The color of small money

September 09, 2010  •  1 Comment

The hill people of South East Asia– the montagnards – have little interest to national borders and many of them fought for South Vietnam and the US. Many were , in fact, quite happy to be armed and supplied to fight against the Kinh (Viet) people who make up nearly 90% of the whole population. After the war, the victorious Viet made life uncomfortable for many montagnards, obliterating their traditional villages and moving to people to concrete camps in less desirable areas where their income is virtually nothing and pitiful even when compared to the small income of the working class Vietnamese in 1998.

I, of course, knew little of the details until my second trip to Vietnam in March, 1998, just after the country opened for tourism. The first 2 weeks I toured the southern half of the country, seeing where I had been stationed, visiting the nominal 'tourist' sites and then, at the end of the second week, I ended up in Hanoi. Hanoi is a charming city with the famous central lake and a very interesting old section. The main part of the city is very continental with wide sidewalks with lots of trees and, even then, a good number of cafes to serve tourist. I had been to see the quite grand Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh's body, amazingly well-preserved by Russian embalmers, was displayed. (Supposedly every year, the body is shipped back to Moscow for a refurbishing.)

The 4 abreast lines are quite long and tourists must go to a special booth to buy a ticket while all Vietnamese are admitted free. Behavior in the lines is quite strict, no loud talking, no crouching, no chewing gum, all enforced by the guards that line the route. It was unclear where the line actually started and, when I approached a guard, holding my ticket, he ushered me over to near the head of the line where the crowd made room for this unusual visitor. In 98, caucasians were an unsual sight in HCM city and to the people in line, many of whom were from the country, a foreigner was really a target for their interest.

After seeing "Uncle Há lying looking quite good, especially considering he was dead, I went for a long walk. Most shops in Hanoi are of the old style, their entire front is a door which is rolled up at the start of the day and the goods moved onto the wide sidewalk. It was immensely enjoyable to walk along the street of shops looking at the goods for sale, trying to guess what the unknown foods in indecipherable – to me – packages. It was in this neighborhood that I first encountered a montagnard.

The montagnards are quite small, much smaller even than the average viet and when I saw this tiny woman holding a sleepy toddler, mutely begging from passersby, it was her incredible small stature that I noticed first. Even with her worn face, she looked too small even to have reached puberty let alone actually borne  a child. She was dressed in traditional clothing, quite ragged, and with the kind of head wrap that would have identified her tribe if I had been so educated.

She didn't approach people but stayed still on the outer edge of the wide sidewalk, the toddler heavily asleep and held by one arm and her other arm out with her hand cupped.

Before coming abreast of her, I had stopped at a storefront for a drink; Hanoi even in March is warm, especially for me coming from a frigid US East coast. The shopkeper bustled over, pulling a plastic chair for me to sit. As I st the montagnard woman moved down the sidewalk, not approaching me but taking up a position on the very edge of the wide sidewalk closest to me, not attempting to make eye contact, but clearly waiting on me to stand. Seeing her approach, the storekeeper took after her with a loud spray of words, as small as she was, still towering over the montangard women who retreated ten steps down the sidewalk and resumed her stance.

For all the obvious reasons, I am not comfortable giving money to beggars and I particularly didn't want to hand anyone a bill which, even from a distance could be identified by all who watched. And here is why the color of Vietnamese money is important.

The Vietnamese have no usable coins; coins are expensive to mint and manage whereas paper is not.  At that time bills ranged in worth from the equivalen of one quarter of a cent, the smallest 'small money' to the equivalent of about $2.50 dollars. Clearly changing money means one walks away with a bundle of notes.  To make distinguishing bills easier  two systems are relied upon.

The larger denomination notes are approximately the size of US currency and the separate denominations are indicated both by number and by color. The small money is actually much smaller in dimension and also uses the color and denomination markings to separate the worth. While sitting there drinking my orange drink, I picked through the bale of money in my neck wallet, took a green bill from my pocket and folded it in a small compact little square which I cupped in my hand. As I stood up to leave and walked down the sidewalk, I motioned to the Montagnard woman to come over and I dropped the little rectangle in her hand.

She made the traditional wai gesture of respect and thanks and then turned and scurried away. (The wai is the Thai greeting and show of respect, indicated by pressing ones palms together near your chest and bowing. (The height of the wai and the depth of the bow indicates the amount of respect).  I was walking in the same direction as she and I could see her head tilted, almost certainly unfolding the money. She stopped, stood still and turned around to face me. I had stopped also, when she did, not wanting to come up on her.

She had seen that what she had almost certainly expected a green bill small money worth 1000 dhong, or about 5 cents US was actually a green 50,000 dhong note, worth about $2.50 US – perhaps food for a week for Seeing me just a few steps away, she hurried back towards me, stopped and made wai again, higher hands, bowing deeper, holding for what seemed like forever and then she disappeared up an alley.

To this day, twelve years later, I haven't sorted out how I feel about that incident. The only coherent thought I do have is that I am sad, maybe ashamed, that what was so little, nothing, for me should be so much for someone.


The pictures below are of a Hmong man in the fog above SaPa and of Montagnard children playing near a school in a 'resettlement' village.


Hmong man in fog


little boy on porch of school

smilking little boy



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This post is very thoughtful one. it is true that after a war public will face a tough time. It happens in all cases. Next coming to denomination, It is also something to be a concerned topic when compiling to public.
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