Vietnam: Power lines, bottle openers, Mr Smith and Ms Jacobs.

I have just returned from a two week holiday in Vietnam expectedly with a wide range of observations with which to tire friends and relatives. There are a few though that relate heavily to economics and the sociology of markets and capitalism which are probably more of interest to a Troppodillian audience (and can thus mask my self indulgence). So here’s a handful of minor ones with another longer one Vietnamese capitalism and sympathy in a day or two.

There is an almost universal tendency for buildings to be very narrow and very tall (3 metres at most wide, and four stories at least tall). I am told that this is due to land tax that is levied based on footprint. The unintended effect of this regulation in many urban environments is to create an atmosphere as appealing to me as the sprawl caused by regulation here and in the US in unappealing. The extensive street level commerce (there is still an astounding lack of real commerical real estate) also contributes. 10 points to both Adam Smith and Jane Jacobs. On the other hand when there is a lonely slim tower emerging from a rice paddy like the last fang of a geriatric tiger, the effect is mainly bemusing.

What is not appealing is the unruly and disturbing masses of powerlines, many of which trail loose wires and are used by vendors to suspend goods and equipment. I was also told the majority of the wiring is dead, and when wiring died it was replaced without removing the old wire. This is a sort of accelerating public goods problem. The more people fail to contribute by removing their old wire, the more costly it becomes for others to find their own old wire and contribute by removing it. The example in the photo is far far far from the worst example we saw.

Walking in Hanoi traffic is a wonderful lesson in the efficacy of simple informal rules followed universally. The wide boulevards of Saigon, which also had traffic lights, were far less pedestrian friendly, despite having navigable footpaths. 

There is a strangely large diversity in signs indicating the presence of  pedestrians crossing. Whilst a handful obviously indicated children, and the rest merely people in general, there seemed no difference in meaning between them. The idiosyncrasies of the figures within led me to start naming them, e.g The Running Man, The Strut, Busting to Go, Walking Through the Bindie Patch and Keep on Truckin’. A wide variety of these signs could be found along single stretches of road, including newly built roads, so they can’t be attributed to either regional designs or changing designs over time. Maybe the government sources signs from many suppliers at once?

At one tiny footpath restaurant where we stopped to wait out a burst of monsoonal rain our bottle opener was a piece of wood with a bolt through it, the nut not fastened all the way down. It was the nut that gripped the bottle cap and bent it off. There was about 10 of these in the owner’s possession. I can’t imagine it being cheaper than a real bottle opener in an age of Chinese manufacture, nor can I imagine it was designed to appeal to those who might find it interesting and blog about it later (a group that is likely N=1). Another minor engima.

A few less economics related ones which I want to throw in anyway. The visitors to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (mainly domestic Vietnamese) were all wearing shorts and thongs or sandals. This is probably due to the fact they (literally) had to wade knee deep through water to get there. It did do something to undermine, or at least soften, the intimidation or reverence that may have been desired (or this could have been the loud squelching my Dunlop Volleys made as I walked past the mummy). The nearby museum had a large exhibit on the history of socialism. It says a lot that the exhibit on Fascism, based on Picasso’s Guernica, was by far the least abstract element.

Many of the old temples and ruined ancient sites had disinterested dogs wandering around and one could often find someone in a hammock just round the back watching one of the innumerable adaptations of Journey to the West broadcast each day. Strangely this made things simply seem more authentic.

Speaking of Vietnamese TV, foreign shows (including Play School) were often dubbed into Vietnamese. The problem being that there was a sum total of one voice actor, who would use the same monotone for every character, regardless of age, gender or emotional state.

And lastly, I expected many French tourists due to the colonial connection, but they were very thin on the ground in Hanoi. This had exploded into a large plurality amongst foreigners by the time we got to Central Vietnam. I can’t quite understand this dispraity.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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13 years ago

The lesson is clear that if you’re going to sensibly resource tax land use and thereby reduce man-made footprints, you also need to have general ‘new’ resource taxing which would of course see those ugly wires recycled and reused. Just have to get the ying and yang of the pricing right.