Most Vietnamese cower when a cop squeezes them for a bribe. Le Hien Duc, a gray-haired 75-year-old grandmother, fights back. Four-foot-nine and weighing just 88 pounds, she’ll take on anyone, from lowly bureaucrats to high-level officials. She e-mails, phones, tracks them down at their offices, confronts them at their homes.
“Corruption is definitely an evil, and it is ruining my beloved country,” said Duc, a former elementary school teacher who works from dawn until dusk battling graft.
Corruption is perhaps the most vulnerable spot in the country’s single-party Communist state—from the traffic cops who pull drivers over for US$3 bribes to the transport ministry officials accused last year of gambling millions of dollars in public money on British soccer matches.
Corruption persists here in part because officials earning US$50 official salaries consider it perfectly acceptable to charge kickbacks for virtually any kind of service, large or small. As a result, the country routinely fares poorly in international corruption rankings. But in Vietnam, where people are awed by authority, few dare challenge the system. But many turn to Duc.
“Most of us tremble when we have to deal with police,” said Doan Van Hung, a delivery man who recently sought Duc’s help. “She is incredibly brave.” Hung’s ordeal was typical—a policeman stopped him for speeding and threatened to seize his motorbike unless he paid a US$3 bribe—more than a day’s average wage. Corruption among “road bullies,” as the Vietnamese traffic police are known, is rampant. But most drivers simply pay up and leave. But Duc tracked down the officer who harassed Hung and filed a complaint with the Hanoi chief of police. The officer was promptly demoted.
The grandmother of eight intervened in another recent case involving school officials who had apparently been pocketing school lunch money for years by making cafeteria staff cut back on the kids’ portions. Local government investigators confirmed the scam. But when the evidence was brought before Hanoi education officials, they did nothing.
Frustrated parents had read about Duc in the newspapers and turned to her for help. She took the case straight to the top. She said she called the office of the education minister, Nguyen Thien Nhan, about 30 times. When her messages went unanswered, Duc managed to discover the minister’s cell phone number and called him. He promised to have the department’s internal investigator look into the case.
“She always knows whom to call,” said Nguyen Tan Tien, chair of the school parents’ association.
In Vietnam, most grandmothers stay home and look after their grandchildren. Duc buries herself in the fight against graft. “Someone must stop it, for the sake of justice,” she said.
Duc has spent a lot of time investigating where government and party leaders live and work. If they won’t meet her at their offices, she just shows up at their homes. “Whenever we see her, we know there is a problem somewhere,” said Pham Van Tai, an education ministry official. “She has pushed us a little too hard.”
Duc runs her crusade from her narrow, three-story home in Hanoi, where her desk is covered with stacks of mail from people seeking help from all corners of Vietnam. She spends about two-thirds of her US$80 monthly pension on the internet, phone calls, photocopying and motorbike taxis.
But her work has made enemies. Last month, people came to her house and told her to butt out of the school lunch money scam. “Drop the case or start saving money for your coffin,” they shouted.
Her children wish she would give up her work. “She is too old and weak to protect herself,” said Pham Minh Hai, Duc’s daughter. “She should stay home and play with the kids.”
But Duc has no intention of quitting. She says she is following the example of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary hero of Vietnam’s government. Like many others of her generation, Duc joined the revolution as a young woman. During Vietnam’s war against French colonialists, she spent years in the jungle, decoding messages for the army.
“We gave our blood, sweat and tears,” she said. “There is no excuse for anyone to abuse their authority. I cannot stand seeing corrupt officials bully people.”