All the bars and towns await new Viet tourists

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 1997, 12:00am

In its own way, Hanoi can seem a little like Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca - a 'round up the usual suspects' police force, slow twirling ceiling fans and the constant hunt for an exit visa.

The latter - a hangover from decades of hardline rule - is at last to be consigned to history with new Prime Minister Phan Van Khai signing a decree this week to end the need for Vietnamese to obtain permission to leave the country.

For the rising numbers of urban Vietnamese eyeing up their first trips abroad, it marks a large step indeed on the road to full social reform.

And not just the rich and powerful will benefit.

A decade of open doors has boosted links between the vast Vietnamese communities dotted around the world, from Cardiff to Dresden to San Jose, and their relatives at home.

Thousands of once tight-knit families have been split up in Vietnam with little prospect of reuniting ever again.

Until now that is.

Snaring an exit visa has always been a time-consuming and complicated procedure, one fraught with excessive bureaucracy and corruption.

The whole process is overseen by the omnipotent Interior Ministry which controls internal security, police and immigration matters - an institution average citizens try to avoid when possible.

All manner of guarantees and references were frequently demanded and final approval could never be considered a fait accompli, especially if anything remotely political emerged from a person's itinerary.

'I'd had given up hope of ever seeing my sister again,' said Mr Binh, a 50-year-old decorator.

'And my hopes did not rise when I started on the paperwork for the visa. It was very worrying and money was involved. Finally I got there,' he said, producing a document with a fat red seal.

Mr Binh recently enjoyed a summer in Paris sponsored by his rich exiled relatives.

Like many Vietnamese reforms, wholesale change can be a slow process and the immigration police still holds extensive powers. A passport is still needed and similar rules can also apply to approval.

But diplomats said yesterday it appeared Mr Khai's move would ease the situation all round.

On the other hand, many Vietnamese complain of unwarranted suspicion when applying for entry visas for Western and Asian countries - a legacy of the boat people crisis and a string of politically awkward defections.

Getting out may be easier in future, but getting in, it seems, may be just the same.