HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Red Tape Nation

Living in Vietnam is great, and it should be obvious to any reader of this blog that I love the country. There are, of course, huge frustrations that come along with living here, as is true for anywhere in the world. Sometime I get the sense friends back home think I'm on constant holiday, but that's not the case. Possibly the most frustrating aspect of life in Vietnam as an expat - more so than the pollution or the appalling drivers - is the incredible amount of bureaucratic red tape that is encountered any time you try to do something official or make yourself more legitimate as a resident.

I believe much of the dense bureaucracy is a remnant of the hard-core socialist days of the 70s and 80s, before Doi Moi. The more agencies, committees, bureaus and departments there are, the more jobs you can create, even if it the result is a colossal, inefficient Leviathan of a system that is completely unfit for the modern era. Of course, it takes time to transform something with so much inertia, but some of the rules and regulations which remain in place would be laughable if they weren't so infuriating, and certain officials seem to take pleasure in making things as difficult as humanly possible.

I learned this several years ago when I went through a farcical ordeal to obtain a work permit. I've blocked out most memories of that epic quest, but I can give two examples of the extremely anal rules you must follow at times: I wasn't allowed into the Department of Justice because I was wearing shorts; and after returning to said department in long pants I finished filling out a huge form in blue ink, when part of it had previously been filled out in black ink. I was then told that I had to re-do the whole form in one ink color.

I'm currently going through another, similar bang-your-head-against-the-wall struggle against mountains of red tapes. Unless you work for an English language center or a multinational you get basically no help with any paperwork from your employer. After asking for a contract from Tuoi Tre (yes, just a simple contract saying I work there and for how long) for months, I was finally told last week that they can't give me one since they already have a hard enough time dealing with a foreigner. (I'm the only one in the office.) I'm dumbfounded by this, as a contract is the most basic thing any company should provide to its employees. This isn't a mom-and-pop corner store either, it's the biggest newspaper in the country.

The reason I need a contract (besides wanting actually feel like an employee with rights) is that you need one to bank here. You need a contract to open an account so that the bank knows where your money is coming from. Luckily I never closed my account when I left in 2013, otherwise I'd be up shit creek. Still, every time I go to the bank to deposit money they scold me since the contract they have on file is from the school I stopped working for way back in early 2012. Luckily I recently found an ATM that allows me to deposit cash without having to go to a teller, so I don't have to worry about keeping piles of cash in my room.

So, one problem solved, but last week another appeared. I went to the bank to transfer money to pay rent, and after completing numerous forms and presenting them to the teller I was told, sorry, you can't actually transfer because the signature on the form is different from the one I signed when I opened the account in 2010. I was beside myself. This is 2015, and they are basing identification on signatures. I had my passport with me and all other relevant personal details, but that wasn't good enough. I asked if I could see the original signature and was told no. The teller tried writing the signature out and I then copied her copy, but that wasn't good enough either. Much to my astonishment I was told that they couldn't help me, so please have a nice day. Apparently everyone in Vietnam has the same signature for their whole life.

I've also received no help in obtaining a work permit, which you need to get a one-year visa. A couple of years ago the government introduced a regulation stating you needed five years of experience in your field or a post-graduate degree to be eligible for a work permit. This was part of an effort to crack down on illegal (mostly Chinese) workers, but it also impacted thousands of other people. Once they realized this would kill the ESL industry, since teachers only need a Bachelor's degree, the authorities walked back a bit, but only for English teachers. I've been told I can't get a work permit since I don't meet those requirements, which means I have to shell out increasingly huge amounts of money for visa extensions every three months, and new rules are even making that more difficult.

I realize an American complaining about unreasonable visa and work-related regulations is a bit rich, considering how hard the U.S. makes it for immigrants these days, but I feel like an illegitimate, illegal worker...because I am one. I have no rights if something were to go wrong, and every time I go through passport control here I get glared at since I have at least a dozen Vietnam visas thanks to my inability to get long-term ones. Vietnam claims it wants to be more welcoming to foreigners, but I'm not feeling very welcome at the moment thanks to all of this red tape, and I'm not sure how much longer this will be sustainable for me. I'm now attempting to get a driver's license, which will surely be a task of Odyssean, and possibly even Sisyphean, proportions. Wish me luck.


  1. I feel your pain, and think that you do have a legitimate reason to complain even though you are an American. I met my wife (who is Vietnamese) in the US, and have filled out immigration paperwork in the US and Vietnam, and I can tell you that immigrating to the US is much less frustrating. Kudos to you for actually trying to get a working permit. I have a visa exemption, so I can open a bank account with that, but I didn't think about teachers that don't have working permits trying to deal with the banks. They are hard enough to deal with when you are a citizen of VN. Good luck with the driver's license. For me, the driver's license was easier to obtain than a debit card at CitiBank.

  2. Dang that really sucks Mike and holy crap that is the dumbest reason ever to reject your transfer matching a 4 years old signature like wow what year are we living in?

  3. Having living in VN a long time mike.vdo you agree with this article?http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/03/13/vietnam-capitalism-global-post/70261770/

    1. Absolutely, this is the most-cut throat capitalist place I've ever been, Saigon in particular.