Vietnam everything is illegal and anything is possible...
- It is illegal to own a motorbike larger than 125 cc but you can drive the passenger train from Saigon to Hanoi.
- It is forbidden to overnight anywhere other than an official government hotel but you can disappear for weeks at a time into the mountain sanctuaries of the tribal minorities.
- You are not allowed to listen to Madonna but you can buy a highly-endangered clouded leopard.
You can be arrested for:
- Spending the night in a sugarcane field.
- Taking a picture of a bridge.
- Owning a decadent Western video.
- Owning any kind of motorbike as a foreigner.
- Not having a local driver's license.
- Having a local driver's license.
- Looking like a wealthy foreigner.
- Blundering into a restricted area.
- Being in the wrong place at the wrong time (like the Central Highlands at any time).
- Breathing... (i.e., looking like a wealthy Westerner and bumping into a policeman who needs a few extra bucks to pay for his daughter's wedding)
REAL DANGER VS. MINOR ANNOYANCES
The good news is that, though you'll get hassled, detained, shaken down, and generally annoyed, at no time will you be in any real danger. There are countries (like Cambodia) where getting pulled off the train by authoritative-looking men with guns is a virtual death sentence. Vietnam is not one of those places. The Vietnamese police are really quite pleasant people - I've spent entire evenings drinking rice whisky while negotiating for the return of my bike - but the police have pitifully small salaries and this is one of the perks of their profession. So understand the game - this is all about money - specifically how much you're willing to part with. You're not going to rot in jail for months before anyone knows what happened to you and you're not going to be taken out the back and tortured. So if you do get arrested, relax. here's what to do:
Rule #1 Always bribe the first man who asks for your papers; the more officials involved, the higher the eventual price tag.This rule I learned early...
Rule #2 Never hand over original papers you aren't prepared to buy back.
Rule #3 Be friendly and cheerful. You WANT to give them money. Their children are probably hungry.
Rule #4 Accept the negotiations for what they are; you are purchasing your freedom and your possessions. How much you pay is a function of how long you are willing to sit, how desperate you look, and whether you can make them laugh.
GETTING AROUND "NO"
Rumour has it that all aspiring Vietnamese government-officials-in-training are made to stand in orderly rows and shout "NO!" at least five hundred times a day. Eventually it becomes their favourite word - their default option when they're not sure what to do (and in a country that has no real legal system, that's most of the time).
Here are some common items on the NO list:
The local population has started to pick up on this trend and often improved upon it:
- No, you can't have a visa extention. You must leave the country in six hours.
- No, you can't continue along this road to Hanoi. You must return to Saigon (1000 miles away)
- No, you are not allowed to have this Bruce Sprinstein CD. I will confiscate it now.
- No, there is no bus. You can hire my jeep.
- No, you cannot stay in this hotel. My brother has a place he can rent you down the street.
- No, there are no soft seats on this train (but if you pay the conductor some money then an entire carriage-full will magically appear).
That's the bad news. The good news is that tourists have a few weapons of their own:
1. THE INVENTIVE EDGE.
I dropped off my passport with a tourist agency who said they could get me a new thirty-day visa. An hour later they called back and said they could only do fifteen. Ten minutes after that they said five days. Apparently the anniversary of the liberation of South Vietnam was coming up and the government wanted to rid the country of Americans and cockroaches.
Later that day I was looking at the date on my old visa and realized I could make the "3" into a "23" - which I did. I then took my passport to a little old man in the old city who made Chinese wood carvings.. I asked him if he could duplicate one of the rattier provincial extension stamps so I could issue myself an extension whenever I needed one. "Two dollars," he said.
2. THE SHRUG.
This one takes some planning - you have to be exactly where you want to be and have eliminated all other options. Let's say you want to spend the night in a rural village. Rent a ratty old motorbike. Go find a village that you like. Break down (after 4 pm is best when the buses are no longer running). The local police will come and insist that you cannot spend the night. Point at your bike and shrug. Everyone in Vietnam understands this gesture. Then go find a place to sleep.