From online delivery services and karaoke apps to Flappy Bird, Vietnam is hooked on technology. Now, a pair of locally-based dating apps are introducing Vietnamese singles to the world of online dating. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Graphics by Sarah Joanne Smith.
Sporting flared cuffs and an eye-assaulting, rhinestone-bedazzled jacket, Ca’s silhouette stands out against a laser background. Swipe left. Nguyen, or more precisely, some Bieber-haired Korean soap star, gives a piercing stare from what is obviously the result of a Google image search. Swipe left. Hien seems nice enough, grinning widely into his webcam, maybe a little weird when you consider the cartoon duck floating above his shoulder. That is, of course, until the extra pair of arms comes into view. Turns out Hien doesn’t love ducks or cartoons: that’s just where his ex-girlfriend’s face used to be. Swipe left. Hands in his pockets, Vy’s lanky frame leans against a concrete wall. Between the tousled hair and the slightly creased V-neck, the photo could pass for an American Apparel ad. Swipe right.
Over coffee and a solid internet connection, I’ve spent the past 20 minutes or so on OakClub, a locally-based dating app, accepting and rejecting other humans. There’s something satisfying, maybe even a little addictive, about swiping one way or the other. OakClub, which launched eight months ago on Facebook and unveiled its mobile app in February, uses an individual’s location and Facebook data to find nearby users with similar interests and mutual friends. Free to peruse other profiles, users swipe right to accept and left to decline, taking public rejection out of the equation. Only when there is a mutual attraction between users does OakClub put the two in touch.
In a culture where the internet has become increasingly integral in day-to-day interactions – think text messaging, Facebook, Viber, emoticons and the half-dozen selfies you witness on a daily basis – I’m not the only one who finds this fascinating. In fact, as both internet and smartphone use continue to grow across Vietnam, more and more young people are coming around to the idea of meeting their match online.
“In Asia, [online dating]’s still not very accepted, but we feel that it’s a matter of time before the public will accept it as a matter of course,” says Phil Tran, co-founder of OakClub and CEO of Glass Egg, the app’s parent company.
Though OakClub has taken a hands-off approach toward advertising, allowing its base to grow organically through word-of-mouth, a steady rise in users indicates that attitudes toward digital matchmaking, especially among the younger generation, are already shifting on their own. Roughly 70 percent of OakClub users are between 18 and 27 years old.
“Our staff here is a perfect example,” says Tran. “Most of them are at dating age. They’re in their mid- to late-20s and they have disposable income. What they don’t have is a lot of time and it’s a lot easier for them to meet somebody online and kind of screen them, talk to them, before they actually meet than to have to go to a club or a bar to meet someone, so we see even with our staff here that it’s become accepted.”
Part of the key to this acceptance, Tran believes, is ensuring that the app sticks to dating rather than becoming a facilitator of casual hook-ups. As such, each OakClub profile is regularly screened by an editor, and any photos or profiles deemed inappropriate are removed.
“We’ve always thought about how to position ourselves,” Tran explains. “What we don’t want it to become, clearly, is a meat market. So we’re very careful about keeping it clean. We emphasise the fun of dating and de-emphasise the sex.”
Elsewhere in the digital dating world, Paktor, a Singapore-based app with a similar layout, made its debut last September and has since taken a different means to the same end, marketing itself as a social app designed not simply for matchmaking but also for finding friends.
“We don’t focus on dating only because meeting people is fun,” says Pham Thi Phuong Linh, Paktor’s marketing manager. Last November, the company made headlines by setting the Guinness World Record for the largest speed-dating event in history, which brought 484 singles to local venue Q4. Since then, Paktor has continued to push its app online via Facebook and other popular sites, as well as encouraging users to take their friendships and relationships beyond the digital world. Linh now holds regular in-person meet-ups, providing a safe and social environment in which Paktor users can connect in real life.
“I was thinking if you match with a guy and he invites you out for a coffee, in Vietnam for a girl it’s maybe dangerous,” she explains. In order to encourage users to meet without the anxiety of a one-on-one date, the monthly hangouts are held at different venues around the city, usually cafés, and consist of no more than 25 people.
While neither boasts a massive following, the future looks bright for dating apps in Vietnam. As of June, Paktor aimed to reach one million users across five Asian countries, and although it’s too early to measure the app’s Vietnamese growth, its overall numbers are going up. The same is true for OakClub, where the app’s mobile component shows promise.
“Right now we just focus on Vietnam,” says Tran. “But our aspiration is to go to Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Indonesia and maybe the Philippines as well.”
Having a few good success stories also helps. Not long ago, two users contacted OakClub’s marketing department, requesting that their profiles be deleted after having found one another through the app. While they lost two users, the company took it as a compliment that they’d eliminated the need for their own service.
Paktor, too, has managed to bring people together. Early last month, the company uploaded a video to its YouTube account telling the story of Thuc and Uyen. Thuc, 22, joined Paktor shortly after its arrival in Vietnam and scanned dozens of profiles on the app. Many of the photos seemed too good to be true until he came across Uyen, 20, who seemed a more genuine person than the others he’d encountered. At first, the pair struck up a conversation only online, chatting and occasionally texting one another. Over time, they worked up the courage to meet face-to-face. For the next few months they would slowly turn from friends into something more. Fast forward six months, and the couple has plans to become engaged, proving that a little digital matchmaking can go a long way.
Meanwhile, I’m still searching. A man poses beside a life-sized Smurf. Swipe left. A photo of a man in jeans and a button-up, cut off above the neck. Swipe left. A selfie, tastefully framed in an animated Kung Fu Panda border. Swipe left. These things take time.