It was our last morning in Hanoi and Sue and I wanted to revisit the early morning public t’ai chi sessions around Hoan Kiem Lake that we had witnessed in the rain five days previously. We left our small hotel in a quiet side street in the Old Quarter just after dawn and made our way through deserted streets to the lake. We commented on how easy it was to walk the streets when there were very few mopeds about – either on the streets or parked on the pavements.
As we had hoped, the dry morning resulted in far more people partaking of a range of dance / exercises, clustered in groups around a leader and a small music machine. The range of activity was wide – from traditional t’ai chi to what looked like line dancing to people doing strange things with plates and balls.
Having completed our turn around the lake we made our way back through the now much busier streets towards our hotel and breakfast. As we turned into the street where our hotel was it became immediately apparent that something wasn’t quite right. There was no traffic moving at all and very few mopeds parked where there should by now be an impenetrable thicket of them lining the sides of the narrow street. People were standing around in twos and threes looking anxious – and then we noticed the police – lots of them in their stand out uniforms and imposing peaked caps.
We reached our hotel to find the proprietor, a European, standing outside the glass doors next to his smart red scooter which he parked in front of the steps down onto the street.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, concerned that there may have been an incident of some sort.
He sighed ‘the police have found another way of making money.’
My look of incomprehension prompted him to continue, ‘they have blocked off the street and are impounding all mopeds illegally parked. They get taken to the pound where their owners have to go and retrieve them after paying the fine, most of which they keep. I’m hoping that if I stand here next to my bike they may leave it alone – sometimes they think engaging foreign nationals in this stuff can be more trouble than its worth.’
I thought about the usual state of the street – a narrow thoroughfare constricted even further by parked mopeds – a nightmare to walk along and, I should imagine, to drive in. I had a momentary, completely unworthy thought that this might be not such a bad thing, before acknowledging to myself that these mopeds are essential for their owners to get to and from work and to conduct business. They need to be parked somewhere!
‘What constitutes illegally parked?’ I ask.
‘Any bike not off the street, it must be on the pavement.’
‘But there are no pavements on this street.’
As the implications of the scale of the operation being undertaken in front of us began to sink in he continued ‘that’s why I’ve pulled my bike up as far as I can on the step, but the back wheel still overhangs the street. If they impound it getting back will be very difficult as the pound is huge, thousands of bikes. When I had a bike stolen it was recovered and put in the pound and when I went to retrieve it I was told to find a bike of the same make and similar age.’
I didn’t ask him whether he would offer a payment to the police officers to try to prevent the loss of his bike, it didn’t seem a reasonable question in the circumstances, but I wished I had, I wanted to know how it all worked. Instead I made some comments about how difficult, disruptive and unfair this must be and left him to do his best whilst we went inside to eat breakfast and pack before the luxury of moving on again, still in our 1st world bubble. This wasn’t our issue – but it was very interesting!
When we returned to Hanoi a week later the proprietor updated us – he hadn’t lost his scooter but didn’t detail how he had managed this. He went on to say that previous police tactics had focussed on ‘fines’ for the illegal parking of cars – those which hadn’t pulled up tight against the pavement. Again I registered surprise, ‘there’s a law about that?’
He smiled, ‘there is a law about everything and they are all written in such a way as to be interpreted in any way they chose. There are laws restricting heavy lorry access to the city during business hours which is used to stop and fine trucks in a completely random manner. A friend of mine runs a computer business and was delivering some equipment in a small truck. He was stopped and fined for not having a permit to transport computer equipment during the day.’
‘How much is a typical fine?’
‘On that occasion it was d6,000,000.’
This is about £200, not an inconsiderable amount of money in a poor, low wage economy. I assume that the fines for impounded mopeds would be less than this, but still present an unbudgeted challenge for individuals and families already working long hours, most days of the week to keep their heads above water.
The proprietor seemed resigned to this state of affairs – an unavoidable part of living and making a living – but I, in my 1st World bubble, had to admit to feelings of outrage – this was no way to run a country, it was a gross abuse of power (perpetrated by arrogant looking men in pompous uniforms) with apparently little right of appeal or redress – and presumably a lot of hassle and worse if you objected. As a western European I struggled to comprehend this small scale, persistent corruption and misuse of power – and in a country that had fought so hard and for so long to resist all the distortions and corruptions of colonial overlords. The closest I could come to was the memory of impact on people in a bar in Spain in the 1970s when Franco’s Civil Guard, sub machine guns slung from their shoulders ‘popped in’ for a drink – though this was more palpable fear than irritation and glum acceptance.
Later, sitting in an airport lounge waiting for a delayed flight, I began to think about these events and the reality that they illuminated for ordinary Vietnamese people, like most people just struggling to get by. It also occurred to me, perhaps rather belatedly, that my response of ‘outrage’ might benefit from being set into some sort of context – eg the nature of the Vietnamese economy and the state of civil society in the 21st century. Things had clearly moved on since Uncle Ho had established the first democratic government of Vietnam in 1945, one of whose priorities had been to eliminate the bad habits of colonialism by instilling (amongst other things) integrity and uprightness.
I had one book in my rucksack that might help – Bill Hayton’s ‘Vietnam – Rising Dragon’ (2010). He observes that the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s resulted in the loss of a substantial amount of financial aid for Vietnam, which in consequence was unable to maintain its command economy and adequate state services.
The Communist Party of Vietnam responded by opening up the economy to inward investment, offering a low tax, minimal regulation enforcement framework to entice foreign capital (though it had to battle to gain membership of the necessary international trade associations to do so). This has been largely successful in that Vietnam has enjoyed some of the highest global economic growth rates and has a low unemployment rate. Overall living standards have improved (perhaps evidenced by the huge numbers of mopeds in use – 1 for every 2 people in the country), although, as elsewhere, inequality is said to be increasing.
One of the consequences of this approach has been the stagnation of public sector salaries and the development of habituated small time corruption to supplement them. Examples given are the need for payments to avoid prosecution for traffic violations and to ‘smooth’ bureaucratic processes. A comprehensive legal and regulatory framework, usually not enforced, enables pressure to be put on individuals arbitrarily for such payments to be made.
Hayton comments that the government largely turns a blind eye to small scale corruption, suggesting that there is an (unacknowledged) recognition that this is necessary to keep the economy growing and society functioning in the absence of adequate state resources. Interestingly the public stance of the government is to champion anti-corruption drives which occasionally results in the scapegoating of senior party members and administrators (there is also evidence of much larger scale corruption in the letting of government contracts for large infrastructure projects and the use of foreign aid).
So – where does all this leave my feeling of outrage?
Well, living in a society where you can be required at any time to pay up sums of hard earned money for arbitrarily imposed reasons to either avoid negative consequences or to make things happen is not good. I remain disheartened that this state of affairs should pertain in a country with such a strong history of resisting foreign oppression and exploitation and whose enduring national hero was such a principled leader. But I understand better the actions of the police on the street that morning – their behaviour is officially condoned, there is almost an acceptance that this is what happens, a necessary if unwelcome part of how things work. Perhaps my outrage is very 1st World and a somewhat inappropriate luxury in a developing country such as Vietnam being buffeted by the whirls and eddies of global capital.
But then I read about the corruption in the education system – parents paying to ensure their children received the necessary marks to pass exams ………………