If you ever start to feel as though life is no longer the challenge it’s billed as being, that you’re drifting through your days like a celebrity poodle, coddled and catered to by an endless parade of attentive sales clerks, obsequious cashiers, too-helpful bathroom attendants and timely pizza delivery service – if you find yourself being accommodated, assisted and indulged into a drowsy, zombified kind of emotionless stupefaction by the ease of living in a hyperdeveloped world superpower, well then: Vietnam is the place for you.
This is a country where the customer is not always always right. Quite the opposite, in fact. The customer in Vietnam is generally considered wrong or at least mistaken, especially if the customer is a foreigner. The words “fast,” “friendly,” and “customer service” rarely appear in the same sentence here, and promptness is seen as a personal vice.
The Vietnamese people seem to pride themselves on erecting obstacles to getting any job done. In a communist nation, it’s a political imperative that every person must have a job, no matter how menial or trivial. Popular thinking follows the logic that if one person can do a job well, then five people must be able to do that single job five times as well. A corollary principle maintains that no job should be done by a machine which could be done by a person (or five). Roads and highways, for example, are kept clean by street-sweepers – not the truck-sized kind but the people-sized kind, an army of elderly men and women who’ve been handed crooked straw brooms and can be seen every morning cleaning streets that (one can’t help noticing) are mostly composed of dirt to begin with.
Another result of this arrangement is that every person becomes far more committed to justifying his or her job than to actually doing it, which usually means spending ten times as long undertaking it as necessary and making it appear much more complicated than it needs to be. Layers of bureaucracy pile up atop each other here like breakfast at a Waffle House. Each person in this bloated machine is dedicated to wringing as much relevance as he can out of his little niche, and also to wringing as much under-the-table lucre as he can out of any poor slob over whom he has the slightest leverage.
Case in point: I recently spent close to a month trying to lay hands on a DHL package that my old flatmate in Osaka, Will, had sent to me here. DHL does not deliver to your actual shipping address in Vietnam, nor does any postal carrier. That would be too easy. Rather, knowing how much foreigners here must enjoy a challenge, the government sees to it that all packages are delivered instead to a remote warehouse way out near the airport, where they are opened, rifled through, their contents appraised and often liberated. If you’re expecting a package, the onus is on you to get to it before its contents have disappeared forever.
As to what are they looking for, who knows. Electronic items raise flags, because if they are not pilfered outright, then they can they be taxed to kingdom come when you pick up the parcel. What’s more, while you are spending weeks wading through the red tape piled up between you and your package, they can replace all the inner components with cheap Chinese facsimiles. So you end up paying an exorbitant additional fee to pick up a package whose shipping cost to Vietnam was already preposterous, and then the electronic geegaw inside breaks within a day of getting it home. No wonder the locals tell you not to bother having anything shipped here.
But in my case I had no choice. My parcel contained old clothes, a pair of iPod speakers, three books (carefully vetted to avoid confiscation by the sticky-fingered censors at Customs) and some mail that had been delivered to me in Japan after I left, including an envelope with 5,000 yen ($45) from Will as payment for my bicycle. To claim this bounty, I had to write and fax four letters in Vietnamese (I had help from my girlfriend, Malo), make two trips to the airport warehouse, and navigate a legion of shuffling bureaucrats whose only job seemed to be telling me, in Vietnamese, that they could help me with just one small part of this process before directing me to another godforsaken, unairconditioned office in the bowels of this vast building. I also had to produce not only my passport but the Customs declaration stub I’d received on my first entry to Vietnam six months previous.
Do you know what I’m talking about, this document? It’s an insignificant little piece of paper they give you on the airplane just before you arrive in a foreign country. It’s covered in rows of square boxes the color of anti-nausea medicine. On it, you write your name – one letter per box, I always run out of boxes – your flight number, how much gold you’re carrying on your person, whether or not you’re entering with live animals or uncooked vegetables, that sort of thing. You fill it out in about 60 seconds flat, hand it over to the guy at the Customs counter when you land, he tears a piece off and hands you back the rest with your passport, and that’s that.
Who on earth thinks to keep such a thing? It doesn’t have value even as a memento, because the cheap paper it’s made of biodegrades almost instantly in the festering reaches of your unwashed pants pocket or in your carry-on or wherever you’ve stuffed it once you’ve cleared Customs and have your mind set on retrieving your luggage and finding one of the few honest cab drivers with a meter that actually works rather than the demonic spinning slot machines most have attached to the dash.
I, for one, do not keep items like this. That piece of paper had no sentimental value for me, and I have never, ever been asked for it anywhere, at any time. Who knew what I’d done with it on landing in Hanoi in June 2008? It’s probably still on the floor of the cab I took from the airport into Hanoi, just another layer of history in a rancid pile that was six inches deep back then. But that little piece of paper was exactly what the DHL goons wanted. After the faxing of the letters and the passport, after the first futile visit to the giant airport warehouse, where I was treated to the sight of scores of Vietnamese men and women gleefully tearing open hundreds of foreign parcels and pawing through their contents like a sick satire of a Norman Rockwell Christmas morning – after all this, I was asked for my Customs declaration form.
Of what possible use could this thing have been to them? Even my girlfriend, who is Vietnamese and no stranger to the byzantine protocols required to get anything done in this country, was flabbergasted. I half suspected these two men had merely invented this step out of thin air as a prelude to shaking me down for a bribe. Nothing of substance is accomplished here without palms getting greased – at every level of organization, from the lowliest street cleaner to the loftiest Party member. The more official their position, the more money they rake in. No task is completed, no form filed, no ticket issued, no stamp stamped, without somebody getting a little something to ease the process along. This I was prepared for, even having already spent close to $400 to have DHL deliver a battered piece of luggage full of old clothes, books, out-of-date mail, and an iPod speaker set.
But no, they didn’t want money. Well, more accurate to say money was not the fix to this problem. They wanted – needed – that Customs declaration, and there was no way around it. Without it, my suitcase was going back to Osaka. Struggling against the rising need to throw a raging apeshit fit, I looked over at Malo for help, only to find her quietly sobbing in frustration. You know you’ve encountered an epic achievement in organizational ineffectiveness when it can make a lifelong Vietnamese resident weep openly.
Frantic, I claimed suddenly to remember all the information I’d written on the form six months before. Was that good enough? Wary, the two men in the cramped, sweltering office said it might be. What was the date I’d flown in? I tossed off a date that sounded likely, then fabricated an airline and flight number from the clear blue. One of the men wrote this information down on a pad. How much gold had I been carrying? Definitely less than an ounce, I replied, in the same breath disavowing live animals and vegetables in general. The man nodded, said something in Vietnamese to Malo, and left the office.
Malo had stopped crying, spent. We sat, not having anything else to do. We talked about this and that, trying to turn the subject to something less overtly Kafka-esque for a few moments. After about 15 minutes, I wondered aloud where the other man had gone.
“He went to find the paper,” she said.
“Your paper, the one you told him.”
I stared at her, waiting for her to tell me she was joking. She looked back. “The other part, that they tore off,” she said. “He’s finding it.”
“Up there,” she waved at the floors above us. “Somewhere. They have them in boxes, he said.”
I pictured a vast room the size of a football field, filled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes containing every torn off stub of every Customs declaration of every passenger who’d ever flown into the Ho Chi Minh City airport. And I pictured this man, ant-sized, peering into box after cardboard box for a useless stub of paper that didn’t even exist. I saw into the very depths of the Vietnamese mind in that instant, and I quailed.
“I made all that stuff up!” I whispered at the top of the whisper register. “I don’t have the slightest idea what my flight number was! I don’t even remember what airline I was on! I just said that so we wouldn’t have to go through all this again with somebody else in another week!”
“They knew you were lying,” she smiled.
I gaped. “So what’s he doing up there?!”
“The date was correct?”
“I don’t know, maybe. I think so.”
“He thinks he can find it.”
“But I didn’t arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. I arrived in Hanoi.”
“Oh,” she said. She thought for a minute. “He might not find it, then.”
I did get my package, eventually. The Customs stub was apparently not as all-critical as I’d been led to believe. A week later the parcel was delivered to another office, where I handed over a “tax” of about $30 and left with a battered suitcase filled with old clothes, some six-month-old mail (missing the 5,000 yen, naturally), and three carefully vetted novels. But no iPod speakers.
It’s just as well. They’d have broken within a week anyway.