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What a dollar buys in Vietnam

What a dollar buys in Vietnam

Sunday, March 21, 2021, 13:15 GMT+7
What a dollar buys in Vietnam
Agricultural produce is on sale at a wet market in Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Recently, one of the global expat living publications released a whizz bang study on the cost of living in various countries around the world for expatriates, and Vietnam came out on top of the pile as the absolute cheapest.

Exactly how affordable is Vietnam?   

A while back I went through a line-by-line exercise detailing typical expat living expenses, but now let’s take a different tack, looking at what can be bought for one little ole U.S. dollar in Vietnam.

In Vietnamese dong terms, that U.S. dollar buys about VND23,000. The Australian and Canadian dollars weigh in at about VND18,000, whereas the euro pegs at VND27,000.

The UK’s pound sterling converts to just short of VND32,000.

Confused yet? 

Me too, so screw it, we’ll just stick with the U.S. dollar and use VND20,000 as the local currency equivalent, a nice, easy round number. I include the VND amounts below to facilitate easy conversion to other currencies.

Actually, using a lower value than the prevailing exchange rate may not be a bad idea, because the U.S. Federal Reserve continues to put money into circulation like a bunch of drunken sailors on shore leave. 

Vietnam, working conservatively with the future in mind, is busy squirreling away foreign currency, leading me to think that rate may well change one day, but we have no idea whether indeed it will change, by how much, or when.

In the meantime, let’s go on a typical little daily trip to your local market and see what a dollar can buy us.

First up, you need to park your motorbike, which you can do seven times at markets in most cities for that dollar – i.e. it’s usually VND3,000 a pop, give or take.

Bread always comes in handy, so how many ‘banh mi’ can we buy (just whole loaves, not prepared sandwiches) for that dollar?

There are many different grades of that little slice of heaven ranging in price from VND1,500 to VND3,000 each, and no doubt there are designer versions that come in pricier featuring seeds and nuts, even emitting a cute little jingle when sliced open.

The VND1,500 loaves are extremely light and airy, the VND2,000 loaves are a bit denser, while the more expensive ‘heavyweight’ versions are nearly twice the weight, more concentrated and tastier, so we’ll go with them at VND3,000 each, that’s seven for a buck – damn good deal.

Heavyweight ‘banh mi’

Heavyweight ‘banh mi’

Now let’s pick up some veggies, you can buy two majestic heads of broccoli or cauliflower for a buck – those big enough for two servings cost about VND10,000 each. 

For the same amount, you can snag two pomelos, which look like a grapefruit on steroids, called ‘buoi,’ but only the smallish variety, a bit old, possibly with some blemishes, they’re discounted but still great for eating. What’s inside is delicious and freshly preserved by that extra thick pith, and that’s what matters. The largest and prettiest versions of pomelo will run closer to two bucks.

Stuck between washing days with no clean socks? Damn, don’t you hate it when that happens? 

Fret not, you can even buy three pairs of socks for VND20,000, that’s the very short ladies’ version that only comes up to your ankle bone (irritating) and develops holes in the heels and toes in no time flat. Still, if you’re in a jam, those socks will bail you out.

If you stub your toe wandering around the market, no worries, you can pick up no less than 20 average-sized plastic band aids for that buck.

Every household needs fresh hen’s eggs – I personally prefer them all natural with blobs of poop and gunk on the outside – adds realism to the whole buying experience. I assume, but can furnish no proof to back up the claim, that the poopy variety come from happier hens than those who lay the squeaky clean industrial supermarket eggs by the thousand. 

You can buy ten poopy eggs for that buck although they are typically sold by the kilo, just remember to wash them thoroughly before cracking them open to avoid any bacteria.

Poopy eggs

Poopy eggs

How about a nice freshwater snakehead fish (‘ca loc’ – yep, the very one I struggle to pronounce correctly as analyzed to tears in my previous update). You can choose any two of the large chunks below (each is enough for one meal for one person) for a buck, which do not include the head and all the guts in the center of the photo, from which I made a tasty soup stock. 

I pulled that live fish out of the tank myself and whacked it senseless with a steel pole, you can’t beat that for freshness.

Snakehead (ca loc) fish

Snakehead (ca loc) fish

The entire fish cost me VND85,000, which comes out to eight good-sized chunks, or two for VND20,000.

To round out your meal you can buy enough chilies, coriander, basil, and spring onions to choke a horse for a buck, or for VND2,000 you can get enough of each to prepare a single meal. Hell, if you buy several items from a market vendor, they’ll throw them in for free.

Let’s stop off for a snack, there’s always a ‘bun thit nuong’ or ‘banh uot’ stand within spitting distance. The two dishes are similar – a thin rice crepe with grilled or ground pork, hunks of sausage, sprouts, greens, and, naturally, some mild fish sauce. 

If you spot some woven rice noodles that resemble little cross-thatched blankets, those are ‘banh hoi.’ Grab them, that design soaks up the fish sauce delightfully! You can pick up any one of these three dishes for VND20,000 and enjoy it whilst sitting on a kiddie-sized plastic stool.

A wicked ‘banh out’

A wicked ‘banh out’

Let’s top that dish off with a nice local coffee cups, some are made from a blend of local Vietnamese robusta beans (known to make the hairs on your arm stand up), others are made from a mixture of robusta and arabica seeds.

A cup in a nice café will go for a dollar, sometimes more, but if you don’t mind drinking in the kind of dump I frequent you can get one for half that, so for a buck you can invite a friend to join you for a cup.

Thirsty? You can pick up two large glasses of sugarcane juice (‘nuoc mia’) squeezed right on the spot for VND20,000, which can’t beat that with a stick. It’s packed with electrolytes to stave off dehydration in hot, sticky weather.

Let’s say that on your trek around the market, you catch your clothing on a nail, resulting in an unsightly tear. Don’t worry, on your way home just pop into the Miracle Sewing Lady, she can fix anything.

She sits there all day, from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm (I checked), hardly moving, just sewing her brains out. She memorizes every repair job dropped off by each customer, the time by which she promised to complete the work, and the price she quoted. I’d bet a tidy sum that she never muffs up a job or forgets what she promised her customer.

Miracle Sewing Lady just sits outside a house, has no shop of her own, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her take over the entire block one day, she’s that good. Anyway, she can fix up any clothing misfortune in no time flat, charging VND20,000 or less for a repair.

Miracle Sewing Lady

Miracle Sewing Lady

And if you’re feeling lucky after all that shopping, you can pick up two daily lottery tickets for a buck and give one to a friend to ensure maximum luck.

You never know, somebody who wins it might be you. 

In the meantime, enjoy the affordable prices here in Vietnam, they probably won’t remain that way forever.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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