"We won't go to the street, we won't shout anything. We're sitting before the screen, typing and blogging," said a university student who goes by the Web name Mr. Cold. "That's how we rebel."

Mr. Cold is part of a clique of militant bloggers who write under such aliases as Blacky and Viet+die. They are known for strong anti-government views and they post events that don't appear in the sanitized state media. Official sites such as Vietnam Net and Vietnam News typically cover business, government bureaucracies and state-sponsored development projects.

"They (state media) decide what we will hear, what we will read and what we will see," said Mr. Cold. "They are slaves of the Communists."

Although the Communist Party has loosened restrictions on market forces in recent years, it has failed to relax its grip on most newspapers, television and radio stations, which remain under strict government control.

In June, a court sentenced journalist Nguyen Viet Chien to two years in prison for reporting on a major government corruption scandal in 2006. Four others had their press credentials revoked for criticizing Nguyen's arrest, according to the Associated Press.

Until 2007, political dissent was almost nonexistent in Vietnam, aside from the 2003 government-authorized protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But bloggers and unregistered news Web sites have angered state officials by discussing AIDS, drugs and sex - and, most importantly, for criticizing the government.

As a result, Hanoi opened in October a new office - the Administration Agency for Radio, Television and Electronics Information - to monitor the Internet. The new agency has sparked fears that Communist leaders here will create a Vietnamese version of China's "Great Firewall," a vigorous online censorship program that blocks Web sites critical of the Chinese government. About 17.5 million of Vietnam's 86 million inhabitants use the Internet, according to government figures - a stark increase from just 200,000 users in 2000.

Message to bloggers

"This legislation gives the authorities yet another legal tool to suppress press freedom in Vietnam, which is already among the region's worst in terms of government harassment of writers and journalists," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "Nguyen Van Hai's harsh treatment was meant to send a message to all of the country's bloggers."

In September, Nguyen Van Hai, who blogged under the name Dieu Cay, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for tax evasion. Before his arrest, Hai had called for demonstrations against China's Olympic torch relay when it passed through Ho Chi Minh City in April and had also criticized China for its crackdown in Tibet. Vietnam is wary of offending its mighty neighbor.

"These new censorship regulations are not in accordance with freedom of speech, a right recognized by the Vietnamese constitution and international conventions signed by Vietnam," said Le Minh Phieu, a Vietnamese legal scholar living in France.

However, Do Quay Doan, deputy minister of information and communications, defended the crackdown, telling local reporters that Vietnam "faces a lot of incorrect information" from bloggers. The ministry also says there are about 1.1 million blogs, most of which are unregulated. In the near future, Doan says, he will ask Google and Yahoo to help "regulate" the blogosphere. Both Silicon Valley giants have been heavily criticized for helping the Chinese government repress political dissidents.

Some Vietnamese bloggers think challenging the government does more harm than good and have opted to push for reforms in a milder way.

Nguyen Anh Hung Hung's blog E-Learner 2.0, for example, will teach poor children how to use new technology once up and running. "I want to help people know about what's going on within the tech industry in Vietnam," he said.

The blog site VangAnh pushes for freedom of speech but not an end to the ruling government. The activists behind the popular blog meet weekly in chat rooms, discussing the country's hot topics.

But many bloggers prefer to challenge the Communist government and its biggest neighbor.

Last December, activist bloggers coordinated a major protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi after China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang renewed his nation's sovereignty over the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The demonstrators - mostly students - shouted "Down with China!" and "Long live Vietnam!"

News site hacked

In May, bloggers hacked into Dan Tri, a popular state-regulated news Web site, typing in pro-democracy and nationalist slogans such as "Our citizens, let's demand pluralism!" "Communists gag the press!"

Bloggers have also criticized heavy-handed police treatment of protesting farmers, who claimed the government has refused to give them fair compensation for lands seized by the state.

In the meantime, most bloggers are keeping an eye on their access to Yahoo 360, a blogging platform that is extremely popular with young Vietnamese.

"We are lucky that the government has not censored Yahoo 360, but they will with the new rules," predicted Mr. Cold. "Our government has been slow to respond to blogs."

By Geoffrey Cain - The San Francisco Chronicle - December 14, 2008