I just bought a new phone and when I told my office workers they said I need to take them out for lunch to ‘wash’ the phone or I’ll get bad luck? Is it true there’s a Vietnamese custom of ‘washing’ a new purchase?

Yes, they are messing with you; but not in the way you think. The word ‘wash’ here is a literal translation from Vietnamese slang to English that didn’t quite get the folk culture subtext across. The Vietnamese word is ‘rua’ and while it does indeed translate to wash, in this case it refers to a Vietnamese folk custom in which anyone who has recently acquired a new item of some value (an expensive phone, a motorbike, a house, etc…) proceeds to have a small celebration with coworkers, close friends or family members to ‘wash’ the new item in good luck and to ward off ill wishes of envious people who may be jealous of their wealth.

The custom has roots in ancient rural Vietnam when farmers would, literally, wash a newly acquired ox or sow – the animal represented a new source of income. Since there is no written record of it, no one actually knows when exactly it began.

Now, the custom has taken on a slightly teasing tone, especially between close friends and coworkers. The request from your colleagues in this case is out of jest that indirectly implies they may wish ill on you (in the same way people threaten each other with pranks) if you don’t let them share in the ‘good luck’ of a new phone. It is not in any way serious though, so if you do not want to spend that extra money to humor them, simply reply half-jokingly, “Because I bought this phone, I am now broke and will have to eat instant noodles from now till the end of the month.”

2

Is it true it’s illegal for shops to price items in US dollars and everything must be displayed in Vietnamese dong? 

Yes, it is true. Regulation #552/1999/ TB-NHNN7, which directly limits the use of dollars and other foreign currencies, has been in place for nearly two decades. Regulation #552 is a nationwide legal announcement, clarifying earlier regulations that issued a blanket ban on pricing items, services and products in any other currency other than dong. However, it was ineffective because there were no penalties in place for violators.

Only in 2011 when reports of frauds on foreign travelers and businessmen reached critical levels did the Vietnamese government issue a legal text (Regulation #95/2011/ NĐ-CP) officially affixing a range of financial penalties with a maximum fine of VND500 million and confiscation of business licenses. Because of the high risk, regulation #95 succeeded in curtailing 90 percent of the illegal practice but even this new regulation couldn’t stamp out the dollar pricing phenomenon since, according to the fine print of the legal text, investigation and punishment can only be carried out by investigators from the Central Bank, not the normal police force, thus limiting the actual scope of enforcement.

In mid 2012, a direct hotline to the Central Bank investigators’ office was created for customers to report violations, but a year later it was quietly taken down with no reason given.

Images by Adam Robert Young