Nguyen Ba Dam is the Vietnam's 'richest' man - at least that's what any coin collector will tell you. The 78-year-old Hanoian boasts a collection of some 400 various rare coins and notes from both inside and out side Vietnam, the oldest of which is a coin called Thai Binh Hung Bao, issued during the Dinh dynasty in 968. But it's his Kien Phuc coin from Nguyen dynasty (1884) that Dam cherishes most. "A coin's age is not as important as how rare it is. Some collectors may have older coin's but no one has the Kien Phuc coin that I have," said Dam, adding that it's an extremely sought after coin among foreign collectors. Dam's collection also includes coins and notes from more than 150 countries, most of which come from France, Italy and Denmark. It's taken Dam a lifetime to amass such a collection, for which he's parlayed his background as a history teacher into his vast knowledge of notes and coins. Today he's considered one of the country's foremost experts in the field.

Humble beginnings

Dam started collecting coins long before he was 10. At that time a small amount of money went a lot further than it does today, as it only took a small note to buy a loaf of bread or catch a train downtown. Despite of that, he tried to hold on to whatever money he could manage - even the smallest coins - and he kept it all in a box instead of spending it. By the time he was 11 he had a sizeable collection stashed away in his box. It was then that Dam visited the Louis Finot Museum (now the Natinal History Museum) with his older brother and found that many of the coins on display there were identical to his. Dam realized he was sitting on a fortune. Two important events shaped his development into the collector he is today. The first came when, while in his late 30s, he was reading a copy of the Esperanto newspaper "Nun Tempa Bulgario" and saw a page asking international money and stamp collectors to write in and seek trades. "This was my big chance," Dam recalled. So he wrote to the address and sent a few sample notes and coins from his collection. Soon responses stared piling in. Since then he's received more than 150 letters from foreign collectors looking to exchange notes and coins with him and these inquires are still coming, often by the day.

Fortune found

But what really shaped Dam, is when a friend told him about an avid Hanoi collector named Duong. Duong's family had once been one of the capital's biggest antique dealers, but by that point the antique trade was illegal. Dam had caught wind of the fact that Duong was still holding on to a vast coin and note collection. Given the times, though, Duong was cautious about discussing coins with anyone. But Dam set out to get his hands on Duong's collection nonetheless. "I had to go to Duong's house several times before he'd even see me, and even then he was hesitant. But finally, once he was willing to discuss his collection, he brought out a copper basin fill of coins covered in a thick layer of mould. I was ecstatic and offered him VND 1,000 (at that time a two-storey house was worth about VND 3,000) on the spot without even bargaining," Dam recalled. Duong agreed to let his collection go, and Dam raised the money by selling some of his property and a few of his various antiques. The purchase more than paid off, as it included the aforementioned Kien Phuc coin as well as a Canh Hung coin from Le Hien Tong dynasty in the mid 1700s. "This purchase made me one of the country's riches collectors and gave me a large enough collection to start swapping coins for notes, of which I had few at the time," Dam said. He soon befriended another well-known collector, a printing factory director in the south named Pham Thang, and began exchanging notes with him. Dam's collection mushroom from there.

The Notorious Note

Despite his age and the size of his impressive collection, Dam is still on the hunt for one special note which, although he's gone to great pains to get his hands on it, has thus far alluded him. It's a 100 Indochina Dong note, issued by the Bank of Indochina in the former Saigon in 1983, that was printed in English on one half of the face and French on the other. Dam said he had the same note, but printed only in French, which is not nearly as rare as it's bilingual counterpart. So Dam's quest continues.

Sell at no price

Today Dam said he gets up to a dozen visitors a day, many of whom are experienced collectors from at home and aboard who come to discuss the country's history and its legacy of coins and notes. "They are my happiness," Dam said. "But I do not receive anyone looking to buy and sell. Such traders would spoil my day." Despite the fact that many collectors would be willing to pay more than a thousand dollars per coin for much of Dam's collection, he wants no part of it. "I'm only willing to part with pieces of my collection if I can upgrade it through trading," Dam explained. "We [collectors] exchange notes and coins with each other, but we don't sell them. I'm ready to give out a 16th century coin in exchange for one from the 19th century, as long as I feel it's improving my collection, and sometimes I have to exchange 20 coin just to get the one coin I'm after." "It's not the price - I could make a huge profit if I sold event just a few coins to interested buyers. But I think selling one's collection loses the essence of what collecting is all about," said Dam, adding that he knew of only three other people whom he considered the country's true collectors. "Collecting is about improving one's collection, not about making money. To be a real collector, you must only think of your collection and how to develop it, not about profit. That's what it's all about.".

(Vietnam Investment Review, Timeout, July 3-9, 2000)