HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Classes of the Classless

As an officially Communist country, Vietnam should technically be home to a completely equal, classless society. Under orthodox communism everyone would have equal access to the same standard of living, from healthcare and education to housing. However, as I’ve discussed before, modern Vietnam is far from a Communist utopia. This is made evident by the clear social strata visible on the streets of Saigon. Twenty years ago Vietnam was quite egalitarian – everyone was equally poor. Today, however, the ever-growing flood of money, combined with rampant consumerism, is creating distinct classes of widening inequality that will greatly impact the future of the country.

As is common everywhere else in the world, the vehicle one drives is a huge indicator of class. Watch traffic go by for just a few minutes and you will easily be able to pick out the haves from the have-nots. The elites glide by in their sleek, chauffeur-driven European luxury sedans, cocooned from the dirt, noise and general chaos of the streets. Members of the super-rich are very easy to spot, thanks to their predilection for buying Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces. One has to wonder if the money used to buy such obscenely expensive cars in such a poor country came from legal sources – I’m guessing the answer is no.

Motorbikes, being the most popular vehicle here, indicate a wide range of classes. Privileged young men cruise by in their flashy Yamaha Nouvos, tricked out with custom lighting and rims. Much rarer are the Kawasaki crotch rockets imported from Japan; their inevitably young drivers aggressively revving their high-powered engines at the lights. These bikes are purely for show, as Saigon’s suffocating traffic completely negates the blistering speeds such bikes are capable of achieving. For chic young women ownership of an iconic Vespa is the ultimate symbol that you’ve made it. Below these groups comes the more modest middle-class bikes – Honda Waves and assorted Yamahas indicate the people that are doing well but haven’t quite struck it rich.

The lowest class of moto owners can be identified by the ragged, rusted and completely worn out bikes they drive. The hoary exhaust notes of these bikes are easily distinguishable, and their smoky wakes should be avoided. Such bikes are driven almost exclusively by the deeply tanned, wiry, and often shirtless men that make up the hard labor sector here. These men are the construction workers fueling Saigon’s building boom, the delivery men bringing beer or other supplies to the restaurants that overflow with patrons every night, etc.. Despite the low status of these men, the city would not be able to function without them and their wheezing bikes.

I should also explain the significance of such men being tan. Skin tone is another indicator of class here. Unlike in the U.S., where people will do anything to get a nice tan, Vietnamese go to extreme lengths to avoid direct sunlight. Despite the intense heat of the days here many people, especially women, dress in hooded sweatshirts, long pants, gloves that go up to their elbows, and thick socks inside their sandals in order to cover every part of their body. Why do they put themselves through such torture during the 90-degree afternoons? Being tan means you work outside, either in the fields or in the city doing the dirty and unglamorous jobs that the upcoming generations don’t want to do. Having a pale white skin tone shows people that you work in an office; you’ve moved up from the lowly farms to the air-conditioned towers of commerce that dot the skyline. It is also common to see women walking around with their umbrellas deployed even if there is no threat of rain or holding newspapers over their head to avoid getting a tan. In the U.S. tans indicate health and vitality, while in Vietnam they are looked down on as a trait of poor laborers.

Outside of transportation fashion – and the labels associated with that term – is the other most important indicator of class. Young Vietnamese are obsessed with status. Everyone wants the latest smart phone, computer or MP3 player. Young men slap Ferrari stickers on their motorbikes and drive around in D&G sunglasses, Gucci shirts and Lacoste pants. Young women seem to be in a never-ending competition to see who can dress the best, something that certainly provides some pleasant eye candy. Many wear incredibly short mini-skirts that stretch the boundaries of what older Vietnamese consider acceptable. They also sport designer shades while carrying a Prada purse and wearing expensive heels. (I don’t really know any female shoe brands, so substitute in whatever you think works.)

The contrast between these hot young things and the older generations that lived through the war and haven’t been swept up by the roaring tidal wave of consumption couldn’t be clearer. Elderly women often walk around it what would be considered pajamas by most people. The older men who still make a living through labor stroll around in filthy, often unbuttoned shirts, endlessly smoking cigarettes and hocking loogies onto the sidewalk.

The lowest rung of the social ladder is occupied by the people who sell state lottery tickets. These people wander the streets stopping nearly everyone that passes them in their attempts to sell a chance to win big. This job seems to be reserved for the outcasts of a society that hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with people that aren’t like everyone else. Midgets, people with obvious bone deformations, and those missing limbs make up the majority of this group. Sadly, many of these people are probably victims of Vietnam’s recent wars and their aftermaths. Land mines still present a danger in some rural areas, hence the large number of people with just one leg, or none at all. The U.S. military’s widespread use of Agent Orange and other chemical sprays led to thousands of deformed babies that have grown into deformed and isolated adults. Vietnam is not wealthy enough to maintain anything more than the thinnest of safety nets, so many of the people that need help the most are simply relegated to the fringes of society, watching the rest of the world become richer.

These class divides will probably only be exacerbated as Vietnam’s economy continues to grow in the future. It remains to be seen how far down the social ladder this new wealth will percolate. There are still a lot of poor people within Vietnam’s population of 86 million, especially in between the economic heavyweights of Saigon and Hanoi. A very important question regarding the future of the country remains unanswered: Will the farmers of the Central Highlands and the urban poor be pulled up by economic growth, or simply steamrolled by the rush to buy the newest BMW or Ipod model?


  1. Mike, I think this is your best blog post yet. This is well written and articulated. I, too, have been thinking a lot about the rapid expansion of Vietnam and the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor. It's difficult to be witness to, but it's also fascinating--like a train wreck you can't avert your eyes from.

  2. Having a white skin is definitely advantageous in South East Asia. With its turbulent history (being occupied by a European country - name it - then US), people will always think Caucasian people are, somewhat, "special" (and not just for having lots of money). For this, you get the best service in restaurants, etc... You are one step ahead of local colleagues at work...

    This is the reality.

  3. Monelli, that's a good point. We do definitely seem to get preferential treatment here, although I've heard that that may be slowly changing.