Heavy traffic on a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The author is scathing about people buying large cars to flaunt their wealth rather than use it to help the poor. Photo by Hong Ky
Have you noticed how in the main big Vietnamese cities - Ho Chi Minh City in particular - each day there seems to be more and bigger cars on the road? And if that was not enough, there also seems to be more of the very large size motorbikes around.
Poked by curiosity I decided to spend some time in different parts of the city to observe whether my feelings were right or not. The findings were quite astonishing!
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First, around four out of five cars were SUVs and bigger and most of them were either occupied by just the driver (85 percent) or the driver and only another person (10 percent), usually a child.
These large vehicles also caused total road chaos next to a couple of schools as parents went to pick up their children with their big cars, "parking" them on the road while waiting for the child. Do they really need a big car to take one child back home?
Unlike poor people who use their run-down motorbikes for business, and who overload them with goods aiming to make more efficient use of them, virtually every single car I saw was shiny and carrying no obvious merchandise. So, if these people are not using the big cars to transport large amounts of goods, or as a means of transport for their large families, why spend so much money on a big car, gasoline and taxes only to drive it at rather slow speeds on overloaded roads?
After questioning several Vietnamese, the almost unanimous answer was clear: the people who buy these big cars are making a lot of money and want everybody else to know how much money they have, or in other words, they want to show off!
This does not surprise me. I've seen it before: the moment people with relatively low self-esteem get money, they seem to have an inner need to show others "how big" they are by showing off and spending a lot of money on rather extravagant things.
Unfortunately, they do not seem to realize that the main message they communicate to the public is that not only do they not think much of themselves, but that they actually lack both taste and class, if not brains.
If these big cars did not cause bad enough jams on the already busy roads, it seems that the Vietnamese nouveau riche now need to show off by driving big motorbikes like the Honda SH. Most of the drivers are small, making driving such a motorbike difficult and dangerous as stability is easily lost and manoeuvring is more difficult.
Those driving them do not buy them because they need a bigger motorbike to transport goods, or because they need a faster bike as standard 125cc can more than double the maximum speed at what you can drive in Ho Chi Minh City (both legally and factually), so it's yet again another way to show off, showing others their (wasted) money, while blocking the roads and making driving even more hellish.
It is unfortunate that these people with so much money to spare waste it by showing off with big purchases. Why don't they show off via philanthropy rather than making everybody else's drive a bigger nightmare?
In a country like Vietnam, where there are still so many in need: lots of homeless children, heavily populated orphanages, thousands of very old people who have to work in bad conditions with no guarantee of their next meal and most of whom cannot afford healthcare or medicine. Not to mention the huge funding needs of hospitals and schools. It is terrible to see others wasting money just to feed their ego and show off.
Although people like Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) became initially famous for their huge fortunes, what made them stand out from others in the Billionaires' list, was the fact that they have and are giving considerably large amounts of money to good causes.
I know there are some cases of great philanthropy in Vietnam, like the owner of the Human Medicine Clinic, who has been using her business to provide free treatment to many. However, the majority of wealthy Vietnamese unfortunately do not stand out by giving to those in need.
It's a pity because there are many in this country in real need of help, and at the end of the day, most wealthy Vietnamese have made money thanks to this country, so why not give something back to society rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars to just show off by buying huge cars which they do not really need?
Let me finish this article with a request, actually a desperate plea, for those buying big cars and motorbikes, to think, just think, about giving a bit back to society, to Vietnamese people and Vietnam because if it wasn't for them, it is likely that such wealth would have never materialized and there is no better way to show off how much you have and how generous you are than by giving to others!
And if you give generously and want fame, I am sure The Guide will allow me to interview you, which I will do with pleasure.
By ALFREDO DE LA CASA*
(*) The writer is a British expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.