Last minute "lucky money' rush

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Moneychangers are enjoying brisk business, as consumers rush to buy new small-domination banknotes.

Due to commercial bank shortages, black market money changing stalls crop up in Hanoi every year, charging exorbitant fees for the new notes.

A tradition has emerged of doling out small, clean notes during the New Year to children and the elderly. The gifts known as "lucky money" are typically handed out during Tet, the upcoming Lunar New Year festival.

Tran Thi Hong, an employee at a publishing house in Hanoi, said she, and 10 of her colleagues, tried to exchange VND50 million (US$2,380) for the newly minted small domination notes to use as lucky money during the Tet.

But every bank they visited turned them away.

"Most banks said they're out of new small banknotes and do not know when they will have them again," Hong said.

Black market currency changers have seized this once-a-year opportunity to charge exorbitant fees for the crisp notes. This year, consumers report having paid 20 percent fees for every million-dong bundle of 10,000 or 20,000 dong notes they buy.

The smaller the denomination, the higher the commission, a changer named Hanh said, as she waited for customers in front of a row of bookshops on Hanoi's Nguyen Xi Street.

Hanh, who sells foreign currencies (such as US dollars and Euros) on the streets all year round, supplements her income by selling new small bank notes every Tet.

Several other vendors ply a similar trade nearby, clutching bags of newly-minted small bills.

Along the road to the Tay Ho Temple, dozens of stalls sell joss papers and offer the extra service of exchanging currency notes.

Meanwhile, most jewelry shops and pawnshops throughout Hanoi also appear to be offering the service.

This year, many online sources can be found advertising the notes over the Internet. Service charges vary and can be as high as 30 percent.

"Everything is more expensive this year, so money changing fees have also increased some 5 percent over the last year," said Hanh.

Despite high exchange fees, many people are ready to pay for the small new notes. Le Thu Trang, an administrative clerk of a cosmetic production firm, said she buys small new banknotes for herself and her husband, every Tet. Unable to tap friends and relatives working in banks to secure the new notes, she has just paid VND300,000 for VND2 million worth of 10,0000 notes.

"There is only one Tet a year, so the fee does not feel too exorbitant," she said.

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