Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The power of connections in Vietnam

Whether you're a luckless street kid, an ambitious Communist party apparatchik or an upstanding foreign investor, there are few greater truisms in Vietnam than "it's not what you know but who you know."

I observed a classic example this week while on a trip to the paddy fields of greater Hanoi.

Approaching a traffic police roadblock, the car I was in was flagged down by an officious senior cop. He beckoned the driver out of the vehicle and accused him of violating traffic regulations (yes, they do exist here) by overtaking on the other side of the road.

No matter that there was no oncoming traffic, the dividing line down the centre of the road was dotted rather than continuous (indicating overtaking was allowed) and that this driver was perhaps the most cautious I've ever had the pleasure to travel with in Vietnam.

The cop was either having a bad day standing around in the clammy Hanoi cold or needed some extra cash ahead of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

The driver was taken aside and given the usual dressing down that precedes negotiations over the extent of any fine (around 500,000 Vietnam dong or $25 for this type of offence, so I'm told).

Rightly or wrongly, it is unusual for traffic police to stop cars containing foreigners as they don't want to create extra work for themselves or risk annoying some important diplomat, investor or other VIP.

So I stepped out of the car, naively intent on explaining my status as a foreign journalist and asking politely if we could be allowed to resume our journey.

No sooner had I walked up to the senior policeman, head bowed out of respect, than the driver had called up a relative who worked for the traffic police and passed the phone to the other cop who swiftly waved us on our way.

1 comment:

  1. Have to disagree with you on traffic police not stopping cars with foreigners inside. I've had the experience enough times to say that it doesn't play a role. Nor are cops reluctant to pull over a motorbike with a foreigner as a passenger. Perhaps the situation of foreigner as driver would be different, as the cop would have to be able to speak English, and not all do.

    That said, I've heard of a rash of foreigners driving motorbikes and speeding or otherwise commiting some misdemeanor, getting stopped and claiming they don't speak English. That's just plain rude.

    You are on the money about the power of connections though.