Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Petty corruption: The bane of Vietnamese existence

Stepping up to the counter, I placed my passport in front of the green-khaki uniformed customs officer at Tân Sơn Nhất Airport in Hồ Chí Minh City, formerly Sài Gòn. He leafed through it, then gave me a cold stare in silence for about five seconds. Instead of stamping it, as I had seen him done with others’ in line before me, he set it to the side and signaled the person behind me to come up.

Overseas Vietnamese: Shakedown Target 
at Tân Sơn Nhất Airport (Photo: VNExpress)

After stamping the passports of two others, he waved me to come up to the counter only to stare at me some more, then, again, signaling another in line to come up. After the ritual went on for the 3rd time, my fellow overseas Vietnamese in line became irate at me for holding up the line.

“Đụ mẹ, sao mày không cho năm mười đồng để đi nhanh?/Fuck, why don’t you just give him $5 or $10 so we all can get out of here?” one man, a fellow overseas Vietnamese, said to me in my face. (The $5 or $10 bill would have been slipped into the passport where the visa affixed.)

After about twenty minutes, the customs officer decided to stamp my passport and literally tossed it back to me. This was my first trip back to Việt Nam in 1991, after eleven years abroad as a refugee.

Prior to this trip I had met a few and read the accounts of those who had been accosted by Việt Nam’s airport customs and police upon returning home for the first time. It was understood that everyone was expected to pay bribes, jokingly referred to as penalty for having fled Việt Nam in the first place. As an activist in America, I was determined not to be part of it, giving into corruption.

Growing up in Việt Nam I often heard the adage “small fish eats less, big fish eats more,” meaning everybody has to eat, it’s just a matter of portion. For as long as I could remember, petty corruption was a constant reminder of life in South Việt Nam. It even played a role in my parents’ quarrels.

In the small Mekong Delta town of Tân Châu where I was born, my father had risen to a relatively influential level in the county police department. Men in his position were considered powerful who could potentially enrich themselves. But our family was far from rich. We lived in a modest rented house facing a noisy street.

The neighbors across from us were much better off. The head of that family happened to be my father’s colleague in the police department. Their house was about three times bigger than ours. It also had a garden and even a tiled outdoors area.

Out of frustration of having to live on my father’s rather meager salary, my mother at times would say to my dad, “Why can’t we have a comfortable house like theirs?” My dad would snap back “You want me to do what he does?”

My Mother and Father, Now In Their 70s, in 2009.

As I got older, all around me, corruption or bribery was part of life, the necessary evil that all South Vietnamese had to bear in order to survive war time's chaos. To get anything done one had to “chạy l′affair” or chạy tiền.” In Vietnamese, the verb chạy, meaning run, has been transformed into a term meaning to take care of, to facilitate. In the case of chạy tiền -- tiền means money – it’s to use money to take care of matters. Chạy l'affair, borrowing a French word, means to take care of business. A ‘fixer’ is a person who chạy l′affair, which my father's fellow police officer was.

To get better treatment at the hospital, one needed to chạy tiền with the attending doctors and nurses. Even the nurses who gave injection took bribes, if you wanted "better" medicine.

To avoid the military draft, the family of the draftee had to chạy tiền with the various authorities, from hospital to certify disability, from the local military command to obtain waiver and from the police for protection from arrest for draft-dodging. Everybody had to eat.

Most seats on the buses were sold out, you’re told, but the ticket agent would be more than happy to “inquire” to see if anyone had resold their seats. If you didn’t like the seats you had paid for, the conductor could try to find better seats for you.

Even the petrol station attendants took bribes, to help you avoid your motorcycle engines being flooded with low grade petrol. Nothing was worse than a busted engine in the middle of nowhere.

And yes, my father was also a fixer, but instead of taking money, he was wined and dined and often came home with gifts, usually in the forms of food like candies “for the kids” or special garments “for the Mrs.”

When the war ended on April 30, 1975, everyone, even those who were part of the former US-backed South Việt Nam regime, breathed a sigh of relief believing without the chaos of war, life would be better and hopefully, without corruption.

Ironically, corruption, or the lack thereof, may have saved my father’s life. During his early career with the police and later the military, it seemed the local National Liberation Front’s undercover agents had kept tabs on him. Unlike many of his former colleagues, who were sentenced to hard labor camps, my father had to be re-educated for less than two years. On many occasions, he simply had to report to the local “political re-education” cadres. He was told his records were clean, that he did not commit “crimes against the revolution.” He was not as corrupt, in other words.

Post-reunification Re-education Camp
(Photo: Int'l Christian Concern-Montagnard Foundation)

Reunification honeymoon did not last long. The US-led economic blockade and embargo and post-reunification mismanagement resulted in a broken economy while the prospect of war with China and the Khmer Rouge were looming large.

After my father came back from re-education camp, to get away from the prying eyes of the local police, we relocated to an isolated area in the Mekong Delta and became farmers among strangers who didn’t know who we were.

By 1977, not all was well in the new Việt Nam. The US-led blockage and economic embargo had taken a toll on the economy. More and more Vietnamese began to flee the country by

Beggars in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, HCM City, 1980

boats or on foot through Cambodia. Re-education camps, new economic zones, epic floods, wars with China and the Khmer Rouge, once again Việt Nam found itself in chaos. Many resorted to buying peace and a sense of normalcy.

Many former guerrilla fighters now found themselves in positions of power and were eager to provide their families material comfort. All the fish up and down the food chain now needed to be fed.

The new economic zone in the Kien Giang Province where we had relocated was considered a sensitive border town for it was less than thirty kilometers from Cambodia. Our movements were not restricted but it did seem so because every village, hamlet and town in this area had set up their own check points. Most check points were nothing more than a flag planted along the river bank and a shack with a hammock and a few chairs.

Due to petrol shortage and the lack of spare parts for old motorcycles and busses, the primary form of transportation at this point was boats and canoes fitted with outboard motors.

I often accompanied my father on trips, transporting our farm produce, from watermelons to sweet potatoes, to sell at nearby markets. We had learned by now to stop at every red-and-yellow-star flag we spotted along the river bank. There were never any attempts to inspect our cargo or see our family identification papers. The stops would usually go like this:

We pulled over at the flag
Invariably we would be met by a teenager who hung around as a gofer for free cigarettes and coffee
Every check point had a coffee shop attached to it
My father would come ashore and tried to say hello to the “Commander,” the man in charge who was often found playing cards in silence or dozing off in the hammock
The Commander never responded or acknowledged my father’s presence or greetings
My father would be speaking to no one in particular, reporting what we were carrying and our destination
Then he would take out a brand new pack of packaged, rolled cigarettes, which had become scarce due to rationing, and plopped it on the coffee table, acting as if he would sit down to smoke
He then called out to the coffee shop lady, almost always a lady and who was more than likely the Commander’s wife, to order a round of coffee for everyone present
He asked the coffee shop lady to tally up the bill and paid for it before any coffee was being served
Finally, he then would say we were in a hurry to leave and said goodbye to no one in particular.

We’d leave behind a brand new pack of cigarettes and paid for a round of coffee at every stop. I could sense the humiliation and rage swelling up in my father as we headed back to our boat. And this went on for a number of years.

We struggled as farmers in the mosquito-infested new economic zone, though we voluntarily relocated to ourselves, not forced, unlike millions other former South Việt Nams city dwellers. Crippled economy also meant Việt Nam could no longer produce enough fertilizers and insecticides for farming, even seed stocks were being rationed.

Rural Schoolhouse -- 1980 (Photo: Philip Jones Griffiths)

Each family was issued ahộ khẩu,’ which was essentially a combination of household registration and identification papers. However, hộ khẩu also served other authoritarian purposes: Controlling and monitoring the populace movements, land and property ownership for taxing purpose, limiting hoarding through rationing of stable foods, including salt and sugar and lastly seeds, fertilizers and insecticides based on total land ownership. (Hộ khẩu or hukou in Chinese was/is in place in all Communist Asian nations.)

Through hộ khẩu the local functionaries controlled the rationing of everything. However, bribe money helped determined how much your family was allowed to buy. Many of these local functionaries were put in power based on the number of years they had spent in the jungle fighting the “American imperialists and their puppet regime," not ability or skills. Many were illiterate.

The petty and blatant corruption exerted by local functionaries became more and more aggressive and dehumanizing as the conditions worsened amidst raging wars with the Khmer Rouge and China. Once again, however, corruption also enabled hundreds of thousands of people like me to flee Việt Nam as refugees.

No questions life is much better now. The general quality of life in rural Việt Nam has improved dramatically, comparing to five, ten years ago, even before 1975 under the US-backed South Việt Nam government. No more war, better access to clean water, electricity, transportation and all other everyday necessities of life.

However, petty corruption is still the bane of the Vietnamese existence. Not sure if the Vietnamese government is aware, but the most visible sign of what’s perceived to be the biggest source of corruption are the local tax collectors or cục thuế, especially in small towns. Outside all the major cities and the capital, the only edifice that stands out like a sore thumb is almost always the provincial or local tax collection agency.

Unlike the new high rises in Hà Nội, Hồ Chí Minh City and Đà Nẵng, which are gleaming ultra-modern glass and steel structures, these buildings seem to hark back to the blocky socialist architecture. They're ostentatious, garish structures that dominate the surroundings. 

 Bà Rịa Vũng Tàu Department of Taxation 
(Vũng Tàu is the vacation coastal town north of HCM City.)

Local residents often derisively pointing at these buildings saying, “look at what our hard-earned money paid for” as they pass by.

Thanh Hóa Department of Taxation
(Thanh Hóa is the north central coastal province.)

Giving the bureaucratic incompetence, compounded by corruption, the whole tax collecting enterprise in rural Việt Nam borderlines theater of the absurd. No one pays his or her fair share. People either pay too little or too much or nothing at all, depending on one’s station in life and the influence one has.

Today my father is a retailer of construction materials and farming supplies, including fertilizers and insecticides. It’s a good business, which now has extended to the families of all of my three younger siblings in Việt Nam. I am the only one, the oldest among four, who had fled Việt Nam.

Center: My younger brother (with instant camera) and sister
with two cousins and me on my 2nd trip in 1992.

Small retail businesses in rural Việt Nam, especially those that cater to the farming public, everything can be bought on credit (not the type of credit backed by banks). Trust is the most important currency. When farmers buy supplies on credit, it is never certain they will be able to repay after the harvest because each and every crop is dependent on weather conditions, now more than ever due to climate change and top-soil degradation.

Left to right: My sister in-law and younger sisters (late 1990s)

On many occasions tax collectors would force my father to pay taxes on sales receipts knowing full well he hasn’t collected a penny and that he may not be able to collect all the debts even after a good harvest. On other occasions, he has been forced to pay taxes based on inventory of overstock during bad years when farmers hedge their bets whether to let go of the crops or pump more fertilizers to boost yield; therefore not buying fertilizers in large quantity.

However, corruption does offer small business owners temporary reprieve, to get the tax collectors off their backs. Likewise, it offers ordinary citizens the same reprieve when faced with abusive local functionaries. Despite all this, my father is rather philosophical about it, like many educated Vietnamese of his generation. He keeps up with the various laws and decrees put in place by the central government. In fact, he sounds rather sympathetic towards the central government and even praises its anti-corruption effort, albeit acknowledging shortcomings.

I’ve come to understand his perspective giving his life in the former South Việt Nam whose seven-day president (21 April to 28 April, 1975) Trần Văn Hương once famously said, “If corruption was to be eradicated, we would have no one left to run the government.”

He often rails against the pettiness of the local cadres more so than the central government. He believes the only way corruption could be lessened was for the local government bureaucracy to be occupied by trained, skilled employees, not political appointees. Furthermore, the lack of transparency in taxation, fees and salaries contribute to abuse of power. His joke is that it’s easier to deal with corrupt officials who are strangers than those who are related to you or those whose families you’re acquainted with.

I was able to visit Việt Nam more regularly after that first trip in 1991, both personal and for work, sometimes at least once a year. My stand-off with the unsmiling green-khaki uniformed customs officers at Tân Sơn Nhất Airport happened a few more times. The friend who usually came to pick me up at the airport knew the pattern, as I was often the last passenger to emerge from the arrival hall. “Forgetting to leave $5 or $10 in your passport again, I see,” he would say.

I once had an epic episode with not only the customs officer who stamps the passports, but also the one who goes through your luggage. After a back-and-forth for about twenty minutes, I was told to go see an inspector in order to go through my arrival paperwork.

I was taken to a private room where I was promptly berated by a female customs officer for not having the paperwork in order. I professed that I did everything accordingly and that this wasn’t my first trip back to Việt Nam. She insisted that I filled out new customs declaration form, including stating my reason for visiting Việt Nam. And so I did. And she still found that it was “improperly” filled out, but refused to tell me what and where. So she said to me, in frustration, “Let me fill it out since you keep making mistakes.”

I handed her my passport and visa. First she had written down "Trần’" as my last name even though the passport and visa said my last name was “Lê.” When I pointed it out to her, she yelled at me then pulled out another form to fill out. This time she had written down my middle name as “Văn” but it’s “Minh” on my passport.

She got so mad when I pointed this out to her. She gave up and simply said, “Why don’t you fill it out yourself.” And so I did, ending up leaving the airport nearly two hours after I had landed.

I did, however, one time decided not fight because it was my fault. As I was checking in for departure, I couldn't find the customs declaration form that I had arrived with. After noticing me searching my entire luggage for a good ten minutes to no avail, the custom officer bluntly said to me, “You must have some US dollars left on you.” Yes I did. A $20 bill did it.

To avoid the headaches I subsequently decided to fly into Hà Nội’s Nội Bài International Airport instead of Hồ Chí Minh City and used my time to see friends in Hà Nội or schedule meetings from the north down. Other times I would stay a few days in Hong Kong or Singapore and fly into Hồ Chí Minh City on flights that would be less likely to be full of overseas Vietnamese.

Even after twenty, thirty years living in the “free world,” many overseas Vietnamese, whether out of misplaced fear or paranoia, resorted to the old habit of feeding those in positions of power. As soon as the captain announced the approach to Hồ Chí Minh City, nervous energy could be felt among overseas Vietnamese on many flights that originated from the US. Many passengers could be seen stuffing money into their undergarments because they may have brought more cash into Việt Nam than allowed. Many also began to look for $5, $10 or $20 bill and inserted them into their passports to “quicken” the processing time. This was more common among those going back to Việt Nam for the first time.

Petty corruption among Vietnamese is not cultural, but rather a by-product of chaos and uncertainties borne out of war and desperate poverty where people had to hustle to survive and daily bread wasn’t easy to come by with honest labor. It persists in different forms, at home and abroad, in part due to fear of those in power. Now that there’s no more war, due process and the rule of law need to be applied. But they are not effective unless the citizenry is educated and informed and the government functions are carried out by those who possess actual skills and talents, not political connection.

Many ordinary Vietnamese like my father are more vexed by the everyday petty abuse of power which they perceive as symptomatic of an entrenched patronage system that has no regard for the general well-being of society at heart. They do appreciate the improvement in the quality of life that peace has brought. They want to be productive, but most of all, they want to be free from the bane of petty abuse of power by incompetent government bureaucrats.


  1. Very well written article Mr. Sonny Le. I agree with you and your father that corruption is Vietnam's universal problem and petty abuse especially target those Vietnamese like us from overseas. Really like the details about your mayhem with the female customs officer. I can totally related to that. Happened to me too, even when I came back with American journalists.

    1. Thanks, Nam. Yes, many times they just stare at me.... I guess to see if I'd blink (susceptible) & give in. I guess that's why, unless you're Vietnamese, it seems unfathomable.

    2. I also like your account of your father's experience with corruptions with local authority. I have witnessed with my own eyes that my step brother, a former south VN officer, has to endured abuse from local cong an during my trip to Saigon in 1992. He also used the cigarettes ritual at a coffee shop near our home which I had trouble comprehend at the time. Reading your stories bring back bad memories.

  2. Beautifully written account. Thank you.

  3. Wow I didn't know this was the case for overseas Vietnamese. I thought in general that petty corruption is strife in most of Southeast Asia. How is it like for foreigners visiting Vietnam?

    My brother had an experience in Indonesia where he was caught for speeding. Instead of bribing the traffic police as everyone did, he chose to follow through the proper legal method. His license was taken away for days and he was asked to appear in court. After waiting for half a day at court, the judge never showed up. With no way out he finally paid the bribe. It's tough in a sense how one could possibly end all this petty corruption with such systems in place.

    Thank you for sharing a piece of your history. It was wonderfully written and insightful.

  4. Oh, hi there Belda,

    Didn't notice your comment earlier. Thanks. SE Asia has
    leapfrogged from agrarian backwaters to technology-driven societies with growing middle class in less than two generations, it may take a bit longer to wean off old habits. What most writers, and armchair philosophers, tend to overlook is that it took the US and Europe hundreds of years to get where they are today.

    Southeast Asia will get there one day... soon for as long as the younger generations don't fall into a stupor called consumerism.

  5. Hi Sonny,
    nice article. Corruption...is almost a Vietnamese cultural aspect, it runs in the DNA. It is almost wherever there's Vietnamese, there (petty) corruption, or "phong bì" (envelope) as it is now called.
    Last year i was stopped at Custom and Ho Chi Minh City Airport for 5 minutes while others passed by in just under 1. Went something like this:
    -Custom officer: theres a problem with your visa, the number doesnt match, where did you get it?
    -Me: the Vietnam Embassy in Canberra, it was through an agency, i bought my ticket there.
    -Custom officer: the visa number doesnt match, i'll fix it. Will do give me anything in return?
    -Me:, something? i have nothing. I dont understand (Then look at him, others around me seem to notice too)
    -Custom officer: usually when someone does something for you, you give me something in return, do you have something in return?
    -Me: Im sorry sir, i dont understand. (when i do, i look at him silently)

    After 1-2 minutes of staring, he seems to understand it and let me go.

    If you want stories of corruption, ask anyone who has been through the Ministry of Resource and Environment (Sở Tài Nguyên Môi Trường) seeking to get/change/renew their "red book" (certificate of land usage) (sổ đỏ). A simple stamp can cost 20-40 millions VND ($1000-$2000 US), which is 1 year pay. More depends on the value of the property.

    I could go on and on~~~~~~