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My Dong Problem

My Dong Problem

Friday, April 13, 2012, 13:20 GMT+7

There are two things that visitors to Vietnam, be it for a short stay or a long residency, quickly find daunting about this country. First is the crazy traffic. Gawking with eyes wide open from a taxi, newcomers flinch at the sight of near-collisions and gradually realize that the country seems to have a Darwinian concept of right-of-way. Fear kept me in taxies for months before I finally summoned the nerve to get a motorbike and brave the streets of Hanoi. Taking taxies, however, frequently presented me with the second problem: The dong. Many foreigners here are accustomed to using credit and debit cards back home, but here they are expected to use cash. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels awkward removing a large stack of currency from an ATM, especially on a windy day. Nor can I quickly calculate how much that, say, 1.76 million dong equals in US greenbacks. But when it comes to the dong, I also suffer from a particular disability. (Um, the currency, I mean… oh, never mind.) Here’s how the trouble might pop up: I’m riding in a cab and run up a 76,000 fare. Unable to find exact change or something close in my wallet, I hand the driver a 100,000 note. A few seconds pass as I wait for my change. But the driver seems to be waiting on me. Is he really thinking I meant to give him a large tip and step out? Now he says something I don’t understand. In rudimentary Vietnamese, I say, “Hai muoi” to get 20,000 back. Now he raises his voice louder and waves a10,000 dong note for me to see. And then it dawns on me: That’s the same bill I handed him. Once again, I was confused by all those zeroes. And I would smile, apologize and laugh ha-ha as I reached back into my wallet for the right amount. But it’s not just the zeroes and the ubiquitous image of Ho Chi Minh that causes my dong confusion. Chances are you don’t have this problem, but plenty of males of Northern European ancestry do. About one of every 12 of us are genetically cursed with red-green color blindness. It is much rarer among other people. Maybe “curse” is too strong a word. But I have been known to mismatch socks that, to me, seemed the same shade of brown, even if one was apparently green. And I hated the fad of bright orange golf balls and how they would simply disappear in a fairway. (It was Mrs. Larson, my kindergarten teacher, who first noticed that my paintings featured orange lawns.) The best thing about colorblindness, perhaps, is a skill I’d rather not have to use: the ability to spot camouflage on a battlefield. But here in Vietnam, I’m sure my colorblindness has cost me money. On a few occasions, I have handed over a 100,000 note thinking it had one less zero. I know this because the merchant surprised me with change I didn’t know was coming. What I don’t know is how many times I mistakenly gave a cabbie, say, two notes totaling 150,000 dong for a 60,000 fare—and my error wasn’t pointed out. And a couple of times I’m pretty sure that has happened, since later I’d be fumbling through my wallet and wondering what happened to that 100,000 bill I knew had to be there. And I suspect that some ruthless cabbies may be wise to the confusion of color- challenged foreign males and exploit our handicap. On one recent occasion, having learned my expensive lesson, I could have sworn I handed the cabbie 100,000 and he then showed me a different 10,000 note. I felt I was being conned. On another day, I might have raised my voice and walked out, daring him to follow. A couple of times I’ve short-changed drivers who I was convinced had hot meters. But somebody else was with me so I just grumbled, took his 10 and gave him a 100. A second 100, I think. So, what should be done about this problem? And I do think that many people, including many Vietnamese, think that were is something wrong with the dong and agree that the currency needs a facelift. The simplest fix is obvious: Get rid of the unnecessary zeroes. Why not makelife easier by phasing out those last three zeroes? Or maybe make the salient digits BIG and last three zeros smaller. The 1,000 dong note would become the 1, and 2,000 the 2, and so on up. I and other color-challenged humans would have a much easier time distinguishing the 10 from the 100. (Coins would be a nice substitute for the smaller notes, but I know the Vietnamese authorities have tried this and it didn’t take.) In America, I would say that’s my two cents on the subject. Here, based on recent exchange rates, that would be my 416 dong worth. That’s what my calculator says, anyway.

Scott Duke Harris





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