This past Tuesday I received a letter
telling me that I owe 13,138,000 VND (US$626) on two boxes of new motorcycle gear (off-road helmet
and other protective gear plus K&N air and oil filters for both motorcycles) I'd ordered from Revzilla in the U.S. The total value of the shipment was US$1500. I called the number on the letter and was told that if I wanted to talk about reducing the bill, I could meet with him in-person. In Ho Chi Minh City.
On Wednesday, I rode the DR-Z 6-1/2 hours to HCMC to meet with customs on Thursday. I carried an envelope with three million VND
to offer as a 'gift' to whomever could help me reduce the bill.
Sparing you the minute-by-minute, I wore a collared shirt and long pants in place of my normal Saigon t-shirt and shorts (showing respect); I kept my normal "powerful" body language in-check (subtle indication of lower status); I waited patiently until it was my turn; and I spoke to everyone with respect.
When I was introduced to Mr. Trieu, the guy I spoke to on the phone, he handed me the paperwork, said, "13,138,000" and indicated, by pointing, where I could pay. I started to follow his pointing finger, then turned and said, "Yesterday you told me that if I came from Đà Lạt to see you in-person, you could help me reduce the amount." He replied, "You want me to help you? Sit over there."
After 40 minutes of sitting in an abnormal-for-me "small" body posture to avoid looking like an arrogant Westerner, I was told to sit at a table where the Customs officer was already seated with my paperwork. Fortunately, he spoke better English than he thought and we communicated easily. During our conversation I learned the following, mostly in answers to my questions:
1) All individually imported goods are subject to 30% duty and 10% customs tax, regardless of intended use (personal, business, or resale)
2) Importation of second-hand goods is prohibited (so my idea of having a friend remove labels and original boxes won't work)
3) Bringing goods in when physically entering the country is the best way to do it
4) My friend who has paid duty and tax on only one shipment of many is very lucky
5) Type of visa or citizenship are NOT considered when assessing duty and tax
I told him that it was my mistake to order so many things without knowing there was a 40% fee to get it in-country. I also showed him, when he asked if I'd taken the bus, a photo of my DR-Z400. He liked it and asked if I could see it; he was a bit disappointed that I'd taken a taxi in the hope that I'd be leaving with my boxes of gear. I offered to bring it by and he said, "Another time."
Since he had opened with an apology about his English ability, I found an appropriate point during the course of our conversation to compliment him on his very good English—especially his pronunciation, which is more precise than that of most Vietnamese with whom I've spoken. He demurred and I insisted—all part of the dance.
After about 10 minutes, he introduced his boss. She sat down, looked at the paperwork, asked him a few questions, and left.
Finally he asked how much I could pay. I hesitated, then said that I had an envelope with three million... and waited...
After maybe 20 seconds (a long time if you're just sitting there waiting), I said that I could probably pay four million. He immediately replied, "Four million" and we had an agreement. We talked for another couple minutes before he excused himself and tasked someone else to do the paperwork. Fifteen minutes later, I had my boxes--they insisted that I verify everything was accounted for--and was walking out the gate.
On my way out, I saw my new friend standing outside, apparently waiting for me. I thanked him again and again offered him the "gift" envelope that now contained one million VND by pulling aside some papers and revealing about half of it (the envelope, not the contents). He said, "Save it for petrol on your ride to Da Lat." WOW!
I took this opportunity to mention that a few things were out-of-stock when I placed this order and that I was going to place another. I then asked if he would be able to help me next time. He replied, "I like the way you talked to me. You are my friend. Next time, ask for me and I will be glad to help you." Then he asked if I drink beer and we agreed that next time we would have a few together.
Bottom line: the duty is 30%; the tax is 10%; anything less is a gift.
Suggestions for reducing the costs of your next shipment:
1) Show respect
2) Ask for help
3) Take your time
4) Be thankful
Six months ago, I would not spend two days traveling and one day in a Customs office to save $400+. Today, I have no schedule, no commitments, and nothing better to do. Today, I also have a new friend.
I am most thankful that my very jaded view of Vietnamese (and other) government officials and the need to ALWAYS offer monetary "gifts" to game the system was wrong. Sometimes you can get what you want with simple courtesies and respect.