A few years ago, when Vietnam began granting visas at its international airports, the country was sending foreigners the message that it is a welcoming country, which it is. Unfortunately, the visa process — as least the one at the Ho Chi Minh City airport — conveys the opposite message.
That’s a problem Vietnam needs to fix — and not just because visitors don’t want to deal with a hassle at the airport after a day-long ordeal of travel. Most experienced travels expect misery from the time they leave home to the moment they collapse on the bed at the hotel.
The problem in Vietnam is not that getting a visa is a hassle; it’s the reason it’s a hassle: a stale management system that epitomizes the country’s economic challenges.
The scene at the airport visa window is typical of an inefficient bureaucracy. Global travelers standing in disarray asking each other what is happening and what to do, and workers behind a class window wandering around for no apparent reason. Eventually, a visitor figures out how to get his visa, waits about an hour, pays his $25 and moves on.
Here’s what’s wrong with the process: First, it doesn’t seem to be organized, with signage and instructions that help people understand what to do. Second, the visa window is one of the few places in all of Vietnam where almost no customers speak Vietnamese; yet the visa workers speak Vietnamese; hand gestures, nodding and grunting constitute most of the communication. Third, you don’t get a receipt for your $25 fee unless you ask for one, and asking for one is clearly not appreciated. And fourth, first impressions count, and the first impression a foreigner gets of Vietnam is that it is not friendly to its customers.
The solution is obvious: Put a manager with a customer service orientation in charge, and hire people who can communicate in other languages — Chinese, German, Korean and/or English. Make the visa process efficient, even pleasant.
Why don’t the Vietnamese do that? Probably for the same reason the country’s economy is in danger of getting stuck in neutral: Enough people benefit from the status quo to block obvious and necessary changes.