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Indonesian Journal: The Chicago Way Out Of Vietnam

No English! No!

The cop waved me away, disgusted. Zero interest in my cell phone or the voice buzzing through its receiver.

"She speaks Vietnamese," I said. "Take the call."

The cop looked at his colleague, another middle-aged and deeply creased functionary in a rumpled green uniform perched behind a banged-up gray metal desk, and the colleague shrugged. The cop took the call.

This was my third trip to a small, shabby and almost invisible local police office inside Hanoi's Old Quarter, about two blocks from the hotel where my passport had been stolen the day before. I'd come the night before after I discovered the passport missing, and the two young cops on duty at the time refused to take a report. One of them barely moved from the saturnine slouch he stubbornly held in a ratty, padded black armchair just inside the police station. He wore his uniform cap low over his eyes and was rigid in his casual defiance. The young cops said they needed their supervisor to sign any reports and the supervisor was sleeping; no way were they going to wake him. Come back tomorrow, they said. When I came back the next morning, the supervisor was still unavailable. He had stirred and left the office. Maybe he'd be back around 2 p.m., they said. Come back later. The young cops gave me a form they said I needed to complete and have translated into Vietnamese. I should bring it back with me.

So after a crosstown visit to the American embassy to apply for an emergency passport, I came back again and the supervisor finally made an appearance. He emerged from a back room wearing a food-stained striped polo shirt. As he slowly approached the intake desk, making clear how fucking boring this whole fucking business was to him, he pulled a forest green uniform shirt over his polo and then, glacially, sloppily, tied and tightened a khaki tie below the polo shirt's limp collar. He sat down heavily in front of us, taking a position beside another senior officer who would hear my story, both of them stationed below a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

The walls were a dirty, scuffed, pitted pale yellow, the floor a worn rust-colored tile that had not been mopped in at least a month. I sat with my back to the street, the front of the police station open to the road like the roll-up storefronts that flanked it for blocks in either direction.

With me was my friend and traveling companion Jenn, who is a former detective, and the college kid we'd found on the street and recruited as our interpreter. Also there was the young assistant manager of the hotel where my passport went missing. He sat closer to the cops. The police supervisor, after settling into his seat, made it immediately clear whose side he was on. Turning to my college kid translator, the old cop began shouting and waving an index finger.

He scolded and sputtered, staring the kid down, forcing him to look away. He motioned to the assistant hotel manager, then to the kid, then pointed at the form I'd been told to prepare and have translated into Vietnamese, and said he had no intention of reading it. At no point did he look at me or Jenn or otherwise acknowledge we were in the room. His face growing red, the old copper kept up a running harangue of the translator, five minutes, six, seven. I finally interrupted the guy.

"What's he saying?" I asked my college kid.

My voice stopped the cop's badgering. He finally looked at me. I met his eyes - angry but also bored, professionally pissed - then turned to my translator for an answer.

He says you can't prove your passport was stolen from the hotel. You don't have any proof.

I'd been through this before with the assistant manager from the hotel, and later with his boss. These conversations were mildly friendly at first - the hoteliers offered to help me call all of the places I'd visited the day my passport went missing to see if I'd left it behind at, say, the Hanoi Water Puppet show - but as I continued to insist that I'd left the passport on the desk inside my room and had seen it sitting there before I left for 12 hours of sightseeing, the more hardened the hotel bosses got about my claim. It was their word against mine. There was no way my passport had been taken from inside their building, they insisted. I lost it on the street. You lost it somewhere else, they said.

I didn't lose it somewhere else, I said. I lost it here.


* * *

I had discovered the passport missing about 10 p.m. Sunday night and called the hotel clerk at the front desk. I asked him to come to my room. When he got there I told him my passport was gone and asked if he would contact the hotel manager.

Was there a way to call the cleaning staff to see if any of them had it? Could the passport be somewhere else in the hotel?

The clerk, a soft-spoken young simp who a short time later would forget how to speak English and refuse to contact the police for me, said he would make some phone calls and let me know what he could find out.

Twenty minutes later, he called my room to say his supervisor was asleep for the night and he couldn't reach any of the cleaning staff and we could just deal with this in the morning.

No, we need to deal with it now, I said. Wake your supervisor up. I need to talk to the police. I need to file a police report.

I made my way to the hotel lobby and was soon joined by Jenn, who sat watching the clerk and who grew increasingly frustrated as I tried to get him to contact the police.

What's the number for the police?

The number?

Yes. The phone number. How do I call the police?

You want to call police?

The police, Jenn said. Get them on the phone, or tell us how to do it.

She thumbed through tourist books looking for emergency contact information. She found the number and I dialed it. A middle-aged man answered in Vietnamese and I asked if anyone there could speak English. He answered in Vietnamese and I tried to hand the phone to the hotel clerk, who reluctantly took it.

Instead of talking with the cop, though, he picked up a land line and called his boss, the hotel's young assistant manager. The clerk spoke quietly into the handset and held my cell in his other hand, letting the police officer hold the line for several minutes. When I took the cell phone back, the line was dead. I told the clerk I was calling the embassy. The clerk had ended the call with his boss but dialed him again and handed me the phone.

The police won't come to the hotel, the manager told me through the earpiece. You will have to wait until tomorrow to talk to them.

I want to talk to them now, I said. I'm calling the embassy. Maybe they'll help.

You should wait until tomorrow. We can talk to the cleaning staff tomorrow.

You should talk to them tonight.

Not tonight, he said and then hung up on me.

I gave the phone back to the clerk, who had now officially stopped speaking English, and used my cell to call a Marine Corps sergeant pulling late-night duty at the embassy. The Marine said he'd page the on-call foreign service officer and that somebody would get back to me soon. He didn't know what to do about a police report.

The hotel clerk stood with two phones in his hand - the hotel phone and a cell - talking to no one. He was the picture of complete ineffectuality: doing and saying nothing. We waited for the FSO to call back and sat watching the clerk.

Why won't you call the police? Jenn asked.

The clerk said nothing.

I don't understand why you won't help us, she said. Why won't you help us?

A woman from the embassy finally called back. She took my information and said I should go to the American Citizen Services window the next day and apply for an emergency replacement passport. I would need a police report, she said, so I should get one of those as soon as possible. I asked if she could help with that.

What about the hotel? she suggested.

I said I'd be at the embassy as soon as I could the next morning. I hung up and turned to greet a young guy I'd seen around the hotel earlier in the week. He was about 26 and his English was very good. He said he was sorry to hear about the loss of my passport. He wanted to help. Thanks for that, I said. He introduced himself as the hotel manager. I said the hotel manager had just hung up on me about 20 minutes ago.

I didn't hang up, he said. There was a problem with the call.

Right. This young guy, whom I later learned was really the assistant manager, told me the police would not come to the hotel; they could not be summoned from their office so late at night. He was willing to walk with us to the police station and I could file a report there.

How far is it? I asked.

I don't know, the assistant manager said. It is not close.

We walked out into the Old Quarter night, past food carts selling beer and tea and pho, and turned a corner about 100 yards from the hotel. We walked a minute, turned left and were standing in front of the police station. We hadn't walked five minutes. Two blocks.

I thought you said it wasn't close.

I'm new here, the assistant manager shrugged.

* * *

Inside the police station, we met the slouching young cop and his partner and were rebuffed in all efforts to make a report. The assistant hotel manager explained that he was powerless to make the cops do their jobs. I am a regular citizen, he said. I can do nothing. I believed him. We left the station - and the cops to their naps.

When we got back to the hotel lobby, the assistant manager dropped all pretense of friendliness.

You accuse everyone of stealing! he barked. You point at me, at everyone!

I did no such thing and you know it, I said. Somebody took my passport. I didn't say I know whom. And I didn't fucking point at anyone.

Jenn and I left the assistant manager and the feckless desk clerk standing in the hotel's small lobby. Walking upstairs to our rooms, she turned to me and asked, What was that about? Bluster, I said. The assistant manager had made a point earlier of explaining that he'd gotten out of bed and driven downtown from his home to deal with this. He was put out. He wanted some credit for the effort. Thanks, I said. But what have you done so far, exactly?

We headed to bed about 3 a.m. and were back up for a return trip to the police station at 8:30. Tired. And a long day ahead of us. We got the brush-off early enough from the cops to get to the embassy before lunch - they take an hour-and-a-half break - and I applied for an emergency passport. I hoped to continue on to Laos and, a couple days later, to return to Indonesia. I would need a passport and, crucially, I would need a new visa for Vietnam. Without one, I couldn't leave the country - and the clock was ticking. The embassy staff told me I needed to take my police report and new passport to Vietnamese immigration officials before 4 p.m. That seemed unlikely. And Jenn and I were holding tickets for a 9 a.m. flight the following day, Tuesday.

At the embassy, I explained how I'd lost my passport inside the hotel. Eventually, a tall, bald white guy in a baggy oxford and khakis emerged from inside the consular services cubicles to talk with me through bullet-proof glass. He said it was unusual for someone to steal a passport from inside a hotel in Vietnam. He asked me about my work as a Fulbright teacher and then said he would call the hotel and see if he couldn't shake the tree and see if the passport fell out. He seemed eager to help, and of course I never talked to him again. I have no idea how his conversation with the hotel staff went. He didn't say, and his Vietnamese staff inside the embassy didn't either.

When we stepped out of the embassy and back into rainy and chilly mid-day Hanoi, we badly needed a police report. We didn't trust the assistant hotel manager to represent me or my claims in any way, and the performance of the cops by the hotel so far did not exactly inspire confidence. We stopped a young man toting a backpack as he crossed the street near the embassy.

Do you speak English? Yes. We need help. Do you have a minute? Yes. Thus did Chinh enter our misadventure. My passport was stolen and I need to file a police report, I told him. Can you come with us? We'll pay you for your time.

Chinh was on his way to an afternoon college-level English class but turned straight around and hailed a cab for us. We drove to a police station near the embassy and followed Chinh inside. He approached a severe 20-something police officer in the now-familiar forest green uniform and began explaining what we needed. The cop scowled. Then he shook his head. No.

Chinh kept talking, smiling and trying to lighten the guy up - a natural dealmaker. The cop listened and shook his head some more and listened and finally took the form I'd been given at the police station near the hotel. On it I'd written the bare-bones details of the passport theft; Chinh had then handwritten Vietnamese translations for each section.

The cop read over the document and then handed it back to Chinh. No. He told Chinh to tell us he couldn't provide me with a police report to take back to the embassy or to the Vietnamese immigration office because the crime, if there was a crime, happened in a different police district. I would have to go back to the station near the hotel. I looked at Chinh, Chinh looked at the cop, the cop looked away from all of us, out the door, into the afternoon.

* * *

Every year, Berlin-based Transparency International publishes a Corruption Perceptions Index that ranks the level of perceived public-sector corruption in the world's 178 countries. This list is based on feedback provided by country experts and reputable business institutions. Last year, Vietnam was ranked 116 out of 178 nations in the world, putting it just behind Indonesia, on par with Ethiopia and just slightly ahead of Syria. In other words, it might be a fast-emerging regional economy - the evidence of international capital investment, even during a world downturn, is evident from downtown Saigon's new supermall projects to the beachfront resorts of Danang, including one involving golfer Greg Norman, to the wide and speedy new freeway to Hanoi's airport that is filled with personal cars and minivans - but Vietnam remains a one-party state and the men who run that party, and the mid- and low-level bureaucrats who lard the public payroll, treat the state as their own private cash register, their positions of authority as means to personal economic ends. In Vietnam, power means power. Those who have it use it, and those who don't, like the assistant hotel manager who could do no more than ask politely for police assistance that did not come, pay the tolls exacted by the men in uniform. Big or small, the bribes are ubiquitous. They are a cultural truism.

So I was a little surprised that no one, to this point, had asked me for some money to make something happen with the police report. Not the young cops at the station near the hotel, not the older but equally uninterested cop seated before me around the corner from the American embassy.

Chinh made a final appeal, pushing the translated statement toward the officer and asking him to take another look. He scanned the page, then turned it over and read the back. He stood and walked to a rear office. Progress?! Chinh smiled hopefully.

But a minute later the cop was back, shoving the statement toward Chinh and shaking his head. I finally asked to Chinh to tell the cop I was willing to pay a "fee" to expedite the report. The cop again shook his head. No fee. We would have to go back to the police station by the hotel and get them to file the report.

Walking to a cab that would carry us back across town, I asked Chinh why the cop wouldn't budge, even when I offered to pay him for the report. He's afraid of the embassy. They know you're talking to the embassy and don't want any trouble. So power fears power, or at least the hassle of knowingly shaking down an American. Everything would be by the book. At least with the cops.

We drove straight to the Old Quarter police station near the hotel, and here we're back to where this story began. It was me, Jenn and Chinh on one side of the room, the young assistant hotel manager to our right, and the two older police officials, including the supervisor, sitting opposite us behind the intake desk.

We'd gotten off to the shouting start from the supervisor, and the hotel manager spoke nothing but Vietnamese for about 10 minutes. I was glad to have Chinh there but it was clear we were getting nowhere. The cops wouldn't even handle the translated statement, let alone read it, and time was running desperately out for us to make it to the immigration office in time to get an exit visa for the following morning - itself a longshot gambit, anyway. Officially it takes three days to get a replacement visa. Maybe I could make something happen if I could get to the office before they closed in less than two hours, but maybe not. If not, the trip to Laos was over and the vacation effectively ended. I'd be stuck in Hanoi for the rest of the week and then back on a plane to Jakarta.

The U.S. embassy staff didn't sound too hopeful. I asked if they could call in a favor, if they could give me the name of someone to talk to, if they knew of any other way I could get on a plane the following day, visa or no, and they said, Not really. They could help with the passport but they didn't have contacts with Vietnamese immigration. I was on my own with that.

The cop supervisor finally stopped yelling and told me I would need to change my story if I hoped to get a police report from him. I would not claim to have lost the passport inside the hotel. Instead, I would say I lost it while sightseeing. No one at the hotel was responsible; I was. If I changed my story, I could have a police report today. If not, they'd have to launch an investigation that could take weeks or even months, during which time I would need to remain in Hanoi, and only at the end of the investigation would they be able to provide a report.

I called the embassy to relay the cop's offer. The woman who answered sputtered that under no circumstances should I accept the deal. Then she asked to speak with the police supervisor. I tried to hand him the phone and he spat out, No English! No! But he took the call and gave the phone back and the embassy woman said she couldn't tell me what to do but that I might want to change my story. So I did. Chinh was visibly upset. It's not right, he later said.

We drafted another handwritten statement and then I was sent along with Chinh and the assistant hotel manager to find a copy machine somewhere. The police didn't provide that kind of service.

So we fast-walked through the narrow streets near the station and found a bank branch where the staffers made a copy for us and we raced back to the station, got an official seal and signature on the report, and hopped straight into a cab. It was 3:45 p.m. Vietnamese immigration closed at 4 p.m.

From the cab I dialed the immigration office and got an English speaker on the line. He said the office was already closed. I said I was on my way, could they wait? He said no. He also said it would take three days to get an exit visa. I asked if there were a way to expedite the process; I had a plane ticket for the next morning. No chance, the guy said. Three days. I hung up and told Jenn what he'd said. It was about 4 p.m. by now and we'd reached the end. A low point. Vacation's end.

Jenn thought about it for a minute and said, You know, I have to go on to Laos.

I know, I said.

* * *

We dropped off Chinh and I paid him the equivalent of $50. He said thanks and walked off toward the house he shares with his mother. Jenn and I got to the embassy in time to pick up my replacement passport and for me to ask again if the staff had any ideas about how to obtain a replacement visa in time to fly the following day. If not on the morning flight, then on the afternoon one. They didn't have an answer. If the Vietnamese said three days, it would take three days.

I took my passport and we walked downstairs to a small library inside the embassy, a reading room for Vietnamese students looking to brush up on their English. The place had an Internet terminal and a printer and we hoped to figure something out. Jenn started e-mailing investigator friends for help; maybe someone had a chit they could call in. I dialed up the website of the private company that had handled my original entry visa to Vietnam. They offered expedited service and claimed they could turn a visa around in four hours. I could have one by noon tomorrow - too late for the morning flight to Luang Prabang, Laos, but plenty of time to get on a later one. I called the company's offices in Hanoi and was assured I could get one the next morning. It would cost about $75. I processed the request through their computer, paid with a credit card, and at least had an option on the table that might get me out of Vietnam.

Just as the embassy was closing to the public for the night I made a return trip to the Citizen Services Window to tell them about the expedited visa option I was going to try. They'd never heard of it, and they couldn't vouch for it. Fine, but the company had done well by me before and I thought they'd come through. But they wouldn't have anything for me before my flight was gone. What if I wanted to try getting on that plane? I asked.

Well, you could just go to the airport and pay a fine and probably get on the plane, a woman at the counter said.

I can just show up and pay a fine? Why didn't you tell me that before?

Well, we don't normally advise that.

So I had two new possibilities. Things seemed less grim. The embassy staffers didn't know how much the fine might be but I was willing to chance it. And if the cost was too much, I'd have the expedited visa in hand by noon. Deep breath. Skies parting. We left the reading room hungry and tired but hopeful. It was 6 p.m. and we'd been chasing a passport, a police report, and a visa since the night before.

We hailed a cab and rode through the rain to our hotel. When we got there, I told the desk clerk that I wanted to talk to the bosses about checking out in the morning. I had no intention of paying full-freight for the stay and it was time to talk brass tacks. Jenn and I headed to our rooms, showered up, changed for dinner, and were back in the lobby about 25 minutes later.

There we met three different managers - the assistant manager whom we'd dealt with at the police station, the actual hotel manager, and the boss of bosses, the general manager for the little hotel chain that operated Hanoi Elite Hotel and several other properties like it around the city. We sat opposite the manager and general manager at a dining room table, and the general manager, a tall and stout Vietnamese guy about 40 who wore his hair in a frizzy buzz-cut-gone-long, did most of the talking.

First, the passport was not stolen here, he said. It doesn't make sense. An American passport is not worth anything in Vietnam.

This was a claim made several times earlier by the assistant manager and manager. Both men had insisted, and now their boss was returning to the theme, that a stolen U.S. passport had virtually no resale value on the Hanoi black market so no one would bother stealing one.

I told him what I'd told that others: That's nonsense, and you know it. The passport was the only thing missing from my room. I'd left it out on a desk for the thief or thieves to find, in part because an electronic safe in my room did not work properly and was locked shut and in part because I simply forgot to put it back in my bag after removing it for fear of rain the day before, and returned to my room to find it gone.

I had some Indonesian currency stashed in a duffel bag but otherwise was carrying all my cash at the time of the robbery. The hotel general manager said no one would steal a passport and leave the money behind. What if it were only Indonesian rupiah? I asked.

The general manager talked and talked and explained that his company had never had a theft like this before and that they screen their cleaning staff carefully and no one would risk their jobs to steal a worthless American passport. He leaned across the table toward me and smiled.

It didn't happen, he said.

The passport had not been stolen. It didn't happen.

Well, you got the police report you wanted, I said. What are you going to do for me?

The general manager said they would charge me half the cost of my room and would provide a free ride to the airport in the morning. They would not discount Jenn's room at all - nothing had happened to her. That was it.

I need help with my visa, I said. What can you do?

I explained that I needed to be on a plane at 9 a.m. and was at that moment without an exit visa. The two older men conferred for a minute and then said they might be able to help. They had a friend at the airport, a man in the immigration office. Did I have American dollars?

I said I did. For $60, I could have an exit visa. That was $25 for the visa and $35 extra for their friend in immigration. I'd finally found my corruptible official. He was waiting for me at the airport, and his price was pretty fair. The hotel driver would take us to the airport in the morning and he would handle the transaction. He would be my fixer. I would give him my money and my passport and he would deliver these to the immigration official, who did not want to be seen with me, and I would be good to go by about 8 a.m.

And that's exactly what happened. We got up early on Tuesday morning, settled up with the hotel, and headed for the airport. I handed the cash to the driver while we were still in the hotel lobby and surrendered my passport inside the main terminal. He was gone about 30 minutes and when he returned I had a very official, very legit exit visa glued into my little replacement passport.

I took this to the check-in counter, where a Vietnam Airlines agent looked it over and then handed it back. Then I took it to the immigration line where a young man wearing a green uniform with red epaulets studied it for a long time and eventually carried it to a supervisor. The two men puzzled over the last page of the travel papers that read, "THIS PASSPORT IS A REPLACEMENT FOR A STOLEN PASSPORT AND EXPIRES ON 12-JUL-2011. IT CANNOT BE EXTENDED."

The supervisor finally nodded and the young immigration officer returned to his desk. Without looking at me, he stamped the exit visa canceled and slipped the passport back to me. I walked through a magnetometer and was at the gate for my flight to Laos.

Jenn waited for me to clear immigration before getting through herself. We walked to the gate together and as we arrived, she turned to me and said, "I feel like we just robbed a bank and got away with it."

Nah. We just played their game and barely got by. We played and paid and were now done with Vietnam. Which felt just goddamned fine.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher living in Indonesia. He blogs at The Year of Living Volcanically and is also the Beachwood's Southeast Asia correspondent.


* Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning the Koran
* Indonesian Journal: The Control State
* Indonesian Journal: The Swarm And The Sick House
* Indonesian Journal: It's Funny Until 13 People Die


Comments welcome.


Posted on January 3, 2011

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