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In Đà Nẵng, a Vintage Money Aficionado Forgoes Professorship for Life in the Night Market

What gives one’s life meaning? For some, it’s faith, family or art. For Trần Văn Nam, it’s money, but not in the way you probably imagine.

Cellphone cases, dried squid, vape pens, sunglasses, wallets, bắp xào and tourist shirts: Đà Nẵng’s night market sells the same cheap tourist goods as nearly every bazaar across the country. When Saigoneer visited this past summer to kill some time, we certainly didn’t expect to discover the stories behind a few of the country’s more than 270 different historical banknotes. But that was exactly what we stumbled upon when we found Nam, an expert on Vietnamese currency. He shared some astounding tales about the multicolor array of bills in front of him, but because of our flight, we were not able to hear more until a second visit last month.

In Đà Nẵng, the night market is a land of unexpected treasures.

“Life is meaningful if we have hobbies,” Nam says regarding his decision to collect banknotes. One of his university professors who shares the pastime suggested that Nam dedicate himself more fully to the practice and he was eventually able to turn it into a career through dedicated hustling and passion. The welcoming attitude and smile that accompany his enthusiasm probably help him succeed as well.

You likely know that during Vietnam’s subsidiary period, one needed coupons to obtain everything from sugar to gasoline. But you maybe hadn’t thought to wonder how you’d go about getting a new bicycle. There wasn’t a slip of paper entitling one to an entire bike, Nam explained. Rather, you’d need separate coupons for different pieces and thus travel around gathering components piecemeal to put the bike together. One such coupon is a prized item in his vast collection of currencies, though he only brings more common ones with him to the night market every day.

Vouchers for parts of a bike and rice during Vietnam's coupon period.

Not long ago, Nam was well on his way to a career as a university lecturer. The 30-year-old was born in Hà Nam and in 2011, he received a scholarship to complete his undergraduate degree in Indonesia and later, a scholarship to Japan to pursue a master's degree in environmental studies. It seemed like a fairly conventional trajectory into a stable life of academia, but he instead decided to heed the call of currency. In 2017, while he was a graduate student, he had a lot of free time, so he started to sell some banknotes to tourists in the market in Huế and recognized the potential to earn a living from it. When he received his master’s degree in Japan in 2019, he turned down an opportunity to resume his lecturer position at Thái Nguyên University of Agriculture and Forestry, citing the poor salary in comparison to what he could earn by pursuing vintage banknotes full-time. After considering various cities such as Phú Quốc, Đà Lạt, Hội An, Nha Trang with strong tourism industries, he settled in Đà Nẵng because it had the best balance of tourists and a calm lifestyle to raise his two sons with his wife.

Nam owns a huge collection of old banknotes, but he only brings common ones to the market.

While Nam has some bills worth hundreds of millions of đồng, such as a 1,000 đồng South Vietnam note with elderly individuals on either side that was never issued into circulation, monetary worth doesn’t always equate value to him. Some of his favorite items are important for the stories they allow him to tell and the relationships they represent. One such piece, for example, is a coupon issued by the Hồ Chí Minh government in the north during the 1950s that entitled a person to a bag of rice. It was sold to him by a fellow collector who said that if he were to sell it to anyone else, their close friendship would be over.

After finishing school, Nam decided to pursue the vintage money trade full-time to provide for his family.

Why do Vietnamese hand out crisp two-dollar bills during Tết and carry them in their wallets for good luck? I’ve always wondered about this, particularly because in America, the bills are so rare that occasionally clerks will think they are fake if I try to use one. I’ve seen more here in Vietnam than during two decades of growing up in the US, perhaps. But despite their somewhat ubiquity, no Vietnamese has been able to explain why people like them other than a rather shallow response of “they’re lucky.” Nam, however, had an answer. Beyond the fact that two can be an auspicious number, the bills have historical importance because in 1976, a year with obvious significance for Vietnam’s relationship with America, they were re-issued with a new design to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of America’s founding. Moreover, a popular story whose veracity can not be confirmed, tells of a terrible plane crash that only one person emerged from alive. The survivor credits it to the lucky two-dollar bill he was carrying with him.

“Every country in the world, when they print a banknote, they will decide to put the most popular, famous or meaningful part of their country [on it]… based on that we can learn many things about that country, their history, their culture, their economies,” Nam explains when pressed for why he dedicates his life to objects that nearly everyone touches each day but rarely pauses to consider as a piece of artwork or receptacle of collective identity. Just take a look at the back of the bills in your wallet, for example. The images of factories, ports and agricultural endeavors reveal Vietnam’s economic expansions at the time of their design while Hạ Long Bay represents one of the nation’s most spectacular natural wonders and the Temple of Literature embodies the nation’s long tradition of emphasizing education and written scholarship.

A plethora of old notes on sale at Nam's stall.

Most of those designs were created well over twenty years ago while many other countries revise their bills every few years; Nam thinks Vietnam should do the same in order to share more about the country. If so he would like to see, as examples, images of rice, coffee and fruit to reflect how Vietnam is an agricultural country and underscore how the rhythms of agrarian lifestyles help shape modern Vietnamese culture. The fronts of the bills, of course, should still feature Hồ Chí Minh, he added.

Revamping Vietnam’s banknotes would also provide Nam business opportunities as they would attract interest from foreign collectors while the discontinued ones would begin to accumulate scarcity. He says that collectors abroad are interested in Vietnamese bills, particularly those dating back to the colonial period because currencies related to empires are particularly sought after. But coins? “No, we [Vietnamese] are not interested in coins,” Nam says before educating me on their expensive, inefficient qualities that mean you will not see people use or even accept them here, despite their remaining legal tender in the country.

Bills of small denominations from past decades.

One of Nam’s most refreshing qualities is his ability to balance an appreciation for banknotes as art and artifact with their utilitarian purposes for both the population at large and his occupation. This is particularly exemplified by his stance on the proliferation of e-commerce apps in recent years. He is glad that people can conveniently pay for things with e-wallets while noting that banknotes will not disappear from circulation anytime soon, and when they do, his collection will only become more valuable.

While the rise of e-commerce doesn’t pose a threat to Nam’s business, there are other challenges. The laws surrounding transferring and transporting currencies are strict and not written with consideration of money as a collectible. Thus, it’s technically illegal to import or exchange foreign banknotes if you are not a bank or licensed financial entity and having them sent via the postal system, which is common practice in the hobby, involves inherent risks. And despite his expansive knowledge, he cannot know everything and admits he has fallen victim to frauds or cheats in the past. But he considers those instances to be important learning experiences and interestingly, he also purposefully buys some of the many fakes produced in China to better understand the subtle paper quality or printing differences that reveal them to be counterfeits.

The VND10,000 banknote from just two decades ago, before the current polymer versions.

Vietnam’s humidity can cause havoc on paper money. Nam uses climate-controlled storage devices in his home in addition to other preservation methods, but those are not common among many of the people that own important collections that he and other enthusiasts rely on to find new pieces. He explained that many individuals throughout the country have large stores of paper money that date back to the transitional periods when notes were removed from circulation and individuals were only allowed to exchange a small percentage of what they may have possessed.

Purchasing the notes from people who have kept them for decades, as well as from fellow collectors, often requires more than just money. Many other collectors will only sell to people they know to ensure that they will be properly appreciated and cared for. During our conversations, Nam frequently mentioned the other people who share his interest and pointed out that they come from all types of backgrounds. The variety of bills and wide price ranges make the hobby accessible to rich businessmen and doctors along with street vendors and motorbike drivers he said. But amongst all people with an interest, Nam is one of the very few in Vietnam who has made it his full-time career and the only to operate in night markets.

Nam makes the majority of his income by selling relatively common bills to domestic and international tourists along with maps of the country made with discarded, tattered notes and decorative models made out of old ammunition. He sells these as well as stamps, coins and various collecting tools on his website. The funds he brings in fuels his hobby while allowing him to support his wife and two young, one of whom he hopes will pick up the hobby and continue the business someday. Nam has also published a book introducing people to currencies from more than 200 countries and territories found in his private collection.

Nam hopes to one day pass on this passion to his children.

Having seen piastres mentioned frequently in Vietnamese literature and when researching for Saigoneer articles, I’ve always wanted to own one. A few hundred meters from a fire-breathing bridge was not the place I would have thought to look, however. To spend money with quantifiable value on discontinued, and thus literally worthless, money is a strange act that invites in considerations of the social constructs underpinning the entire concept of currencies. Yet, it's impossible to actually think of the piastre I bought from Nam as worthless. Not only did it immediately call to mind heartbreaking scenes of selling puppies in Tắt đèn and remind me of the terrors unleashed on locals to squeeze out a few more profits at French rubber plantations, but I will forever think of Nam and his infectious enthusiasm when I look at it. That’s worth a great deal as far as I’m concerned.

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