HANOI, Vietnam--"Whoa! That just looks so pretty on you!" That's part of a conversation I overheard between two trendy twentysomething women in an air-conditioned cafe on a hot summer day here.
Their chat caught my attention, among other reasons, because the accessory in question wasn't a sparkling engagement ring or the super short shorts they were both wearing but Apple's latest smartphone, the iPhone 4.
I've heard a lot of people in Hanoi, by the way, call the newly released Apple smartphone the "iPhone 4G" (or 4G for short). This misperception about the product's name, however, is much easier to understand than the incredibly high price the phone is selling for here.
Since the first generation of the device, the iPhone has been a much sought-after gadget in Vietnam. In the beginning, the phone wasn't officially available in the country (local providers, including Viettel and VinaPhone, started carrying the iPhone 3GS just about three months ago) and most were smuggled in from the States and had to be unlocked before they could be used, courtesy of Apple's tight controls and exclusive deal with AT&T.
The iPhone used to be not just hard to find but also hard to use in Vietnam, compared with other smartphones. That's because if a user accidentally upgrades the phone's operating system (some people upgrade the phone's firmware without knowing what they are doing), it will be locked again and become useless until a new unlock method is available.
Despite that nuisance, when the iPhone 3G first came out, the locked U.S. version cost about twice its original price in Vietnam. The phone was so popular that unlocking it became a lucrative business in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.
The iPhone 4, though, will likely be available soon via proper channels, and there are apparently many who are willing to pay up to $2,500 to be the first in the country to have one.
I checked out the iShop in Hanoi, one of a few electronic stores in Vietnam that sell Apple products and have the new iPhone on sale. Here, the 32GB version is currently priced at $1,850, the 16GB is cheaper at $1,600. These phones are international versions smuggled in from France and are "factory unlocked," meaning no unlocking is necessary before they can work with Vietnamese GSM service providers.
There are also locked U.S. versions of the phones--which currently can't be used with Vietnamese carriers until a method to get them unlocked is available--that cost around $1,000. During the 15 minutes I was in the iShop, a few other people came in to check out the phone, marveling at its gorgeous Retina display and then leaving after learning about the outrageous prices. … Read more