HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Five-o!

The effectiveness of Vietnamese police officers lies somewhere between Farva and an actual American police force.
A major difference between Western societies and Vietnamese society can be found in the role police forces play. This isn't really something most tourists would notice, and it's also not an issue that many people discuss, especially here, since the government is so sensitive to criticism. However, spend some time here and you'll realize that the way police officers operate, and how the people of the country perceive them, is a far cry from what you're probably used to.

Let's start with the reputation of the cops. In the U.S., police officers are seen as protection. (Unless you're black. Or from New Orleans. In which case you're chocolate, anyway.) When your car gets stolen, you call the police. If your house gets broken into, you report it to the police. If you hear gunshots, you should probably call the police. Or, if you're lonely, you could call them 27,000 times. They are the proverbial "good guys"; their job is to keep the population safe from harm. While we complain about getting speeding tickets, it's safe to say that most Americans approve of having police departments in their cities.

Here in Vietnam, it's completely different. For example, in one of my classes, we did a chapter on cities. In one section, a number of municipal services - parks, restaurants, police, etc. - were listed, and the students were asked to match them to broad categories, such as recreation, jobs, safety, lifestyle, and so on. We were going through them, and came upon "police". OK, this one is easy, I said, thinking the obvious match was "safety". However, without hesitation, my students said "jobs". I scoffed. "Oh, um, well yes, I suppose they do provide jobs. But...what about safety?" They didn't seem to make the connection.

In fact, most locals think any action taken by the cops is wrong. A British teacher that I worked with a few months back had a Vietnamese girlfriend, and one night they were waiting at a red light on his motorbike. Several motos screamed through the light; their drivers not wearing helmets, which is against the law here. Luckily, there were cops nearby, and they pulled the scofflaws over. The guy's girlfriend commented that that was very bad of the police, which made no sense to us. In general, the population has absolutely no respect for the police.

Sadly, when they aren't busy ignoring the police, people are scared of them. This fear is somewhat warranted. Vietnamese police have a history of corruption and random brutality, taking bribes hand over fist, confiscating motorbikes and keeping them for personal use, and making life miserable for certain people. Things are supposedly improving, but no one seems to notice.

The other major difference between cops here and in the West is in the way they operate. There are two main tiers of officers here: the traffic cops, who cruise around on specialized bikes in tan uniforms and tan helmets with "CSGT" stenciled into the side. Then, there are the green-clad tourist police, who are apparently there to help white people cross the street without getting creamed. However, they mostly seem to occupy their time by either standing around aimlessly, or waiting below stoplights and whistling when the light turns green. There are also guards in green uniforms that patrol the fronts of major consulates and government buildings, often armed with Russian assault rifles, although I'm not sure if they are part of the police force.

If, like me, you get around Saigon on a motorbike, the traffic cops will be the ones you notice most often. Especially during rush hour, they can be seen on nearly every major corner, two guys to a bike, ostensibly in order to control traffic. Sometimes, one will be standing in the middle of the intersection, trying to prevent people from turning where they shouldn't, or using the wrong lane. However, given the simply enormous amount of vehicles traversing Saigon's streets, and the breezy apathy with which locals treat road regulations, this effort is equivalent to trying to stop the flow from a fire hose with your pinky finger.

When it comes to actually stopping people that have broken the law, the police face at least two major problems. To start with, so many people flaunt the rules that it is simply impossible to pull over even 1% of the violaters. Second, officers dismount from their bikes when they stop. If someone is in the wrong lane when he drives by, they would have jump on the bike, start it up, and zoom after him, which is impossible, since the traffic is so dense. It usually works like this: a cop will spot someone doing something wrong, walk out into the street, and point them to the curb with their baton. (Another difference: officers here aren't armed.) Unless he is standing directly in the path of the person's moto, however, they will probably just continue on their way. Surely, this impotence is frustrating.

I've experienced this firsthand. One time I took a convenient, but illegal, left turn. There was a cop waiting at the end of the turn, but he was a good five feet to my right, and his partner was busy writing people up for doing the same thing. He waved his baton towards the sidewalk, but I simply waved back and kept going. Nothing he could do about it. This doesn't reflect well on the capabilities of Saigon's police force, but it is nice to know that, if you ignore a cop that's trying to pull you over, you won't end up being chased down the highway by 14 squad cars and a helicopter, like in the U.S. (Although that may be because there are no squad cars, helicopters, or highways.)

One nice thing about the police here is that, if they actually pull you over, they are often willing to negotiate.
(This applies more to foreigners than locals, though.) This is fortunate, since the amount they choose to fine you is completely arbitrary. A Vietnamese-American friend of mine got pulled over one time, and the officer demanded 1.5 million dong! ($75!) For some reason, she was not able to talk the fine down, but usually that's not the case. A British friend got pulled over, and the cop started off with:
"We're going to take your bike."
"No."
"Ok, then you pay 1 million."
"No."
"400,000."
"How about 100,000"
"Ok."
And he was on his way after paying a $5 fine.

The first time I got pulled over (the guy was standing right in front of me, so I had nowhere to go), he asked if I had a license. "No, but here's my American one." He didn't care about that, and immediately asked for 200,000 dong. The rule is that you are actually supposed to pay fines at the police station, not on the street, but this is completely ignored. I had just over 200,000 on me, so I paid him, and off I went.

My second encounter with the traffic police was more nerve-wracking. I was accidentally driving in a car-only lane, since I missed the sign demarcating the lanes, which is easy to do when you have to constantly focus on not having a massive accident. I came around a corner, and there were several cops right there. Annoyingly, the three Vietnamese people that were doing the same thing just kept going. I was the only honest one of the bunch, and I was the only one that got in trouble. The first officer who approached me, a young guy, asked if I had a licence. "No." Passport? "Of course not. Why would I carry that?" He then drew a diagram of my mistake, and asked me if I understood. "Yes." Good, he replied, "Now we'll take your bike for 30 days." I blanched, and my heart began to race. "What!! I don't even own it! You can't take it!" (I knew I would probably never see it again if it was impounded.) "Can't I just pay a fine?" Obviously interested, he asked, "You have money to pay a fine?" "Yes!"

"Ok, 400,000 dong." ($20) I only had 200,000 on me, so I told him that. "Then we're going to take your bike." I was panicking, and we went over to the older, head cop of the group. He also said the fine would be 400,000, but I told him I didn't have it. The younger one again said they would take my bike. So, I pulled out 200,000 and showed them the inside of my wallet, to prove that I didn't have enough. The older one took the money, rubbed his chin, and waved me away. "Go." I ran to my bike and drove away as fast as I could.

Now, I've never been pulled over in the U.S., but I know that things would certainly not go like that if you were stopped by a police officer. To be honest, I'm rather torn on all of this. It's comforting to know that, for the most part, I can just ignore the police; and to know that, if I actually get pulled over, I'll probably be OK, simply because I'm a foreigner. However, this is also a bad sign for Vietnam. An honest, fully-functioning (or at least half-functioning) police force is important in any major city, and the country will surely continue to be the butt of many jokes, not to mention the source of many complaints, if corruption continues unabated.

Of course, the Vietnamese people could throw the police a bone by actually following the rules of the road from time to time, instead of driving the wrong way down a one-way street while talking on the phone and not wearing a helmet with four other people on the bike, but that seems to be asking far too much. When I visit the U.S. next month, I'll have to remind myself everytime I get behind the wheel that cops there really shouldn't be ignored.

3 comments:

  1. Hm. I would call you lucky. Driving without a license they are within their rights to take your bike. And not all the cops here are corruptible. I was pulled over with my Vietnamese friend by a cop who spoke quite good English and he could not be bribed. She was fined, and had her license confiscated for an illegal left turn.

    But don't you think the traffic policemen are fetching in their peachy outfits? Those helmets must be hot.

    We were walking past the French Consulate today and remarked that there is nothing so comforting (or rather, disconcerting) as a bored, uniformed teenager armed with an assault rifle.

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  2. I know that you're supposed to have a license, but that seems to be one of those rules that they'll let slide if you're a foreigner. I don't know a single expat that has a license.

    Totally agree about the teenage guards too!

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  3. Ooh Me sir! Me sir!
    I've got a licence!

    you can actually get your 'home' license translated and notarized, usually with the same level of permissions.

    So I can now legally drive anything up to a 3 tonne truck in Vietnam! (although not a big motorbike, silly British license.)

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