Thu, May 30, 2019 - Page 14 News List

You can still buy a house in Vietnam with gold bars

Most of the country’s 97 million citizens rely on paper currency — and precious metals — to buy everything from groceries to automobiles

By John Boudreau and Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen  /  Bloomberg

In Vietnam, this could buy you a new car.

Photo: AFP

Vietnam may be one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, yet it’s still in the dark ages when it comes to joining the global trend toward cashless transactions. To understand why, look no further than to consumers like Tran Van Nhan, who recently bought his two-bedroom home in Hanoi with gold and a sack of cash.

“We paid almost half in gold bars and the rest in cash,” Nhan, a 47-year-old shopkeeper, said of his new US$138,000 condo. “We did that because we and the flat’s owner didn’t want to do a bank transfer. We are so used to buying things with cash and gold.”

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is trying to drag his citizens into the modern era of digital payments, reduce the amount of US dollars in circulation in the country and establish the dominance of the nation’s domestic currency, the Vietnamese dong. That also means introducing Vietnamese households to credit cards, bank transfers and digital payments rather than carrying around piles of cash and bullion for purchases.

Behind the push is growing frustration among Vietnamese officialdom about the cost of printing banknotes and the need for more transparent payment records in order to crack down on tax evasion and money laundering, a growing problem as the US$237-billion economy continues to expand dramatically.

Officials have their work cut out for them: Just 31 percent of Vietnamese adults have bank accounts and more than 95 percent of payments are made with cash and gold, according to the government.

“It’s embedded in the culture,” said Hanoi-based economist Nguyen Tri Hieu, senior adviser to National Citizen Bank. “It’s holding Vietnam back. The government recognizes that to integrate Vietnam into the world economy, its cash-based economy has to change.”

The government has made modernizing the nation’s payments a top priority. The prime minister is directing banks to reduce cash transactions to less than 10 percent by the end of next year. E-commerce is being promoted at malls and supermarkets in major cities and the government wants at least 70 percent of Vietnamese aged 15 and older to have bank accounts.

An exasperated Phuc also ordered the central bank this year to convince more Vietnamese to use digital payment systems, such as QR codes. A new regulation in January mandated providers of public services — from hospitals to schools — to stop accepting cash by December.

South Korea, though, offers a cautionary tale of what can happen if a society pivots too quickly to mass adoption of credit cards. A credit binge in the early 2000s led to massive household debt. About one in 13 of South Korea’s 48 million people in 2004 were three months or more behind on debt payments, with two-thirds of them credit-card defaulters.

PAYMENTS REVOLUTION?

Unlike in China, home to the world’s biggest mobile payments market, most of Vietnam’s 97 million citizens rely on paper currency — and precious metals — to buy everything from groceries to automobiles. Shop owners make numerous trips to banks during the week, hauling sacks of Vietnam dong like Santas on motorbikes.

Vietnam would appear poised for a payment revolution. Its young population is tech savvy, with 70 percent using smartphones and having easy access to digital payment systems offered by local startups. Mercedes-Benz sedans tussle with Honda motorbikes on narrow streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Building cranes fill urban skies as luxury towers and high-rise office buildings rise up from congested streets. It has a fast-growing middle class sending children abroad for school in an economy with newly minted millionaires and billionaires.

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