Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Adventures at Customs

By Steve Laible, CTI Volunteer Project Leader, Vietnam

The international airport at Ho Chi Minh City is very modern and efficient. Most of the planes at the gateways are from Asian countries as Vietnam has become a significant trade partner in this part of the world. It is obvious that Vietnam is making a real effort at tourism as well as commercial trade. I ask the flight attendant for the immigration form and customs declaration form that is standard procedure in most countries. The flight attendant responds with a surprised look and says, "oh, we don't use the forms any longer - just your passport". I think to myself, "how efficient and streamlined". I would change my mind, however, within the next 30 minutes.

The immigration center is large, clean and well lit. There are six staffed immigration booths waiting to check through the 20 passengers. The wait time is about 3 minutes. The friendly official takes my passport, quickly finds the entry visa and scans the document. A quick stamp, stamp and I'm through. Now, will the baggage claim be as efficient? By the time I find the correct carousel and get a luggage cart I see the first of my two bags. This is going to be easy, I think. WRONG! I gather my second bag and get in line to have my bags scanned. As I see my bag with the two Ewing IV grinders emerge through the other side of the scanner, the belt stops. The scanner attendant gets out of his chair and I'm starting to lose my confidence. Then the attendant says the dreaded words - "Please open". He looks at the open boxes of grinders and parts in amazement. He then looks at me with equal amazement. "Do you have any documents?” he asks.

I give him my copy of the “Bert Rivers standard letter” asking the nice custom officials to please allow import of the equipment for charitable purposes at no import duty. He asks me to "wait" as he walks to another station. He returns and informs me that I must speak with another person.

Then the real questions start. What is this? I think for a moment about getting George Ewing out of bed at 1:00 AM Minneapolis time so George can explain the history and function of the grinder he designed. I think better of this plan. I try my best to explain a Ewing grinder to a man whose English is only slightly better than my non-existent Vietnamese. I struggle through more questions.

Where is this going? Are you leaving it here? Are you starting a business? Are you a teacher? Are you working here? I see pitfalls to any and all of the questions. Finally, he declares that he must keep the equipment and it will be sent to another office. He will provide the address and I can return the next day and pay any import duty. So much for the efficient streamlined process.
I tell the man that the situation presents many hardships for me. I do not have transportation, I don't know my way around the city and I am on a schedule to leave the city. I also tell him about our plans to help the children of farmers and improve life for the poor in Vietnam. At some point in my pleading the tide turns and there is a ray of hope. He says, "Maybe I can help you. Maybe you can pay the duty here and then you can leave with the equipment." It's late at night and I am sleep deprived, but I think I know the answer when he concludes his new plan with the final question, "Do you understand?" Then it's my turn for a question: "Do I get to decide the amount of the import duty?" I ask. He shrugs his shoulders and turns to one of the other officers to give me a moment to think. I quickly decide that a 5% import duty seems fair and a $20 bill finds its way into an envelope that I leave on the desk. I quickly return to my bags and walk to the exit door before a full audit is completed. I don't look back, but feel very certain that the self-imposed import duty will find its way into the official records of the customs office. Ya, right!

My frustration quickly turns to joy as I emerge into the general waiting area and spot a young man holding a sign with "Mr. Laible" spelled correctly. The ride into town is pleasant and the check-in at the hotel is simple. I hand the clerk my passport, which he keeps, and he hands me a key. Once again, no paperwork. I take a quick shower in cold water and hop into a clean bed at a modest 3:00 AM local time.

1 comment:

  1. What our volunteers go through is amazing. Thank you Steve!