Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City to a sweltering 30 degrees, after 24 hours of travel from the minus five degree temperatures and light snow flurries of home is like being the ice cubes throw into a blender with strawberry daiquiri mix. As we melt, the noisy outside world, whirls past the view through the glass, the sweet exotic flavours of South East Asia, blending with blinding speed.
Ho Chi Minh City has changed dramatically in the five years that we have been coming to Vietnam. There is more wealth. There are more large luxury cars all shiny and new, expensive SUV’s; there are designer shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton; everyone is dressed in Western garb; TV ads urge the urbanites to buy packaged goods and slicers and dicers. There is even a Vietnamese version of Costco. And, at this time of year there are brilliant but garish Christmas decorations on the streets and in the shops and hotels. There are Styrofoam snow and icicles, ginger bread houses and Santa’s in sleighs. The tinge of tacky with over done plastic and glitter, lighted palms and humid air remind us that we are definitely not at home.
Shortly after checking into the once grand Continental Hotel on Duang Khoi Street, I left to find another convenience that is now part of the urban landscape, the ATM. Stumbling through the hot, soupy, pungent air, I moved on “automatic pilot”, so exhausted and jet lagged from our long journeys, the geographical one and the cultural one.
I popped my bankcard in the nearest machine, an HSBC one and obediently it coughed out the one million dong that I had ordered. One million dong is the equivalent of fifty five US dollars this day. The surprise to me was that the machine spit out only two bills, each for 500,000 dong. Hmmm....perhaps another sign of increasing wealth? In the past, 100,000 dong notes were the largest denomination issued from a machine and even those were sometimes hard to break in small shops and definitely no taxi drivers would be able to make change for them. As my intent was to buy only some emery boards I knew that I did not have “usable” money, so back to the hotel I trotted and waited for the cashier to help me. He was being upbraided by a departing German guest, with a huge voice and bad attitude. I felt so badly for the young clerk, who in his best but inadequate English was trying to explain that what the German wanted was just not possible. As the misunderstanding continued the German voice grew louder and his self righteousness oozed from insensitive pores. The clerk did not waver and it was the German who “lost face” by leaving in an undignified huff.
Inscrutable and unruffled the young clerk turned to me offering help. I was blushing slightly, embarrassed for my race, when I asked if he might change a 500,000 dong note to smaller bills. “Of course”, he said taking the bill and then for some reason ducking behind the counter. I watched as he fussed for a few minutes, bent over but still within my view. He spoke to the other clerk in Vietnamese, before turning to me, asking apologetically “Do you have another one Madam?” “Well, yes” I said, “but I really just need change for one at the moment”.
“Oh no, Madam”, was his reply, “I cannot accept this first one, it is too old.” I stammered that I had just got it out of the bank machine on the corner as I watched him caressing a crease along the middle of the bill. My skin was getting that prickly feeling of irritation and haughtiness that we westerners are famous for when we don’t get what we want, especially when we are, after all, the customer. I took a deep breath and reminded myself of a lesson in Vietnamese culture that I had learned years before. They are very particular about their currency.
You see, their bills are plasticized, mostly minty new and definitely not wrinkled or torn. I know this...so much so that I sort the US ones that I collect over the months between our visits and iron those that have a wrinkled appearance. I don’t bother saving any that have even the slightest rip or notch.
US one dollar bills are great for tips, small thank you’s and gifts. But how could he refuse a bill that had five minutes prior, just come out of a bank machine. Would I be stuck with this non negotiable bill? “Oh no”, said the well meaning clerk, “You can exchange at the bank for a 5% fee”. “Cute trick”, thought I, yet another cash grab from poor unsuspecting tourists who return to the bank whose machine has issued a nonnegotiable bill to be charged for the exchange.
But the desk clerk would take my other 500,000 note so I went for it. As he counted the 10 fifties back to me, I saw that they were all pristine and crisp, except for one. I slid it back across the counter and with a wry smile I said, “Do you have another one, this one is old”. He also smiled, especially when he gave me a replacement bill and I used my most polished pidgin saying, “I joke you”, which really made him laugh.
Later that evening we ate at a rather nice cafe, where our bill was a staggering 235,000 dong, about $13 US. Aha, an opportunity to use the remaining big bad 500,000 wrinkled bill. I slid it into the waiters little folder and watched. He scrutinized the bill at a short distance from our table. He passed it to the cashier who also had a really good look. Quietly he returned and said “Madam, do you have another one? This bill has a damage”. The nick was minuscule.
“Sorry”, I said looking him straight in the eye, “I just got that out of the bank machine next door and it is all that I have. I do not have any other money”. Bruce sat silently and incredulously. We waited....at last the waiter took the bill and offered my change.
As we walked back to the hotel, through the steamy night air, we chuckled at this rather benign lesson that we had just experienced. It reminded us that we had better brush up on our skills as visitors to this country and be mindful that, despite the apparent shift westward in many customs, there are still differences here in Vietnam. We vowed that we would honour the preferences of our hosts and overcome our tendencies to expect everything to now be “white”.
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Published on 1/24/12