Vietnam's 411 Goes Beyond Phone Numbers In Vietnam, few people have phones and the telecommunications infrastructure is still being developed. But the country offers a unique directory assistance program where callers can get sports scores, weather forecasts and advice for the lovelorn.

Vietnam's 411 Goes Beyond Phone Numbers

Vietnam's 411 Goes Beyond Phone Numbers

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In Vietnam, few people have phones and the telecommunications infrastructure is still being developed. But the country offers a unique directory assistance program where callers can get sports scores, weather forecasts and advice for the lovelorn.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to Vietnam, a developing country with some 80 million people, fewer than one out of 10 in possession of a phone. Still, Vietnam is way ahead of other places like the United States when it comes to directory assistance as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

In a country where information and Internet access are tightly controlled and one where home computers are still rare, dialing 1-0-8-0 can bring answers to many, many questions, says Ho Chi Minh City's 1-0-8-0 director Vo Fung Wa(ph), and not just questions about phone numbers either.

I call up. I want to know who won the Super Bowl last year. Will your operator tell me?

Ms. VO FUNG WA: (Through Translator) Yes.

SULLIVAN: I call up and I want to know what date the first Gulf War started, can I get an answer?

Ms. VO: (Through Translator) Yes.

SULLIVAN: What won't they tell me?

Ms. VO: (Through Translator) Information which is confidential because of national security or information about the police or the government. We're not allowed to answer such questions.

SULLIVAN: Anything else is fair game, and if the 1-0-8-0 operators can't find the answer immediately, they'll call you back when they do. If it's a medical question, they'll immediately connect you with a specialist who knows the answers, all for about 6 cents a minute. The 1-0-8-0 service is so trusted, so reliable that it's often used to settle bar bets. Operators are also called on to provide advice to the lovelorn and sometimes they are simply a friendly voice for someone who needs one. And that friendly voice, says director Wa, is almost always a woman's.

Ms. VO: (Through Translator) We have a set of requirements for our operators and the voice is most important. The voice must be clear and soft so the customers will like to hear it. We have some male operators, but most customers like to hear a female voice. I think it's because women's voices are more sweet and because women are more patient when answering questions than men.

SULLIVAN: Customer service in a Communist country may seem an oxymoron, but here, the customer is king and perhaps best of all there's always a real person on the other end. This center averages between 35 and 40,000 calls per day. Operator Lumti Tu Lang(ph) has worked here since the center opened in 1992.

Ms. LUMTI TU LANG: (Through Translator) One day I get the call about the weather, but I didn't have the answer. I called the CP Metrological Office(ph), ended up identifying myself, asked someone there, but the man there didn't know either. He promised to find out. A few minutes later, my phone rung. It was the man from the Metrological Office. He didn't recognize my voice, but I knew it was him and he was calling us at 1-0-8-0 for the answer.

SULLIVAN: Director Wa says the service pretty much pays for itself and helps attract customers for the state-owned telephone company, a company now competing with several cell phone companies for new customers, but she acknowledges that Internet penetration may eventually make the 1-0-8-0 service largely obsolete. When that happens, she predicts her well-trained staff will simply re-tool and provide back office or call center services for some foreign company. Until then, customers will be able to dial 1-0-8-0 for answers and for the occasional telephone number.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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