Little Known Laws of Vietnam: a Guide for Foreigners
If you’re thinking of coming to a new country for the short term or the long term, one of the most important things you should do as a tourist is to respect the laws of the place to which you’ll be traveling. In short, you’re a guest- nothing more, nothing less. Thus, it’s in your best interest to familiarize yourself with the way things work even before you arrive so you can make informed decisions during your visit. Depending on where you’re from in the world, one of the first things you might notice about large Vietnamese cities like HCMC or Hanoi is the very visible police presence. There are officers with uniforms of different colors which denote their job responsibilities (i.e. an officer in tan enforces traffic laws, an officer in blue is a security guard, and an officer in green is part of the “Public Security Force”). This is nothing to be afraid of- it’s just a normal part of life when you’re visiting or living in a Vietnamese city. Towards the middle of the country the police presence is still quite visible but not to the degree of the larger cities. As this may not be what you’re used to, you will want to read up on how to obey the law so you don’t get into unpleasant situations with law enforcement. Read on for some tips!
If you’ve spent any time in SE Asia before, you might be very surprised to hear this. In Vietnam and in the surrounding countries, you will regularly see locals with 3 or 4 passengers crowded on a motorbike (and maybe even the family dog!). It’s sort of okay for the locals- the police generally won’t enforce this rule for them as strictly because so many people break this law. Once in a while a local will get in trouble if they’re unlucky enough to get caught but overall it seems that they can get away with it with relative ease. However, if you’re a foreigner, do not attempt to do this. You will likely be pulled over and you’ll pay a hefty “fine” (often to the tune of all the money in your wallet at the time). Save yourself some trouble and recognize that the rules are different for foreigners around here. The law may not strictly apply to your local friends but it absolutely applies to you so you should respect that or be prepared to deal with the consequences.
On another note, I’ve seen locals transporting things like refrigerators and long metal pipes on their motorbikes (yeah I know, it’s kind of crazy to witness if you’re not from around here). This is also illegal but people here seem to be relatively unphased by the potential of getting in trouble. Again, if you’re a foreigner, you’re likely to stick out like a sore thumb so I would recommend against this for both safety and legal reasons.
Depending on where you’re from, this may be a strange concept to you but it’s very important to keep in mind for longer stays in Vietnam. If you’re renting an apartment, you absolutely must make sure that your landlord registers with you with the local police. You are breaking the law if your landlord doesn’t do this and you will be held accountable per the restrictions of the Vietnamese law. If you’re staying in a hostel for the short term, however, the staff will take care of this step for you so you need not worry. This is one of the reasons why you’ll be asked for your passport when you check in (in addition to verifying your identity, obviously). You can find more information about this regulation at: http://www.moj.gov.vn/vbpq/en/lists/vn%20bn%20php%20lut/view_detail.aspx?itemid=3710
Even if the first two laws didn’t surprise you, this regulation will almost definitely be news to you. It’s technically illegal to engage in sexual relations with someone locals in Vietnam if you’re a foreigner (the same is true in Cambodia). Actually, side note: as I was googling this stuff, one of the first things that came up in my search was “Cambodian girl price” which is… obviously despicably creepy and messed up. It makes me sick to know that many people are conceptualizing Cambodian women in that way. But I digress… This Vietnamese law gets broken on a regular basis and is not as strictly enforced by the local police. The social attitude about this is changing but Vietnamese law still states that this is illegal so it’s best to go into the situation with eyes wide open if you want to do this.
This probably isn’t on your radar if you’re coming to Vietnam for a short visit but it’s important to keep in mind if you do happen to have a whirlwind romance with a local. Your significant other will definitely know how to register with the local authorities but you may be surprised to hear that this is a law that is strictly enforced. Basically, local law enforcement is going to be involved in your romantic life whether you like it or not. Get used to it!
Contrary to what you may have heard about working/teaching in Vietnam, you really should go through the proper channels to work in Vietnam legally. This means having a notarized, apostilled, and legalized copy of your 4-year university degree and teaching certificate (if applicable), and an apostilled and legalized copy of your police background check dated within the last 6 months of when you’re hired. It will be expensive, especially if you get two copies of all of these documents (which I highly recommend in case you get screwed over by your first employer). It cost me 80 USD per document to get everything legalized at the consulate in NYC. Combined with all of the notarizations/legalizations I needed before the documents could be legalized, I would say I spent close to 520 USD, excluding travel costs. Once you’re hired, your school or center will obtain your work permit and you will need to do a “visa run” to Cambodia or Laos. You can then return to Vietnam, authorize your work visa, and begin teaching. I will go more in-depth into the authorizations for these documents in a later article.
I personally believe it’s worth it to not have to deal with the fear of being caught by the local authorities, as there are sometimes police checks in local schools and language centers to ensure that everyone is following the law. Naturally the school or center can provide a little “financial assistance” to whomever is checking in and the issue will likely be resolved but I would strongly recommend against relying on this. You are breaking the law on a daily basis if you choose to work on a tourist visa and while it may feel like you don’t need to deal with the consequences because of said financial compensation, I would not feel comfortable living a life like this. Better to be safe than sorry (but that’s just my two cents).
An interesting quirk of Vietnam is that yes, you can own and invest in property here, but you will never own the land under the building. Obviously this doesn’t pertain to tourists but if you choose to move here, it’s definitely a good thing to know. You will need to lease the land in order to own the property no matter how long you own the building so don’t miss payments on this. The government will likely repossess your property if you don’t make payments on time.
This is an interesting law, as I’m not really sure who carries around pornographic DVDs and magazines with them (especially during their travels??). Like no shade intended but that’s honestly pretty quirky... If you happen to be one of these people, you should probably rethink your strategy because the production, distribution, and possession of pornography is actually quite illegal in Vietnam. This also applies to internet porn but I’m not entirely sure how this can be enforced and I don’t want to google this too closely, as I’m currently in Vietnam (!). Just beware that you’re technically a hardened criminal if you partake in these “activities” so now it’s on your radar!!
Although this may be disappointing to some of you, this is really not the country to take drugs in (Laos may be more your speed if that’s what you’re looking for). Aside from it being common to obtain drugs that are not actually what you think they are (baking powder cocaine and oregano-inspired weed, anyone?) it’s very illegal to buy or possess these substances. You can actually be put to death here for being caught with even a small amount of heroin. Also, if locals offer to sell you weed on the street, there’s a chance they’ll try to turn you into the police. Think of it this way, you can make 400,000 VND by selling a stranger some weed but you can literally make millions of VND by turning them into the authorities. There’s a logic there, and you need to understand that you’re committing a crime here so the locals do have an incentive to turn you in. If this frustrates you, try to think of it from their perspective.
There you have it! Hopefully you’ve learned a bit about the laws around here that you should keep in mind during your travels. Obviously there are plenty of things out there that I didn’t cover but I think these are the ones that might be the most surprising/interesting to foreigners so it’s a start. All in all, I think your best bet is to blend in as much as possible around here. Of course you probably won’t succeed but it’s better to keep your head down and not challenge the way of life here. You’re not here to make waves- you’re here to learn as much as you can from the people and the history of this wonderful place. Safe travels!
About the author:
I’m an American backpacker who has been traveling in South East Asia for the past 2.5 months. I left a job in finance to see more of the world and to teach English abroad. I’ve loved my experience in HCMC and beyond and I hope to share some of my experiences with prospective and fellow travelers.