The Vietnamese Corruption Dance

It takes two to Tango, which is the upshot of a front page story in the Vietnam News.  The article reports on a World Bank survey that shows, among other things, that the giver is more likely to initiate a bribe in Vietnam than the recipient.

This helps explain what had puzzled me about Vietnamese culture:  Why do Vietnamese authorities make things so difficult for their fellow citizens?  It’s not just an idle question; lack of cooperation affects productivity.

This past week, why did the Vietnamese Airlines employees require my Vietnamese business partner to pay triple because his ticket didn’t include his middle name?  Why did the airport authority claim he needed receipts to prove he owned what was in his luggage?  Why did ticket agent at the train station tell him there were no tickets while an associate offered him tickets that cost a third more than the published price?

It turns out the hassles of everyday life in Vietnam are part of a dance.  The dance begins when someone wants something from a person in a position to grant it — a document, admission, a bus ticket, or perhaps permission to ignore a regulation.  The person in authority creates a hassle: we’re out of tickets; it takes a week to get the papers; there aren’t any seats; you have to prove you are in compliance.  The requester takes the lead:  Would 50,000 dong make the problem go away?

The dance goes on, with incentives in place to create the hassles and make obstacles go away.

What happens if you don’t know the Vietnamese Tango?  The same thing that happens to Vietnam’s visitors:  You rarely get hassled because there’s no payoff and, therefore, no purpose in hassling you.  Even so, traveling as a foreigner in Vietnam, I’ve been invited to the prom without knowing it.  I dismissed hassles as bureaucratic incompetence; actually, bureaucrats know exactly how to be efficient — or not.

Vietnam pays a steep price for the dance:  an international reputation for corruption, which can inspire an investor to take his capital to a different dance.

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