I was out on my three mile run one morning. We were living on Hoang Hoa Tham street, very close to the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh tomb, and my route took me right past all of that. (It’s a nice, open route with wide sidewalks, and not much in the way of dodging traffic, so better by a long shot than other areas of Hà Nội for running.) Having passed the botanical garden that precedes the Palace, I noticed some commotion in the street ahead of me. Two women were carrying signs and screaming and crying at the tops of their voices in front of the palace gate, as the usual thousands of vehicles swarmed nearby to get to work or school. The uniformed guards did not appear to be taking much notice or even trying to subdue the women as they carried on next to a cart that sold everyday household items. I was able to run through the fracas without being stopped. (Occasionally, police will redirect you if anything unusual, like a visiting dignitary, is going down.)
I asked our friend Ha about this later, and she said it’s not uncommon, and that it’s usually about someone being treated unfairly, or a complaint about the government letting Chinese, who the Vietnamese detest, into the country. She also said that the uniformed police will never take action because it might get into the news that they brutalized someone. (This was amusing to us; the Vietnamese government also owns all the news outlets.) There are plainclothes police, she said, who will get into the fray to subdue the so-called troublemakers, if they think it’s necessary.
Vietnam is one of the five Communist countries left in the world, along with China, North Korea, Laos and Cuba. However, aside from some corruption (which is not an exclusive by-product of Communism), this has very little real impact on the population. It’s economy is based on capitalism, the same as the U.S. The party runs the government, but that’s about where the term Communist ends. The population as a whole is really not entirely happy about the government (not because they’re Communist but because some are dishonest and corrupt, but no worse than countries like the United States as far as we could tell), which is no different than many countries around the world.
People are not allowed to gather in groups to protest something, or for any other reason, unless there is specific government consent. Recently, hundreds of thousands of dead fish showed up on the beaches of central Vietnam, and the culprit appeared to be Formosa, a Chinese steel company that used a toxic material to clean its machinery. There were protests in many cities in Vietnam against this activity, and the government surprisingly allowed it, although closely monitored the proceedings.
There are pockets of corruption at every level, and the average citizen just accepts that. For instance, you’re riding your motorbike and a policeman stops you. You may have committed an infraction, but you may not have. You have no choice however but to 1) pay the fine, whatever it is, or 2) pay the policeman to forget that he issued you a fine. The motorbike helmet law seems to be losing its effectiveness because some police are probably taking bribes to look the other way.
Some of our friends have told us that this corruption goes back to times when you gave a gift for a service provided. So now, if you need some medical care, for instance, often money that is not for the service will trade hands. It’s an extra “gift.” Or, as I mentioned earlier, you may need to pay your teacher for your diploma, or your boss for your job. It’s at every level of society in Vietnam, and no one knows how to scale it back or stop it. But I can report with no uncertainty that Vietnamese have had it up to here, and would like nothing more than for it to go away. And of course, to attract global money into their economy, most developed countries prefer transparency when it comes to corruption.
Older Vietnamese citizens still meet for so-called Communist gatherings in their neighborhoods, but these are more socially motivated and nostalgic than anything else. In fact, Vietnamese look for reasons to get together and party, so there are many made up motivators. Our friend Ha told us that her parents were going to take time off work to travel back to their village for a great-great-grandmother’s death day celebration. Most Vietnamese working for corporations get a few days per year to take off at their discretion, as well as some sick leave that provides reduced pay for the days you’re out sick, and only if you provide a doctor’s note. There are no vacation days, that is not a concept Vietnamese are familiar with (which of course goes back to their agrarian history of a seven day work week). So, if her parents are going to spend some of their days off on a trip for a long forgotten relative, what is the motivator, we wondered? Ha provided the answer: they are looking for an excuse to get together with friends and family, and not go to work.