HANOI – For the young Vietnamese dope smokers rolling up outside a smart Hanoi cafe, local cannabis is just not good enough. As with their Adidas caps, iPhones and Sanskrit tattoos, so with their choice of bud: Only foreign will do.
Potent marijuana grown indoors in Canada and the United States is easy to buy in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, say regular smokers, and it sells for up to 10 times the price of locally grown weed. That is perhaps surprising given that marijuana is easy to cultivate regionally, and bringing drugs across continents is expensive and risky.
Some experts say the trade can be explained by the dominant role that Vietnamese diaspora gangs play in cultivating the drug in Western countries, making sourcing the product and smuggling it to Vietnam an easier proposition than it might be otherwise.
The characteristics of cannabis use in the country also drive the trade. The drug is used mostly by foreigners and well-heeled Vietnamese, who are prepared to pay for quality. Vietnamese have long shown preferences for imported goods of all kinds — and it appears cannabis is no exception.
Regardless of the reasons, its availability in Vietnam is a sign of how hydroponic growing techniques have shaken up the global marijuana business.
In the 1960s and ’70s, marijuana went from plantations in countries such as Thailand, India and Morocco to wealthy consumer markets in the West. Now many Western countries are self-sufficient in the weed because of indoor cultivation, and export is on the agenda.
Western-grown cannabis is also appearing in Japan and South Korea. Unlike Vietnam, both are wealthy developed nations with climates ill-suited to cultivation. They, too, have seen a shift in supply from countries in the region such as India and Thailand to North America and Europe, law enforcement authorities say.
The smokers sitting outside the Hanoi cafe, a short walk from the city’s famed French-era Opera House, seemed proud they were able to buy expensive foreign buds, boasting their city is like a “mini-Amsterdam.” But as the tightly rolled joints went round, they struggled to explain why Western weed is available.
“Some people raise cows,” said one, a tattoo shop owner with a passion for big bikes and Facebook. “Other people prefer to buy steak at the market.” Like other smokers interviewed for this story, he declined to give his name because cannabis is illegal in Vietnam.
Vietnamese diaspora criminal gangs got into the marijuana cultivation business in North America in the 1980s. Having found a niche, they expanded and now account for much of the business across Europe as well.
Martin Bouchard, a professor in criminology at Canada’s Simon Fraser University and an expert in the cannabis trade, said he was unaware that Canadian-grown weed was showing up in Vietnam but that it could be explained. “The quality and reputation of the Canadian cannabis is such that it could be worth the trouble and cost of importing,” he said. “The diaspora connections probably make this easier and cheaper than it normally would.”
Smokers said 1 gram of Canadian retails for anything up to $45, the average weekly wage in Vietnam. Mid-quality hydroponically grown marijuana sells for about $10 per gram in the United States and Canada.
Smokers said some of the weed comes into the country via the northern port in Haiphong, which has a reputation for the import and export of illegal goods as well as the laundering of drug profits by diaspora gangs. Other channels included smuggling by flight crew in liquor boxes or the postal service.