On November 11th nearly 80 Miss Earth contestants, gathered at Queen Plaza in downtown Ho Chi Minh City for a gala charity dinner organized by the Gia Gia Gemstone Company.
Local singers crooned on an LED illuminated stage. Food had been promised, but only fruit was served. Several beauty queens had to resort to scarfing down instant noodles served, in a pinch, by their Vietnamese chaperones.
The paltry spread was only the first disappointment and a premonition of the disastrous affair to follow.
Gia Gia hyped the event as an opportunity to raise money for destitute flood victims in Central Vietnam.
Four items were produced for auction: an antique bronze drum, a gemstone mosaic of a Vietnamese landscape (framed by the signatures of all 90 Miss Earth contestants), a 10kg raw ruby and the tu linh hoi tu a set of four ornamental wooden figurines of a dragon, a unicorn, a tortoise and a phoenix.
During the live broadcast of the event, celebrities took down telephone bids. By the end of the evening, the winning bids amounted to VND74 billion (US$3.7 million).
Days later, three of the phoned-in bids turned out to be fake. The one live bidder has backed out of his offer. Nothing was sold. No money was raised.
And the representatives of Gia Gia Gemstone have taken to blaming everyone but themselves for the debacle.
On November 27th, the firm held a press conference. At the conference Dinh Gia Dien, president of Gia Gia, claimed that Thanh Nien Media Corporation (TNMC) had not helped the firm obtain proper government permission to hold a live broadcast. Instead, he claimed, they had to rely on the media company to transmit the event.
He further alleged that the company didn't invite VIP guests and government officials. Dien claimed TNMC had promised to do so.
He also fulminated about the performance of the event's emcees - noted model-turned-actress Truong Ngoc Anh, supermodel Binh Minh and Miss Asia USA Jennifer Pham.
TNMC bites back
Gia Gia became one of the main sponsors of the Miss Earth Competition, and promised to spend $100,000 on the international beauty pageant.
So far, the firm has only produced $30,000, according to TNMC sponsors.
Ho Van Dac, deputy managing director of TNMC and head producer of this year's competition, claims that the charity event was a ruse from the get-go.
Dac denied Gia Gia's claims that TNMC had failed to deliver on any promises. Instead, he said, the TNMC did everything it said it would.
"If we had no permission, the event could not have happened" said Dac "We have obtained all the necessary permission for a wide range of Miss Earth events, including this gala dinner. The event was supposed to provide a forum for the contestants to auction their own national items to raise fund for the flood victim, but Gia Gia changed the script and, instead, sold [the four items]."
The last-minute arrival of the four auction items raised alarm bells at TNMC, Dac told reporters. Some suggested an outright cancellation of the event. But, when they discovered that the Ho Chi Minh City Red Cross planned to participate and serve as a beneficiary of the event, they decided not to pull out.
Dac also said TNMC never promised to invite any special guests to the event. In fact, he said, Gia Gia representatives were misleading in their pre-event promotions. Among the things they promised that had never been discussed were international live broadcasts (on networks like BBC, NBC and StarWorld).
He alleged that the firm never properly appraised the auction items and fallaciously inflated the scope of the event and the broadcast. Dac has accused the firm of using charity as a mere publicity stunt.
"We didn't wait for Gia Gia's charity party," Dac said. "TNMC has already raised and donated VND2.5 billion to the flood victims since the pageant began."
Mala fide affair
Among the most egregious decisions that the gemstone firm made during this event was its choice to allow people to make million-dollar bids via cell phone.
Many TV viewers who watched this show expressed the same sentiment.
"I can buy a sim card, call to bargain the highest price then dispose of number," said Thi Nam, a housewife said prior to the airing of the failed auction. "Who can trace me? My family and I thought that it was an arrangement by the auction organizers to cheat viewers."
Nguyen Thi Hue, head of the HCMC Red Cross, told the press that Gia Gia did not bring in a third party organization to appraise the value of the auction items.
Dat promised to donate VND1 billion to the Red Cross, Hue said. So far, she hasn't seen a penny.
Last bid standing
Vo Ngoc Ha, the original owner of the four figurines (also known as tu linh hoi tu), says he didn't donate them to charity.
Instead, he priced the items at $1 million gave them to the Asean C&C Media Company, a co-organizer of the event, for auction.
During a press conference held on November 1, Gia Gia Corp set the starting price for the figurines at $2 million.
The company allegedly planned to split the winning bid: $1 million for Ha, the rest for charity.
In the end, however, no one saw a penny for the four statuettes.
The winning bidder, Pham Van Dat, director of the Hanoi-based Bao Long Ceramics Company, refused to pay his bid after the event concluded.
He refused to honor his commitment on the grounds that the tu linh hoi tu was moved to a different location after the show ended.
Dat was worried that someone may have swapped the four items for forgeries.