A tightfisted foreigner’s personal history of using lesser known items of currency (coins and candy) in Vietnam [circa 2004].
Do you remember the time coins were introduced to Vietnam? For a very, very short period it felt like ‘something’ for a country with one of the least well-valued-currencies in the world. Like, oh, wow, now there’s coins like other countries that have comparatively well-valued currencies!
But man, I’ve never seen a novelty fade so fast. Soon nobody wanted these fiddly, nickel- or brass-clad steel coins, which went from 200 dong up to 5,000 — it was like flooding the country (one without cash tills or piggy banks, and one that’s fond of wads and stacks of banknotes, whether they be crisp or musty) with pennies.
For some locals, the coins might as well have been invalid. If you tried to use them, they would laugh as if you were embarrassing yourself. This in a country where Citimart and other supermarkets get away with giving you candy instead of 500 or 1,000 dong notes?! Of course, we wouldn’t stand for it. As always, we would tilt at the windmills a’yonder — just like how we thought we could teach every single human being in Hanoi to stop beeping their horns when the lights were still red, we’d force everyone to accept the existence (and use) of coins.
Our first pathetic act involving coins was to gather enough of them to pay for a pizza from Luna d’Autunno. When the poor schmuck of a delivery guy saw us counting out the exact change he gave a little Giời oi-groan and you barked “thật la tiền Việt Nam đây!” at him. Like all fluent speakers of very bad Vietnamese that made perfect sense to both of us but the guy just stared at us like we were putting a curse on him. As I tried to slide over the gate, he made that face, you know, that classic Hanoi grimace, and pointed at his pockets as if to say, all those coins jingling around, they will cut through the thread, they’ll make a hole, and all the money will spill out onto the road… well, that’s what it looked like he was trying to say. But we shrugged our shoulders as if to say, hey, it’s not our fault coins are legitimate currency in Vietnam; I closed the gate in his face and we marched triumphantly upstairs to eat the pizza as if we’d scored some kind of victory. We didn’t even tip the guy. Yeah, back then we could justify that in our heads. By our logic, we weren’t assholes. We were always making a point we thought was worth making. Locals don’t tip, so why should we? That was our motto. One of them anyway.
After that we dumped a bunch of coins on counter of Cafe 252 (two iced coffees, a ‘bánh bao’ for you, a toasted sandwich for me) much to the crabby old couple’s disgust; and one time we got our bikes washed at the neighbourhood rửa xe — the teenagers who’d washed our bikes cracked up as we poured a bunch of coins into the palm of the owners’ right hand. Judging by the look on his face we might as well have been hoodwinking him like a pair of barefaced bandits. We paid the exact local price, too — of course, we did. We pay what the locals pay. That was another motto (we had battled long and hard to earn that right). I remember another customer at the rửa xe chuckling at this spectacle. “Hai ông Tây rau muống,” he said as we started our bikes up. No, in Hanoi being compared to dirt cheap water spinach is only an insult, if you don’t take it as a compliment, right?!
But best of all was the night we ended up in the Hilton hotel, drinking two-dollar imported beers (pretty flash in those days) as it was the only place to be showing some football or rugby match a bunch of us couldn’t live without seeing. At that stage the coins were already being slowly removed from circulation and either the Hilton’s management was being stubborn or taking us for a bunch of blow-in chumps as the young lady serving us handed us change for the first round in coins. But get this: they hadn’t even bothered to take the coins out of the plastic binding. So we all gave her the ‘Giời oi’-groan, as if she was pulling a fast one, but she waltzed away as if it wasn’t her problem that coins were legitimate currency. We left the change in the middle of the table and grumbled away for a while but when we got a second round it became pretty obvious what we would do: keep drinking beer until there were enough coins for a whole round. Oh man, when the moment came, we were so pleased with ourselves as we slid the coins across to the waitress, like we were the winners of the world’s most pitiable blackjack table…
But, you know, the stupid thing is now I wish I had kept some — no, not really as mementoes, or whatever, but, I just read that they’re still legitimate currency, so if had a pile I could go to Citimart and try to use them to buy a slab of beer. “Thật la tiền Việt Nam đây!” I’d say, as my Vietnamese hasn’t got any better after all these years and that still makes perfect sense to me. And if they refused to take the coins, I’d demand to speak to the manager and get him or her to explain how candy is legitimate currency in Citimart but these coins aren’t. Yeah, I know even my fantasies are pathetic. But in my head, I can justify being like that. I’m not an asshole. I’m just trying to make a point that I think needs making.
An extract from a Very Personal History of White English-Speaking Men in the Red River Delta in the 21st Century.