The game show contestant is sweating.
The final question will determine whether she will win the round and walk away with the prize. “What animal is the bridge on the Mekong Delta named for?” a female host asks.
Before Trang, the contestant, can react, her rival blurts out the correct answer: monkey.
“I didn’t do too well,” Trang says glumly, looking forlorn on a set bathed in bright lights and festooned with tinsel and colorful balloons.
Her pain will be broadcast to the nation when the game show episode airs. Talk about jeopardy: Trang is only 9 years old.
Vietnam is awash in television game shows. Its eight major TV stations air more than 50 of them, many in prime time. There are programs geared toward children, or teens, or seniors. Some cater to niche audiences, such as the show that tests soldiers on military life -- still revered in this nominally communist nation.
The game shows reflect Vietnam’s rapid economic development. In the last decade, a middle class has emerged. Pit toilets are giving way to modern conveniences, cars are replacing motorcycles, and 90% of Vietnamese households have television sets. Game shows are helping to influence Vietnam’s first TV generation just as television transformed American culture in the 1950s.
In a society where education is seen as the way to economic freedom, Vietnamese say these TV programs serve as mass education. They are teaching people about world history, healthful living and modern lifestyles.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the eyes of friends Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diep and Nguyen Thu Hien were glued to a large flat-panel Sony television in a relative’s home here. The two 22-year-old women, who work as receptionists at foreign-based firms, played along as three families battled on “Sunday at Home,” which quizzes contestants about health and homemaking.
This week’s subject was about bathing. “To help you lose weight, what should you put into the bath water?” the host, wearing a red miniskirt, asked the three teams. “A) green tea leaves; B) ginkgo leaves; or C) Vietnamese mint leaves?”
The Vu family hit the bell first and answered C.
“Whoosh!” came the sound, telling them they were wrong. The Phams were next. Green tea leaves, they said. Drums banged, as the couple and their two sons took home the top prize: an air conditioner valued at $260.
“Oh, I never knew that,” said Hien after hearing the correct answer.
Added Diep: “I must try it to have attractive skin and then every man would be attracted to me.”
Some Vietnamese see game shows as a chance to get their 15 minutes of fame. Others hope that old friends or long-lost relatives will see them on TV and contact them. Many regard game shows as a kind of public IQ test.
“I want to test my intelligence,” said Trang, the 9-year-old “Fairy Garden” contestant, who acknowledged that her parents had pushed her to sign up for the show.
But there is also fear that the idiot box will live up to its name and that Vietnam will turn into a nation of couch potatoes.
“When TV has so many shows like that, it’s not good for the youth because they spend most of their time watching TV without doing anything,” said Nguyen Chau, a sociologist at Hanoi University of Foreign Studies. “They waste their youth.”
As in China, the government controls the TV stations here. Before game shows began taking off in the last few years, programming focused mainly on government announcements and dreary education-oriented fare.
The Communist government has been flexible with game shows because they don’t have political content. Private entrepreneurs have been allowed to produce the programs, and networks are buying licensing rights and importing games from the U.S., Japan and Europe.
Among the most popular: Vietnamese knockoffs of American shows such as “The Price Is Right” and “Wheel of Fortune,” the latter called “Magic Hat” here because contestants spin not a wheel but a non la, the cone-shaped Vietnamese hat.
The shows beget more shows, which beget even more. Vietnamese television “just can’t deliver enough punches,” says Allen Wu, chairman of East Media Holdings Inc., a Santa Fe Springs-based company with operations in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Audiences say it’s not enough for them,” said Bui Thu Thuy, manager of TV game shows for VTV 3, part of the national Vietnamese Television network in Hanoi.
Every week, thousands of Vietnamese such as the Phams and Vus line up for a chance to play on TV.
Pham Hong Nga, 32, and her husband waited four years before producers of “Sunday at Home” told them this summer that they might be selected soon. After that, the Hanoi couple never left the house together. They took turns going out at night so they wouldn’t miss a phone call. Nga, a mother of two, says she went to bed every night with her cellphone next to her.
The call finally came on a recent Thursday evening.
“I was so excited I couldn’t talk,” said Nga, who has since been preparing for the show by reading up on plumbing and cooking.
The prizes are a big draw. “Sunday at Home” offers housewares and appliances. Other shows, such as “Fairy Garden,” give out books and scholarships.
One of the richest is “Ai La Trieu Phu?” or “Who Is the Millionaire?” Except that in Vietnam, the winner gets 100 million dong, or about $6,500 -- about 10 times the average annual income. No one has correctly answered the 15 questions to win that prize in the two years that the show has aired.
In the United States, watching game shows tends to be the domain of older folks. In Vietnam, the biggest fans are young people, whose rising family incomes and growing viewership of game shows are boosting TV stations’ ratings and ad rates.
Thuy of VTV 3 says several game shows, including “Magic Hat” and “The Price Is Right,” capture 35% to 40% of the viewers in Hanoi. The Nielsen rating for “Sunday at Home” used to be even higher, she says, adding that the hourlong program still generates a solid $2,000 for each 30-second ad spot on a Sunday afternoon.
Seeing such numbers, Vietnam’s provincial networks are hastily coming up with their own game shows or knockoffs of the most popular games from the United States, France, Japan. And more games are on the way as foreigners and overseas Vietnamese returnees get in on the new national pastime.
In everyday life here, it’s not hard to find people who have some connection to TV game shows.
Nguyen Minh Loc, a 23-year-old English tutor in Hanoi, sometimes translates game show scripts. Le Minh Tuan, a press officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says matter-of-factly that he has been on two quiz shows -- high-browed ones, he boasts -- and won $50 each time. “Everybody wants to be on a game show,” he says.
Nguyen Van Anh, 24, is brushing up on history so she can do well on “Following the Stream of History.” She applied five months ago, but may have to wait a year or more to get on. Anh, a graduate student, isn’t daunted. One of her classmates, she says, made it on the show and came away with $44 and a four-day trip to a tourist town in the central highlands.
Nguyen Hoa, 22, a senior at the University of Natural Sciences in Hanoi, said she was too busy to apply. But not too busy to watch. Although South Korean television dramas have been the rage in Asia in recent years, Hoa said she would rather take in a good game show.
Her favorite: “Catch the Image,” on which contestants try to figure out the identities of famous people as their faces are revealed bit by bit.
“I never miss it,” Hoa said.
Television producers say that if people are hooked on game shows now, the genre, having started in Vietnam just a decade ago, will only get stronger.
Chau, the Hanoi sociologist, says the trend may be short-lived. Calling game-show watching a cheap, passive form of entertainment, he says people may favor other leisure activities as their incomes rise.
Don’t tell that to Vu Thu Trang, a 34-year-old Ho Chi Minh City resident who recently appeared on “Magic Hat,” the Hanoi production of “Wheel of Fortune.”
Trang had waited four years to get on the show. When that day finally came, she wore a new long, pink dress to the studio.
She breezed through the first three rounds, collecting $225 in prize money. Her opponents kept landing on “lost” or “miss a turn.”
That put Trang into the special bonus round. She was playing for more than $2,600. She had guessed three letters among the 10 on the lighted board. But the clue -- famous song in the fall -- left Trang stumped. She was down to her last few seconds. Then she remembered a movie she had seen and its theme song: “The Charming Fall.”
“That’s right,” the host shouted.
Trang’s parents rushed on stage to hug her. Her five friends in the audience jumped up and down. “All I could say was, ‘Thank you, thank you,’ ” Trang said. “I was on top of the world.”