I have lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for 5 years now. Like all modern cities, it is inhabited by a co-existing range of social and economic classes. Since 2018 however, I have lived in a lower income apartment complex whose residents and neighbouring establishment owners I became much closer with during the city’s intermittent Covid-19 lock-downs throughout 2020 and 2021.
As in English, The Vietnamese word for ‘cheap’—
‘rẻ/ rẻ tiền’, can hold the same, negative implications. To be cheap can be to have low standards, to cut corners, to be somewhat sneaky or even suspicious. And in the age of mass-consumerism, unethical production and excessive transportation, the scrutiny is valid. But when living cheaply isn’t a choice, the definition shifts. To my neighbours, (particularly during these still ongoing, difficult financial times), living ‘rẻ’ implied something much more positive. Resourcefulness, money-smarts and what I interpret as a more mindful attitude towards resources and possessions in general. “Save that money for beer”, I’ve been told.
I obviously cannot speak on behalf of my dear neighbours. But these are some lessons learned from them that have inspired me and been genuinely character building. From my own experiences. I will follow this paragraph with sets of images and observations from within my neighbourhood during the 2021 Covid 19 lockdowns. If “cheap” is weighed down by negative associations, I’d like to hoist it back up with some counter-associations, a reconsideration of what it can also mean to live cheaply.