From crooked police looking to supplement their pay, hospital appointments that can be sped up by bribery and black market money exchanges, Hanoi has it all. Every country on this planet experiences some level of corruption, that is for certain, but for Hanoi however the ‘under the table’ culture is not hidden or kept secret, it’s a way of life.
These are my reflections of corruption, bribery and the black market after a year living in Hanoi, Vietnam.
First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I love Vietnam. We lived in Hanoi and travelled the country whenever we had spare time. It was a truly incredible experience that came to an end through no choice of our own. So many characteristics made it incredibly fascinating and I would recommend any traveller to plan a visit.
This was not written to put off prospective visitors.
Neither was it written to compare Vietnam with the rest of the world. I set out to shed some light on our personal encounters and describe situations experienced first hand that people may find interesting. I couldn’t say these encounters added to our Vietnamese experience, however they shaped it, and made it into the adventure that it was.
You’re probably not reading this to find out why I love Vietnam, so let’s get on to the gritty stuff.
One of the first signs of corruption you’ll experience will probably be with the police.
They’re everywhere. No matter your length of stay, you’ll quickly encounter the different ranks dotted around the city distinguished by their coloured uniforms. Many are extremely friendly and willing to chat if you approach them – by no means are they all crooked – for the traffic police however, the same cannot always be said. These Vietnamese Super-Troopers, in their sandy yellow uniforms, are positioned on roadsides all over the city with the duty of maintaining the highway code. They do so by pulling over motorists for… driving?
We lived right in the heart of the city, next to a busy intersection where traffic police were stationed during almost all daylight hours. I can still honestly say that, after a year of driving past every single day, I have no idea what they would stop people for.
A constant stream of drivers would be pulled over and given the ultimatum; hand your license over for a month, spend some time at the local police station paying an official fine, or pay a bribe. As the bribe is considerably cheaper and less time consuming than the official fine, almost all culprits chose the roadside option. It’s done in broad daylight and has become a way of life for locals.
One aspect of this corruption, which although convenient to most travellers, is incredibly unfair, is that the fine is generally just for locals. The majority of the police seen on the street do not speak English.
Trying to explain traffic offences and extort money is particularly difficult if you don’t speak the same language.
On numerous occasions I was flagged down, but when I took my helmet off and they realised that I was foreign I’d simply get waved on. Whilst this was convenient at the time, it’s definitely grossly unfair on the local drivers and does not help the relationship between the Vietnamese and visitors.
For foreigners who do decide to drive in Vietnam, it’s very difficult to do so legally. Whether international drivers’ licenses work is another grey area (generally the answer is NO). Of course, you can take a driving examination, they’re pretty cheap, but, it’s in Vietnamese. If you’re just entering the country it’s unlikely your Vietnamese will be up to taking practical and theory examinations (unless you’re a polyglot and can pick up languages remarkably easily).
Have no fear, this is Vietnam remember, where there’s a Dong there’s a way!
It’s possible to pay some ‘extra money’ for a local to assist you and ‘help you’ with the answers… This isn’t actually a popular option as the ‘extra money’ is pretty bloody expensive and the sanctions for driving without a license are relatively inconsequential. Local traffic police know that 95% of foreign drivers have no license however but they generally choose to let it slip.
Outside of Hanoi, it can be a very different matter. There are areas which are infamous for traffic police waiting by roads to snare unsuspecting tourist drivers. We didn’t personally experience this but Mui Nei and surrounding coastal areas are definitely places to keep an eye out. I’m not arguing that tourists should be allowed to drive without a license. I know it is incredibly dangerous to have newbie drivers plaguing the roads, but do you really think the traffic police are stopping drivers for their personal safety? I’m fairly certain that the cash they demand is not put into a road safety awareness scheme.
Bribing for Licenses
It’s not just the roads that have a law of their own. After getting to know a number of local cafe and restaurant owners, we would regularly see plain clothed officials come in to receive their bribes.
From food and alcohol licenses to later opening hours and on-street parking areas, all of this was also paid in the form of a bribe.
The encounters I saw seemed to be pretty civil occasions, with the officers sitting down to a nice cup of tea, probably some food and receiving a hefty brown envelope (Sounds pretty good, right?). I had expected to see some bad blood with the transaction but from an outsider’s point of view, it was definitely not the case.
As English teachers, we spent a lot of our time working with different private and state teaching organisations. Vietnam has experienced a HUGE rise in demand for the English language and where there is demand there is usually profit to be made.
Money-grabbing English centres have sprung up on every street corner and the business people who run them tend to be pretty flexible with who they employ. I’m talking boozy beach bums straight from the coastline and people with far less understanding of the language than their own students. All of whom will probably be stepping into a classroom for the first time and are often paid far more than similar positions across in Europe. As long as the moneys coming in, what’s the worry?
It’s no secret that a large proportion of foreign teachers work without the correct visa, and you would occasionally hear of illegal workers being deported. Whilst there are many grey areas (seems to be a common theme here) surrounding work visas in Vietnam, we soon learned that many teachers found themselves dealing with the law because of late ‘payments’ from the school. Teaching organisations would pay monthly bribes to allow foreigners to continue working without a visa. If the bribe was not paid then the officials would look into employees files and possibly prosecute. Once this had happened, teachers would generally have the option to pay an incredibly large fine or be deported with 3 days notice. This happened to someone we knew, but as their friend was dating an immigration officer, the situation was brushed under the rug.
Hospitals and Healthcare
During my time teaching I developed an understanding of Vietnamese culture with a lot of help from my students. As a business English teacher, the majority of my students were 20-30 year old middle-income Vietnamese who would also educated me on the bribing culture within the city. I would teach them English and they would tell me tales of corruption and deceit!
I also spent time teaching some particularly wealthy Vietnamese students who clearly had a strong influence in society. After telling a student that I had to wait a month for a dental appointment, she responded by saying she would give the dentist a ‘gift’ and I would have an appointment immediately. A similar solution was suggested when I was waiting for my work visa to be processed
so I said hell yeah!
I politely declined both offers. Obviously.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
Vietnam also makes headlines because of it’s wildlife trading industry
Whilst in Hanoi, I had contact with Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), the first conservation NGO focused on stopping the prolific wildlife trade in the country. I knew that Vietnam had one of the biggest markets for illegal wildlife products but I soon learned that the trade was organised not by camo-clad, machete wielding, animal killers, but by smartly dressed officials.
Sitting at the comfort of their desks, these officials would orchestrate the imports and exports and take hefty bribes in order to turn a blind eye to the highest bidders. This included exporting endangered animals from protected areas and facilitating illegal logging operations happening on the Northern border of Laos.
Imports and Exports
The most frustrating experience occurred when we tried to receive a package from the UK. I can understand the problems a foreigner importing/exporting for commercial reasons would have, however our issue came when trying to receive personal goods from home. We were warned by expat friends that it would be risky, but we thought we’d try our luck.
A small box of my old sports gear was sent from home. It had a value of no more than £50. Shipping cost £30 and I checked that I could legally receive the goods. 1 week after the package was meant to arrive I contacted the courier who instructed me to call customs in Noi Ba Airport (Hanoi’s international airport). This is where the problems began.
Firstly I was told that I couldn’t ship in items for commercial use. I assured them that it was not for commercial use and said they could check the box. The box contained old, smelly kickboxing gear including a groin guard. I thought one sight of that and there’s no way they’d keep it!
The inspection clarified that the package wasn’t for commercial use. I was then told that I couldn’t receive personal items. My two options were to;
come to the airport and pay a nice big bribe come to the airport and ‘discuss’ the package
b) have the package delivered and pay another 1.5m VND (about £50)
I decided to cut my loses and pay the £50 for delivery. Local friends later told me that when western names are seen on packages they will often be impounded and a high price demanded for their release. Lesson learned the hard way I guess.
Black Market Money Exchange
With all of the expats working in Hanoi a common headache is figuring out how to transfer money out of the country, or even to your own personal bank account. There are a variety of high- costs options; local banks will transfer the money to overseas accounts, or, with a work visa, you can opt for a local bank account. Both however experience high fees and it’s not unheard of for banks to close foreign accounts without reason.
A popular option, particularly within the Hanoi teaching community, is to convert the money to your home currency before you leave and take it back with you (you’re legally allowed to travel with up to $5000 per person). Whilst there are genuine currency exchanges all over Hanoi, the exchange rates you receive are pretty horrific. The most economical option is to go to one of black market money exchanges dotted around Hanoi, quite often in the form of a gold shop. These are almost always cheaper than official currency converters and the experience is priceless.
Walk through the unassuming gold shop, through a back door and into a small back room and enter into the crowds of casually dressed business people handing over large sacks of money. Sit down on one of the small plastic chairs with a cup of tea and fill your ears with the sweet music of money machines counting through huge quantities of notes. It’s pretty mental, and I’ve never seen that amount of money before. I quite honestly felt as though I had become part of the criminal underworld every time I exchanged my Dong.
Another popular option is to have local third parties wire the money abroad. Although the majority of our friends did this over long periods of time without any problems, other friends’ luck ran out. The problem with working within grey areas of the law is that if you DO have a problem, where can you look for help? When the, often criminally run, companies take your money and refuse to transfer it, what can you do? Although this was rare, it did happen, and also to some personal friends of ours.
We quickly got used to the culture of corruption, bribery and black markets. It’s everywhere and if you’re planning on visiting or living here then you do so within it’s parameters (even if you don’t realise it). Besides a few small hiccups, our time was spent extremely enjoyably. During the Tet period (Vietnamese version of Christmas and New Year rolled into one big crazy event) we did noticed that the bribery levels went into adrenaline mode. Obviously everyone wants a bit of extra wonga at these special times of year. So you have to keep your eyes open at this point!
We heard many other stories and rumours during our year in Hanoi, but I had the joys of experiencing first hand everything you’ve just read. Besides the run- in with customs, strangely it all strangely added to the allure and excitement of life in the city.
I hope that for readers, this has made you curious rather than put- off. For people visiting Vietnam, although it may be a shock to the system and you may consider it morally wrong, most of the time this aspect of Vietnamese customs will actually be of benefit. If you are planning on living and working in Vietnam then this may not be the case but you’ll have to find out for yourself. Either way, whilst it does take some time getting used to, it’s a small price to pay (get it, like a bribe 😉 )to visit such a unique and vibrant country.
Have you visited Vietnam? Did you experience any of the ‘under the table’ culture? Let us know in the comments box!