During one of far too bloody many overcrowded minibus trips through rural Vietnam surrounded by people vomiting*, I began to notice curiously small sums of money changing hands between the natives.
Especially on and around the Mekong Delta in the South-West of the country, at first glance there appears to be a fully-functioning independent economy in operation based on the interchange of just one denomination of currency—the 5,000 Dong note (worth around 30 US cents).
I realised after only a few days that almost everywhere I went I would seen the same distinctive blue bill bouncing back-and-forth between fruit sellers, haberdashers, cooks, cleaners, restaurateurs, tour guides, motorcycle riders and shop keepers no matter what goods or services were on the table.
My first thought was that maybe I’d stumbled on the apotheosis of socialism.
Perhaps these people weren’t just handing off some faith-bound “promise to pay the bearer on demand”. Maybe they were sourcing and securing exactly what they needed in an essentially cashless scenario of genuine mutual trust—safe in the knowledge that whoever happened to be down the line of the next exchange would do likewise in kind.
It appeared to be the case that 5,000 Dong was being charged and paid regardless of whatever happened to be being traded. It looked as if the favour was simply being passed down the chain ad infinitim. Possibly this exchange of paper was merely an advertisement of the transaction rather than the stuff of it.
Was this cause for some (weak) middle-class-liberal punchings of the air?
I did not have the language skills or the time to check it out properly, and even with the family of ethnically Khmer people who graciously took me in for a short while in Kien Giang, I couldn’t explain what I meant—no matter what sub-Pictionary drawings and pained, frantic gesticulations I tried to communicate with—and despite the quite startling level of English of the 14-year old girl of the household (Nguyên Thi Nấp pictured here) :
As soon as my turn at the counter came though, things appeared a little different…
On several occasions, during increasingly vehement challenges of any bus conductor I was overcharged by (i.e. every-single one), I would observe the stage-whispers delivered to Vietnamese people getting on after me whom I could reasonably surmise were travelling to the same destination.
The new passengers would inevitably reach into their pockets and give the conductor exactly the same amount of money that I’d had to pay without so much as a begruding glance at each other (or at me).
In order to maintain the subterfuge (and not to overcharge the Vietnamese), the conductor later refunded the difference to the preternaturally obliging citizens in as surreptitious a manner as possible.
Not one ‘collaborator’ in this fairly elaborate ruse ever seemed confused by the unspoken rubric of the situation nor at all unwilling to participate.
I’d managed to grasp enough of the vocabulary for numeration to get a rough idea of the ballpark of the price of a bus ticket (augmented by waving notes around — a tactic I now realise can only undermine creation of a convincing artifice of proletarian equanimity). Once I’d cracked this, I thought I was on a sure, proud highway to never getting ripped off again.
Keeping as low a profile as one can as the only white person in a room, I’d pick the most kindly-looking or attractive woman in the waiting area, show her what I’d scribbled down or what was printed on my bus ticket and hit her with the ‘how much?’. After the usual laughing and confusion, I’d flick back to the well-thumbed page of my notebook with the query written on it in Vietnamese, and she’d tell me the answer.
The wrong answer.
I started to wonder if there’d ever been a PSYOPS-style propaganda mail drop or a distant edict passed down from central party headquarters—disseminated through local party chiefs to instruct the populace in how to so effectively price-gouge the foreign tourist.
The grace and effortlessness of the manouvuer was demonstrated so many times and in so many situations that I began to wonder.
For many weeks, I was convinced that I was being more than usually paranoid or xenophobic in my assessment, or that perhaps I just have ‘one of those faces’ or I’m not forceful enough in my bargaining and my mis-pronounced demands. I eventually stopped relying on the torrent of vague bluster and hyperbole from other, similarly incredulous western ‘travellers’ and started speaking to Vietnamese people who had a high enough level of English to talk to me about it.
An unspoken consensus does exist and it has quite a lot to do with communism.
In a miraculous example of un-prompted collective solidarity, every man, woman and child is complicit in the endeavour of making sure any and all Westerners pay over the odds, even in areas and situations into which nary a person from elsewhere in Asia even has passed in months.
The message is as crystal clear as any stanza of the timeless poem entitled, ‘Cash’ – “you can afford it” or, to bring the Russians back into it, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.
(Needless to say, this imprimatur is not applied on a means-tested basis).
Perhaps in some kind of Dadaist/Situationist stunt, the Vietnamese are trying to tell us something important about the demented excesses of capitalism by taking it to such a degree that it becomes absurd. In a climate where nothing is anathema in the pursuit of the holy greenback, participation at any level starts to look ridiculous.
I only lost my composure outwardly once, and ended up with a conductor’s sandal in my bag – held ransom for the difference between the price extorted from me and the price paid by every other (Vietnamese) passenger on one particularly short, inconsequential bus journey.
The conductor obviously regarded that his sandal wasn’t worth as much as the ‘white surcharge’ he’d stuck on the top of the price of my ticket as at no point during the altercation did he try to retrieve his shoe from me.
I’d still have it now if I hadn’t violently binned the thing in disgust shortly after jumping off the bus.
Very often, we’re talking about sums of less than one dollar here. So, yes you could argue that that is peanuts in the grand scheme of things.
Tell that to Mohammad Yunus.
-Andy Johnson, Hong Kong
* The twists and turns of the high altitude blacktops and the erratic velocity of the country’s drivers causes a high percentage of Vietnamese passengers on public transport (even in urban areas) to suffer the kind of motion sickness that I can only imagine in my worst nightmares.