Photo from Wikipedia.
Unlike the looping scripts of nearby Cambodia and Laos and the ancient pictographs of China, characters based on the Latin alphabet label money in Vietnam — passed down from a colonial history still evident in its currency, the dong.
Portuguese Catholic missionaries romanized the Vietnamese language in the sixteenth century, and in 1918, the Vietnamese emperor declared the previous Chinese-based writing system abolished. By the 1930s, the Latin script was the dominant writing system in Vietnam. The word itself comes from Chinese, a cognate of tong qian, the name for brass coins used as currency in the area during Chinese dynasties. The first dong was introduced by the communists controlling North Vietnam in 1946, featuring Latin characters and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. It replaced the French Indochinese piastre, but despite the communists’ anti-colonialist sentiment, they did not revert to Chinese characters or promote a new writing system.
In 1953, South Vietnam introduced notes denominated in both French piastre and dong, before truly independent notes were introduced in 1955 by the National Bank of Vietnam. When the country united in 1978, so was the currency. Today’s dong features an older Ho Chi Minh on one side, with landmarks and monuments like Halong Bay, Hanoi’s Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s birthplace on the other side.
Since the 1980s, the dong has suffered from chronic inflation, at times being the least valued currency in the world. Currently, the rate is more than 20,000 dong to one US dollar. When counting your savings in dong, being a millionaire comes easily. But don’t quit you day job: a million in dong will buy you a steaming bowl of pho, the popular Vietnamese noodle soup, for lunch for about two months. Then it’s back to the grind.