You buy me!
Saying the words “surprise” and “commerce” in relation to Vietnam conjures up conjures up phrases like “You buy me!” and “Happy Buddha, one dollar, very cheap, very cheap.” It conjures up images of small crowded streets lined with shoes, and shoes, and shoes… or appliances, and appliances, and appliances… or suits, and suits, and suits… or dog meat, and dog meat, and dog meat… Just about everything regarding Vietnamese commerce has come as a surprise, from the way that tipping works to the way that the governmental system effects the economy.
One question that has been on most of our minds this trip is the very HOW of survival of commerce here – from our Western systems of competing businesses that wouldn’t dare choose to locate themselves next to one another, the compartmentalization of businesses we see in the cities gets very confusing. As we spend time in Hoi An, it’s apparent that the town itself is a tailoring town. Aside from some lanterns, Oreos, and of course bottled water – the town is all about clothes. It’s such a huge difference from the states, where an economically healthy area is marked by its diversity of products. It makes me wonder if the competition somehow looks very different, and is something we just cannot see through our Western lens… Or perhaps this is where Communism’s rejection of a market economy and capitalist system really comes into play…
In Hanoi we encountered some larger corporations in the midst of all the mom and pop shops, mostly electronics or fashion. Even in the big city, they seemed out of place somehow. It almost seems like a total reversal of US systems – in cities like San Diego, NY, and San Franciso, the shopping districts are known for their brand names that light up the streets, and seeing a smaller business would be a surprise. Then again, every district seems a shopping district in the cities here. We’ve noticed that whatever we are wanting at the time seems only a block or two away – drinks and snacks, “authentic handicrafts,” ponchos, very cheap DVDs, or any other appealing item to a tourist.
In the rural areas, commerce is an entirely different story. Getting rice from the terraced fields to the markets, to the restaurants or buyers, to the consumers, is a process that I’m sure looks very different from the big city commerce that we can see more readily.
Something that’s been on my mind especially is the perception that some may have observing Vietnamese economics – some may think that poverty is what marks the country’s commerce. I have to wonder if we are judging by our own perception of poverty, based on an American framework that demands upward mobility and the search for “betterment,” however that gets defined. I’m just not sure that search for success is so important here – providing for a family, sustaining what is already there, getting by with enough, may be enough. In that case, commerce takes on an entirely different meaning and significance to life.