There are now 18 “Zero Dong” stores that have opened in Vietnam, with the first zero dong store having opened up in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday. The hope is that this chain of free stores will help those in need of food and other essentials, who are out of work due to the COVID-19 economic shutdown.

Also called the “Happy Supermarket” it is a store where you do not have to pay any dong, which is the Vietnamese currency, for things like food and clothes. That is, as long as the official purchase invoice does not go over 100,000 VND, the equivalent to $4.3.¬† While it may not sound like much to some, that can actually go a long way when it comes to getting staples like rice and eggs. Also, people can shop at a free store up to two times a week, while others report it’s twice a month.

free store vietnam

With 18 zero dong stores already open, more are planned in the coming weeks. The provinces that currently have  free stores include:

  • Bac Ninh
  • Bac Giang
  • Lang Son
  • Hai Duong
  • Hue
  • Thai Nguyen
  • Phu Yen

Future zero VND stores are planned for:

  • Ninh Thuan
  • Binh Thuan
  • Yen Bai

zero dong store

There are three main areas in most free stores: one for food, another for clothes, and one more for books. Every patron of the zero VND store can pick out up to five things, as long as the 100,000 VND threshold isn’t gone over. Store hours are Monday – Friday, 8:30 AM – 11:30 AM and 1:30 – 5 PM. Some of the most common things picked up are rice, salt, instant noodles, and fish sauce (yes, fish sauce is a staple in Vietnam).

People shopping at the stores usually maintain a distance of 2 meters as they wait for their turn to go free shopping. Before they enter, people get their temperature checked with infrared thermometers and also disinfect their hands using sanitizer.

free stores vietnam

Open Beyond the Pandemic

These free stores will stay open even after all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. This will make them a place where anyone who needs food or clothes can get them, no matter what. The roll-out of the free stores has been sponsored by Apec Group, as well as others. These happy supermarkets have been able to help the poorest from starving during the COVID-19 economic shutdown.

Thich Thanh Phong

Thich Thanh Phong, a Buddhist monk at the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, where one of the free supermarkets is located, shared that the pagoda and its donors will keep the store going for up to half a year. For free stores elsewhere in the country, the times they are open could be even longer.

Origins of the “Free Store”

diggers free storeThe concept of a “free store” is not a new one. In fact, it’s a concept that American hippies started in the mid 1960s. The “community anarchists” movement of hippies had, as its largest group, the Diggers, who opened up the first free store in the world, in San Francisco, CA. Since then, free stores, also known as give-away shops and swap shops, have opened up all around the globe. Freecycling boasting nearly 9 million official “freecyclers”, is another idea that was born out of the free store concept. In fact, it has become a worldwide network of “gifting” groups, where people can give away things they no longer need, instead of throwing them out. There is even an entire “gifting economy” today, which is a voluntary system where people who are more fortunate, give to those who have less.

Interestingly enough, those who were called hippies in the 60s and 70s were the most vocal voices in stopping the Vietnam War, which was causing death and destruction that still haunts Vietnam to this day, from Monsanto’s Agent Orange still sitting in the ground and affecting the health of people, to unexploded land mines that are still killing people to this day. The movement propelled the rest of the United States, as well as other nations, to oppose the war. Now, decades later, things have come full circle, with Vietnam opening up its own free stores. No, they’re not run by the Diggers, but they’re helping out those less fortunate, just as the original free stores did.

Vietnam has already been doing other things to help people in need, such as opening up “free rice ATMs” all over the country in major cities. It’s stories like this that show you the cooperative spirit humans have when faced with challenging situations.