I knew instantly that I would never see it. Three months after Christmas, I was still waiting for a postcard sent by my mum. As my eldest brother noted over the phone, there was a little bit of Christmas cash tucked inside for me.
Considering that the Vietnamese postal system has always opened every single letter and parcel I’ve ever received, I knew the money would be taken. Although I hoped I’d at least receive the card, minus the cash, it never came.
Among the banes of living in Vietnam, the postal service is a regular annoyance. Mind you, I was amazed seven years ago to get a parcel from my mum with all the great candy she sent still intact despite a horrid sticky-tape repair job on the box. Even my motorbike guy can plug a hole better than that. Maybe it’s because the postal service here is just too busy.
I’m not surprised that the forests are disappearing...the amount of paperwork here can be surreal sometimes. Want a job in Vietnam? A work permit, a housing contract, a bank account, probably a local motorbike license, a work contract, home country or local police checks, and multiple copies of your qualifications are just the beginning. Funny that the busiest photocopy shop owner in town drives a Mercedes.
And collecting each document involves sending all sorts of paperwork all over the place.
Imagine the risks with those original documents that are so hard to replace...
Online shopping is also an issue. Items ordered from overseas run the risk of being stolen in transit or being so slow in delivery that online retailers risk a hit to their reputation when their ‘speedy’ service doesn’t live up to its name. Not to mention the costs businesses cover while waiting for important parts or materials. ‘Time is money’ is not just an idiom in Vietnam, it’s a reality.
I’ve ordered books for my school that never arrived, either somehow disappearing at customs in Ho Chi Minh City or simply vanishing like buffet food in front of Chinese tourists.
Costs have become an important factor in what I post both internationally and domestically. I have a children’s book that I’m trying to sell, yet the book’s value plus postal cost aren’t adding up very well and selling it has become a struggle. To date, I’ve not yet found a good alternative to the local postal service that meets my particular need of regularly sending small items around the country.
For the old hands, the expats who’ve lived here awhile, the private postal delivery systems have become an attractive alternative; FEDEX, UPS, and other companies work very well, although you pay through the nose for the reliability.
The difference between shipping companies, parcel delivery, and small postal items agents is blurring in Vietnam. If you were to judge by the number of trucks and vans, overloaded and hurling across Vietnam well above the speed limit, then business is booming. However, there’s a snag with their reliability.
By reliability I mean on-time deliveries and workers dealing with my mail and parcels in as efficient a manner as possible. Honesty is also an issue and problems arise when mail vanishes into thin air or is opened and then contents go missing.
Mangled packets are normal here; I’d die of shock if I got my mail in pristine condition. Judging by how the local motorbike taxi drivers pile stuff on their bikes, it’s a wonder that you can even recognize what it is by the time you receive it.
One time I had to get a new copy of my police check from Australia – unfolded – and it arrived wrapped in a roll with two huge rubber bands around it. It was marked in Vietnamese, ‘Không nếp gấp!’
However the final frustration is the local post office itself. Usually the staff are friendly and able to speak some English. I can understand dealing with mail that’s addressed in a foreign language can be daunting, however it seems strange when it can’t be found in a building smaller than a computer shop.
I remember having a furious argument in the Hoi An post office five years ago when I insisted they definitely had my envelope and the lady working, just as frustrated, threw open the cupboards behind her to show me it wasn’t there. My mail fell out of the bottom of the pile – a yellow and gold packet – and on to the floor.
I dryly commented, ‘That’s mine...’ and she sheepishly passed it over the counter not daring to look me in the eye.
Nowadays there’s a box with foreigner’s mail organized by name in the back room. Now that’s progress!
So if it’s in the mail, good luck!