`Dear Vietnamese relative living abroad: please send cash'. Vietnamese officials try new way of bringing in foreign exchange

In John Updike's 1978 novel ``The Coup,'' a US official tried to trigger a mass uprising in an African Marxist state by building up a mountain of American breakfast cereal boxes on the border. A similar idea is being tried in Vietnam today, albeit with a different aim: trying to instigate Vietnamese to write their overseas relatives and request them to send US dollars and other hard currency to a poverty-stricken nation. Next month, Japanese motorcyles, South Korean appliances, American-brand cigarettes, French wines, and other imported goods will be stacked up and ready for sale in a five-story building in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). ``Join the Sanyo family,'' states one advertisement in the new store.

But this consumer's paradise will only be accessible to Vietnamese with hard foreign exchange. They can buy the expensive goods in what is known as Intershop Saigon, located in a former department store from the pre-1975 capitalist days of South Vietnam. The rest of Vietnamese society must get by with such socialist wares as Soviet-made cars or Bulgarian toothpaste.

By most estimates, nearly 1 million Vietnamese live overseas as a result of past wars against the French and Americans. About half of them reside in the US, earning far more than their former countrymen.

Desperate for foreign currency, Vietnam's Communist Party announced a more liberal policy allowing Vietnamese to legally receive money and goods from overseas. Before April, for instance, packages could be received only four times a year.

Officials hope to reduce the large illegal dollar flow that has gone on for nearly 12 years and to channel the money through government banks. Some Western analysts say remittances in the late '70s from overseas helped run Vietnam's war-torn economy.

For Vietnamese in the US, sending dollars can be difficult, since the Reagan administration's anti-Hanoi policies include a ban on direct bank transfers to Vietnam. Despite the ban, US officials estimate over $200 million flow from the US to Vietnam every year through banks in Canada, London, or Paris.

``We want the money. But we don't want all the luxury goods that are sent in, such as beauty aids and radios. So we try to sell the same items here,'' explains Nguyen Minh Cam, director of Cosevina, the new agency set up to act as a one-stop service agency for Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City to receive their money and packages.

Until April, money sent legally into Vietnam had to be converted into local currency at an official exchange rate far lower than that on the black market - still not a bargain but enough to make people seriously think twice about risking illegal transactions. This was a major cause of the illegal money flow. After April, the official rate for legally transfered money was raised to about half of the street rate - still not a bargain, but better than before.

Mr. Cam estimates that the legal money flow through Cosevina has almost doubled to about $200,000 a month since the new rules took effect. The state Foreign Bank pays no interest on the funds, and can use money not withdrawn. Cam hopes the government will approve an even higher exchange rate early in 1988.

Cosevina is the largest of four such conduits for overseas money and goods in Vietnam, all of them controlled by the party's Central Commission for Overseas Vietnam. The commission was founded in the 1950s to enlist the aid of overseas compatriots in the war effort.

The party's stated purpose for the new liberal rules is to attract raw materials and small-scale production equipment in helping develop Vietnam's new private businesses.

Since December, when new reformist party leaders were selected, Vietnamese in major cities have been allowed to set up their own businesses and employ five to 10 nonfamily workers.

But according to some Western analysts, the new terms on money and goods from overseas is a way to gain the loyalties of anti-government Vietnamese in the south. These analysts say the programs drive a wedge between two camps of overseas Vietnamese: those neutral toward Hanoi and those openly opposing it. ``In the West, they say if you send money you are supporting communism,'' says Pham Khac Hong, director of the Commission's secretariat in Hanoi. Also, he says, the illegal entries were undermining party and government because of the massive corruption it spread.

Cosevina and the other services provide special imported materials, such as cement or metal roofing, that only those Vietnamese with dollars can buy. And they organize homecoming trips for overseas Vietnamese. Such trips have quadrupled in the past year, says Cam.

To increase the money flow, local officials organize ``mass agitation'' in their various districts to persuade people to write their relatives, says Cam. ``We hold meetings frequently and explain the policies to the people. The local leaders know who has relatives abroad.''

The first three floors of the new Intershop Saigon have been used since late 1986 to sell to tourists, visiting overseas Vietnamese, or Vietnamese officials returning home with dollars to spend. But next month the top floors will open with extra displays of goods allowing any Vietnamese with hard currency to buy there.

To add to the attraction, a high-quality cafeteria and a disco are being built on the top floor.

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