The story of Vietnam’s slum dog billionaires

By Tien Hung, Lam Le   April 20, 2016 | 07:19 am GMT+7

Only four years after receiving billions of Vietnamese dong in compensation from a hydropower project, the number of poor households in a so called “billionaire’s village” has doubled.

It's mid April and no one can be seen on the road to village 2, Ta Po commune, Nam Giang district in Vietnam’s central province of Quang Nam. Only the elderly and children can be found here as most villagers belonging to the Co Tu ethnic group have set off far away in search of farming jobs under the burning sun. Life for the 60 households in the village has seen a big turnaround.

“We’re all out of money, we’ve got to work. Now we only have a little farmland so we have to travel a long way for work. Life’s been very hard,” said Cho Rum Ot, 55.

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At the entrance to village 2 stand two wooden houses belonging to the commune chief. Photo by Tien Hung

In 2011, households from village 2 received compensation from the Song Bung 4 Hydropower Plant to relocate. The village received in total nearly VND100 billion ($4.5 million), equivalent to VND1.7 billion per household. One family received as much as VND3 billion. The money was then quickly spent on houses and expensive furniture.

Ot’s family received over VND2 billion and spent nearly half of that on a two storey house. Many other households followed suit, and wooden houses mushroomed in this remote area 30 kilometers from the commune center.

Only a few years ago, money was not an issue for the villagers. They actually competed for the grandest house. Villagers even raised hundreds of millions of dong among themselves so that those who hadn’t received any compensation could also afford a house.

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Grand houses are left empty as villagers leave in search of farming jobs. Photo by Tien Hung

Looking at the grand wooden houses at a distance, Briu Dan, 29, said most villagers refused to work after receiving compensation money. They just stayed at home, drinking beer. Some hired Kinh (majority Vietnamese ethnic) farmers to do their jobs. During those days, trucks carrying beer were already empty before they got half way across the village, and beer cans were scattered everywhere.

“Building houses ate up most of the fortune. After receiving compensation, some agents came up with masons and convinced us to build a house. There were only five masons. It only took them a couple of months to finish building as the wood was readily available. The villagers cooked for them, but they still asked VND500 million for their work, very expensive. At the time, villagers had too much money and accepted any price they were quoted,” said Dan.

During the “golden times” every villager had several expensive motorbikes. Villagers said that some youngsters even went to Da Nang (a city in Central Vietnam) asking for the price of 10 motorbikes as they had hundreds of millions of dong. After their hefty purchases, some threw big parties involving splashing beer all over the bikes. Others even bought a car to go out and about.

It didn’t take long for the money to disappear, forcing villagers to go back to farming. However, each household only received 600 meters square to build a house and 1.5ha of forestland for farming. Life has become hard again. Many households had to sell their motorbikes at a cheap price as they couldn’t afford gas.

“In our old village, we had everything. We had a spacious garden to grow vegetables and could fish in the lake; we were independent. Now we only have a little bit of farmland and have to travel very far. Everything costs money, a lot of money; it’s very hard,” said Bhnuoc Bon, 39.

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Briu Dan (left). Back then, many youngsters didn’t know how to buy a plane ticket. If they did, they’d have probably also bought one out of curiosity. Photo by Tien Hung

According to Ta Po commune, in 2011 there were 11 poor households in village 2. Only four years later, after receiving billions in compensation, the number of poor households nearly doubled to 21, accounting for around a third of the village.

“The number [of poor households] will definitely continue to go up,” said a top commune official.

“Before, villagers didn’t have to work for anyone, they could survive on subsistence and so they didn’t know the value of money, resulting in their lavish spending. We knew that but we couldn’t intervene, we could not communicate the right message to them,” said Tongol Voi, head of Nam Giang district People’s Committee.

“People here are very easy going. We didn't save our money. Instead, we just spent it without a second thought. Now we regret it. If another hydropower plant was built here and we received compensation money again, probably nobody would dare to splash out like that; we’ve learnt our lesson,” said Dan.

 
 
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