San Jose Mercury News

September 29, 2003

 

Vietnam nouveau riche zooms into view

Arrested drag racers reflect capitalism taking root

 

By BEN STOCKING, Mercury News Vietnam Bureau

 

HO CHI MINH CITY — Wealthy young rebels without a cause, they ran wild in the streets, racing $50,000

luxury cars down the boulevards of old Saigon. And then they got nabbed — in Vietnam’s

first drag-racing bust.

 

Seven joy riders, all in their teens and 20s, had roared through the hot tropical night in a

Camry, a Lexus, a Mercedes and three BMWs. Soon they would appear on national

television wearing pinstriped jailhouse jumpsuits, and their recklessness would unleash

resentment across the country, where the average annual income is $420.

 

The sensational case offered a vivid glimpse into the lives of Vietnam’s nouveau riche,

whose sometimes decadent habits are as unfamiliar to ordinary Vietnamese as the leather

upholstery of the bright yellow Mercedes one of the young men was driving.

He is known as Do La — Vietnamese for dollar — because he is reputed to pay for

everything with U.S. currency.

 

And when he and his friends were pulled over for drag racing, 21-year-old Nguyen

Quoc Cuong proved true to his nickname. He pulled a $10,000 wad from his pocket,

police say, and offered four $100 bills to the cops, hoping the cash would wash his

problems away.

 

It didn’t.

 

Cuong and his pals were convicted of disturbing the public order Sept. 8, four months

after their midnight thrill ride. He received a 3-year suspended sentence, and five other

young men received 18-month suspended sentences. The seventh — a high school student

accused of organizing the race — was sent to jail for three years.

 

The Mercedes and BMWs, which belonged to the boys’ dismayed parents, were

confiscated. The Camry and the Lexus, which two of the boys “borrowed” from their

parents’ car repair shops, were returned to their owners.

 

Rich kids in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — still widely known by its old name of

Saigon — had been arrested for terrorizing the public on fancy motorbikes many times

before. But this was the first time the police had broken up a car race.

 

Cars make up just 6 percent of the vehicles on Vietnam’s roads, which teem with

motorbikes. But as the nation’s economy has boomed in recent years, the number of

automobiles has been growing quickly. And among the affluent, a Mercedes or a BMW

has become de rigueur.

 

The hot-rodding episode underlined how out of sync Vietnam’s crusty communist

image has become with the freewheeling frontier capitalism that is taking root here. The

seven boys are the children of successful private entrepreneurs, including a Central

Highlands lumber tycoon and a Saigon textile magnate.

 

“A $50,000 car is nothing for this family,” said Truong Thi Cao Cac, 38, who lives next

door to Mai Dang Khoa, a 25-year-old racer who worked in his parents’ textile business.

Cac watched Khoa’s family transform their small household sewing operation into

Thuan Phuong Co., one of the biggest garment companies in Saigon.

 

Ordinary Vietnamese such as Le Binh Thuan were awed by newspaper accounts of the

racers’ wealth.

 

“They spend as much as they want on whatever they want,” said Thuan, who juggles

several part-time jobs, takes home about $65 a month and gets around the city on a

bicycle.

 

According to Vietnamese press accounts, Cuong earned his nickname when he was just

11 years old by paying exclusively with U.S. dollars, which are circulated widely in

Vietnam.

 

Cuong’s mother, Nguyen Thi Nhu Loan, owns the Cuoc Cuong timber company, which

is based in the Central Highlands. She recently bought Cuong a home in Saigon worth

about $350,000, according to a story on VN Express, a Vietnamese Web newspaper.

 

A few doors down is the furniture business Cuong’s mother helped him set up. Stocked

with puffy sofas and easy chairs, it is a couch potato’s paradise.

 

Media accounts portrayed two of the young men as loafers who spent their time

spending their parents’ money. The youngest, 18 years old, is still in high school.

Cuong, his friends and their parents declined several requests by the Mercury News for

interviews.

 

The mother of Trinh Sam Mau, the alleged race organizer, called her son’s sentence

“completely unfair.”

 

“He received three years in prison. Why did the other kids only get suspended

sentences?” said Ha Ngoc, saying she was too sad to discuss the case in detail.

 

Lt. Col. Truong Van Thuyet led the 16 officers who chased down the young men in

front of a large crowd that had gathered to watch the race along Dien Bien Phu street, an

eight-lane divided boulevard. Two cars eluded officers; four others were nabbed.

 

“It was Cuong who tried to give us $400,” said Thuyet, whose $140 monthly salary is

the highest in his department. “He had about $10,000 in cash in his pocket.”

 

Most of it was in $100 bills, and Cuong suggested the officers use the $400 to buy

themselves some coffee, Thuyet said.

 

Tram, tram, tram, tram! Thuyet said, repeating the Vietnamese word for 100 with a

look of disbelief on his face.

 

The young men raced along a one-mile straightaway at speeds of up to 70 mph,

whipped around a traffic circle and then headed back toward downtown. They were

caught just as they crossed a bridge over the Saigon River.

 

The roar of engines and blaring stereos awoke Nguyen Van Quang, who sleeps inside

the tiny bar where he works.

 

“Everybody around here is very angry about the racing,” Quang said.

 

Earlier this year, he said, rich kids would show up every weekend to race their highpriced

motorbikes along the same road. Young men did the driving, he said, and

sometimes their elegant girlfriends would sit on the back, hugging them tightly as they

tore up the road.

 

Earlier this month, three youths died and two were badly injured racing their

motorbikes in another part of the city.

 

Not so long ago, extravagant displays of wealth were frowned upon in Vietnam, where

the Communist government used to demonize businessmen as exploiters of the working

class.

 

But in recent years, as it has opened up the economy, the government has been

portraying capitalism as a force for social improvement — a way of generating jobs and

income in a developing country yearning to raise its standard of living. The government

holds up successful entrepreneurs as role models and honors them with Gold Star awards.

 

At the same time, the rich have become less shy about displaying their money. It is

perfectly common for the well-off to drop $500 during an evening of fun.

 

Though Do La and his friends are refusing to discuss their lavish lifestyle or anything

else about their case, their recklessness has enraged many of their less affluent fellow

citizens, who seem embarrassed that such a thing could happen in Vietnam.

 

Lai Hai Nhu, a 21-year-old university student, said the young men seemed to have

squandered the opportunities their wealth had given them. One of the racers had lived her

dream, going abroad to study for several months.

 

“Most of the young people in Vietnam are not like this,” Nhu said. “Other students go

study abroad, and then they come back and use their knowledge to help the country.”