The Vietnamese Government
Question: Why do Vietnamese police patrol in groups of three?
Answer: One to read the regulations, one to write out tickets and the third to monitor these two dangerous intellectuals.
This section, about Vietnam’s fascinating government, may be of limited interest to readers who are only interested in travel.
Vietnam is emerging full-tilt from its long winter of malnutrition and is discovering a new lifestyle of leisure and luxury. Most Vietnamese enjoy laughing at their inept government and its often incompetent efforts to foster tourism, such as a museum stuffed with obviously fake exhibits or an empty luxury hotel in a charm-less town miles from anywhere. The communist state, still cloaked in secrecy and mired in corruption, is an incongruous but surprisingly compatible bedfellow with the rapacious capitalism it now encourages. Like a pair of divorcees forced to be friends for the sake of the children, they rub along uncomfortably, with much mutual suspicion.
Most Vietnamese feel that their lives are much better since the government shed the heaviest baggage of Marxism and drastically reduced central planning. The general level of prosperity has rocketed over recent years and, if you see a young Vietnamese woman riding round on a Honda Dream, it is no longer more than likely that she earned it in a less than respectable way, as was in the past the case. In a country where urban male promiscuity is sky-high, the national poem, ‘the Story of Kieu’, is about a woman who is forced into prostitution to feed her family. This is justified as being acceptable with the rhetorical question ‘what does it matter if the flower falls if the tree stays green?’
The contrast between the extreme poverty of the 1980’s and the revitalised economy of today is huge, with Vietnam now being the world’s second largest exporter of rice, after Thailand. This has mainly happened because the government has got out of the peoples’ way in their quest to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time, by almost any means available. In a country where the only reason people voluntarily buy the state newspaper is to shield the head on a sunny day or because of a shortage of toilet paper, these most industrious of peoples have managed to prosper despite their heavy burden of government red tape, corruption, waste, mismanagement and repression.
This government repression is nothing like as physically violent as that of other communist regimes such as those of Stalin or Mao. Whilst this is little comfort to the many Vietnamese have been sent to re-education camps and repressed economically, the government has refrained from the widespread murder employed by other communist regimes. Even to call Vietnam a communist state is a debatable assertion, as the government doesn’t much care what people do to make money, provided they don’t challenge its authority.
Whilst the country is not as repressive as other communist states, it shares the same penchant for grandiose constructions projects whose primary purpose is to trumpet an insecure regime’s achievements and which bring little benefit to the populace. The only species of pachyderm doing well in the country at present is the white elephant, of which there is a thriving and ever-growing population.
Government officials have never stopped publicly insisting that at least other people live a frugal existence, but they turn a blind eye to the rampant capitalism that now pervades all levels of society and in which their own family members prosper due to the preferential treatment they receive. In the better restaurants in this most corrupt of countries, the tables on which stand the most bottles of empty brandy are usually the ones occupied by people in uniforms. On the subject of corruption Vietnam has been compared unfavourably with, of all places, Burma: at least in Burma the generals, once bribed, stay bribed. In Vietnam there is no such honour among thieves: new sums will be continually extorted.
The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, a Hong Kong firm that issues annual rankings for corruption in Asian countries, ranked Vietnam as number one in the first year in which it was considered, honouring it with the Imelda Marcos Golden Shoes Award for grand larceny. It is tempting to laugh at such injustice, but it is not at all funny for those on the receiving end: consider for example the highly qualified scientist who can’t afford to bribe his way into a research post and so is reduced to selling tat on a beach. Not only is such corruption bitterly unfair to the victims, it also makes the country much less effective. Effective administration, though, doesn’t seem to be very high on the government’s list of priorities. In a study on the process of setting up a guesthouse, it was found that forty different documents were required to be signed by 107 different bureaucrats. Such red tape has been eased significantly in recent years, but it still forms a significant barrier to progress. Business people must either bribe their way into business or, alternatively, bypass the necessary paperwork and then bribe the officials who monitor the industry in which they operate. Either way the bellies of the so-called ‘battery chickens’ of the bureaucracy get fatter, whilst their legs and arms, due to their never doing any actual work, get skinnier.
One of the reasons the Vietnamese tolerate their kleptocratic communist masters is that, besides the fact that the government no longer stops them from being capitalists, the French/Japanese government it replaced was much worse. In one of the most callous acts of mass murder in history, the French and Japanese exported or stored three million tons of grain from the Red River Basin around Hanoi in the years 1942 to 1945, so causing a famine in which two million people died. In death people were treated as no better than cattle, with Hanoi’s sanitation department requiring their employees to keep a count of corpses by cutting off their ears.
In a country where elections are as well rigged as eighteenth century sailing ships, nothing is allowed to get in the way of the chosen candidate’s election. Even the candidate’s death: at the Eighth Congress the corpse of the scientist Nguyen Dinh Tu was elected to the Politburo, even though it’s former owner had inconveniently left it the day before the election.
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