Computers in Viet Nam. What did you guys do? - Dân Làm Báo

Computers in Viet Nam. What did you guys do?

VNCH-Ngoc Truong (Danlambao) - My friend’s daughter chased the old-timer with the questions. She would like to know more about mainframes in South Vietnam, so her essays could be special with unique information in the undergraduate program of computer science. She also said that she has not got much in return after long-hour search the internet and at the libraries.

Hopefully this article can provide some information for younger Vietnamese or whoever would like to know about computers in South Vietnam.
Timeline of IBM in Vietnam:

1951 - IBM opens its Service Office in Saigon.

1952 - Closure of Hanoi branch office.

1953 - Saigon arsenal operates IBM equipment.

1958 - President Ngo Dinh Diem, tours IBM installation at General Directorate of Budget and Foreign aids in Saigon.

1963 - IBM 1401 tape system is installed at General Directorate of Budget and Foreign aids in Saigon

1967 - IBN Vietnam becomes a branch of the IBM World Trade Corporation in October. It is no longer a subdivision of IBM-France. IBM-Vietnam now has its own President which was appointed by IBM head quarters, same like IBM-Japan, IBM-Taiwan...

1968 - An IBM System/360 Model 20 tape system replaces the unit record equipment in the Data Processing Center - the first System/360 in Vietnam which belonged to Ministry of Finance.

1971- An IBM System/360 Model 40 is installed at Vietnam’s General Directorate of Budget and Foreign aids.

IBM 360/40 of Vietnam Power Company in Saigon looks identical to this system.

South Vietnam has 24 computer centers, most located in Saigon, capital city of the South. Computer centers housed different kind of mainframe computers from small to medium and large scale. Some came from US government aid, some from US military, and the rest are long-term leased from IBM-Vietnam.

Servic maintenance is provided by contract with IBM-Vietnam. Technicians are IBM-trained Vietnamese called CE (Customer Engineer), software and system support are done by IBM-trained SE (System Engineer). They are all local people already graduated from commerce and management universities.

1/ Ministry of Defense computer center: equipped with IBM 360/20 system, this place takes charge of manpower records, enlistment records... The payroll of Armed Forces of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) is processed for whole forces. Defense budget is processed to submit to the government, and the President of Vietnam as well.

2/ Computer center of General administration of Chief of staff ARVN: The IBM 360/40 was a leased product of IBM-Vietnam, it’s a DOS-based operating system (Disk operating system). Six modern tape drives transferred from IBM-West Germany to Vietnam, they were unique tape drives at the time. Military personnel files, military records, promotions, transfers, family status were stored on 2316 disk pack, or 1600 BPI (Bits per inch) back up tapes. All military administrative procedures were computerized through 24-hour process serving the whole army.

A few weeks before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, US Military copied some backup tapes to use them as feference few years later to identify or confirm the id. Of boat people or refugees who claimed to be officer or member of the ARVN. The H.O. program (Humanitarian Operation), it became the data base for US intelligences and INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) security officials to stop fake identity or communist secret agents.

Viet cong forces entered the Chief Staff HQ, Colonel, Chu Van Ho, commanding officer at the center who did not follow orders to demolish the system, but handed over the keys of the center to a VC group, walked them through the facility and showed them the computer works. Then the colonel was sent to concentration camp of the so called “re-education”. He was released many years later and eventually came to the United States through the H.O. program.

Consoles of IBM 360/50 (left) IBM 360/40 (right)

3/ Logistics General Department computer center: The ARVN Chief of staff is the host of this particular center. The main jobs are: computerization planning of logistics routes throughout the country by air, sea, land. They maintained support equipments, weapons, transportation by the airforce, the navy or trucks. Checking inventories of weapons, food, supply in general for the army.

The 360/50 machine was handed over by the US military command Vietnam MACV. There were only three powerul systems in South East Asia, two systems were in Saigon, Vietnam, the third system located in Singapore..

MACV used the same system 360/50 to dispatch US aricrafts in Vietnam.

Again, same as above, the backup files of Vietnamese Logistics were carried away by US military weeks berfort the invasion of VC to Saigon.

In the shool year 1973-1974, Ministry of Education got help from the center for the pilot program to computerize the process of the Baccalaureat exam (Highh school graduation). Thelocation was very much secure (near Tan son Nhut air base) the outcome of the first time computerized Bacc exams was a success through technology. The whole mission was done quickly, precisely more than expected and saving the budget of the Ministry of Education.

Vietnamese card/key punch operators – Gen. Dir. Of Budget and foreign aids.

4/ Computer center of the Prime Minister office: It is located at Thong Nhut Boulevard, next to the Office of the Prime Minister of RVN. The 360/50 was the backbone of USAID data processing in Vietnam. 

The government's pacification and rural development programs are processed thanks to the OS-based system, the turnaround time was outstanding due to fast, robust and accurate results. The post-war economic plan hosted by the well-respected Doctor Vu Quoc Thuc, Professor with Agrégé privilege and his team including the best economists, the architects of post-war plan for expansion and development though gunfire still echoes at night, also took advantage of the speedy process of 360/50 system to enhance the research and planning. VC later used this same plan as the framework for their economic development, but VC unreasonable cut off the plan and patched with contradict methods to m transform it into a monster so called “open era” and pushing to a mayhem development to marketing oriented socialism freak.

Printing job was done by non-stop spooling (Simultaneous Peripheral Output On line) certificates of ownership for President Nguyen van Thieu’s Land to the tillers program.

It was a huge job that was achieved in short time, another success of computerization.

USAID (United States Agency of International Development), managed and supported local economic development plans, reviewed to approve importation projects of local of industrialists then sponsor the project by referring to an international bank which used to accept credit from USAID for the purchase, like a voucher. Projects going through USAID for approval such as: importation of machinery for rice mill, industrial incubators, textile machinery for companies such as Vinatexco, Vimytex, Sakymen,..., material to make cement and such. Hundreds of projects from various manufacturers went through USAID for approval daily.

Meanwhile, South Vietnamese government-owned foreign currency is used for vital importations such as: rice all kinds, pharmaceutical products, medical and dental equipments, gasoline, oil for power plant as well as money transfer (with subsidized rate from the government) for Vietnamese students studying overseas (some students later brain-washed by VC and join their movement).

5/ General Directorate of National Police Data processing center: processed jobs coming from Ministry of Internal Affairs, and especially police works including payroll for the force and civilian employees, police officers’ records across South Vietnam.

Files of public identity records are archived and operated from the 360/40 OS system. Criminal records, investigations, as well as VC terrorists profile. Arsenal, inventory of police uniforms, food depots, gasoline for cruisers, maritime patrol boats.

IBM 310/135 console (from private album)

6/ Data processing center of Vietnam Power Company (VPC): Company head office is not too far from where the DPC is situated at Hai Ba Trung Street, Saigon. Once it housed the IBM 360/20 in 1968, then upgraded to 360/40 in 1973 with 3 year-lease from IBM-Vietnam, operating system is DOS-based (Disk Operating System), quite powerful to handle the workload. Billing electricity consumption from residential to industrial factories, government offices, military camps. Besides calculation of water reservoir required as critical job for Danhim hydro, as well as coordination of power production and distribution in Saigon and provinces.

Besides, reports are also processed, calculated and printed on behalf of departments under Ministry of Public works.

The Mekong Delta Development Plan funded by the UN required computerized reports as well, definitely they were issued with computer process by the 360/40 system of VPC assistance.

The center was the destination of students just graduated BSc of Computer science from France, Australia, USA (through USAID scholarships), New Zealand as well. They made a good team of system analysts for new projects and new data systems. Hardworking through long hours throughout weekends finally brought back big success and great achievement, and of course more experiences and mort lessons learnt to apply to new projects.

The used IBM 370/135 was purchased through a French company, the owner was a Vietnamese-French business man. Economic sanction by the US was still in force at that time, the 370/135 was shipped to Algeria with a fake manifest, then switched to Saigon port the actual destination and headed to the Power company now under communist regime in 1983.

Documents for installations and DOS/VSE (Disk Operating System/ Virtual Storage Extended) operating instructons were part of the deal and supplied with second hand copies. DOS/VSE takes advantage of disk storage as extended virtual memory to enhance computer memory and speed up the process. The following year the 370 started processing and was put in use side by side with the veteran 360/40 whose life was almost at the end.

Baccalaureate certificate printed by computer 
with student’s scores shown in circled area. 1973-74 school year.

7/ General Directorate of buget and foreign aids data processing center: The very first computerized department equipped IBM 360/20 then quickly upgraded to sytem 360/40 in 1971, a DOS-based operating system to proceed the government budget and manage on-hand foreign aids from the US, France, France, UK, Italy and UN. Reports came to the President of Vietnam, and top level government officials to plan the expenditure and yearly fiscal. The General Directorate was powerful in making decision to requests from Ministres, target of the governmetn was to cut waste in spending for luxurious products, or non essential projects.

Domestic products were top of the list of purchase, then imported goods in case the domestic production could not handle or supply.

The General Director used to be financial advisor to the President, his advices, suggestions were taken seriously. He almost overruled other Ministers when their requests did not fit to the government standards.

When North Vietnam troops entered Saigon, most of computer centers were in good shape, working very well.

One exception was the case of Saigon Bank data center, looting at the last day ended up with significant loss and damage to Syestm 3 just more or less than one-year old.

In general, staff of system analysts to programmers, operators, as well as maintenace and repair technicians IBM-Vietnam (CE - Customer engineer), or SE (System engineer) checked in. A few of them got away on the April 30, 1975.

Years later, the computer pepople gradually escaped the country to get away the communist government.

New technical staff from North Vietnam, some from the Army, some civilians were transferred to Saigon to fill in, then a gap of knowledge and technical background came up. These people only worked on papers before, they never saw a computer especially American-built computer in their lives. It takes time to get used to, but first is to learn English since all books, documents and training kits were in English, well it’s IBM!

In addition, the complex of inferiority of most of the “new comers”, they hurdled themselves behind the arrogance of being the winners of tth war, thus too arrogant to ask questions, or to admit things need to learn. Talking more about mainframes in North Vietnam, more or less ten computers of Minsk 32 (Russian made copycat of IBM 360 series) or ODRA (Polish mainframes designed like IBM 360) to make these people not losing faces.

US economic sanction played a major role in supply of spare parts of mainframe in Vietnam, it were very scarce. Most of the computers deteriorated as time went by. Electronic circuit boards were modified or broken without replacement, as well as technicians left the country legally or escaped by boat that triggered shortage of know-how staff. By 1987, there were a few systems operated more than 10 hours/day. The rest, in between 6 to 8 hours/day through making payroll, renting out for colleges student to compile programs in FORTRAN, COBOL (the two common languages of mainframe, FORTRAN specialized in scientific calculations).

Once in a while spare parts bought in France (from old computers) sent to Vietnam by French with Vietnamese origin, quite a drop in the bucket.

IBM launched its first PC (Personal Computer) in 1981, then XT, and AT (advanced technology) as desktop computers. Compaq reversed engineering to make clone computers: XT, AT. Clones computers emerged in Saigon (now called HCM city), they came from Singapore through unofficial purchase by ships of Vietnam that stopped by to unload exported cargo and upload others before sailing back.

1983 landmark the flourishing of clone presence in Saigon, PC’s made in Taiwan, Singapore started flooding computer rooms of the old mainframes. Mainframes lost ground to new technology, more affordable, more compact.

Still in war, South Vietnam always tried to catch up new technology, or to construct and prepare for future, on the contrary VC (aka communist forces regardless from North Vietnam or not) demolished and damaged as much as they can, it was considered the tactic to weaken South Vietnam, not only through combat but terrorism, assassination, intimidation, demolition.

Computer (mainframes) was new in the 60’s and early 70’s in Vietnam; however the government encouraged computerization activities of agencies as well as private companies.

IBM 370/145 project to upgrade at the Vietnam Power company in 1974 was approved, contract was rewarded to IBM-Vietnam, smelling the fall of Vietnam to the communist was inevitable and near, delivery of the new mainframe was delayed, risk of war, fresh technology could be captured by VC were the excuses.

The Big blue- like the Chase Manhattan bank definitely had high-level connection in the US government to realize the loss of South Vietnam was around the corner.

Once again, this proves the withdrawal of the US in Vietnam already planned before hand in 1973 Paris peace accords, deal was made between US, China and Russia. 

Chinese invasion of Spratly islands of South Vietnam in January 1974 was first move of the secret deal, later on the invasion of North Vietnam troops to the South, the “ally” USA play and passive role, sit back and watched.

It was not the military victories after victories from NVN troops, cutting military aids and let South Vietnam run out of ammunition simply was another form of locking someone with the wolves in the cage and his were hands tied.

Vietnamese version:

Các trung tâm điện toán của VNCH

November 14, 2017


List of computer centers (mainframe) in Saigon, Vietnam.
(From most powerful to less, based on IBM models and cofigurations)

IBM 360/50 OS (Operating System), 512K memory:
- Computer center of Prime Minister’s Office.
- Logistics General Department computer center, Chief of staff office of Vietnamese Army.

IBM 360/40 OS, 256K memory.
- National police computer center.

IBM 360/40k DOS, 128K memory:
- Computer center of General administration of Chief of staff Vietnamese Army.
- Data processing center of Vietnam Power Company.
- IBM-Vietnam computer center.

IBM 360/40 DOS, 64K memory:
- General Directorate of buget and foreign aids (Ministry of Finance). 

IBM System 3, DOS (Disk Operating System):
- Saigon bank.
- Vimytex (textile private corporation).

IBM 360/30:
- Pacific (US contractor company)

IBM 360/20 DPS (Disk Programming System) with 16k memory:
- Vietnam Railroad.
- Water supply Saigon and suburban.
- Air Vietnam.
- Vietnam Post Office.
- Vietnam National Bank.
- Treasury.
- National Statistics Institute.
- Vietnam commercial credit bank,
- Vietnam Navy.
- Ministry of Defense computer center.
- Ministry of Finance data processing center.
- BGI (French-owned beer, beverage company).

- Vietnam Air force.

RAYTHEON DOS, 48K memory:
- SHELL oil, petroleum company.




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