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Bare Backs, Baubles, & Back Alleys

A home-grown gold-plating factory reveals insights into Vietnam's venture into capitalism

Ha Quang Thai's factory is a shining example of Vietnam's economic transformation. But all that glitters here is gold plate.

The face of his building is a metal grill with a door that opens onto a narrow porch cluttered with plastic sandals. The front room holds a television, a few chairs, and a motor scooter. The workroom is at the rear, all but invisible from the narrow lane that passes by the house in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Under fluorescent lights, men in shorts sit at nine machines set in two rows, four shirtless backs facing five. Each day they cut, etch, bevel, smooth, and polish thousands of rings, bracelets, and earrings. Other workers sort the gold-plated jewelry into boxes on the floor.

Standing in the tropical heat, Mr. Thai explains that he was trained as a goldsmith and decided five years ago to branch into production. If the Vietnamese government had not adopted free-market economic reforms in the late 1980s, this business wouldn't exist. "We didn't have private enterprise," he notes.

Now Thai employs as many as 18 people at a time, depending on the workload. Buyers send his merchandise to Laos, Cambodia, and even Poland, he says. In Vietnamese markets, his bracelets sell for about 22 cents each.

The capital to start the business came from his family, Thai adds, as do most of his workers. He says they work eight hours a day, not including a two-hour break at lunch, and are paid a daily wage of about $5. Sometimes the factory closes on Sunday and sometimes not. In a busy month, the employees can earn $150 - a very good wage by Vietnamese standards.

In exchange, they work in a space the size of a small bus. It's filled with flecks of gold plate and sharp, whirring machinery. Most live in the factory and eat their meals together. "My workers are my relatives," Thai explains. "We help each other out and share the profits."

Because of the boss's presence, it was impossible to find out if the employees share his views. But the reality is that Vietnam has traded the egalitarianism of a state-run economy - where just about everyone was poor - for a controlled free-market system where people must compete more aggressively.

For many Vietnamese, capitalism is as familiar as the fish sauce that accompanies every meal. Those who can invest and become entrepreneurs tend to be cheery optimists, like Thai. Those who don't have such means worry about survival in an economy where the old assumptions are gone and the new rules are still coming into focus.

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