Kafkaesque Adventures in Communist Vietnamese Bureaucracy
By Ben Bartee - August 01, 2023

Originally published via Armageddon Prose

What follows is a (mostly) unedited, exclusive excerpt from my recently published expat memoir, Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile

February 26, 2020, Hanoi, Vietnam:

No one, perhaps, ever expressed bureaucracy’s inexorable suffocation of the human spirit as well, if confusingly, as did Kafka.

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

-Franz Kafka

He might have written his stuff in Vietnam just the same as Bohemia.

A book I ordered for an online class, a banal academic anti-thriller packed full of dry theorizing about the mechanics and principles of global governance, had been confiscated in early February by the customs department.

An email arrived from UPS, which I had paid an extra 30 dollars to ship my book within 2-3 business days, because I needed it. The correspondence read:

“Dear customer

I am from UPS service. I send you arrival notice for your package. According Viet Nam law, Viet Nam customs required you to do cultural license at Ha Noi Department of Information and Communication at 185 Giang Vo street,  Ha Noi

You can do it by yourself or empower UPS do it

If you empower UPS to do license, firstly, please send me your photo of passport, I send you all docs to sign and send to UPS Office.

It takes 5 working day to do license in Viet Nam.

Moreover, I need original passport or notarized copies in Viet Nam to do license

Please check and confirm by email”

¡A “cultural license at Ha Noi Department of Information and Communication”!

I’ll be dipped and rolled in cracker crumbs!

This guy, who worked for a UPS — an operation, which I can’t emphasize enough, to which I paid an additional 30 bucks on top of the flat delivery fee for the expedited delivery of my package in “2-3 business days,” and which also utilizes the apparently inappropriately applied company slogan We Love Logistics – actually had the audacity to send me an email to tell me the communist government had confiscated my boring textbook to investigate it for “bad content,” as he later told me on the phone.

To remedy, the situation, per the email, I was to apply for a “cultural license” with a notarized copy of my passport.

UPS might love logistics, but the communist governing authorities in Hanoi love them in a different way – to unnecessarily complicate simple voluntary economic exchange, not the other way around.

Uncle Ho, what did you do?


One week later:

The book on international relations, The Politics of Global Governance, was still in quarantine in some customs office outside of Hanoi. The Vietnamese people’s hard-earned tax dollars were hard at work paying a team of semi-literate government monkeys – civilians dressed in olive military uniform — to prod through books with sticks looking for Wrongthink triggers that might upset the tame huddled masses.

My textbook, though, was in good company in government hell, as the phrase goes. Animal Farm — an allegory about a failed communist revolution that inevitably reverted back, as such revolutionary governments tend to do, to the same authoritarian governing model as the original government which the animals bled and died to defeat – is also banned in Vietnam.


March 2020

Lao Cai, Vietnam:

I bought eggs which were suspiciously overpriced* for regular eggs, a fact I initially chalked up to overzealous street market capitalists taking advantage of a foreigner perceived to have both deep pockets and an unfamiliarity with their local market value.

(*”Overpriced” is a relative term, of course. In Vietnamese terms, “overpriced” eggs meant they cost more than 10 American cents per.)

They looked deceptively just like normal eggs. Alas… they were not conventional, per se, in the Western, white-bread-and-butter sense of the word.

It turns out, they weren’t the kind of eggs you’ll find stocked in your sanitary Iowa Walmart. Their contents were visceral and beastly, nearly sacrilegious, almost guaranteed to offend puritanical sensibilities. I imagined my devout North Dakotan-born catholic grandmother recoiling in disgust at the sight.

Those are unborn baby ducks that Vietnamese people cook, all mixed together with its fetal tissue or whatever yellow stuff is leaking out of their guts. They fry it all to a crisp and eat it with rice.

Chicken abortion as delicacy!

One man’s moral abomination is another man’s lucky dinner!

Anyway, all that culinary stuff is kosher in Vietnam, but you can’t read a book about international relations for an online class without a months-long review process by the politburo.

Ben Bartee is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs. Follow his stuff via Armageddon ProseSubstackPatreonGab, and Twitter.

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