Vietnam's stock exchange has outpaced every other Asian bourse this year as investors in a country with a passion for betting have discovered the newest game in town -- equity trading.
Eager to cash in on booming economic growth of 8.4 percent last year, the urban middle class has fuelled nascent exchanges in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and a flourishing "grey" market of as-yet unlisted stocks.
The HCMC Securities Trading Center, set up in the communist-ruled country in 2000, is still in its infancy, with just 37 listed companies and a market capitalization of US$1.94 billion.
But it's growing rapidly: trading has exploded in a share market that was worth just US$250 million a year ago. So far this year, the VN Index has gained over 80 percent, closing up 0.4 percent at 545.39 points on Friday.
Studying the numbers recently on the electronic board of a major broker, Saigon Securities Inc, was Nguyen Quoc Truong, 49, a restaurant owner who said he has invested 5 million dong (US$300) so far.
Truong said he understands only the basics of stock-trading and sometimes takes advice from his teenage nephew while sticking to simple, prudent rules.
"The market goes down when many people sell, and it rises when many people buy," he said. "I choose the biggest company. It's safer."
"With a lottery ticket," he added, "you have less chance to win."
Truong is part of a new wave of rookie investors discovering the rules of capitalism in Vietnam which hopes to join the WTO this year. Without access to company reports or an aggressive financial press, most investors rely on rumors, friends' advice and gut feelings.
"Most people buy and sell stocks without analysis, without caring for the company's performance and financial results," a 31-year-old woman investor in Hanoi said. "Trading stocks for them is just like gambling."
And gambling, many Vietnamese will admit, is a national obsession -- whether it's on card games, buffalo fights, European football or the wildly popular and illegal so de game, a bet on the last two numbers of the state lottery.
So it comes as little surprise that the number of investors on the HCMC market has shot up from 20,000 in January to 50,000 today.
In Ho Chi Minh City, many people now hotly debate the latest news on what state-owned enterprise will equitize next, or which bank may be targeted by a foreign giant.
"Before, in coffee shops, people were talking about real estate," said Doan Viet Dai Tu, managing partner of investment and consultant group Open Asia. "Now they talk about the stock exchange."
Hoa, a 45-year-old mother of three, said, "I gamble so that I can invest in my children's studies," referring to stock trading. "I look at the Internet and take into account information gathered by my friends."
In a bid to calm the red-hot market, the finance ministry recently told state banks to tighten credit for share purchases, fearing a market downturn will lead to a wave of bad loans.
Many shares are also traded on the "grey" over-the-counter market, where people put their money on whatever unlisted company is thought to be the next big thing.
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