Monday, November 26, 2007

Niveau Riche

Nouveau Riche taken to a whole new level.

When I went away to college as a young man, I remember being accused of being nouveau riche. This was startling to me since I came from a small town where there were almost no rich people at all. Sure, we were on the upper end of the scale and I did have some issues growing up and being known as the rich kid in town. Being accused of being nouveau riche was a little confusing. I had never thought about different wealth categories since I had only been exposed to one.

Now I find myself in Vietnam, where the whole nouveau riche thing is taken to another, astronomical, level. I met a Scot recently who was blaming a lot of the local problems on the fact that Vietnam today is the result of what happens when a bunch of peasants suddenly become rich. (Imagine what might happen if the entire trailer park won the lottery!) Presumably there are a large number of multi-millionaires in Vietnam. I've heard of clubs that cater to the local rich, where they can go and show off their new wealth. There are stories of local Vietnamese going to the newly opened Louis Vuitton store and buying 40 handbags or $4,000 jackets. What's most striking is the rapid rise in wealth. It's not so much the level of wealth, but the delta change in wealth over such a short time. On my first trip to Vietnam in 1995 the roads were equally crowded with bicycles and motorbikes, with the odd car here and there. Today bikes are as rare as cars were in 1995. Today motorbikes and cars are about equal in terms of the traffic volume. The overall traffic is just going from bad to worse.

What does this mean for the future of the country? It seems the future is bright, but there will continue to be growing pains. Communism might actually help keep things in balance. In India today you see slums right up against shiny new high tech buildings. The social unrest from a gross economic divide seems to be coming to a head over there. It's possible that in ten years Vietnam could find itself in a similar situation. It's also possible that the communist government here will be able to keep things in balance better than the Indian democracy has done to date. Only time will tell.

Random bag of Nuc Mum outside Saigontoursit

One of the things I love about this place is how industrious it is. Capitalism is thriving. Almost everyone has a business, no matter how small. The street vendors are a great example. You can see any number of Rube Goldberg food carts being pushed, pulled, and ridden all around the city. My favorite are the bicycle squid vendors. The standard seems to be a bike outfitted with a rack of hanging translucent dried squid, lit from above by a battery powered florescent light bulb. Under the squid is usually a hand cranked grinder bolted to a piece of wood and a selection of spices. After dark there is a Burning Man like surreal quality to these bicycles. Apparently you select your squid and the vendor will grind it up for you, seasoning it to your taste. The result looks a bit like light brown snuff or a pile of short strand cotton candy. My kids love this stuff, I'm still undecided.