Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (CNN) — Helmet under her arm, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh arrives after traveling 450 kilometers by motorbike, evading the security police, to tell CNN the story of her imprisonment for blogging in Vietnam.
“The first three days I was scared for myself,” she said about her 10 days in prison, during which officers repeatedly asked her about her writing and if she received cash from anti-government groups outside the country.
Vietnamese like Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh are embracing the internet in full force. There are 24 million internet users right now, nearly a third of the population. A decade ago there were 200,000. Internet cafes have popped up all over Ho Chi Minh City, and social networking sites are increasing in popularity along with mobile internet use.
“Internet life grows so fast,” said a popular blogger, who requested anonymity out of concerns for his safety. “Even I, one of the bloggers, could not imagine how fast this could be.
“And nearly everyone, each Vietnamese, has their own blog.”
Like elsewhere, most Vietnamese blogs deal with life, work, humor or technology. But a group of bloggers here also focus on a more dangerous territory in this one-party Communist state: They write about local corruption, land seizures and the increasing influence of China. They complain about the lack of multiparty democracy, too.
In a nutshell, they blog about the sort of issues that can get you into deep trouble in today’s Vietnam.
This is something that Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh — who blogs under the Vietnamese pen name Me Nam or Mother Mushroom — knows well.
Her blog includes writings about her daily life and pictures of her young daughter, but she also expresses her outspoken views against China’s intervention in her country, including Beijing’s financing of a controversial bauxite mine in the Central Highlands.
Those views led to her arrest and imprisonment for ten days in August, for, she said, “abuse of democratic freedoms and infringing on the national benefit.”
When I first got in touch with Nguyen nearly a year later, her phone and movements were still being monitored. E-mail, I had been told, was the best way to get in touch.
“I am willing to tell my story to you,” she wrote to me, saying she would travel from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City to meet us.
Twelve hours later, she sent another e-mail. “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” She feared the security police would prevent her from coming, but she would try.
The next day she arrived, and over the next two hours she told her story.
“I did not know what happened. But the fourth and fifth and the sixth day when they asked me the same questions, I was scared for my mom and my daughter and my husband. I didn’t want to think about them when I was put in prison, because if I ever think about them I wanted to give everything to come to my family.”
As a condition of her release, she agreed to give up blogging, posting a handwritten letter on her site in which she explained that she loved her country, but that the government felt this was the wrong way. After being denied a passport two months later though, she decided to begin again.
“I write another entry on my blog, that I gave up already, but they didn’t leave me alone,” she said. “I have to take the right to say what I think.”
What does she think the government will do if they see her telling her story on CNN?
“I think that they have to think about this,” she said. “Because I just tell the truth … If they arrest me again because I send a message outside to the world, I am not scared. This means that they show to (the) world that we don’t have freedom like they say.”
When contacted by CNN about its policy on freedom of expression on the internet, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry provided the following written response.
“In Vietnam, freedom of information and freedom of speech are guaranteed and practiced in accordance with the law. Such concern as ‘government threatens free expression online and an open internet’ is groundless.”
Nguyen and I have been keeping in touch by e-mail since her story aired on CNN International television one week ago.
“Thank you so much for the film …,” she wrote me on Saturday. “Thank you for coming to report about our country.”
And at the bottom of her automatic signature, the same as on every e-mail I have received from her, it read: “Who will speak if you don’t?”