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Vietnam's Collectors gather on Sunday
By Howard A. Daniel III
World Coin News July 2007

Sunday mornings in Ho Chi Minh City are usually quiet and a taxi from my town-house is not involved in any traffic jams on its way to 27 Nguyen Thi Dieu, where Quoc has his air-conditioned coin, stamp and paper money shop. I have known him for years and he has supplied me with many pieces for my collections.

His shop is open from 8 a.m. to noon, so I try to be mere at opening time and leave at 10 a.m. My Vietnamese is terrible, but most taxi drivers understand my "Ben Thanh Market." It is a major local landmark and located at the very large traffic circle where Tran Hung Dao and Le Loi streets meet. Directly across the circle is the city's central bus station, and behind it Pho Due Chinh street. Within a few meters on this street are Le Cong Kieu street on the left and Le Thi Hong Gam on the right.

Also on the right and across the street is a large French-built art museum. Some tourist maps show a symbol for this muse¬um. Walk right to 38 on Le Thi Hong Gam. Across the street is the gate to the back of the museum. The museum's entrance is on the left and some small private art galleries are on the right. On the left under a metal canopy is a snack bar with many plastic tables and chairs.

A family operates the snack bar and it is where collectors of stamps, postal cov¬ers, coins, paper money, tokens, postcards, telephone cards, etc., meet on Sunday start¬ing at around 9:30 a.m. to around noon. A few years ago, I would expect to see a maximum of 12 people at the meeting but now it is often double that number.

You are obliged to buy something from the snack bar and I buy a bottle of water for 5,000 dong (about 16,000 dong to a US. $1), and they have soft drinks too. The cold bottled water tastes and feels really good as the morning heats up. As this is written at the start of the rainy season in April, the humidity is very high by 10 a.m., but you will see me Vietnamese drinking hot tea or coffee, too.

I usually arrive around 10:15 a.m. and start at one end of the snack bar and work my way to the other end to ensure I see and greet everyone with a "hello" and a hand¬shake. On my first Sunday back, I pass out copies of my want list so everyone knows what I am looking for, but they also know I like odd and curious pieces and many tilings I never thought to collect end up in my possession.

Besides carrying copies of my want list and those of friends, inventory lists of my Vietnamese collections, blank paper, pen, ruler in millimeters, pencil and small portable ultra-violet and black lights in my portfolio or small attache case, I also carry my passport. I was asked only once for it since I started coming back to Vietnam in 1989, but you do not want to be without it, if ever asked.

For this trip, 1 also had a roll of the new Washington dollar coins and I gave one to everyone who sold something to me. It was a hit and everyone became eager to sell something to me. A few years ago, I had Sac dollars. Last year, I gave out Bausch & Lomb magnifiers (they are cheaper in quantities) in their own plastic case. Giving small gifts in Asia is a tradition among friends and business people.

I also bring paper towels with me to wipe my forehead and hands to keep them dry. Many of the holders and multi-pocket pages here are also heavy with PVC and have a greasy feel to them, so you will need to wipe your hands after handling them. And most U.S. military tokens are heavy with the red dirt found up near the former U.S. Army Long Binh Post where many were buried at the end of the war.

Most major dealers with a shop do not set up at the meeting, so there are mostly vest-pocket dealers and collectors here. But there will also be some eBay dealers like Phi Long there, and other eBay dealers who operate under cover names. I have known Phi Long for many years and sometimes we follow up the meeting by having lunch together. Tran Van Bui and Le Hoan Hung are also often here.

The people who know me well will offer me pieces at reasonable prices, but those who do not, will make them very high because I am a foreigner and they expect me to have the money to pay for them. I do have the money, but 1 refuse all pieces at prices that I consider unreasonable. Many of them will approach me later with a reasonable counter offer. If not, I can live without it.

For the sellers, many different currencies are good. I use Vietnamese dong for most purchases, but I also use US. dollars for very high-priced purchases. Many Europeans show up with euros for their high-priced purchases and they are accepted. Tlere are many other acceptable currencies, so try to spend whatever is in your wallet. Remember, all notes are checked for counterfeits, because they exist.

Some of the items I bought during this April-May 2007 trip were coins, paper money, polymer notes, business scrip and tokens, stamps used to pay plantation workers during the French colonial time, a UNESCO coupon for a friend, some counterfeit notes for another friend, a 1957-dated Shanghai-made specimen book without the notes, and various other pieces. It was not my best time but not my worst.

After the meeting, I often walk to the nearby Quoc Tuan Shop at 26 Le Cong Kieu. You will pass many other shops with numismatic pieces, but beware of fakes. The owner is Le Tien Kirn. There are many pieces in Kirn's shop but you really want to acquire an invitation to visit her husband, Tran Quoc Tuan, in their house.

The house is full of all types and varieties of collectibles (to include militaria), and there is a large stock of numismatic pieces. There is no rhyme or reason to Tuan's storage system, so it may take a while to find what you want. If you do not speak some Vietnamese, Kirn or their son will need to be there to translate for Tuan. Their shop telephone number is 821-3340 and their home is 894-0852

You might not be able to get an invitation during your first shop visit, but once Kim knows you, it is very possible. Kim does speak excellent English, so if you do not speak Vietnamese to Tuan, I would advise you to call after dinner or speak to Kim at the shop. It is a long ride from downtown to their home in Go Vap district, but it is worth it, if they invite you.

Then I walk to Le Loi Street and stop at number 80 to see Mrs. Phuong. Her place is less than a meter wide but she usually has some good pieces in it. This trip, I bought a silver Cambodian medal with a young Prince Sihanouk on it, several Vietnamese market weights, a couple of Thai bullet coins dug up by a farmer near the Cambodian border, and several other pieces. Then I continue down Le Loi to the Fahasa bookstore at 50 Le Loi and see if they have anything of interest to me.

One numismatic book back in stock is Tien Kirn Loai Viet Nam. It was produced by the National History Museum in Hanoi and a south China museum. It is a coffee table-sized book with not much new in it, but every collector of Vietnam should probably own it. Scott Semans stocks it.

Allan Barker's book, The Historical Cash Coins of Viet Nam is also sold there, and at many other Fahasa bookstores. It is the best book ever done on the cash coins of Vietnam and if you collect them and do not own it, you are missing a very valuable reference. Both books sell for about 500,000 dong each, which is about 30-something dollars, depending on the exchange rate. Scott has this one too.

Then I stop at the Rex Hotel Paradise Cafe at the corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue. I survey the room and try to find a table away from any smokers and close to the TV showing a football (soccer) game. My usual order is a BLT sandwich with a salad, and lime juice without sugar. When anyone hears me order the lime juice with¬out sugar, they usually cringe, but that is the way 1 like it.

After a comfortable lunch in an air-conditioned cafe, I often walk down to the Nguyen Hue Fahasa bookstore, then to the Dong Khoi street Fahasa bookstore, to look for numismatic books. But I also look for books and magazines on economics, banking and currencies. Many of these references fill in much of the background information 1 want to know about each coin, note, token, bullion, etc.

It is about 10 meters from the Dong Khoi bookstore to number 201, where there is the Lan Ann bookstall. The "old" man who owns it is often not there because of his age and health, so it might take a couple of visits after lunch for you to find him there. He has sold many, many old maps, books, pamphlets in French, English and Vietnamese to me. Is well worth the time to look through his stock.

Then I walk back the 10 meters to the Dong Khoi Fahasa bookstore where taxis are waiting for fares. Most of them know me so I usually just open the door, sit down in the seat, say "hello" and they start driving me to my townhouse in the Phu Nhuan district of the city. After 1 arrive at home, the first thing I do is drink some ice water, then take a shower and change into shorts and a t-shirt.

After looking over my purchases in my home office, I put most in my drawer for taking to the USA, and the rest in an appropriate place in the office. Then I power up my laptop, update my inventories and check the e-mails and answer all or a few before I head for my bedroom and take my regular afternoon nap. Another hard day in Ho Chi Minh City, but someone has to do it.

By the way, if you have extra junk box coins and/or paper money and/or numis¬matic references, please contact me to arrange a transfer so I can give them to young and new collectors at American Numismatic Association conventions. You will receive a thank-you letter from one or more groups to back up your tax deduction. If possible, please give them to me at a show to save you the shipping, so please contact me before sending them.

Coin World News: July 2007

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