Dateline: Vietnam

Traffic in Saigon
 Saigon’s “Honda economy” — sensitive to fuel price increases

... And Makes Life Bitter
for the People

Published in American Report, March 4, 1974

This was my first article from Vietnam for American Report, and the editors published it under a pseudonym out of an excess of caution. At my request, they used my real name for subsequent articles.

By Peter Dudley

SAIGON — “Tet Present — Gas Prices To Go Up” jibed the headline in Dien Tin, the main opposition newspaper still on the streets in Saigon. And up they went, the day after the three main holidays. Prices for regular grade gasoline doubled to 235 piasters a liter — nearly $1.60 a gallon.

In the “Honda economy” that has sprouted in Saigon during the war years, this latest rise in gas prices was a serious turn of the screw for all but the richest. For most, times were already hard enough. Official Saigon government figures released recently showed a 67 percent rate of inflation over the past year.

There is no sign the tide is about to change. Since the gas price rise, increases have been announced in all manner of commodities, from soft drinks and beer to fares on long distance buses. Also affected is the country's basic staple, rice.

The effects were reflected clearly at the Tet markets. All the noise and bustle and glitter were there at the stands of candied fruit, clothes and ail the other special treats that make a proper new year's celebration in Viet Nam. But the throngs of people carried little as they made their ways home.

On buses, tri-Lambretta mini-buses and sidewalks, the prime topic of conversation is how much more expensive things were this year compared with last.

Many families have done away with breakfast as an economy measure. An increasing number are substituting rice soup for one of the remaining meals.

With the economic crunch running so deep, many of the former ways of stretching a slim salary are no longer available. To take one example, civil servants and military men have been picking up extra money for years by carrying paying passengers on the backs of their Hondas and motor scooters. The higher gas prices make this sideline less and less practical.

One civil servant pointed out another problem that has cropped up. “Now it's not even safe,” he commented. “Just in the last few months there have been several cases where riders have given the driver a karate chop, knocked him off the Honda, and driven away. So now I don't even try to find passengers. If something were to happen to me, what would my wife and eight children do?”

Backyard chicken coops and various sorts of urban gardening that have augmented diets in hard times before are no longer so attractive, either. People are afraid of going to all the trouble of raising a chicken only to see it stolen when it is almost ready for the table.

The food picture is especially bleak because of the vast numbers of formerly rural families who are now a burden on the overloaded urban economies, rather than a productive force. “Many of them would like to return to their farms,” one man said, "but they are not allowed to. Besides, it's not safe while the fighting goes on.”

Although there are increasing reports of family suicides, most people are making it one way or another. “Belt tightening” is the Saigon government's phrase for it. Several cartoonists have taken note, though, of just whose belts are being tightened most.

And one Vietnamese political observer noted, “This can only help the other side. Of course,” he went on, “they would gain most from a strict implementation of the peace treaty. But they gain from a continuation of the current situation, too. It just makes people more and more opposed to Thieu. And in the long run, that will make it easier for the other side to influence them.”

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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