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How the rich roll

How the rich roll

Monday, October 08, 2012, 12:29 GMT+7

HANOI – The other day I was navigating my old, cheap Yamaha Nuovo in moderately crazy traffic when for some unseen reason the driver in front of me came to an abrupt stop. I gripped my brakes, halting two inches from his bumper.

And that’s how I nearly rear-ended a Rolls-Royce.

This was a cream-colored Rolls, probably the same one I’d seen in my Tay Ho neighborhood a couple of times before. There are also a few darker and silver Rolls-Royces cruising improbably through Vietnam’s capital. Each sticks out like a gilded thumb, the most conspicuous sign of conspicuous consumption.

There are also Bentleys and Mercedes out there, of course, and even a couple of Ferraris. But nothing shouts MONEY quite like a Rolls Royce, with its haughty grill nosing through the traffic. The design is a masterpiece of snooty arrogance. In the wealthy realms of California’s celebrated car culture, the Rolls is something of a rarity, regarded as old-fashioned, showy and gauche.

Well-heeled expats are in some of these luxury rides, but I’m more interested in how the Vietnamese who’ve got it are now flaunting it too. A new Vietnamese friend who ought to know assures me that the owner of the Rolls I nearly rolled into is indeed Vietnamese. (The driver looked Vietnamese, but was he the owner or a chauffeur?)

Modern Vietnam’s appetite for status symbols has grown dramatically in recent years, an entirely predictable consequence of growing prosperity in a land so long accustomed to poverty and want. The nation’s economy has slowed and is struggling now, but in early 2011, after several years of strong growth, Vietnam succeeded in rising to “middle income” status as measured by the World Bank.

To be sure, Vietnam just barely made the grade, with a per capita income of about $1,300. Still, one international survey of 60 nations ranked the Vietnamese as the “most optimistic,” a reflection of how the standard of living has steadily improved – and dramatically so for older adults who remember the days of rationing and hunger. It’s hard to fathom that this land of rice paddies actually needed to import rice to meet the needs.

All considered, the Doi Moi reforms and the rising economic tide in Vietnam has lifted all boats – but more some than others. While the middle class is growing, the biggest winners of Vietnam’s new economy are able to buy yachts, vacation retreats and those fancy cars. (Recent economic jitters, meanwhile, have fueled demand for gold, pushing its price in Vietnam well above the global market. )

And, if you’ve been following Vietnam’s news, the rising economic fortunes have also contributed to corruption in various forms. Some party officials, as Tuoi Tre has reported, have come under criticism for lavish lifestyles.

Bad actors emerge everywhere, of course, but the deeper trouble may be more insidious – in the way Vietnam’s rising prosperity has widened the disparity between its haves and have-nots. This is a common trend. Elsewhere, the impact of a troubled global economy and corrupt dealings is also widening the gap between the wealthiest and the middle class. In America’s presidential election, the critical question for many may come down to whether President Obama or challenger Mitt Romney will do more to help a reeling middle class. President Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, while Romney says he won’t.

“Class warfare” is a phrase that gets bandied about in American politics, but it bears little resemblance to the class warfare that has shaped Vietnam’s history. Here, the ruling class has often been foreign – Chinese, French, American.

Back in America, debates over environmental policy took an interesting turn among devout Christians who realized that expensive, gas-guzzling cars were the source of pollution and a contributor to climate change. They framed the choice of a vehicle in moral terms, asking: What would Jesus drive?

So I wonder if some Vietnamese, however they happen to roll, are asking themselves a similar question.

Scott Harris

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