Nguyen Van Liem has bought a few Swiss watches over the years, but his latest acquisition stands out from the rest of the collection. On the face of Liem’s new watch are the words, “Hoang Sa & Truong Sa belong to Vietnam,” and on the back is a map of his motherland.
The words refer, respectively, to the Paracels and Spratlies, islands in the South China Sea that are fueling an international spat among Vietnam, China, and four other countries. Amid this dispute, the watch is one of the latest products to let Vietnamese display their love of country.
“The map of Vietnam is so pretty, this is really different from my other watches,” said Liem, a 32-year-old businessman.
As it fights its much larger rival over ownership of the islands, Vietnam has found plenty of ways to defy China. It has rejected passports, textbooks, and magazines that publish maps of Vietnam omitting the archipelagos. Citizens have boycotted goods from across the northern border and supported a “Made in Vietnam” campaign. Vietnamese have raised money to donate to the fishermen and others living on the islands. And now, they’re buying nationalistic watches.
Alexander Vuving, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said the watches are one way for companies to cash in on the conflict.
“It seems to me that East Sea patriotism has become a ‘prestige’ good nowadays in Vietnam,” Vuving said, using the term that Vietnamese prefer for the South China Sea. “But the Chinese may also take a leaf from the Vietnamese playbook, and some in the two nations may engage in a prestige good war over the South China Sea territories.”
Hai Minh company distributes the $400 watches for Swiss watchmaker Candino. Bui Tuan Minh, director of Hai Minh, said he urged the company to produce these limited-edition timepieces, putting just 1,888 of them on sale.
“Especially with the country's current situation, any expression of sympathy from our international friends is a precious gift for all of us,” Minh said in a statement.
Based in a country famously neutral on the world political stage, Candino raised some eyebrows for wading into the South China Sea tempest. It could be that the limited-edition watches were in such a small and low-profile market that the company didn’t expect to make many waves.
If Candino merely intended to make money from the product, Vuving said it shouldn’t be surprising that the company would sell something that Vietnamese want.
“If you assume that Swiss companies should be Swiss first, it's odd, because they should be neutral,” he said. “But if you think that it's a private company, and they may be motivated by profit as well as personal views, it's not so odd.”
Candino was not immediately available for comment. The embassy of China in Hanoi declined an interview request from Voice of America.
Hai Minh company has a history of promoting limited-edition Swiss watches, such as the collection marking 40 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Switzerland, or the watches celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the capital.
“We often have watches for special occasions,” said Pham Minh Vu, who works at a mall shop in Ho Chi Minh City that sells watches from Hai Minh and other distributors.
Pulling on a black glove to handle the merchandise, Vu explained that his store has repeat customers, as well as customers from abroad.
“Foreigners buy them, too, probably because they love Vietnam,” Vu said of the island-adorned watches. “They say they like the details and the flag on the watch.”