Becoming a millionaire happened instantly, or almost. No effort involved. Not even the buying of a lottery ticket. How we all have mused about how we would spend these millions if we ever were to win the big draw… How our family and friends would bask in our generosity, charities of our choice would prosper, just keeping enough for ourselves to see us through the rest of our days in reasonable comfort and luxury… Working would just be a pastime to stave off the boredom, no longer a necessity of life.
I was finally elevated to the Millionaire Club at an airport, Hanoi airport to be precise. Having slipped out of China like a thief in the night, pockets and bags stuffed with the proceeds of several months of relatively hard graft, Chinese renminbe (RMB for short ) would not get me very far on these new shores. It was a neat little stash, admittedly rather decimated by my summer travel exploits, but when stacked up in one pile, it looked quite impressive… It certainly helped that the highest denomination of a Chinese banknote is merely 100 RMB, roughly the equivalent of a tenner in the UK, so it takes a fair few notes to make a decent amount.
As Chinese middle class citizens have taken to tourism and travel like oxygen-starved fish to water, and Vietnam is literally just across the border, I assumed that a money transfer at the airport would not pose any difficulties. After the first ‘money exchanger’ shook his head and sighed, ‘No, we don’t deal in RMB,’ I quietly began to rue my rash decision of clearing out my bank accounts in China… Using my Chinese bankcards to withdraw cash had worked flawlessly in Japan and Malaysia… Maybe I would have been better off using ATMs in Vietnam to extricate my Chinese money, readily dispensed in local Vietnamese Dong. Luckily, not all money exchange facilities at the airport were reluctant to take the Chinese banknotes.
With an exchange rate of roughly 3500 VND to 1 RMB, my eyes boggled at the numbers… (£1 roughly equates to 30,000 VND). Although I thought it prudent not to exchange all my money – airports are notorious for their unfavourable exchange rates – I lost count of all the noughts on the screen… Millions, loads of them… Did I have enough room in my bags and pockets to hide all the notes and keep my cash safe?? But when paper money comes in denominations of half a million, it only takes two notes to make a million. The stack put in front of me was rather underwhelming. Was this what millions looked like?? It was in Vietnam….!!
And then it began to disappear, like water cascading through my fingers. A taxi ride into town set me back 400,000 VND; a local SIM – one of life’s essentials these days – cost another few hundred thousand (I can’t remember the exact amount)… Even before leaving the airport, I had already parted with my first million.. A simple Vietnamese coffee cost 30,000 VND in Hanoi and maybe a bit more for the famed Hanoi Egg Coffee (to die for.. ). Lunches and dinners, sumptuous Vietnamese cuisine, set me back another few ten- or hundred-thousands each. I was fleeced by a fruit stall holder and paid 20,000 VND for 4 rambutan; not that I would have been any the wiser about paying an exorbitant price if it were not for the raised eyebrows of another Vietnamese customer. Still, with no quick conversion to real and equivalent prices in the UK or China, I just handed out the notes like candy… After all, this was Hanoi and I was still enjoying my last few days of holiday freedom.
These days I try to get by on a million a week… I know, it still sounds extravagant, but I live modestly. Eating out is limited to just a few times each week, but some days the long teaching hours take their toll and sap all our energy and it’s even too much effort to pour boiling water over the ubiquitous instant noodles. Late night pangs of hunger are often sated with strawberry or mango smoothies in the few establishments in the neighbourhood that remain open after 9.00 pm, when we finally finish work. And on the warmer evenings, we might just make it to the corner café and indulge in a beer, deliciously cooled and diluted as it is poured over large slabs of ice dunked in our glasses..
What really makes our spending rocket is extravagant Western food tastes and preferences: colourful vegetables and sumptuous exotic fruits such as apples, potatoes, courgettes and peppers; and cheese and bacon and sausages (of some sort) and yoghurt… I’m not complaining; it’s worth every penny and at least it’s available… I could of course venture to the wet market and try my luck haggling over the price of garlic, ginger and even cauliflower, and maybe I will… soon… but for now, I stick with the sterility of the local supermarket. At least here I know that the prices are the same for all the customers, regardless of the colour of their skin…
But even millionaires can be penny pinchers. So it was that on a trip to Da Nang several weeks ago I got totally incensed when the hotel staff overcharged me for my room. ‘What? That is 5000 VND more than when I made the booking!!’ I argued. Totally befuddled by too many noughts, it seemed a gross injustice. It was only when I worked out that 5000 VND amounted to no more than around 16 p (UK £), I felt my cheeks flush… Did I really make a fuss about 16 p? In the grand scheme of things, would I even notice 16 p less in my purse???
Someone recently suggested that Vietnam should just simply chop off the last three zeros of its currency. Not a devaluation, but 1,000,000 VDN would just become 1,000 VND with the same spending power… No more notes of half a million, just notes of five thousand… It would definitely reduce the number of millionaires amongst us, but at least our piles of cash would no longer feel like a mountain of Monopoly money…