King Dong

The strangest part of adjusting to slow life here in rural Vietnam, especially when coming from a country like Sweden – where new stuff is readily and rapidly adopted – is paying with paper money again.

Not only do I barely recognize any of the Swedish bills or coins currently in circulation, the vast majority of stores I shop at back in Sweden don’t even take anything but digital payment these days. Which adds a scary level of Orwellian surveillance potential.

Once a week I visit our local village bank here where two ATMs have been placed side by side in a claustrophobically small booth on a busy street corner. I watch during each visit – with some trepidation – as my lime green Mastercard gets sucked lickety-split into the belly of one of the grimy cash machines. Superstitiously, I alternately use the left and right ATM, just to even out my odds, should one day my card be swallowed permanently by either.

After choosing English as my preferred language, punching in my code and agreeing to the transaction fee for a withdrawal equaling roughly USD$100, twenty colorful and neatly stacked 100.000 Dong bills are ejected. Unlike my wife Charlotte, I never request a receipt and just shove the wad of cash into my right back pocket before stepping back out onto the street again.

While two million Dong sounds like a lot of money, I mean, it’s hard not to be just a little hypnotized by all those zeroes, to put the currency into an everyday perspective, one hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong is actually only about USD$4:30. Or, in our weak Swedish currency, about 42 kronor.

A large watermelon at our local market cost approximately 25.000 Dong and at Bamboo Chicken on Cua Dai Street, a generous portion of tasty Pho soup or stir-fried veggies with noodles (or rice) with a choice of Saigon beer or non-alcoholic beverage, will set us back 40.000 Dong. Prices vary widely depending on where you’re at and more importantly, the proximity you have to Hoi An’s main tourist attractions. I’ve paid almost as much here for a bottle of beer as in Sweden.

Very few shops, restaurants or minimarts accept card payment in Hoi An and I’d likely be laughed at if I even showed my credit card to any of the often unapologetically brash women working the stalls at our local vegetable and fruit market.

Though Vietnam no longer has coins in circulation, paper cash is still the undisputed king on the payment pyramid. Digital emoluments like Swish and Apple Pay are nothing but science fiction here. Which is kinda cool. With the risk of sounding like a nostalgic curmudgeon, I think paying in cash feels more tangible and adds an old school level of privacy to my choice of consumption. Though my phone’s is certainly being tracked and my location sold to the highest advertising bidder, at least nobody will know for sure that I ordered that extra beer or if the restauranteur pocketed my wrinkled Dong to pay for his daughter’s biweekly piano lessons.