Hanoi, Vietnam – When Ngan saw a police car passing by her coffee shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter on a recent afternoon, she hurriedly grabbed the chairs cluttering the pavement and brought them inside.
After the police passed out of sight moments later, she put the chairs back out on the pavement, where they would stay until the arrival of the next patrol warning vendors to keep the area clear. By using the space in front of her 16-metre square shop, Ngan can double the number of customers that can be seated at a time.
“Everyday, we have to ‘act’ for a few seconds,” Ngan, who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “They would not punish us anyway, since our ‘fees’ have been duly paid.”
Ngan, whose business supports a family of seven, pays VND 6 million ($260) in cash every 6 months to a police officer in charge of the neighborhood where her shop is located. On a number of occasions, she has even helped him collect money from other shops in the area.
“He would never tell me the amount he wanted. It is always I who offered the amount, and he would bargain afterwards, if dissatisfied,” said Ngan, who has been selling coffee at the same spot for more than a decade.
For many shop owners and street vendors in Hanoi, greasing the palms of local law enforcement on a regular basis, known colloquially as “nuôi công an” or “feeding the police”, is just another cost of doing business.
Vietnam was ranked 104 out of 180 countries in last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit that combats global corruption, with a score of 36 out of 100, where 100 is considered most clean. The police are widely perceived as among the most corrupt sectors in the country.
When Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong launched his “furnace blazing” anti-corruption campaign in 2018, resulting in the prosecution of more than 11,700 economic crimes, the police and military were among the major targets alongside the upper echelons of the ruling communist party.
The campaign, however, has not wiped out petty corruption, which remains widely tolerated by businesses and authorities alike.
Although taking bribes by public officials and managers at state and non-state organisations was criminalized under a 2018 anti-corruption law, payments to police and other low-level civil servants are commonly construed as “protection fees”.
While strong anti-corruption measures have been carried out at the national level — including the establishment of a hotline to report police corruption — provincial authorities have refrained from tackling the issue, according to national officials.
Other measures have shown signs of progress. In 2019, the Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index, which interviewed 14,138 citizens in 63 provinces and cities, reported the biggest decline in corruption since 2011. The rate of respondents who reported a decrease in corruption was five percentage points higher than in 2018.
The Hanoi Municipal Police Department and Ministry of Public Security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
For Tu, the owner of a small hotpot restaurant in Hoa Bình city, gifts and payments are insurance against police harassment.
“In a restaurant, noise is inevitable. We might be fined for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood at any time,” she said. “It is better to pay and be left alone.”
Being on good terms with the local police saves Tu from mounds of paperwork, trips to administrative offices and other bureaucratic burdens that come with following the strict letter of the law.
“I do not have a lot of education. I do not know how to meet their requirements,” said Tu, who asked to use a pseudonym. “Those requirements are never transparent and might change on their whim. My business might be legal today and illegal the next day.”
A good relationship with the police can also encourage authorities to be flexible when it comes to bribes.
During a two-month lockdown that lifted in September, Ngan’s police officer contact waived “fees” as restrictions deprived her family of income.
Earlier this month, a local police officer called Ngan to inform him that he would “pay a visit”. Explaining that the shop was not doing good business due to a surge in coronavirus cases, Ngan asked for a “discount”. The police officer agreed, but told her she would need to make up for it when things get back to normal.
A former police officer in Hanoi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that local police rely on small businesses for bribes as the owners of big businesses are too well connected to shake down.
He said that while he was allowed to keep a small portion of the bribes he collected, most of the money would be handed over to those “above him”, especially the chief police officer of the ward where he was posted.
“My boss asked us [subordinates] to pay him a certain amount of money each month,” the former police officer, who quit the force last year, said. “If we did not, we would be in trouble.”
Hung, who runs a coffee shop in the Đống Đa district of Hanoi, finds it difficult to blame lower-level police officers for the culture of corruption, which he sees as a form of “tán lộc” or sharing one’s fortune, that is necessary to avoid bad karma.
“In order to survive in the business world, you need to know how to pay respect to local authorities,” Hung, who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “Reciprocity makes everyone happy.”
Hung is certain the bulk of the “unofficial fees” of $40 he pays to police each quarter go to higher-ranking officials.
“Police do not need you to abide by the law,” Hung said. “They want you to break the law so that they will get the money to submit to their superiors.”
“We cannot blame them if their bosses are indecent,” he added, describing such petty corruption as “nothing compared to the corruption of higher-ranked officials”.