Poverty of riches

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Splurging businesswoman leaves workers, farmers in the lurch

Farmers hold a banner demanding payment from Pham Thi Dieu Hien (INSET), chairwoman and general director of the indebted Binh An Seafood Joint Stock Company in Can Tho City. Hien left the country suddenly, leaving workers and farmers high and dry, soon after organizing a lavish wedding for her son.

It was a lavish wedding by any standard.

Dozens of million dollar cars and famous singers from Ho Chi Minh City were on hand as a business tycoon conducted the nuptial ceremonies and festivities for her son in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho.

The ostentatious spending was designed to grab attention, and Pham Thi Dieu Hien, 51, chairwoman and general director of the Binh An Seafood Joint Stock Company, made no bones about it.

She told the media that the extravagant ceremony aimed to prove a point that she was not in debt.

That was February 19.

Four days later, Hien, who holds an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) business travel card that allows her to enter several countries without a visa, had left the country for Singapore, ostensibly for medical treatment.

Hien authorized her husband Tran Van Tri to assume the duties of the general director before she left, but Nguyen Van Duc of the Can Tho Bar Association said the authorization is invalid because it has not been approved or notarized by the company's board of directors.

Meanwhile, thousands of employees were told to temporarily stop working on March 5 as the company had stopped buying fish for processing, its main activity.

Her company owes more than VND300 billion (US$14.5 million) to 40 farming households in the Mekong Delta for fish bought from them.

Several sources say the seafood company's debt runs into trillions of dong and that the company has still owed interest of VND1 billion ($48,300) a day on average for the last three years.

Sixteen creditors had complained to relevant authorities about the company's late payments. Three farmers have filed lawsuits demanding Hien pay a total of VND18 billion.

Pham Thi Dieu Hien left Vietnam for Singapore on February 23, ostensibly for medical treatment

At a press briefing on March 7, Tri pledged to pay the company's debt.

Analysts say the company's problems are rooted in gross mismanagement rather than the global economic crisis, high inflation and high interest rates.

They blame the company for unwise investments in property, stocks and short-term projects, as well as purchasing US dollars instead of investing in the company's core activity, seafood processing and export.

Hien had already been criticized for being wasteful, spending billions of dong on a ceremony to launch the company's functional food factory.

Shortly after the lavish wedding, Hien petitioned the Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam to borrow more money because she lacked the funds to buy fish for production. Later, the Can Tho branch of Agribank refused her request to borrow VND350 billion.

Vulgar display

Soon after Hien held the wedding for her son in Can Tho, a similar event took place in the north central province of Ha Tinh, where businesswoman Nguyen Thi Lieu organized a wedding for her son, Nguyen Huy Hoang, on February 29.

This was also an extravagant affair characterized by profligate spending, the presence of million dollar cars and the nation's most famous pop singers performing at the wedding in the province's Huong Son District.

According to multiple sources, Lieu spent nearly VND50 billion ($2.4 million) on the wedding, including VND3 billion on just liquor and VND1.2 billion to pay the singers.

Vietnam's 2011 per capita income is around $1,300.

Quang Le, one of the singers, said he was really surprised by the offer to perform at the wedding at a price five times higher than he earned performing in the US.

Lieu gave her son a car worth VND10 billion and a house in Hanoi that she is said to have purchased for VND130 billion.

After the wedding, Lieu told local news website VietNamNet that she just wanted to "do something" for her son and treat her neighbors to a feast.

The VTC News reported that Lieu had acquired her wealth over the past ten years through international wildlife trading.

"Many traders in Huong Son District said Lieu has even hired aircraft to carry her products," the news site reported.

Huong Son is a northwest district of Ha Tinh Province on the Laos border, an area rife with smuggling of various goods including drugs.

Rising decadence

Showing of one's wealth, often ill-gotten, is becoming common practice in Vietnam, observers say, adding that the widening gap between rich and poor has seen the rise of class consciousness in the country that professes to aim at an egalitarian society.

"Increased rich-poor gap is not favorable to social stability, but on the other hand, it is an inevitable outcome of growth," said David Koh, a Vietnam analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"A materialistic life is rather inevitable as any society progresses toward prosperity, because the values of prosperity like material belongings, ownership, sense of pride and superiority will come to the fore and demand attention," he said.

Lady Borton, renowned American author and cultural commentator, also pointed to a shift from moral values toward materialism in Vietnamese society.

"Nowadays, the moral imperative in Vietnam has shifted from the Revolution's striving for the common good of the society to striving for personal wealth and benefit for oneself and one's children by any possible means, often at the expense of the common good," Borton said.

She added: "Of course, this does not apply to everyone. My long-time Vietnamese friends all talk about and regret this shift."

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