Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 12 News List

New Vietnamese upper crust splashes out on lifestyle products

The days when everybody in major cities wore either a green military uniform or grey working clothes are long gone, making way for Nikes and Levis

AFP , HO CHI MINH CITY

This file picture, taken last month, shows young women wearing imported branded jeans in downtown Hanoi. Vietnamese society has come a long way since the austere late 1970s and the 1980s, when an economy bankrupted following the reunification of 1975 hobbled along until the adoption of economic reforms. Although Vietnam has not exactly embraced full-blown capitalism, pro-market reforms are beginning to take hold.

PHOTO: AFP

Sporting a Nike T-shirt, Levis jeans, a G-Shock watch and a gold necklace, Trinh Tung Duong, 37, reckons he has spent about US$350 on the outfit.

"I find it more comfortable wearing or using foreign-branded products," says the private property developer in Ho Chi Minh City, communist Vietnam's southern business capital, with a satisfied chuckle.

"The quality, of course, is better than those made in Vietnam ... and I think I just look much better in the `branded' clothes," he says.

Duong is one of a new breed of high-income earners in Vietnam, who are spending liberally on labelled, and comparatively luxury, items.

Only a few years ago, flaunting foreign labels would have been a definite no-no for Vietnamese people who wished not to be seen straying from the political straight and narrow.

Too obvious signs of affluence used to provoke suspicions of hobnobbing with bourgeois enemies in this fiercely independent communist-ruled country.

Although Vietnam has not exactly embraced full-blown capitalism, pro-market reforms are beginning to take hold and shows of wealth and success are no longer unthinkable.

"It's something irreversible. Success can no longer be hidden. In this respect, Vietnamese society has taken a giant step," says Doan Viet Dai Tu, chairman of the consultancy and investment group Openasia.

Vietnamese society has come a long way since the austere late 1970s and the 1980s when an economy bankrupted following the reunification of 1975 hobbled along until the adoption of economic reforms.

It was only then that what was coyly called the non-state sector officially began to be christened the private sector, and private enterprise was no longer deemed taboo.

"Today, the rich people you see in this country are Vietnamese, not foreigners," stresses Dai Tu of Openasia.

"But the big transformation," he stressed, "is not in the amount of money, but in people's mentalities. Today when someone's successful, he's seen as someone who is good," Dai Tu says.

From the point of view of consumption, Vietnam is a veritable new frontier that is fast opening up.

Women spend hundreds of dollars on cosmetics, men can afford state-of-the-art mobile phones. In Ho Chi Minh City some nightclubs have a daily turnover of US$15,000, most of it from young people buying expensive Cognac bottles.

Restaurants and hotels that used to cater exclusively to foreign businessmen are now targeting the new Vietnamese upper crust.

With the opening of the economy and the massive remittances from overseas Vietnamese -- estimated at US$3.8 billion a year officially, cash is flowing liberally.

"Money's getting boring here", says Dai Tu. "There's soo much of it, people don't know what to do with it. There are no financial products, few other diversions. The surplus just goes on lifestyle products."

For Vietnamese society, the change is dizzying.

"I remember that once upon a time I was really happy to be given a Lux soap by a relative, who brought it back from Germany," says Tran Quoc Anh, 60, a retired teacher in Hanoi.

Everybody in major cities then looked the same, riding "Made in Vietnam" bicycles in either green military uniform or grey working clothes, which could only be bought with ration tickets.

Motorcycles were hardly seen and cars from the former Soviet Union were the most "luxurious" vehicles, mostly owned by state agencies. Now, after nearly two decades of doi moi, the name by which the transition to market economy is known, the lives of many Vietnamese people have changed dramatically.

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