A lot of expats complain about Vietnam's traffic police, which the respondents to a 2012 World Bank survey as the most corrupt individuals in the country. I like them a helluva lot better than the regular police.
At the end of the (Gregorian) year, the World Bank released the results of a survey in which 5,460 Vietnamese respondents overwhelmingly identified their traffic police as the most corrupt group of individuals in the country.
In the same survey, the respondents noted that they didn’t mind the way the system worked because they made more money than they paid in bribes.
And that’s the part that few people ever talk about—the joys of living in a corrupt, lax and comfortably inefficient system.
A great number of foreigners have carped in these pages about the corruptibility of Saigon’s traffic police.
I’d venture to guess that few in this camp remember the bummer of being preyed upon by a tidy, relentless paramilitary police force.
Or maybe these people really do miss the days when the inevitable traffic stop led to a US$150 fine accompanied by a choice of higher insurance bills or a dreary weekend spent in a traffic school taught by struggling improv comedians.
Hey, who doesn’t love the police—especially the violent and unbending police?
Every now and again, even Special Patrolman Godfrey misses the fraternity he found as an honorary member of the NYPD whose official protocol allows cops to shoot people who refuse to show their hands.
Here in Ho Chi Minh City, the motormen wear pink and are occasionally filmed being steamrolled by hysterical women, buses and other police officers.
Most foreign observers identify corrupt traffic cops as the cause of Ho Chi Minh City’s perpetual jam, but they’re clearly a symptom. Their job, at once absurd and impossible, is to somehow police the 10 million motorists bursting out of every nook and cranny of a city that was laid out for less than a million people on bicycles.
Their response to this predicament is hardly surprising. The cops here are humans—flawed and utterly predictable.
Indeed, everyone in the city seems to understand that cops and robbers alike will seek a little extra piece of the pie to pass around as Tet approaches.
The robbers have remained rather quiet this year. But, last Thursday, the police turned out in a stunning show of force.
Squads of six to eight men stood at seemingly every street corner in town; some dressed in their blousy peach uniforms, others inexplicably decked out in black helmets and vests with plastic batons sheathed behind their right shoulders.
Unfortunately, Thursday was the same night that two glasses of red wine inspired me to drive to a friend’s house in District 6 at around midnight.
I was flagged down on Hung Vuong Street driving 50 kph in the car lane while singing the ballad of General Munroe without a license (either to drive or to sing).
My bike registration was at home in a drawer with my Passport—though it bears the name of a (dead?) person I’ve never met in Khanh Hoa Province.
In the United States, this combination of miscalculations might have cost me my job and several thousand dollars. The officer, moved by a departmental quota or a fascist love of rules, would probably have seized me and my property just because he could.
I swallowed, heavily, as I decelerated into the blinding rays of the officer’s flashlight, trying to remember Spanish.
Just as soon as the whites of my forearms came into sight, however, I was waved on down the road.
Later that night, I was stopped again. I still had no way of identifying my bike, myself or the reason I felt entitled to breeze past a police checkpoint, drive the wrong way up an off-ramp and then speed up a bridge into a second police checkpoint tasked with catching idiots like myself.
Instead, I presented the stern young officer with an expression that identified me as an international idiot. He glowered, doing his best impression of a righteously indignant officer of the law.
But his face fell when his supervisor, a tired chubby fellow, intervened with a chant. “Go, go, go, go…”
And so I went.
Back at home, I wished that I’d had the chance to bribe that earnest young man. He and his family should have something to show for his attempt to do his job.
Like us on Facebook and scroll down to share your comment
By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the February 1st issue of our print edition, Vietweek)