Close to my work there is a man who sits on a street corner asking passers-by for money. He has to because he lost his legs below the knees some time ago. He looks to be the right age to have been involved in the American War (most people would know this conflict as the Vietnamese War), but it could have been the result of any sort of accident or malaise. I like this guy; he knows me by now and we wave to each other. He also has a terrific moustache that he keeps waxed in the Salvador Dali-style. I’d say he’d have some interesting stories.
One day I was heading back to work and I was walking over to him to give him my change from lunch when an approaching car caught my attention. I had never seen this car in person before but I instantly recognised what it was; a Rolls Royce Phantom. This is a car with a 6.8-litre V-12 engine which shits out 453 horsepower/720nm of torque. You can order it any of 44,000 paint colours and add teakwood trim, a drinks cabin, even a roof which incorporates hundreds of tiny fibre optics to give the impression of a star-filled night sky. It has a six-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive. It is over 2.6 metric tonnes but it can still jump to 100km/h in well under six seconds and has a top speed of 249 km/h. Though, considering that the average car on a Saigonese road probably doesn’t go above 15 km/h, I’d say you’d rarely utilise this feature.
But its speed and power are not the reasons this car was purchased, it is a signal to everyone how much money the owner has; it is the very definition of conspicuous consumption.
If you think this car would likely be expensive, then you’re only half right. It would be expensive in the United States where it retails for around USD$1 million, but what you may not know to that Vietnamese consumers seeking to purchase a new, imported vehicle are required to pay an additional 70-100 percent tax.
I was actually watching USD$2 million worth of car sail past a man with no legs, begging on the street. I handed to him, the sad amount of dong I had in my hand and continued on my way. There wasn’t anything to say.
This car doesn’t just drive around the streets of Sai Gon; it drives around the ever widening gap between the very rich and very poor in Viet Nam. We have gone beyond the Haves and the Have-Nots. We have entered the era of the Have-Nots and the Have–Yachts.