While recently reviewing a list of personal questions with my Vietnamese tutor, I went through the typical: What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Where do you work? Then she added another common question that Vietnamese ask: How much is your salary?

 

I get that some personal questions, like asking about age, are necessary for conversation — to understand where in the hierarchy the speaker stands; to know how to refer to each other in context.

 

While the salary question is a personal one, many are just curious to know. My tutor informed me, “Even if your answer is ‘enough,’ the follow up question will be, ‘how much is enough?’”

 

The same question runs through my head when a Bentley’s horn trumpets the so-expendable-it-hurts-income of its owner as it lumbers through traffic. Or when a Rolls Royce makes itself a parade of one in the city.

 

In August this year, the tax on imported used cars was increased to hinder imports, curb inflation and reduce traffic’s burden on the city’s infrastructure. If owning a luxury car means having to absorb an import tax of over 80 percent, plus a value added tax of 10 percent, a special consumption tax, and an extra VND105,000,000, I have to ask, “Why bother?”

 

Let it all hang out


‘Conspicuous consumption’ is a 100-year-old term first used by American Thorstein Veblin. At a time when many Americans were growing rich, it became important to show off wealth. The idea, a pretty basic one, is that buying more expensive products with the same function as cheaper alternatives signals your wealth to others.

 

Status symbols like this are everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, and most are in the shape of Audis, Ferraris, BMWs and Hummers. So why does it bother me? It’s a difficult question that maybe demands I admit to being a wide-eyed visitor to Vietnam who fantasized about life outside my home country’s worship of the dollar. The VND10 billion cars make me feel cheated out of some romantic city that never really existed anyway.

 

Or maybe it’s because the ‘conspicuous consumption’ in America has since morphed into ‘conspicuous conservation’. Donating to charities, buying energy saving hybrid cars and eating only organic food are now the symbols of wealth. Though perhaps still annoying, there’s at least the argument that this kind of status signifier does some good for the world.

 

Spending money that you have for an easier time getting along is logical. If you can afford a computer, an iPod, a camera, or anything smart to hold in your hands, it makes sense that you would buy those things. If you can afford to live in an apartment close to work, you might pay a higher rent for that convenience. Bathtubs, vitamins and insulated boots in winter are all in the same category. But driving cars that have been grossly overtaxed in a city that is ill-equipped to handle them is convenient for no one — neither the driver or the people who have to step to the side and wait for these wealth symbols to crawl through skinny streets.

 

To be clear, there are expensive looking things that turn my head. I like wearing fake gold jewelry; I like sitting on thick slabs of wooden furniture and drinking aged red wine out of tall-stemmed glasses. I’ve paid too much for vintage clothing and probably some of the pages in my passport.

 

And even if fancy cars impressed me, I think watching a Hummer shove itself down the narrow alleyways of Ba Dinh would still incite a mild rage. To me the act is akin to a child wearing a new, bulky, winter jacket to school in the summer, keeping it on in class, sweating a lot, and then filling up the whole room with his body odour. Only it’s less forgivable because the people who make these fancy-car purchases are not 11-years-old.

 

‘Conspicuous consumption’ only works because people agree on which things are desirable and which things matter. It’s why, for example, it means nothing to drive a hybrid car or have solar panels on your roof if you live in a town where no one thinks twice about throwing refuse and huge amounts of plastic bags onto the street.

 

So maybe driving around an unreasonably, overpriced and inconvenient vehicle is not the crime of a few attention seekers, but rather evidence of an emerging cultural value. Status over all else.

 

As a person in the thick of learning the somewhat complicated personal pronouns, I wonder about the value of age at the base of the language. Social status at any cost, to the outsider, appears to carry as much import as the wisdom and experience of age. Are the foundations wobbling? Or was that just a Lexus SUV passing?

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