, Nguyen Tu Quang steps out from the dark in a black polo and jeans to the audience’s applause and a burst of flashing cameras. Held high in his hand is a prototype of the most talked-about device among the local tech crowd in recent months. The debut event, held last May in one of Hanoi’s most spacious and glamorous event spaces, is reminiscent of Apple’s iPhone showcases in the past, complete with minimalist style and the company’s top executives taking turns delivering the presentation. The only thing that’s missing is perhaps that iconic black turtleneck.

The elusive device is the Bphone, widely heralded by many as Vietnam’s first-ever home-grown smartphone. “We believe that today [we have] created history in Vietnam’s IT industry,” affirms Quang. The 40-year-old Hanoian is currently the CEO and co-founder of BKAV, one of Vietnam’s oldest tech companies, best known for its internet security and antivirus software. Which makes its recent foray into the lucrative yet notoriously cutthroat smartphone market a rather surprising move.

For decades, Vietnam has been one of the most popular production backyards for foreign manufacturers, due to the local abundance of young, cheap labour. The common perception is that local workers are hard-working and skilled, but local companies tend to lag behind when it comes to invention and creativity. So for a born and bred, locally-based Vietnamese company to publicly declare that they have managed to make a smartphone from scratch right here in the bellybutton of Asia’s outsourcing paradise, it’s a big deal.

According to Vu Thanh Thang, vice president of BKAV, Bphone’s main factory is located in Hanoi where most of the assembling process occurs. “Bphone is a ‘made in Vietnam’ phone,” he told Zing News last May. “Every process, from aesthetics, mechanical and electrical to software design is carried out in the company headquarters. The mechanical part of the manufacturing process happens right at the factory to produce a prototype, then passed on to our partnering facilities for mass production.”

Bphone is a Vietnamese smartphone and the company vehemently wants you to remember that. Throughout the one-and-a-half-hour-long debut event, Quang and his associates repeatedly reiterate that fact, so much so that they might as well call it the Vphone. All video footage demonstrating the phone’s functions feature mild-mannered, attractive Vietnamese actors and actresses enthusiastically going through the motions of their daily activities with Bphone’s help, from transferring a blueprint to jogging along the Notre Dame Cathedral’s pavement.

Using nationalism as a marketing tactic is not a new trick. “Nguoi Viet dung hang Viet” (Vietnamese people use Vietnamese products) is a long-standing program spearheaded by the government in its effort to boost consumption of locally-produced goods. Although the project hasn’t been executed in a professional media campaign, save for the occasional Vietnamese product trade fairs organised annually, it has achieved a moderate level of success. This is mostly due to how the simple message can resonate with Vietnamese of all ages.

Through the years, some local companies have also benefitted from this sentiment by crafting their marketing campaigns in a similar fashion. Many still remember how, years ago, Bitis (a local footwear brand) utilised local mythical and historical figures in their commercial, ending with the slogan “Bitis: Caring for Vietnamese feet”. It might sound cheesy to some but it certainly worked, becoming one of the most memorable messages in the mind of Vietnamese at that point. National pride is without a doubt a powerful force to unite people of a country, and Bphone’s marketing team knows it, putting phrases like, “made in Vietnam”, “world-class” and superlatives like “most gorgeous” and “first-ever” together in the presentation.

By organising a PR event on such an unprecedented scale and tugging at the audience’s heartstrings through ambitious nationalist messages, they have managed to generate a great amount of interest both from the media and netizens, with polarising responses. Sceptics were quick to lambaste the over-the-top nature of the event and Nguyen Tu Quang’s constant use of self-congratulatory phrases in his speech. His “It’s unbelievable!” exclamation has already made rounds on forums and social media alike as the hottest new meme.

Dua Leo, Saigon’s newest stand-up comedian and YouTube sensation, says in a scathing vlog: “My opinion is very simple. I will not support, or purchase, or tell my friends to purchase, or even lend somebody money to purchase [the Bphone].” He laments the “absurd” way BKAV uses the phone’s made-in-Vietnam status to attract customers and cites its high price as one of the reasons why he discourages people from making a purchase. “[Between existing companies and] a software company that suddenly jumps into producing hardware, I would go for those with an established reputation,” he says.

At the other end of the spectrum, others who are more optimistic hold fast to the sentiment that local products should be given a chance and deserve support from their countrymen. Judging by how Dua Leo’s Bphone rant has climbed to become his most “disliked” video, many share the same belief and are not afraid to spell it out in the comment section.

No matter which camp you belong to, the marketing team at BKAV is already patting themselves on the back for successfully creating conversations and piquing public interest. The rest will lie in the sales figures and actual hands-on experience when the phone is released.

Despite the initial sceptical reception, just 12 hours after its release, Bphone’s exclusive online website had received almost 12,000 pre-orders of buyers eager to have their turn at the new Vietnamese high-tech toy.

At the end of the day, the question of whether Bphone is actually the most gorgeous or the most valuable phone in the world like BKAV claims can only be answered by the people who fork over the millions of VND required to buy it. Not Dua Leo, Nguyen Tu Quang himself, or anyone else. Ultimately, to me, this whole Bphone shebang has managed to accomplish two important things: spark public conversations on a national level about creativity, technology and innovation; and ignite a glimmer of hope in young Vietnamese that perhaps the leap from the world’s manufacturing backyard to its glamourous well-lit stage is not as daunting as they think.