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A Sunday at the supermarket

Rodion Ebbinghausen / gbDecember 17, 2012

A new middle class emerged for the first time in Vietnam in the 1990s. It has won a few freedoms, but remains fragile. Now, the global economic crisis threatens to undo the achievements.

Vietnamesischer Supermarkt Schlagworte: Vietnam, Supermarkt, Wochenende Wer hat das Bild gemacht/Fotograf?: N. X. Thang Wann wurde das Bild gemacht?: 09.12.2012 Wo wurde das Bild aufgenommen?: Hanoi, Supermarkt Sieu Thi Bildbeschreibung: Bei welcher Gelegenheit / in welcher Situation wurde das Bild aufgenommen? Während des Verkaufs am Sonntag Wer oder was ist auf dem Bild zu sehen? Menschen im Supermarkt Rechteeinräumung: Hiermit räume ich der Deutschen Welle das Recht ein, das/die von mir bereitgestellte/n Bild/er zeitlich, räumlich und inhaltlich unbeschränkt zu nutzen. Ich versichere, dass ich das/die Bild/er selbst gemacht habe und dass ich die hier übertragenen Rechte nicht bereits einem Dritten zur exklusiven Nutzung eingeräumt habe. Sofern ich das hiermit zugesandte Bild nicht selbst gemacht, sondern von einem Dritten, dem o.g. Fotografen, zugeliefert bekommen habe, versichere ich, dass mir dieser Dritte die zeitlich, räumlich und inhaltlich unbeschränkten Nutzung auf der Internet Plattform DW-WORLD.DE übertragen hat und mir schriftlich versichert hat, dass er das/die Bild/er selbst gemacht und die Rechte hieran nicht bereits Dritten zur exklusiven Nutzung eingeräumt hat. Vollständiger Name des Zulieferers: N. X. Thang Postanschrift inkl. Land: Hanoi, Son Dong, Hatay, Duong 1 Mail-Adresse:
Image: N. X. Thang

"Supermarket, supermarket, supermarket" cries Mai Chi, the four-year-old daughter of Tuyen and Lien, as she bounces up and down on her parent's bed. She can hardly wait to get going. Like many families in Vietnam's new middle class, the Nguyens spend Sunday at the supermarket in Hanoi.

"Sunday is the only day the whole family can be together and do something," says Tuyen. "I work 50 hours a week, and then there is the three-hour commute every day. So there is not much time. At the supermarket, children can play and parents can take care of some shopping."

Emerging middle class

The first supermarkets in Vietnam were so exclusive that only the rich could afford to shop there. Today, things are different because the government launched a reform program in 1986 under the motto "Doi Moi," or renewal.

Vietnam, Supermarkt, Wochenende, Menschen im Supermarkt.
Supermarkets are a big draw for Vietnam's middle classImage: DW/N. Thang

Instead of the centrally-planned commando economy, the government moved toward an economic model that offered people more freedoms and latitude. And with those freedoms, the country grew more affluent. "A middle class developed in the course of this reform process," Gerhard Will, an expert on Vietnam from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told DW.

The Nguyens belong to the first generation to benefit from these reforms. Both were born at the end of the 1970s and achieved a degree of economic success through the boom years around the turn of the millennium that their parents would have never even dreamed of.

The older generation is suspicious of the country's economic development. When Tuyen comes home with a new kitchen gadget or toy for Mai Chi, his parents and grandparents are skeptical, asking whether it was really necessary, or whether it wouldn't be better to save the money for bad times.

Crumbling prosperity

And perhaps the older generation isn't wrong. As a consequence of the 2007 global economic downturn, Vietnam's economic prospects have dimmed. Economist Adam Fforde, from the University of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, left no doubts in an interview with DW. "The economic crisis in Vietnam is serious," he said.

Infografik Vietnam Wirtschaftsindikatoren Deutsch DW-Grafik: Olof Pock Datum 14.11.2012 2012_11_14 Vietnam_ENG
Toxic combination: Inflation is high and economic output is slipping

Inflation - at 7 percent in October 2012 - was shrinking incomes, Fforde stressed. Property values have dropped, so that many families are paying off loans that are worth more than their homes, he added, while the costs for education and health were rising.

"The expenditures, which in some cases are enormous, are not worth the money," says Vietnam expert Will, pointing out that the education system needed to be reformed and the health system was corrupt. Academic degrees are more often bought and sold, or lent to party loyalists, than actually earned, he noted. “It costs a lot of money just for a band-aid or a vaccination,” he said.

Little self-confidence

The ups and downs of Vietnam's economy hit the emerging middle class the hardest. The last few years threaten to reverse the achievements of the past. The middle class is crumbling before it could really establish itself. "The middle class has experienced considerable restrictions at the economic and political level," says Will.

Despite the dismal outlook, there have been no protests worth mentioning. "No opposition will come from the middle class. There is just too little self-confidence within the group about its own strength," notes Will. "People are afraid they could lose everything they have worked so hard for over the years if there was upheaval or sweeping change," he says.

Tuyen, meanwhile, is banking on his own strength. "Protesting against the government is useless. But, betting on the government is also useless. You have to believe in your own abilities," he said.

A TV screen set up in a media room in courthouse, shows Vietnamese journalists Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, back left, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien newspaper, back right, and also two police officers Dinh Van Huynh, front second from left, and Pham Xuan Quac, front right, during their trial in Hanoi,Vietnam, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008. Two Vietnamese journalists went on trial Tuesday in Hanoi for allegedly writing false information in reports about one of the country's most high-profile corruption cases. Two police officers who allegedly provided information to the two journalists also went on trial Tuesday on charges of "deliberately revealing state secrets." (AP Photo/ Vu Tien Hong)
Blogger Nguyen Van Hai, alias Dieu Cay (standing at left), was sentenced to 12 years in jail.Image: AP

The future used to be worse

What's more, since the crisis began, the government has grown extremely nervous and is clamping down on regime critics. "The guilty verdicts against bloggers are a signal to the others," notes Will. In October, the popular blogger Dieu Cay was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

A day after his DW interview, Tuyen sent a text message. He was at work and his daughter in kindergarten: "Times are more difficult than before the big crisis. Maybe Vietnam has bigger problems than the western countries, but compared to the situation 20 or 30 years ago, we are still doing well."