Thanksgiving Day all about currency in Vietnam

The customary rap on American holidays is that they’ve become increasingly commercial endeavors, sometimes to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. It’s impossible to disagree, but for a little perspective, consider the Thanksgiving Day golf outing I played in at the Vietnam Golf & Country Club, in outlying Ho Chi Minh City. It was all business.

Not the golf itself, which was a delightful affair with about 40 participants, mostly expats, playing a scramble. Purists will, I realize, argue that such a format is not real golf, but it’s always seemed appropriate for an event like this, which included refueling stations sponsored by Budweiser every few holes.

The weather was warm but not sweltering, and the West Course at Vietnam Golf & Country Club was in great shape, the rainy season having ended weeks ago. Designed by Taiwanese architect Chen King Shih and opened in 1994, it is half of Vietnam’s first 36-hole facility. Lee Trevino designed the East Course, which opened in 1997. With about 1,000 members – although the club accepts outside play, mostly on weekdays, based on availability — VGCC is among the best-run facilities in the country.

But on Thanksgiving Day, the talk among golfers was all about money, specifically the more than 5 percent currency devaluation the government had imposed the day before on the Vietnamese dong. This was coupled with an interest rate hike, from 7 percent to 8 percent, which put Vietnam among the few countries to raise lending rates during the ongoing global effort to stabilize the economy.

Though it may seem paradoxical, the strategy is intended to combat inflation, since it seeks to reduce the trade deficit, which reached $1.75 billion in November, with exports having declined 11.4 percent since January. The inflation rate climbed to 4.35 percent in November.

The dong was last devalued a year ago, and indications are that this is one increment in a progression of similar moves, which are in turn a reaction to what’s been an overheated economy in the last decade or so. One clue to this pattern is to be found in the disparity between the official bank rate – just less than 18,000 dong per US dollar – and the black-market rate, which is as high as 19,700 and expected to go higher.

So the mood among golfers I spoke with, many of whom are in manufacturing, was more like chagrin than shock. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that something had to happen – although most people polled had expected remedial action to be postponed until early 2010, and the devaluation was a surprise in that sense.

At the same time, prices are rising here in a way that’s palpable. To an American observer, a comparable experience would be increases in gasoline prices during the last two summer seasons, with retail prices rising on a weekly, or even daily, basis.

The perplexing, apparently contradictory nature of the country’s economic prospects is perfectly reflected in news from the previous week. A survey from Pricewaterhouse Coopers forecasts Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, easily Vietnam’s two largest cities, as ranking first and second among the world’s 30 cities with the highest growth rates between 2008 and 2025.

Annual gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to expand at an average rate of 7 percent during this period; and the survey predicts that Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will be “among the most prominent cities in the world by 2025,” whatever that may mean.

As demonstrated by our own example in the United States, no linear correlation exists between raw GDP and quality of life. But even marginal news like the country’s currency ambiguities, while worth contemplating, isn’t likely to ruin a perfectly good day of golf here.

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