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In Search of an Hermes’ Belt

Vietnam's New Bourgeoisie

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Dec 26, 2008

Editor's note: Vietnam is now a society of great wealth and consumerist fervor as well as tremendous poverty. For the rich, conspicuous consumption is now taken to extremes that would appall the once hardcore communist regime. NAM writer Andrew Lam, author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" explains it all.

SAN FRANCISCO - Hai called one late evening with the dins of Saigon – motorcycle mufflers, horns, laughter- abuzz in the background. How was everything in “San Fran”? He asked.

“Fine,” I offered, guardedly.

“I had such fun last time,” he said. “Next time, we’ll go shopping again.”

“Next time,” I repeated after him. Having shopped with him, it sounded like a thinly veiled threat.

shoppers in saigonLet me explain. Some years ago, while I participated in a documentary in Vietnam for PBS we met. An ad man for a magazine in Saigon, he knew everybody who was somebody in the city. Hai helped set up interviews, introduced me and my crew to his friends, showed me around my own hometown, which I’d left behind for America when I was 11. So we became friends.

A sweet and friendly man in his 30s, Hai went into the restaurant business with Vietnamese-American investors a year later. Now a co-owner of a restaurant chain in Vietnam, he decided to visit America – and San Francisco has been in his dreams.

But if I had expected the humble and friendly man I once knew in Vietnam, the one who showed up at my door four years later was someone else entirely - a status-conscious dandy. Empowered by his newfound wealth, he’d become --there’s no other way to put it-- a brand-name whore with three credit cards.

In Vietnam, there’s a new horde of consumers with disposable income and a penchant for luxury goods. Small but growing in number, they follow in the footsteps of their Chinese predecessors to travel the world as shop-till-you-drop-tourists. They have Gucci, Shiseido, Nokia and iPods on their minds. And Hai has become one of them.

Though he spent four days in San Francisco, he did not want to see the Golden Gate Bridge, did not visit Chinatown nor was he curious about Fisherman’s Wharf. The ocean or park didn’t thrill him, either, nor the ride on the cable car. And when I pointed out Russian Hill’s shimmering skyline at dusk, he felt obliged to take a picture. Otherwise he was bored. All he wanted to do was shop and eat at the best restaurants and have me take photos of him doing so. Otherwise, he was on the internet or on his cell phone to talk, yes, what else, shopping.

He had a list of luxury goods he “needed to buy,” and since he spoke very little English, I was, besides driver and host and photographer, his interpreter.

I could do nothing but oblige. It was time to pay back for his generosity when I needed his help back in Vietnam. I dutifully took him around – eating, shopping, and introducing him to my friends, and intermittently recording his American adventures on camera.

The Vietnamese economy, until earlier this year, had been growing fast and furious. Since the cold war ended, and especially since the United States normalized relations with its former enemy in 1997, Vietnam’s economy has been on a steady rise. The GDP average growth had hovered somewhere between 7 to 8 percent annually for nearly a decade. Vietnam may wear the sickle and hammer on her sleeve but her heart pulses with commerce and capitalism.

shoppers in saigonIt’s the age of the Red Bourgeoisie. And Vietnam is rushing toward a consumerist society at breakneck speed without so much as a backward glance. If religion was once the opiate of the masses, and ideology the cause of revolution, then money has replaced both and converted everyone, young and old, to worship at the brand-new altar of Vietnam called the shopping mall.

In that world, to be able to spend $200 on a bottle of wine or $300 on a Gucci shirt is to be the envy of all. It’s a world of one-upmanship where at dinner among friends, the first thing one does is to leave his new cell phone on the table to show that he’d acquired the latest technology. To be rich in Vietnam is indeed glorious. And to be rich requires showing off – and lately, by traveling and shopping overseas.

These post-ideological elites - children of business families or high ranking communist members – are now living in a world steeped in wealth and luxury, a world that their parents couldn’t possibly imagine a generation or two ago when they wore black pajamas and stood in line to buy rice from state-owned stores.

This new revolution comes with its own vocabulary:

Di quay: To go wild, to get drunk, to stir up trouble.

Song voi: To live fast, to hurry life and spend it away.

Van hoa toc do: Speed culture; culture that moves along at high speed.

Lo Co: Borrowed from local – to describe someone who’s backward, a yokel, or cheap goods that are made in Vietnam. None of Hai’s friends, he would tell you, is lo co. He prefers viet kieu like me, Vietnamese who return from overseas.

Si-tret: Stress. Vietnamese have appropriated this word to describe the upwardly mobile. One is si-tret, for instance, text messaging on one’s cell phone while talking on another about one's business deals.

But it’s a country of dazzling wealth and humiliating poverty. While the yearly per capita income was $726 in 2006, luxury brands like Shiseido, Prada, Bvlgari, Hermes are becoming increasingly common consumer goods. According a recent survey by the advertising and marketing agency, Mindshare Vietnam, 68 percent of youngsters say brand is their biggest concern when buying, and 73 percent are ready to pay more for products with high quality.

And Hai is leading the pack. He was, among other things, obsessed with belts and has a collection of top designers. On his last shopping day, we spent four hours at Hermes. We tested the patience of the young saleswoman who called and searched online for a blue belt with a big silver buckle in the shape the letter H – price tag $670 – while we sipped our cappuccino.

When she failed to find one, Hai complained in Vietnamese, “I didn’t know San Francisco’s so limiting. They have more choices in Bangkok.”

I held my tongue but the young woman asked, so I translated. She apologized. Then quietly, she asked. “So, are you from Vietnam as well?”

I wanted to tell her that long ago I fled as a refugee. That when the communist came into Saigon in 1975 and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City they got rid of the bourgeois class like me and my family and sent many to re-education camps and new economic zones, our homes confiscated. Others fled to sea as boat people. Many died.

But if the communists aimed to create a classless society, they failed miserably and the opposite has happened. They found a life of luxury in the abandoned villas irresistible. When the Cold War ended, so began the age of status conscious, money-grubbing, hyper-materialistic society the likes of which Vietnam had never seen in its long, wretched history.

“No,” I told the saleswoman, thinking of Joan Didion’s book about greed and extravagance. “But it’s where I was from.”

Interview: First Vietnamese American Elected to Congress

The Growing NGO Lobby in Vietnam

New Year, Old Unresolved Passion: Vietnam and its Diaspora

Letter to My Young Self

Andrew reading his essay: Viet Kieu at Univ. Hawaii 2005.

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