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"˜Envelope money' is so much the norm that it is not seen as a tainted practice

  People queue up at the main Ho Chi Minh City tax office. Giving gifts in cash or kind to express gratitude to government officials is seen as a normal business practice in Vietnam.

The first time, they kept him waiting for days before returning the paperwork with the required stamp on it. The businessman in Ho Chi Minh City had learnt his lesson.

The next time he submitted the paperwork to a government agency in Hanoi for the stamp, he placed among the documents an envelope with US$200 in it.

This time he got a call back almost immediately. Just go to the office, he was told. He would have a room with the paperwork and the stamp, and "you can do whatever you want."

"I was not expecting things to be that easy, with just an envelope. But that was it. It is a matter of fact thing," the businessman told Vietweek on condition of anonymity.

In fact, the practice of giving and receiving under-the-table money is actually so common that it is not even considered bribery, but an intrinsic part of local business culture, evoking no guilt either in the giver or the taker.

So the results of a new study released Tuesday (October 16) by the Development and Policies Research Center, a Hanoi-based think tank, have failed to raise eyebrows.

Seventy percent of companies in Hanoi, Hai Phong and Son La interviewed in the survey by the center said they had bribed government officials to get things done last year.

Hai Duong Province, the other locality surveyed in the report, reported the lowest percentage of businesses paying bribes at 50 percent.

These findings are not very different from a national report's conclusions announced last April.

Sixty-three percent of respondents in that survey by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) said sending gifts in cash or kind to express gratitude to government officials is a common custom.

Some 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "In case of working with government offices, give money first and everything will be easy."

Experts say these surveys contain no new insights, just confirm facts already known.

"However interesting these surveys are, they are just more of the same," said Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Vietnam.

"When you have a situation that is more of the same, then you have to try implementing new approaches," he said.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, is drafting a law that looks to factor in mitigating circumstances for those who are forced to offer bribes, but dare to blow the whistle on the deal later on.

At a recent meeting with the National Assembly last month, the government submitted a report saying a majority of businesses and citizens themselves foster and encourage the practice of bribery when working with government organizations in a bid to gain a competitive edge or fast-track formalities.

A senior lawmaker took umbrage at this conclusion, saying the buck should never stop with the people.

"The people never want to pay bribes," said Huynh Ngoc Son, the vice house speaker. "It is you [the government agencies] that always demand to be fed so the people have no choice but to spoon-feed you," Son told a delegation from the government at the September meeting.

But Son appeared to have spoken too soon in giving the companies the benefit of the doubt.

"Many, if not all, businesses consider paying bribes a routine part of their daily lives," said Hoang Nhu Lam, who runs a ceramics business in a southern province.

He cited the example of the customs department, listed as one of the most corruption-prone agencies, saying they have only become "increasingly professional" in taking bribes over the years.

"They have set up their own unwritten rules that fix (bribery) rates for every single procedure," Lam said. "And we the companies are willing to abide by these rules.

"We just need to get things done and paying a bit more for that is no big deal at all."

In 2009, the World Bank conducted an Enterprise Survey that covered more than 100 countries. The results showed that firms in Vietnam were more likely than their counterparts in most countries in East Asia to say that unofficial payments are expected to get things done, while at the same time, relatively few of them identified corruption as a major constraint for their operations.

Another World Bank-commissioned report in 2010 summed it up: "If firms adapt to corruption to the extent that it becomes normal and less of a problem"¦, it becomes even harder to eradicate."

Lam, the ceramics businessman, was unimpressed by the call not to bribe officials. He said those making the call were not walking in the shoes of businesses, and would never empathize with them.

"Only when stricter laws are imposed to punish the officials who take bribes and only when they get decent salaries will there be a hope of ending the practice," he said.

"Otherwise, we can stop paying bribes provided that the customs officials become programmed robots, not the human beings they currently are."

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