|US $1 = 16,080 Vietnamese Dong
Yes, that is correct, the currency in Vietnam is called the Dong, and it isn't worth very much. My friend Tran and I had a couple long flights to Vietnam, and when we arrived I hit an ATM at the airport and hopped into a taxi holding the money. A few minutes later I started to doze off and almost dropped the cash. I turned to Tran and said "I almost fell asleep with my dong in my hand". In our delirious jet-lagged state, that was about the funniest thing ever!
After a few weeks home in America visiting friends and family, my friend Tran mentioned she was going to her home country of Vietnam to start a business importing organic fertilizer from the US. I thought I was done with Asia for a while, but Tran asked if I wanted to come help out, and the chance to stay with her family and hang out with the locals was very tempting. I decided to go, and in the days before we left I learned all about natural fertilizers. I can go on and on about humic acid, fish emulsion, and the proper ratio of nitrogen and phosphorous for different soil issues.
I stayed most of the time with Tran's family in South Saigon. Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) is Vietnam's largest metropolis, and it is located in the south of the country near the Mekong Delta. Most people here were allied with the United States during the war, fighting the communists supported by China in the north. People in Saigon tend to be more pro-American, and there is a definite feeling of entrepreneurial excitement in the air. I didn't sense any remaining ill will related to the "American War" fought here forty years ago.
A decade of Communist economics after the war resulted in widespread poverty. In 1986 the government launched doi moi, a market-driven policy of fiscal reform. Now the Vietnamese economy is booming at 8% annually, and trade with the United States increased fivefold in the early 2000's. President Bush was also able to negotiate Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Vietnam in January of this year to coincide with the country's entry into the WTO. Vietnam's "capitalist communism" is becoming more of the former and less of the latter.
It was great to live with a Vietnamese family. One benefit is that Tran's family has several servants, and they cooked terrific food every day. We had all kinds of spring rolls, spicy soups, curries, sweet and savory salads, great fish, and many things I had never tried before. There is also a strong Chinese influence in Vietnam, so I was able to have dim sum for lunch a few times in town.
I accompanied Tran to many meetings related to the fertilizer venture. Business tends to be done over meals, and through the relationships of your friends and family. I was amazed at how many people Tran knew, and pretty quickly we had connected with the right folks. One night we had a big dinner with a group of business people, then Tran excused us, and we ended up at another restaurant with another group of people. I was already stuffed, but we had to share another entire meal!
This trip to Vietnam was short and focused on business in Saigon. I did confirm though my interest in coming back to explore the rest of the country, and to travel up the Mekong River through Cambodia and Laos. Maybe I will do that when the weather cools down in December or January.
Next I am back home for a while...