In a country where the average annual salary is a paltry US$450, it’s not surprising a majority of Vietnamese do not have a bank account and have never even seen a cash-dispensing machine. Government efforts to encourage a shift away from a cash-based economy to one with a modern banking system have come up against tradition and decades of mistrust about depositing hard-earned wages in someone else’s protection.
“It is simply our habit of using cash for transactions,” said 54-year-old Tran Tien Hung, an employee of a state-owned company in Hanoi. At present, only about 1.1 million of the communist nation’s 81 million people have bank accounts, according to the State Bank of Vietnam.
“These people are the minority among the vast population of Vietnam,” said Nguyen Duc Vinh, director general of the Technological and Commercial Bank of Vietnam (Techcombank).
In 1998 there were only seven automated teller machines across the country. About 500 ATMs now cater to Vietnam’s newly-minted as well as expatriates and tourists.
But even in Hanoi, the political capital, many middle-class Vietnamese have never used one, yet alone seen one.
“What is an ATM? I have never heard of such a thing,” said Nguyen Nhu Vuong, a 47-year-old accountant at a state-owned media agency who each month collects around two billion dong (over 128,000 dollars) in cash from the state treasury to pay the salaries of the company’s 500 employees.
Johan Nyvene, manager of corporate and institutional banking for HSBC in Vietnam, says government efforts to encourage non-cash transactions need to be supported by fundamental infrastructure changes to the banking system.
“To begin with, the centralised automated clearing system needs to be established in all provinces and used by all banks in the system comprehensively for all dong and non-dong transactions,” he said.
“There is also a need for the inter-bank payment system to be operated efficiently with intra-day and overnight overdraft limits to be standardised between banks.”
A recent draft government ordinance that would force Vietnamese companies to use the banking system for transactions of more than 10 million dong or US$700 has triggered concern within the business community.
Businessmen say the ceiling is too low and that cash transactions are more convenient for themselves and for the recipients.
The World Bank, which is helping the government reform the banking system, says the cash economy fuels money laundering, while the government says change is needed to ensure Vietnam’s full integration into the world economy.
“Cashless transactions are essential to our efforts to become a part of the global economic community, particularly in our bid for WTO entry by the end of 2005,” said a State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) official requesting anonymity.
Experts, however, say it will take many more years before the majority of Vietnamese shift their savings from underneath the mattress to the bank vault.
“It’s strange that this machine can give us money,” said 74-year-old Vu Thi Chi as she watched a young woman withdraw cash from an ATM in Hanoi.
“I don’t think it can provide the exact amount of money that you ask for.”