Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in 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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

The Police

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Motorbike licenses

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

Language Schools

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?

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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;

a) 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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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.

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

Holidays

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!

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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!

Corruption, Bribery and the Black Market in Vietnam

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42 Responses

  • Wow, you actually learnt a lot in your stay in Hanoi and there seems to be more corruption and bribery in Vietnam than in my favourite country for this, Russia! 😀 Was a little bit shock about the wildlife bit. And bloody traffic police. They get hardly any good pay so always stopping anyone for a bit of cash! 🙁
    Danik recently posted…Taking a Tour of Anchor Brewing CompanyMy Profile

    • I think every country has corruption it’s just how obvious it is. In the UK you may not see it on the street but it definitely goes on behind closed doors!

  • This is a very informative and complex article and I thank you so much for sharing it with us. I thought Vietnam would be this paradise on Earth because of the amazing landscapes etc. But it looks like it’s not an easy place to live or get used to… “We quickly got used to the culture of corruption, bribery and black markets” – well, good for you I guess. That’s amazing you need to give a “gift” to the dentist to be served faster. Well.. at least there’s something you could do to help yourself. I wouldn’t like to live in Vietman or work there.. maybe spending just 2 weeks to visit the most beautiful landmarks would be the best. And many people agree, there’s so many accidents on the roads with the scooters there…
    wiola recently posted…Salar de Uyuni – world’s largest salt flatMy Profile

    • There are a lot of accidents on the roads but generally in the city people are driving relatively slowly. You definitely should visit Vietnam, as I mentioned the culture of bribery doesn’t effect tourists and it really is an incredible place! Are you on the road or are you based somewhere?

  • Corruption obviously exists in all countries, but this is an interesting look at what you experienced firsthand in Hanoi. Some of it was not surprising, while other items on the list definitely were!

  • Bribes as a way of doing business doesn’t offend me too much. It’s the nature of the beast and the cost of doing business. Organized poaching and animal trade boils my blood. I think it’s important to spread the word that happy, healthy animals and animal tourism can bring significantly more income than a few rotten apples plundering the country. That is why I applaud people to go on (ethical) animal travel.
    Jenn and Ed Coleman recently posted…Secrets of Sigiyira Rock: Holy Temple or Pleasure Palace?My Profile

    • The wildlife trade is horrible. I find it especially terrible when the people who are entrusted in protected the animals are selling them out. You’re right, ethical travel will help, not only animals, but the world far more than money from poaching!

  • A troubling but very well written piece. It is so easy to focus on our own country’s troubles because they affect us personally but so easy to overlook how many others have it worse. Thank you for raising awareness like this.

    • Very true! A lot of times people just think about what’s on their own doorstep. This is why I think experiencing the world is incredibly important, so you can have a better understanding of other cultures as well.

  • I really enjoyed reading this, because travel is also about experiencing the downsides. I loved Vietnam, but could see signs of corruption from just being a traveller. Shame about the English teachers they get, those poor Vietnamese students!

    • In some ways I wouldn’t call it downsides, just differences. In a year we actually only had the one problem with shipping. I would probably have more than that in the UK!

  • I’ve been to Viet Nam and did not experience anything like this: It was a three weeks vacation and I wasn’t in any situation that required bribing people.
    But when I used to live in Central America, this was every day’s business. In South America it’s the same and in the Caribbean, too. I assume it’s everywhere were people don’t get paid salaries and fees that allow them a decent living – they need to make extra. It’s an unfair and corrupt system, but actually it’s happening in industrialized countries, too, only on a higher level.
    However, I liked to read your post – I’m always grateful when texts on blogs are not shallow and meaningless.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read it. I spent a year in national parks in Costa Rica and Panama and they experienced the same issues with wildlife trade. Where did you live in Central America?

  • Very insightful blog about the corruption you saw/experienced in Vietnam. Corruption seems to happen everywhere and I saw similarities to things that I have seen in others countries I have visited on different continents. Thanks for sharing.

    • Definitely, it happens everywhere we go. I think as we were working in Hanoi we got a much better understanding of all aspects of the culture. The bribing culture particularly interested me, so I thought I would share my experiences!

  • Corruption is definitely very sad and I definitely agree it happens everywhere, whether we know about it or not. This post was definitely very informative and your pictures capture it all. Thank you for sharing this, I learned a lot.

  • Thanks for an insightful article. I agree that there is corruption in every country, but sometimes in our travels we turn a blind eye to it. Or maybe we just don’t spend enough time in one area to see it as we should. It saddens me to hear about the wildlife black market. It is so sad that our world sometimes turns on the exploitation of other people or animals.

  • Awww, sad. 🙁 Not that I’m surprised, like you said, not to put off those reading this but it’s a good thing to write about as an eye-opener. Corruption (bribery and such as well) is really a sad state in every functioning community, it just encourages dishonesty that the citizens take as though it is normalcy. I’m more sad to know about the way they allow people who doesn’t have the credibility to teach… I’ve always believed in doing your best at everything, so if one wants to teach, it is best to get the license for it, and actually know how best to teach those who wants to learn English seriously…it’s not about the money.

    • Hey Marie, thanks for your response. With the English teaching you hit the nail on the head! Families will be paying hard earned money for their children to learn English, so we should be making sure they are getting the best standard possible! In my opinion as soon as education becomes a business then you have problems!

  • I am not surprised at all, I remember in Indonesia the cops can decide to make a “checkpoint” (or rather, a toll…) in the middle of nowhere to collect money from each car.

    I have been to Vietnam a few years ago and honestly, the country itself may be beautiful, but I did not like the people at all. I found them very aggressive, trying each and every way and opportunity to scam you, and even when one is super friendly to you, it’s to better scam you later. Money-minded society with no morale and no rules. I even got hit by a scooter while crossing the road – for some reason, me crossing plus the red traffic light were not a sufficient reason for that guy to stop. Every 20 seconds as you walk along the road, someone shouts at you for you to use their motorbike and yells until you answer. Every 20 seconds.

    I really don’t know what’s wrong with these people. I remember Laos or Myanmar, people were adorable.
    Maybe it just takes some time to finally get used to it, I don’t know!
    Julien Mordret recently posted…Cartagena, Colombia: Colonial Charm And Violent HistoryMy Profile

    • Hey Julien, sorry you didn’t have the best time in Vietnam, how long were you there for and where did you visit? It’s true that some Vietnamese are not the warmest however the same can’t be said for the whole country. We made some incredible friends and experienced warmth and hospitality overall. I found that in Vietnam, generally, people are not automatically warm and friendly like they are in other places like Thailand. You had to work a bit harder to make connections, but it was definitely worth it in the end!

      • Hey! I know my comment sounds quite harsh. I stayed 2 weeks in Vietnam and I know it’s a very short time to generalize a whole country. I traveled from Hanoi & Halong to Mui Ne, I think the worst was probably Hue in terms of aggressive people. It’s funny, I remember an article by NomadicMatt explaining why he will never return to Vietnam, explaining the same experiences as me. And he had many comments of people saying they had a great time in Vietnam! So it’s really hard to tell why different people seem to have extremely different experiences. In any case, I hope you were not offended by my comment as you loved the country 🙂

        • Hey, life is boring if we don’t hear other peoples point of view! As long as it’s given as an opinion and not the only possibility! I also read Matts article about Vietnam, it was interesting to read but I did feel like he painted the whole country in a negative light. You’re right though, it’s crazy how two peoples experiences can differ so much!

  • Firstly, kudos for writing something that post people won’t write. while travel blogging is about destinations and romantic pictures of a place, it is also imperative that we speak the truth and tell readers a brick is a brick!

    I didnt know the corruption that existed in Vietnam and it is true that only when you stay in a place can you uncover the good bad and ugly aspects.

    • Really appreciate your comment! I think it’s extremely important to paint an honest picture of places, not just the ‘Top 10 places…’etc. Every country has it’s ups and downs, I think it’s interesting to read about both sides!

  • This is a very candid and fresh perspective of Hanoi. Yes, corruption is everywhere, only the degrees differ. What is alarming is when it is practised with impunity and becomes a way of life. It is really so sad that the locals are harassed by the police and stopped for nothing. In India, we now have a rule that policemen cannot stop a motorist if no rule is being violated.

    • It’s very interesting experiencing it! I guess travelling is shaped by experienced things on the road that we aren’t used to!

  • I remember sitting on the corner outside the bar near our hotel Essence Hanoi and watching all the staff come out and pick up all the little stools and rush them inside. SEconds later the police came. Then money exchanged hands and the chairs reappeared. I guess in cultures like this, it’s just all part of their ecosystem. I personally would hate to have this as my permanent culture but understand how it works in other countries.

    • Ahh, we used to walk past Hotel Essence all the time. It’s very interesting when you see it happen first hand and see how normalised it all is!

  • Hi Josh and Sarah,
    What you’ve described here is really a shocking but common phenomenon. And it’s also true that in places like Vietnam it’s happening in a broad daylight whereas in places like the UK that is behind the doors. Wouldn’t be the world a much nicer place if we could’ve ended this bribery? I bet it would.

    Above all, you are so right that Vietnam is a vibrant city. By the way, what you’ve told on the about page regarding”every cuisine could be conquered, mountain climbed and country explored” does really sync with my thinking.
    Cheers!!
    Danny recently posted…Machete HistoryMy Profile

    • Hey Danny, thanks for your comment. The world would definitely be a nicer place without it, I hope we can move away from it although i’m sceptical! We have the same idea! Yeh, I know a lot of vegans who shelter themselves a bit because they don’t think they’ll be able to keep a vegan lifestyle in the outdoors or abroad. So we put the Veggie Vagabonds together to show them that it ain’t true!

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