Published in May 25, 2015 in Episode 5
“Regulators, the federal reserve, the banking system needs to understand that this a thing that they have to take seriously. This is going to change the economic culture. Bitcoin could be a microeconomic miracle worker and it could be a macroeconomic wrecking ball.”
Financial reporters and noted economists prophesize on the future of money in a trailer for an upcoming documentary about this virtual currency.
Just listening to the ominous music you get the sense that Bitcoin can either be the end of paper currency or the future of money itself. With as many detractors as it has devoted fans, Bitcoin is equally misunderstood and enthusiastically championed.
It is vastly different from any other currency chiefly because it’s an open source protocol. It’s made up of just ones and zeros.
So is it even real money?
“Bitcoin is simply another form of money,” says Brian Phan, the co-founder and marketing officer for SecuraCoin, a new startup looking to harness Bitcoin’s power for global remittance services.
“Now what's unique about Bitcoin is that it's purely digital and built on top of the internet. For example, you can now send money across borders instantaneously the same way you do an email. You can have freedom of anonymity, similar to having an alias on social media.”
Phan explains that you store your Bitcoins in a digital wallet, which simply sits on your mobile phone or laptop. Bitcoin works in such a way that no purchases can be traced to any user and therefore it can even be used to buy and sell illegal drugs and more nefarious items.
Because Bitcoin is decentralized and users remain unknown to each other, it boasts a culture of both anonymity and inclusion.
It’s this anonymity that brings comfort to Lê Xuân Thảo, a Hà Nội-based technologist: “If you buy alcohol with a credit card, then the bank will know that. The bank is kind of a Big Brother to the customer.”
One of the few Bitcoin entrepreneurs in Hà Nội, Thảo started T-Zone, an ATM that lets users fill their Bitcoin wallets and top off their mobile phone credits and gaming accounts.
Brian Phan, the entrepreneur looking to Bitcoin as a global remittance currency, says there are some additional notable benefits to Bitcoin.
So what is Bitcoin’s potential for Việt Nam?
With nearly 70 percent of the population under 35, internet penetration at 40 percent, and smartphone users approaching 22 million, Việt Nam is a ripe market for Bitcoin adoption.
Compared to other countries in the region, however, Viêt Nam is still in its infancy.
“At the moment, the Philippines is clearly the number one in the region. They are the only country which has a real Bitcoin ecosystem already starting, “ says Dominik Weil, a co-founder of Bitcoin Vietnam, one of the few Bitcoin exchanges in country and the first one to be fully registered.
Weil notes that for “Việt Nam, it’s still early days.”
It is such early days that the Vietnamese government has been uncertain about how to regulate this cryptocurrency. Last February, before the first Bitcoin exchange arrived in Sài Gòn, Việt Nam’s central bank released a warning noting that Bitcoin was not a recognized currency or means of payment.
Three Bitcoin traders were even arrested last October but prosecutors had to throw out the charges because Bitcoin was not considered a currency and therefore not considered a banned item. Much legal confusion followed.
One thing is clear, however -- A lot of people thought that Việt Nam has banned Bitcoin but this is not the case.
With no such ban, Bitcoin Vietnam’s website counts a modest growing userbase of 5,300 and surprisingly, more females than the global average, with 20 percent making up its customer base. Bitcoin Meetups in Hà Nội and Sài Gòn usually attract between 30 to 40 percent female participants.
Meanwhile mistrust of Việt Nam’s official currency, the đồng, is spreading and has given Bitcoin a big boost. The đồng was just devalued earlier in May, the second time in seven months.
Lê Xuân Thảo, the owner of T-Zone, says he has little faith in the đồng.
“Right now, it's very weak. The government doesn't have very good policies to use or issue the money. They sometimes print a lot of money, so it drops the people of their property, of their stored value. So, people usually have to use other kinds of medium to store their value, like gold, land, and other kind of things.”
But even in an unstable market like Việt Nam, some are not won over by Bitcoin’s positive features.
Anh-Minh Đỗ, Tech in Asia editor based in Saigon, says he is not convinced it’ll even succeed worldwide.
For Đỗ, one of the biggest drawbacks with Bitcoin is its daunting setup and users often don’t understand the basics of secure storage.
“If Bitcoin can’t solve its own user experience issues than I don’t see how it’s going to make it.”
Still, Bitcoin’s democratizing features, such as allowing users to control their money without consent from governments or central banks, and its fast and anonymous transactions have made a true believer out of Lê Xuân Thảo.
“Well I think it’s a fantastic technology. It independent from the government so it cannot be inflated by anyone so that is a very good quality for real money. That’s why I believe in bitcoin.”