Vietnam is a bustling country that is clearly growing by leaps and bounds. US investment is coming in fast since relations were restored in the 1990s. America is not alone. EU investment is also on the rise, and Japan is now the top investor. (Vietnam trails only China, India, and Thailand in the amount of Japanese foreign direct investment.)

But despite the growing economy, Vietnam remains a communist country where the presence of the state is pervasive.

...and the police are everywhere. (Like video games of my childhood, the rank and scariness of the police is easily identifiable by the color of their uniforms.)

We had no first-hand contact with the white or green police shown above. But on the two day tours we joined during our trip (to the River Tombs in Hue and the Perfume Pagoda outside Hanoi), our tour buses were "inspected" by the police. The first trip was delayed for half an hour as police inspected the boats at the dock and our boat manager paid some cash. On our bus ride to the Perfume Pagoda, we were pulled over for apparently being on the wrong street. The driver was taken to a police car and paid either a fine or bribe (term of art?) before we could move on. Both of these shakedowns were from the "special police," clad in a light tan uniform. Their arrival instantly made all locals nervous. Just look at where everyone's eyes are in this picture, which I snapped from the boat as we pulled out from port down the Perfume River in Hue.

My worst experience with these thugs was at the border. Both my traveling companion and I brought our laptops with us (more on this later). When we crossed the border from Lao Cai, Vietnam to Hukuo, China, the customs inspection decided that because we hadn't declared our laptops, they had the right to confiscate them! We got off with a warning, but you can imagine what goes through the head of such a border guard: that piece of metal is worth more than what I make in a year...

Yet despite this oppressive presence, many Vietnamese aren't afraid to flout government regulations. All businesses except bars and nightclubs must close by midnight, but I used one internet cafe that shuttered it's doors at midnight and allowed present customers to stay and a few regulars to enter after the curfew.

I had the chance to hear what a lot of Vietnamese thought about their government, and I heard no positive reviews. One man said that the government was "the most corrupt in the world," and that people have no right to protest against the government.

Comparing Vietnam to China, I would surmise that living standards for the majority of the population are better in Vietnam, and that there is less state control of education and media, but the government and police interference in daily life is pervasive.

On to the next entry...

c. 2006