Saturday, November 01, 2008

Cutting Thru the Communist Red Tape

So recently I had occasion to experience the red tape in this country, and, to be frank, it wasn't so bad. 

Above is the view I had for about 1.5 hours, waiting for my number to be called.. but let's start at the beginning.

A few weeks prior to the picture, I submitted paperwork to relevant governmental agencies in order to secure a business license and, more importantly, the right to purchase one of these stamps:

In the U.S., business formalities have moved past the "sign and seal" stage of authenticating signatures.  Back in the day when most people were illiterate, the need to sign and seal documents made sense.  Now, not so much.

U.S. contracts these days may still say "sign and seal" under the signature, but this is merely an anachronism, as it isn't legally necessary.  Even the 'requirement' to notarize signatures are not technically legally necessary - it's just a safe harbor in order to expedite the process if the signature was ever challenged as being authentic.

In Vietnam, and in some parts of Asia, the seal requirement is still paramount. Documents are not legal unless they have a seal - be it from a company, a government agency, or whomever.  Documents are never accepted with simple signatures. Everything has to be original documents.. good luck passing off a photocopy of your documents, unless they've been authenticated with a government seal.

Because of this, when you're hanging out at the international departure terminals in Vietnam, you can locate those locals emigrating elsewhere by their dress (Sunday best, naturally) and by the black Samsonite briefcase that they're clutching.  In it will be all manners of original, signed and sealed documents that cost a fortune, in terms of man-hours, to procure.  My folks still have that black Samsonite filled with yellowed documents in a back closet somewhere.

So here I am, sitting in this government office, to get my own seal.  The place is packed, there is no AC and I'm in a coat and tie.  Um.. not good.

I snatch a number, like at a deli counter, realize my position in the queue, and then head towards the folks mingling at the doorway.  This is Vietnam, there are always alternatives.

After some discussion with a few folks in my limited Vietnamese, I learned that I could outsource the wait on line for between 500-750k, but that I would not be able to get the seal today.  If I personally waited, I would get my seal.  Needing to mail out an "official" document today, I bit the bullet, rolled up my sleeves and waited it out.

The room is, as mentioned, packed.  About a 50/50 mix in terms of sex. Most of the guys are either Korean or Japanese expat business folks.  The majority of the women are young sherpas, guiding these guys through this regulatory process.  I figured I could do it on my own.

And after about two hours, I was right.  There were some missteps along the way - I had to run down the street to get my passport photocopied, then head to the police station to pay 2k VND (that's like 15 cents) to get the photocopy authenticated - but the stern dude, dressed in his pea soup green army uniform, who manned the counter was pretty nice and helpful underneath that fascade.

So it was pretty good, not much different than heading to the DMV or Register of Deeds office in the U.S.

A lot of expats have a fear of the regulatory agencies in Vietnam - so they either hire someone to do this work for them or just straight up avoid it altogether and break the law (like riding around without a license).  I met a German expat recently who told me how relatively painless it was for him to get a motobike license in Vietnam.

The assumption amongst expats that nothing gets done in the government, however big or small, without a bribe attached is pervasive.  But it is certainly not true.  Sure niceties grease the wheels, but the same is true everywhere in the world. 

If you've ever had to personally go and file a deed in the U.S., you'll see the runners from the mortgage and title companies plying treats to the filing clerks, who in turn share this corpulence with the rest of their minions, in order to get better service.

It's just that in Vietnam, foreigners have a more limited skill set with respect to 'being nice' to local folks, government clerks or otherwise.   For some expats, their toolbox starts and ends with money.


liz said...

god, you're deep.

Jonny said...

After two years of working in Vietnam I was looking to be leaving the bureaucracy behind.. but actually I found the UK can be just as bad, sometimes worse, I just hadn't noticed as it wasn't part of being somewhere new.

I think its often all too easy to blame just about everything bad, irritating or inconvenient on the country you live in as you are all too aware you are away from home, yet often it is nothing to do with where you are. Will try harder this time :)

D. said...


You know, I try. Some would accuse me of being deeply.. boring.


There are definitely things I find utterly irritating here, but, surprisingly, of the bureaucracy, not so much.