The Conviction On Sept. 22, 2016, the Hanoi People’s Court held a first-instance trial  for Vu Van Binh,
The Middle-Class Illusion in Vietnam
When individuals of higher social status mistakenly view themselves as being part of the middle class.
The global trend of individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds identifying as middle-class has become widely apparent in Vietnam.
This phenomenon is discussed in the research paper “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible” by Gregory Mantsios and in a study titled “Marketing Social Class and Ideology in Post-World-War-Two” by Erika Paulson and Thomas O'Guinn. These studies show that some Americans mistakenly classify themselves as “middle class” because the media and marketers often blur the lines between the working class and the elite group. This led to the creation of something called a universal middle class.
Obviously, there is a stark contrast in the lifestyles and spending power of people from the middle and upper classes. However, the illusion of a universal middle class has normalized purchasing luxury goods and high-end lifestyles among individuals who cannot financially sustain this lifestyle long-term. Because of mass media and marketing, ordinary citizens have been deluded into thinking that this is the norm and a standard that should be easily attainable.
The Vietnamese middle class seems to be going through a similar phase.
The Universalization of the Middle Class
Comparing the ongoing trend in Vietnam with social research theories worldwide, the actions of Vietnamese media and other dominant groups in the country’s social networking space can be referred to as “the universalization of the middle class.”
While experts differ on defining what constitutes being part of the middle class, many of them generally agree that the average household income is a fundamental part of their evaluation of the definition of the middle class. 
Vietnam lacks official data regarding this matter, making it difficult to establish an exact standard or accurate statistics for the entire country. However, a 2016 survey by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) states that the yearly income of Vietnam’s middle class ranges widely from US$5,000 to more than US$35,000. The survey estimates that about 50% of Vietnam’s total population is eligible to be classified in this group, which is very huge.
The HILL ASEAN survey shows quite similar findings in another study conducted by the Cimigo Market Research Agency (Cimigo) in 2023. Cimigo estimated that more than 15 million households in Vietnam have an income higher than 15 million dong per month, which is equivalent to around US$644 monthly or US$7,728 per year. Compared to Vietnam’s general income structure, this group is also considered “middle class” by Cimigo.
Considering both inflation and annual income increases, both HILL ASEAN and Cimigo present a relatively similar view of the situation on the ground. According to Vietnam’s income structure, a household earning a median total income between US$7,000 and US$8,000 yearly is considered middle-class.
However, as reported by Cimigo, households earning an income of US$1,288 or more per month only represent 6% of Vietnamese families, indicating that only a few Vietnamese citizens can be classified as middle-class.
The core administrators of many influential groups in Vietnam, such as those running and controlling news outlets, media, advertising, and mass media, play a significant role in shaping social reality. They are primarily urban groups from affluent families with “a house to live in and another one for rent.” They have financial power, social position, and a solid political background. They often belong to the top group of Vietnam’s economic, political, and social life.
In other words, they also belong to the 6% group mentioned above, indicating a large disconnect between them and the rest of the Vietnamese citizens who are also considered middle-class; they often describe themselves as urban “middle class” with just enough to live on. Using their position and power, this 6% group uses their lifestyle, and it turns that to fit into the common space for the nation, applying their living standard to something “basic” and “average,” which “everyone can afford.”
This group does not realize the privileges and advantages their class status bestows on them.
When the Rich Discuss Public Policy
I have a friend who calls himself an “expert” on Vietnamese policy and law who told me that to support the use of public buses, our government needs to pressure and disincentivize people from using motorbikes. He also commented that Vietnamese people don’t want to take buses because they are lazy and crave convenience.
He also gave examples of the “convenience” of using public buses and described himself as an average salaryman and a middle-class citizen. Every day, he takes the bus at 7:00 A.M. to get to work safely and efficiently. Then, he takes the bus at 5.30 P.M. to go home and spend time with his family. However, he neglects to mention that he has a stable job, a decent salary, and an unrivaled reputation with guaranteed working hours from 9 to 5, a privilege that many Vietnamese people do not have.
He neglects to mention that his family has a luxurious, fully furnished apartment in an exclusive neighborhood located only a few hundred meters from the bus stop.
He neglects to mention that his family has babysitters and helpers who take care of older people in the family when he is away.
He neglects to mention that he never has to think about needing a second or third job to earn extra money for his family in the case of an emergency.
He neglects to mention that on weekends or holidays, his family safely travels in a car, safe from the scorching heat of the sun and the torrents of rain.
Knowing this, it is easy to understand why he believes he does not need a cheap two-wheel motorbike.
He also neglects to mention that families of migrant workers, provincial students, and low-income people, who comprise the vast majority of Vietnam’s population, do not have any of his special privileges.
Poor bus quality, limited routes, and inefficient running hours have become a bureaucratic monstrosity, so many Vietnamese citizens do not understand the government's desperate approach to making Vietnam's environment and urban landscapes more efficient.
Most Vietnamese people do not hate public buses because of political ideologies. They hate them because the mindset of “banning motorbikes” and “buses must be the future” fails to consider the difficult reality of their daily lives.
Despite all the privileges, my “expert” friend still considers himself middle-class.
With the dominance of affluent groups in mainstream media, social media, and advertising, and the trend of making everything an “essential, middle-class” thing, it is not surprising that in the future, the actual life of Vietnamese workers will become increasingly faceless, as described by Mantsios.
The poor and most ordinary workers face the reality that they will soon become a “minority” where many other “experts" will classify them as the examples of those who are “not trying” in life, or disregarding them as they do not even “exist.”
This mindset could be the origin of the illusion of prosperity of the middle class in Vietnam.
Tan Trung Nguyen wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on May 22, 2023. Dat Le translated the article into English.
- Mantsios, Gregory (2007), “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible” in Race, Class and Gender in the United States, 7th ed., Rothenberg Paula S., ed. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 636–44.
- Paulson, E. L., & O’Guinn, T. C. (2018). Marketing Social Class and Ideology in Post-World-War-Two American Print Advertising. Journal of Macromarketing, 38(1), 7–28. https://doi.org/10.1177/0276146717733788
- Reeves, R. V., Guyot, K., & Krause, E. (2018, May 7). Defining the middle class: Cash, credentials, or culture? Brookings; Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/defining-the-middle-class-cash-credentials-or-culture
- Most Vietnamese think they belong to ‘middle class.’ (n.d.). VietNamNet News. https://vietnamnet.vn/en/most-vietnamese-think-they-belong-to-middle-class-E152887.html
- Burrage, R. (2023, April 12). Vietnam economic class and rising affluence. Market Research Vietnam Indonesia. https://www.cimigo.com/en/vietnam-economic-class/