I don’t understand wealth in Hanoi

(PLEASE NOTE: I have not given permission for this post to be used elsewhere. Publications that have taken and translated it have done so without permission. I hope those dishonest publications that have stolen my work without payment will instead make a donation to charity.)

A decade in and I still don’t understand how money works in Hanoi.

I realised pretty early on Vietnamese colleagues were earning a fraction of what their international colleagues were on. So I always avoided putting them in a position where they might have to pay international prices.

Which was no real issue as hot pot and bia hoi is just fine.

But then I’d see the same colleagues on Facebook — in resorts I could never have afforded, or taking selfies on tours across the world.

I’ve waved young people off to UK to study and then watched them post photos to Instagram of their European jaunts during college breaks. One former intern has re-invented herself as a Instagram star posting outfits of the day to her 50,000 followers. She has a thing for Chanel.

A recent update angrily denied that neither parents nor boyfriend were buying these vastly expensive clothes.

I see businesses without customers surviving year after year. Not just doomed family businesses with low expectations but large chains like Fresh Garden and Paris Gateaux.

When the True Milk brand launched it simply opened shops across the city that sold just milk. Floor to ceiling with True Milk. How do those sums even begin to add up?

I see young Vietnamese people launching businesses. Quite obviously spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process — then losing interest after the first couple of months as they slide into financial oblivion.

At the other extreme I know people who earn only a couple of dollars a day with extended families to feed and I don’t know how they do it.

Quite often lazy husbands — and in-laws who choose not to work — are kept by a single tiny wage.

Foreigners’ money also continues to baffle me.

The only way I can explain a lot of expat businesses, that can’t possibly make a profit, is that surely they must be owned by a trailing spouse being indulged by their partner. It’s that or they’re slowing burning through the personal fortune they arrived with.

All those people who claim to be digital nomads, location-independent professionals, travel bloggers, vloggers. Once you get past the IT workers with actual job contracts, are the rest really making anything like a living wage? And if not then how do they feed themselves?

It must be massively difficult to pitch up in a new city and suddenly decide you’re a photographer. But this appears to be regular occurrence.

Recently there’s been a tangible upsurge in those claiming to be “entrepreneurs”. People with lots of #StartUp hashtags on their Twitter bios. Individuals who set up “hubs” and talk of “hacking”. Some must be making big money but how many?

I’ve had international teachers recommend $1,000 a night hotel rooms. I’ve seen people who live in vast lakeside villas post holiday snap after holiday snap on Facebook and I can’t work out what funds their lifestyle or how they have so much time off.

Hanoi just appears to be a money wonderland where none of the usual rules apply.

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