75-year-old scourge of Vietnam's corrupt officials

Published July 5, 2007

HANOI, Vietnam - Most Vietnamese cower when a cop squeezes them for a bribe. Le Hien Duc, a gray-haired 75-year-old grandmother, fights back.

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 home.

"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 $3 bribes to the Transportation Ministry officials accused last year of gambling $13-million in public money on British soccer matches.

Corruption persists in part because officials earning $50 salaries consider it acceptable to charge kickbacks for virtually any service, large or small.

The country routinely fares poorly in international corruption rankings. But in Vietnam, where people respect authority, few dare challenge it. So 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 police officer stopped him for speeding and threatened to seize his motorbike unless he paid a $3 bribe, more than a day's average wage.

Duc tracked down the officer and filed a complaint with the Hanoi chief of police. The officer was demoted.

She intervened in a case involving school officials who had apparently been pocketing school lunch money for years by making cafeteria staff cut back on kids' portions.

Local investigators confirmed the scam. But Hanoi education officials did nothing with the evidence.

Duc said she called the education minister's office about 30 times.

When her messages went unanswered, Duc got his cell phone number and called. He promised to have an internal investigator look into the case.