03/26/2013 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Vietnam in Transition: When Consumers Worship at the Altar of the Shopping Mall

In Vietnam there's new horde of consumers with dispensable income and a penchant for luxury goods and real estates overseas. Small but growing in number, they follow the footstep of their Chinese predecessors to travel the world as shop-til-you-drop-tourists. They have Gucci, Shiseido, Nokia and ipods, and some with luxury condos on their minds. And Hai, a friend I met some years ago in Saigon, has become one of them.

Though he spent a few days in San Francisco, he did not want to see the Golden Gate Bridge, did not visit Chinatown nor was he curious about Fisherman's Warf. The ocean or park didn't thrill him, either, nor the ride on the cable car. And when I pointed Russian Hill's shimmering skyline at dusk he felt obliged to take a picture. Otherwise he was bored. All he wanted to do was shop and eat at the best restaurants and having me take photos of him doing so. Otherwise he was on the Internet or on his cell phone to talk, yes, what else, shopping. He checked out real estate prices, took pictures and texted them back to his friends and business partners in Vietnam.

And he also had a list of luxury goods he "needed to buy," and since he spoke very little English, I was, besides driver and host and photographer, his interpreter.

Until the last few years, the Vietnamese economy had been growing fast and furious. Since the cold war ended, and especially since the US normalized with its former enemy in 1997, Vietnam's economy has been on a steady rise. The GDP average growth had hovered somewhere between 7 to 10 percent annually for nearly a decade. It has slowed down in the last few years but the wealth remains palpable among certain class. Indeed, Vietnam may wear the hammer and sickle on her sleeve but her heart throbs with commerce and capitalism.

Rather, it's the age of the red bourgeoisie. And Vietnam is rushing toward consumerist society at a breakneck speed without so much as a backward glance. If religion was once the opiate of the masses, and ideology the cause of revolution, than money has replaced both and converted everyone, young and old, to worship at the brand new altar of Vietnam called the shopping mall.

This new revolution comes with its own vocabulary.

Song voi: To live fast, to hurry life and spend it away.

Dua doi: To be competitive, to be greedy, to keep up with the Joneses.

Van hoa toc do: Speed culture; culture that moves along at high speed.

Lo Co: Borrowed from "local," a term too describe someone who's backward, a yokel, or cheap goods that are made in Vietnam. None of Hai's friends, he would tell you, is Lo Co. He prefers Viet Kieu like me, Vietnamese who return from overseas.

Si-tret: Stress. Vietnamese have appropriated this word to describe the upwardly mobile. One is si-tret, for instance, while text messaging in one's cell phone while talking on another about one business deal.

In that world, to be able to spend $200 dollars on a bottle of wine or $340 dollar Gucci shirt is to be the envy of all. It's a world of one-upmanship where at dinner among friends, the first thing one does is to leave his new cell phone on the table to show that he'd acquired the latest technology. In fact, Vietnam has more cell phones than China per capita - 130 million cell phones for a population of 90 million. To be rich in Vietnam is indeed glorious. And to be rich requires showing off - and lately, by traveling and shopping overseas.

After all, Vietnam has its first billionaire recently confirmed by Forbes named Pham Nhat Vuong. Others are coming up.

These post ideological elites - children of business family or high ranking communist members - are now living in a world steep in wealth and luxury, a world that their parents couldn't possibly imagine a generation or two ago when they wore black pajamas and stood in line to buy rice from state-owed stores.

But it's a country of dazzling wealth and humiliating poverty. Thousands of rice farmers are currently being displaced so Vietnam can build it's projected 140 golf courses. While human trafficking has become a major scourge in the country, a true communist politburo wouldn't be caught dead these days without a Lexus and a Rolex and at least five servants in his villa. While the yearly per capita income is $1,200 dollars in 2010, luxury brands like Shiseido, Prada, Bvlgari, Hermes are becoming increasingly common consumer goods. According a survey by advertising and marketing agency a few years ago, 68 percent of youngsters say brand is their biggest concern when buying, and 73 percent are ready to pay more for products with high quality.

My friend Hai was obsessed with belts; he has a collection of them by top designers. On his last shopping day, we spent four hours at Hermes. We tested the patience of the young saleswoman who called and searched on line for a blue belt with a big silver buckle in the shape the letter H from all over the country while we sipped our cappuccino.

When she failed to find one, Hai complained in Vietnamese: "I didn't know San Francisco's so limiting. They have more choices in Bangkok. "

I held my tongue but the young woman asked, so I translated. She apologized. Then quietly, she asked. "So, are you from Vietnam as well?"

I wanted to tell her that long ago I fled as a refugee. That when Saigon fell in 1975 and was renamed it Ho Chi Minh City the new regime got rid of the bourgeois class like me and my family and sent many others to re-education camps and new economic zones, our homes confiscated. Others fled out to sea as boat people. Many died.

But if Hanoi aimed to create a classless society it failed and the opposite had happened. They found a life of luxury in the abandoned villas irresistible. When the cold war ended, so began the age of status conscious, money-grabbing, hyper-materialistic society the likes Vietnam had never seen before in its long, wretched history.

"No," I told the saleswoman, thinking of Joan Didion's book about greed and extravagance. "But it's where I was from."

The above article has been updated from East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres". Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award. His latest book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants struggling to rebuild their lives in the Bay Area after a painful exodus, was recently published by Red Hen Press. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities. Listen to his interview on Forum with Michael Krasny.