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The malling of Vietnam

Wednesday, January 15, 2014, 17:24 GMT+7

HANOI – There were half a dozen ticket sellers behind the counter at Vietnam’s new aquarium, a Vinpearl venue inside the capital’s newest Vincom “Mega Mall.” Perhaps 30 customers were queuing up between ropes set out to create first-come, first-served order.  We were near the front when my wife, herself, noticed the jerk who blithely cut ahead of the crowd.

She was speaking Vietnamese, but I could tell my wife was telling the guy to get in line.  He ignored her. She complained to the ticket seller – but she had already started to process the sale.

“I should have told him, ‘Did you just come from the village? You need to get in line. We do things differently in the city,’” she said. “I should have insulted him.”

Urban etiquette in Vietnam is sort of like the Darwinian traffic: evolving slowly. For better or worse, Hanoi’s suddenly buzzing shopping mall culture is one place where the process is taking place.

The other night, we paid our first visit to Vincom’s latest contribution to Vietnam’s burgeoning consumerism: the Vincom Times City Mega Mall, which is flanked by the Vinhomes development and features the Vinpearl Aquarium – not to be confused with the Vinpearl Water Park or Vinpearl Ice Rink, which are located in Vincom’s other, not-quite-as-new Royal City Mega Mall.

Here’s another way to tell them apart: Times City greets shoppers with a pond and dancing waters. Royal City has a sort of imposing Romanesque arch and plaza.

These are not the only new malls in town, either. A few years ago, Pico Mall went up and more recently Indochina Plaza. There’s that smaller Vincom Mall near the Vincom Center Long Bien, near the swanky-but-mostly-vacant Vincom housing across the Red River. (Vincom, you may know, is the multi-faceted property conglomerate owned by Vietnam’s first billionaire Pham Nhat Vuong.)

Back then, just more than three years ago, the malling had just begun. Ho Chi Minh City’s consumer culture had flowered, but Hanoi was playing catch up. Vincom Center on Ba Trieu Street – six stories of shopping, but hardly “mega” – seemed big then. If only I had had a camera phone when I descended an escalator and this image came into view: an elderly monk in saffron robes, lounging on one of those vibrating massage chairs, presumably seeking inner peace.

Now it seems that Hanoi is suddenly, and strangely, lousy with malls. And to visit these cathedrals of commerce is to wonder: Can Vietnam really support this level of consumerism? The malling has oddly coincided with a slowdown in Vietnam’s once-rapid growth. Some of the restaurants are busy – and some are empty. There seem to be shoppers in the walkways, but often not many in the stores. Some just seem curious. You walk by shops with four or five employees – and not a single customer to serve. There is plenty of stuff out there to buy, and some of it is not cheap at all, such as the goods at the furniture stores. My wife saw an ottoman with a price that, by her reckoning, came to nearly $600. An ottoman!

While our kids gawked at Hanoi’s first resident penguins and other critters in the aquarium, we meandered about the Times City Mega Mall. We passed the Sony showroom and the display of Renaults and browsed in furniture stores, wondering about the places that were not Ikea yet had Ikea goods for sale. I found myself wondering whether Vietnam’s malls would, in time, mimic America’s mall culture – the teenage human “mall rats” and the conspicuously “Valley Girls” that sprouted in the 1980s.  Recently I noticed construction work has resumed on another mall site in Tay Ho District that had been dormant for three years. Will our own kids become Hanoi mall rats?

With fatigue setting in, we found one of those stores that sell massage chairs. Like that monk three years ago, we settled in for a 15-minute test. The chair embraced me, firmly kneading my back and feet, intermittently squeezing my arms and legs, as if it was measuring blood pressure in portions of each limb. It was nice, but I wanted to tell the chair to work a little bit higher on my neck. Machines just cannot get it right.

I closed my eyes, not wanting to be bothered. Meanwhile, three salesmen were talking to my wife, all at the same time. Not one, not two, but three.

They could not close the deal. But it was not for lack of effort.

Tuoi Tre

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