Corruption Capers

Posted on November 14, 2010

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A customs officer motions to our two carry-on bags, sitting on the collection area of the scanning machine.  “Iphone?” he says.

Darling Man tilts his head slightly to convey a yes.

The customs officer pulls his stern gaze away from Darling Man and goes back to his station. A strange atmosphere descends on the scanning area – part embarrassment, part menace. The other passengers and the other customs officers ignore us. We have entered the corruption cone of silence.

“What’s the matter?” I ask Darling Man. “Can we take our bags?”

“Just wait, wait,” he says. I roll our trolley out of the way of the other inbound passengers, who are collecting their luggage off the scanner and heading out to the steaminess of Ho Chi Minh City.

Darling Man looks unsure. He looks a little worried. I keep pestering him to tell me what’s going on. Our bags sit there. The customs officers have their backs to us, focusing on the scanning machine. My patience frays.

“Just take the bags,” I say. “They’re not looking.”

“Wait, wait,” Darling Man says. “How much dong have you got?”

I glare at him. “No. We’re not paying them,” I say through clenched teeth.  He looks pained. “Why should they get our money? This is corruption. This is what’s wrong with your country.” He looks even more pained.

Reluctantly I give him 500,000 dong, about US$30. He walks over to the customs officers and a short quiet conversation is conducted, Darling Man’s eyes downcast. The money changes hands in a sleazy drug deal kind of way. Darling Man picks up our bags as he walks back to where the baby and I wait with our other luggage.

I am furious. I have my notebook out and a pen ready. “I’m going to take down their names,” I say. Darling Man keeps saying “no, no”.

I take a few steps towards the customs officers, who are now having a “conversation” with another lady. A conversation peppered with the word “iphone”.

I think about Darling Man’s younger brother and sister, waiting on the other side of the glass doors, desperate to kiss the baby and pinch her cheeks. I think about their parents, who run a small restaurant, about two of Darling Man’s older brothers, who have successful businesses. I think how much trouble I could cause by calling out a few petty crooks in the customs service, miniscule cogs in a machine greased by corruption. I go back to our trolley and push it out the door, steam still shooting out my ears.

Darling Man had decided to buy two iphones in Singapore to resell them in Vietnam. Two adults, two iPhones – it didn’t seem like such a big deal. He said he could make about $60 profit on each. I didn’t think it was worth the effort. Iphones are  sold in Vietnam but the supply is small, not enough to meet the Vietnamese demand for whizz-bang new electronic products.

Darling Man paid the customs officers 300,000 dong ransom for the two iphones. He said it was slightly less than the customs we’d have to pay on them. But I didn’t think we’d have to pay import taxes on two phones. Now I wonder if I’m being corrupt by expecting not to pay tax on items bought specifically to make a profit. I wonder if I should have insisted on paying the tax rather than the customs officers.

I grumble a bit more in the taxi as we pass by my old office, the aluminium furniture shop where we bought our clothes airer, the wooden furniture shop where we bought our bathroom shelving. The road, the resurfacing of which caused all kinds of traffic headaches a year earlier, is potholed and bumpy.

When we lived in Vietnam full-time I used to think of the country as if it was a mentally ill relative. I tried to understand the condition, tried to be sympathetic to the problems the condition creates but I couldn’t help thinking “why can’t they just act normal, it would make everyone’s life so much easier”.

A few days later we were in a taxi as the rain poured down. Motorbikes whizzed through deep puddles, while their drivers and their passengers huddled under giant raincoats. We passed four traffic cops sheltering forlornly under a big fibreglass umbrella, installed for this exact purpose.

“Oh, the poor policemen,” I said. “They can’t make any money in the rain.”

Police, in their beige uniforms and enormous motorbikes, are notorious for demanding bribes just below the fine the offender would have to pay. Paying the policeman is easier than going through the hassle of paying the fine or organising for an impounded bike to be released. Policemen in Vietnam are rich men.

Darling Man snorted, then translated my joke for the taxi driver, who laughed a bitter laugh.

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Posted in: Travel, Vietnam