Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gazo: Asa ka na, dong?


IF YOU want to be a millionaire, try your luck in Vietnam. Chances are, with a regular budget of P35, 000 for a visit to our Southeast Asian neighbor just 2 ½ hours away, one will have 10,000,000 in Vietnamese dongs in cold, hard cash.

It is easy to feel rich in Vietnam whether you’re in the north, south, or center. I’ve had a bowl of pho for 30,000 VND in Hanoi and that’s just along the sidewalk by a low table, on a lower stool. Other pho dinners would eventually cost more. How about a stick of pork barbecue for 10,000 VND which, in pesos, is only P35.

One gets used to it – the throwing of numbers by the thousands. “How much is this (dragonfruit)?” “20,000.” How much is a car rental ride to the airport? “200,000.” Museum fees ranged from 30,000 to 150,000 (the most expensive I paid for in the Imperial City at Hue).

Other fees were paid in US dollars ($45 for the Halong Bay cruise; $31 for the cooking lesson in Hoi An) or vendors give the price in dollars “One dollah.” until you ask how much in dong.

Figures can sometimes seem impossibly high. A box of 10 small bottles of my favorite minty balm sold for 250,000 VND in tourist-overrun Hoi An.

In HCMC where it is manufactured, the pharmacy was selling it for 70,000.

Whether in Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh, people buy.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has a strong economy in spite of its debilitating, crippling, horrendous, spirit-crushing history.

One of my favorite travel authors Paul Theroux in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star recalls a conversation with Vuong Hoa Binh who was 12 when she witnessed the bombing of Hanoi by B-52s.

Everyone feared a B-52 bomber. “We were just outside Hanoi.” She hesitated, then, seeming to remember, said, “We didn’t have much to eat.

In fact, we had very little food all through the war. We were always hungry. Even after the war was over we had so little rice. And it was stale rice - old rice.”

Anybody who had visited the War Remnants Museum at HCMC will know the horror of that war. The unspeakable, unfathomable horrors. Yet, barely 50 years after that war ended, Vietnam had rebuilt, and overcame, and survived, and flourished. And guess what? Vietnam now exports rice to the Philippines.

I have been warned years ago by my cousin Robert (who worked there as a mechanical engineer) that the countryside was getting eaten up by urban development. That was about two decades ago.

Even now, I could see rice fields, duck ponds, and lotus ponds getting filled up for conversion to residential and commercial purposes.

Still, I am impressed by the country’s agricultural sector as the days rolled by in my week-long travel. My friend and I took up cooking lessons in Hoi An where the couple who managed the class brought us to their house, and to their family farm just behind it.

The family’s portion was a mere 500 square meters and cultivated with kitchen herbs that are sold in the market.

The husband Danny was the cooking instructor and wife Lang was his assistant. Both had careers in the hotel business and so have the right backgrounds for this endeavor.

Danny said that the farm property had been with his family for 150 years!

A love for farming assures the Vietnamese an abundance of food.

Vietnam, I read somewhere, has become “an industrial powerhouse.” The economy is geared toward the export market, there are the free-trade agreements, and the workforce that is still young and in good supply.

Viet Nam News (7/17/18) announced that Samsung had reportedly invested US$ 17B in Vietnam establishing in the business world the confidence the company has in this country.

According to the Asian Development Bank, Vietnam budgets 8 percent of its GNP on infrastructure, the highest in the region.

Just by looking at the influx of tourists everywhere I went in Vietnam confirms the need for infrastructure.

“Total international arrivals in 8 months reached 10,403,893 arrivals, increase 22.8% over the same period last year.” (Source:

This is the 2018 figure. Fantastic!

One incident that will stay on my mind for a long time is when, while waiting in the hotel for our car to take us to the international airport in HCMC, Aidine and I were resting listlessly at the lobby.

We were exhausted after eight days of constant travelling. Aidine was reclining on some chairs when a lady tapped her on the shoulder and told her that she can rest in the spa upstairs.

We were reluctant to accept the invitation until the lady insisted and told us that she was the spa owner. I swear to heaven that I thought that she was the manicurist in her plain white tee and denim cut-offs.

I had seen her squatting at the first floor corridor earlier cleaning some stuff. And she turned out to be the spa owner! ‘Tis a lesson in humility and not judging people by their appearances.

Asa ka na, (Vietnamese) dong? Vietnam is on the rise. Its resiliency, forgiving stance and not looking back on its horrible past, its people’s humble and entrepreneurial spirit all become diamonds that have polished Vietnam as a nation.

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