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True Confessions: Saigon Kid’s True Adventure Stories (Chapter 3)

As a kid in Saigon did you play the currency market trading US$ for Piasters to maximize your very nominal weekly allowance … generally provided by your parents, based on how much cash “they thought” you needed to get by on?

While living in the States I was always able to do all kinds of things to make money over and above the $5.00 per week allowance my parents gave me … which basically cover my school lunches with about $1.00 left over for my ‘fun money’ for the week. Geez, I couldn’t even take a girl on a date with that … so resorted to other means to make money. I never got into part-time employment type jobs much as they only paid (back then) minimum wage of 35 cents per hour. Instead I’d do odd jobs for people like mow lawns ($10 per lawn for 2 hours time), shovel snow off sidewalks ($10 for 30 minutes time) and driveways ($25 for 1 hour time), or when I wanted fast big money, we’d borrow my friend’s dad’s pick up truck on a Saturday and Sunday then go around door to door asking people if they had old newspapers or magazines … everyone saved then back then … we’d fill up the truck then sell them to the scrape yard. We could make $75 to $100 per day each. During the holiday season, we’d put up Christmas lights and decorations for the smaller strip malls. They’d pay us $800 to $1,000 for 2 of us to climb around on light posts and roofs stringing pretty lights and decorations, while freezing our buns off … lol … of course this also included taking them down after the holidays. But, hey … $400+ each for about 4 days total work … for a couple under age teens (13 to 15 years old). Not bad!!! Then of course I always had a paper route for the ‘steady’ cash flow … lol

But, then when we’d go overseas to places such as Saigon … my cash flow suddenly got cut off … and, I was dependant on my parents for what they decided was more then enough allowance for me. Geez, I was used to hustling and making more money per month then a lot of adults made in full time career jobs … so, needless to say, once in Saigon I found my creativity for making cash was extremely limited … primarily because the State Department forbid dependant children to work there.

Hence, my introduction to the currency markets. My parents gave me $5.00 per week (US$) allowance … BUT, that was nowhere near enough to keep me in Ba Muoi Ba money … lol … and provide for the other necessities of my life, such as taxi/cyclo fares, movies, dates with all those lovely Saigon Kid young ladies … smile. Then one day I was down on Tu Do Street when I stopped in a little Indian candy store to buy something. There was a guy in front of me at the counter. While waiting my turn, I noticed the Indian man that owned the store was selling this guy P’s for US$ at 140 P’s per US$ … WOW! an AHA moment! The going exchange rate at the time was 78 P’s per US$. So it occurred to me that I could nearly ‘double’ my $5.00 allowance by using this Indian guy’s money exchange. So, I did! Nice! I didn’t have to do anything except take a trip down to the candy store to make $4.00 US. Now I had $9.00 US to spend each week. Sweet! But, after a few weeks this still was not enough … ah how greedy we can get sometimes … So, having figured out that few if any American kids knew about the Indian candy store money exchange … It occurred to me, that I could ‘buy’ US$ from other kids for P’s (usually their allowance) paying them slightly more then the official 78 P’s per $1.00 US … then resell the US$ to the Indian candy store making a nice little profit for myself. So, I did! In fact, it wasn’t long before I had several military guys trading US$ for P’s with me. And, I was averaging around $50.00 US a week in profits … ahhh but the Ba Muoi Ba that bought … lol

Of course at the time it never occurred to me that I was dealing in the ‘black market’ … to me at the time it was just a way to make some extra money to do the things I wanted to do. Years later I was telling my dad (while we were trading Saigon memories) about my little currency exchange business when I was a kid in Saigon. At which, he informed me it was ILLEGAL and if I’d been found out, his State Department career would have gone down the toilet. To which I politely reminded him, that if he had not been so ‘cheap’ with my allowance I wouldn’t have been forced to utilize my creative talents resulting in me falling prey to the sins of black market money trading. Well, that turned out not to be the best response in the world. Need I say more?!

Was anyone else dealing U.S. dollars on the black or gray markets?

Kevin was … he writes:

“In the late ’50s and early 60’s the official exchange rate was 35 P per US Dollar, but anybody could get 75 P per US dollar by going downtown to just about any large hotel. A little sniffing around could get you 100 P per dollar on the street. Anybody who knew how could sell one dollar downtown and get 75 Ps, go to the Airport, and sell 75 Ps for dollars at 37 Ps per dollar yielding $2.02 (pennies were scarce so the customers often abandoned small sums to the cashier). It is called a currency arbitrage and it worked just fine until they started to recognize me.”

Who else was dealing US$ in Saigon? … lets hear your “Saigon Kids True Adventure Story” … CONFESS your black market trading!! … Tell ALL in the Comments section below.

1 comment to True Confessions: Saigon Kid’s True Adventure Stories (Chapter 3)

  • George Baggett

    I discuss this in my book. However, by 1969 this currency market and black market was completely out of control. With US dollars at the exchange rate noted above, I recall MPC only got about 10-1. If a solider exchanged his pay in MPC for Vietnamese currency he was working for about 10% of the value in US dollars.

    Think about what that meant for 300,000 folks spending money in Vietnam. If we would have all been paid in US dollars, the countries economy would be nearly ruined. MPC also kept soldiers from being 10 times more wealthy than the Vietnamese. If a soldier did not spend his pay (which is a ridiculous concept)he accumulated MPC would be redeemed 1:1 at the end of his tour.

    Now, look at this as a method of preventing US dollars from being used in the black market, but also look at the true cost of using MPC to pay for an occupation force of 300,000 men and women – roughly the same cost as paying for 30,000 service people in the US or Germany or…

    Of course, this did not occur to me until I was in college and taking economics.

    Kids should also be aware of the magnitude change when the occupation force grew. Those exchanges of $5 were nothing, and as I recall the day they changed MPC there were hawkers carrying around bundles of the stuff and days later people were crying and moaning as it littered the streets. Of course, as with all societies the rich were not greatly affected, and the black market went on nearly unaffected.

    However after this, the exchange for cigarettes and beer became currency, as folks did not trust the new currency for months. So, GIs could buy a case of beer for $2 and sell it for $10 or $20.

    I conclude that war-torn Vietnam was a study in anarchy. From the VC being indistinguishable from the general population to the economics of the black market. As I see the economic conditions of the US, and the cries of woe by folks as the parking lots of Walmart are full, Americans have no idea what poverty is and how anarchy can become a way of surviving by creating an under-economy.

    Interestingly to me, I know how this works and it gives me a subtle sense of security as I observe the cries of woe and frustration we all can’t have a 50″ LCD TV.

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