Vietnamese Suffer 'Sticker Shock'

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Every time Vietnamese factory worker Nguyen Thi Ha goes to the supermarket, she finds that prices on the shelves have climbed, evidence of a country facing its highest inflation rate in more than a decade.

Vietnamese are suffering from "sticker shock" as inflation hit 12.6 percent in December, driven by higher prices of food, fuel and construction material. The rise was the highest in a decade and well above the trend in other emerging markets in Asia.

"Prices go up all the time but wages only go up once a year," Ha, 32, who earns less than $200 a month, remarked while standing at the meat counter of a supermarket where pork ribs were being sold for 70,000 dong ($4.35) per kilogram. They cost 50,000 dong per kilogram two months ago, an increase of 40 percent.

Rising prices are presenting a major challenge to a Communist Party government pushing headlong with the transition to a market economy, much like its giant northern neighbor China did.

Thousands of workers at textile factories owned by U.S., South Korean and Taiwanese companies have gone on strike in recent months in and around the largest urban area of Ho Chi Minh City, demanding higher wages to keep up with inflation.

The government's regular increases in minimum wages have been wiped out by soaring consumer prices. Investors are opting for gold through purchases of gold bars and futures and some workers are asking for their salaries to be pegged against gold.

Economists said double-digit inflation is cause for concern because the poor would eat less in a country that has an annual per capita income of only $835 but prides itself on reducing poverty in the past decade.

The government, committed to "market-oriented socialism with Vietnamese characteristics," is sensitive about the growing gap between rich and poor.

By its own estimates, the most affluent 20 percent of the population is seven times better off than the poorest 2 percent.

"The problem for the government is to convince the poor that they are benefiting from the 8 percent economic growth," said Jonathan Pincus, senior economist at the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi.

Pincus and others, notably the International Monetary Fund, have urged the State Bank of Vietnam, the central bank, to rein in credit growth. Bank lending surged 37 percent last year, but the government has been reluctant to raise interest rates.

Government economists cite an infusion of dollars through overseas remittances and foreign investments as a big contributor to inflation, forcing the central bank to buy back dollars to contain the value of the dong.

"We need a good policy to withdraw the dong from circulation," said Tran Du Lich, chief economist of the Institute for Economic Research of Ho Chi Minh City, a think-tank for the economy of the city that most still call by its old name Saigon.

"The government is well aware of the reasons for inflation and the way to solve it is to use multiple solutions, including monetary measures," said Lich, who is a member of the one-party National Assembly.

In one anti-inflationary measure, the central bank on Jan. 16 ordered banks to keep their reserves at 11 percent of their dong and dollar deposits of up to 12 months, up from 10 percent.