A Dollar and a Dime in Vietnam
By Richard Sterling

Woe to the traveler or expat who has not learned the eternal lesson of developing countries everywhere: keep your pockets full of small change.

You've always got to have "small money" in your pocket. In Vietnam or any other "Third World" country, any poor country, you need small money. There are too many persons who simply can't or won't break a five. Or a six, as the case may be.

Here in Vietnam, for example, we have the 50,000 Dong note. A laughably big number for a sum that amounts to a three–dollar bill. Years ago I asked a beggar here, when he pressed me for alms, for change of a 50,000 Dong note. More the fool I. The poor old sod had maybe one one–hundredth of that in his crinkly, wrinkled hands.

50,000 Dong note

Then there was the time in Mexico when I was pulled over by a traffic cop. I earnestly tried to convince him that the stop sign was hidden by the tree (so providently placed), and so I couldn't see it. He politely responded, "It's not much money, Senor." The smallest I had was a tenner. I asked him if he had change. He might have had a pocket full of ones and fives, but the answer was, of course, a smiling "Sorry, Senor." I ponied up the ten–spot. Lesson learned. Carry small money. Always, carry small money.

I need small money every day. Even at home in apartment 608 in "suburban" Saigon. I tip the beer delivery guy 60 cents. Bills don't come in the mail; somebody rings your doorbell and collects. Water, electricity and Internet are not big but not small. But the guy who sweeps the halls collects 25 cents per apartment per month. The elevators operate as a concession: buck and a quarter per head per month. In the event of a power outage (which happens about once a month) we are dunned a few pennies for the emergency generator that keeps the elevator concession operating. That's another ring of the bell and the need for small money. Processing the receipts I require can cost more than the fees collected, so they write them out by hand on scraps of note paper that has already been used on the other side.

Out on the town it's the beggars, the street vendors who offer sandwiches at 30 cents apiece, candy money for neighborhood kids, a dime's worth of dong for the newspaper girl, an errand run by someone with no other useful labor to perform, and the motorbike taxi drivers.

Entrepreneurs on Motorbikes
The motorbike men in Vietnam are known as "xe om" (zay awm) drivers and they usually drive a small 100cc bike. I need these guys every day. They are quicker than a taxi, as they can split lanes, and they tend to know the streets better. You often have to wait for a taxi, but on any busy intersection a clutch of xe om drivers are sitting astride (or some times napping on) their idle bikes waiting patiently (or resignedly) for a fare. And they are cheaper than a taxi. They zip me across town for 20,000 dong, about a dollar and a dime. Small money.

Most of the xe om drivers are poor men driving second hand bikes. Many are 60–year–old veterans of the losing side of the war. Others might be farmers from the delta who went bust. Still others might be skilled or unskilled laborers when the work is available. On a good day the xe om might net 5 dollars. He'll put in 10 hours a day, but gas isn't cheap. Vietnamese patrons pay less than I do. And he has to render unto Caesar in the forms of both local police and local mafia. Whether he makes any money or not. If he wants to keep his bike, which may be a loaner or a rental. And on his meager income he must support himself and maybe a family.

Of course not all are poor. Some are "middle class" young men trying to while away their free time and earn a little folding money. The poor guys hate them, for obvious reasons. But, hey, everyone's out for a buck. Right?


Some, like my regular daytime guy "Joe", are entrepreneurs. He gathers a posse of less enterprising drivers, and then establishes a relationship with guys like me. His drivers have the prospect of a few fares a day and I have a driver waiting at the door who already knows where I want to go and how to get there. I don't know what cut of the small money Joe gets or how many guys he has, but he's doing well by the local measure. His bike is one of the better models.

Joe protects his turf, too. One time a threadbare outsider in need of a shave and a haircut tried to pick me up at the front door on a beat–up old bike. Joe came at him screaming like a banshee and threatening to bean the guy with his brand new fancy helmet. A loud discussion ensued. Joe grabbed me by the arm and tried to drag me to his side. I threw off his grip and told the both of them to go to Hell. I stomped off and found a neutral set of wheels to get me to where I was going. I punished Joe with a boycott for considering me his personal resource. But I relented after two days. He's just too handy. And small money, too!

The World Wide Wail
Well, I had a tiff with the landlady the other day, and it was about money somewhat bigger than small. A simple mix–up with the Internet bill. "Make trouble for MEEEEEEE!" she wailed, and looked daggers at me. Hells bells, it wasn't even my fault. It was the one–eyed internet bill collector who mixed up the mix–up. But her highness had only one person's troubles in mind: MEEEEEE!

"Now I have to talk to the man," she complained. Which meant she would have to put on a pair of her Imelda Marcos shoes and walk across the street. And then who would be left to sit idly on the stoop and collect the rents of a dozen or more properties while sipping tea and munching melon seeds? One thing for sure, it wasn't going to be MEEEEEEE!

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