Vietnam economic crisis takes heavy toll on society

From growing numbers of people with depression to families bankrupted by stock market investments, many are suffering in Vietnam's slow-burn economic crisis -- and blame the communist regime for their woes.

After swapping Soviet-style central planning for free-market reforms in the mid 1980s, Vietnam became a regional poster-child with high economic growth rates, soaring foreign investment and a burgeoning middle class.

But with the economy now in the doldrums and experts pointing to decades of economic mismanagement as the cause, many Vietnamese are now saying that not only has their cash run out, but so has their trust in the government.

"This is the worst moment ever for my family... All our assets have vanished," said Nguyen Thi Huong, a 37-year-old who works in real estate and has seen her income dry up as the country's property market stagnates.

Huong's family were forced to sell their luxury apartment in Hanoi and move in to a tiny, crumbling flat with her retired mother after losing all their savings in property investments and on the stock market.

Like many in Vietnam, Huong says she is convinced that "our leaders must be responsible for the dire state of the property market and the country's current economic crisis".

The authoritarian country's "doi moi" reform policies, launched in 1986, sparked a period of strong growth and rising prosperity, which peaked in 2005 with record growth of 8.4 percent. The country joined the World Trade Organisation two years later.

"During that period, everybody was over-excited, dreaming that Vietnam would get rich overnight," said one Vietnamese analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But the government made mistakes in macro-economic policy and the consequences have only just emerged. Now they are hitting everyone hard," he said.

A credit crisis and a sharp spike in bankruptcies, as well as stagnant stock and property markets, have hurt the new middle class, and not just financially -- more people are seeking treatment for stress and depression, state media reported.

"I have never seen so many patients coming for treatment of mental disorder due to losses in business as I did in 2012," doctor Le Hieu at the Ho Chi Minh City-based Mental Disease Hospital told VietnamNet news site.

For 46-year-old Tran Thanh Hung, who owns a furniture export workshop in Hanoi and who had to fire half his staff this year, the spike in mental health issues is understandable.

"Both the money and the trust of the people are now exhausted," he told AFP.

Growth fell to a 13-year low of 5.03 percent last year and the country of 90 million is "experiencing its worst ever economic crisis", said economist Nguyen Quang A.

From toxic loans paralysing the banking sector to falling foreign direct investment as regional rivals like Indonesia and Myanmar become more attractive, the "long hidden disease" in the economy has surfaced.

"It's like a tumour that has just broken out and it is forcing the communist party to address it," Quang A told AFP.

The problems are myriad -- a debt-laden state sector, a stock market that has more than halved in value from its peak in 2007, a stagnant property market and a banking system mired in toxic debts.

Experts say the Communist Party, which has run unified Vietnam since 1975 and tightly controls all political debate, seems unable to halt the paralysis of the economy.

More than 55,000 small and medium enterprises ceased operating last year according to official statistics, and unemployment is creeping up.

The problems hit home most around the time of the traditional Lunar New Year celebrations, which began Sunday, with many Vietnamese companies abolishing or sharply reducing their annual worker bonuses.

Hanoi garment worker Tran Thi Hai was given 70 pairs of socks as a New Year bonus instead of the usual extra month's salary, according to state media.

"I have to sell them in the streets to earn a little cash -- it is better than nothing," she said.

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