Can we be legal in this country?

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Swiss expat who had made Vietnam her home wonders how she can continue to be a legal resident

A foreign English teacher instructs students at an elementary school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

A lot has been written and discussed about the rules and regulations that apply to foreigners living and working in Vietnam.

Lately, the attention has shifted to a new decree on managing foreign labor, a decree that should come into effect on November 1 and which some fear will not make things more simple, but only add more red tape.

Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. This forum opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to We reserve the right to edit your submissions for reasons of space and clarity.

In this particular weekly newspaper, one headline referred to potential "collateral damage" (sic!) to certain groups of foreigners who might not be targeted by the decree, while an American expat compared the bureaucracy in Vietnam with that of the US Air Force years before computerization.

Obviously, there is a high level of frustration especially among the expat communities, which incidentally is shared by their Vietnamese friends and fellows.

There are feelings of disappointment and admittedly of some bitterness in particular among a group of foreigners who have been working and living in Vietnam for many, many years.

These are friends of the Vietnamese people, who came to this country in a period when Vietnam faced extremely difficult and critical circumstances, in the late seventies, eighties and early nineties of the last century, long before the infamous embargo imposed by the US was lifted.

These friends of the Vietnamese people came with feelings of solidarity and with the aim to support the country and the people in their effort to build "a socialist Vietnam with a prosperous people, a strong nation and an equitable, democratic and civilized society" (Quoted from the Socio-Economic Development Strategy 2011-2020).

Many of us are still here today, having reached retirement age, working on a voluntary basis, and continuing to assist our Vietnamese friends to build a better future for their country and their people. We share our knowledge and experience, but we do not bring big money.

Thus, in the context of the rapid economic development and the quest for quickly making lots of money, we seem to have become a somewhat old-fashioned species.

With sadness we observe that this kind of development has resulted in a society with a widening gap between the rich and the poor. And with stupefaction we watch how the "nouveaux riches" are shamelessly showing off their wealth, while the very poor - especially in remote and mountainous areas - still do not have enough food to satisfy their daily needs.

As retired individual persons we have neither an employer nor do we benefit from a Vietnamese sponsor organization. (If we are lucky, we might fall under those categories of foreigners who do not need a work permit but would need to get a certificate that states that we do not need a work permit"¦)

So, what options do we have if we would like to stay here and continue the cooperation with our Vietnamese friends? 

In order to obtain our visa without a formal work permit, we can go to a neighboring country; we can go to an obscure law firm; or - as the rumor goes - we can go to some well-connected shops. And then, thanks also to the pragmatism and goodwill of Vietnamese people, we can manage our everyday life on a three months tourist or business visa.

But, in the end, the question remains: How to be legal? For those of us who do not want to play the game, for those of us who do not want to "negotiate", there is only one thing we can do: go back to the country we originally came from, which in my case is Switzerland. 

By Magrit Schlosser * 

* The writer is a Swiss expat who has worked and lived in Vietnam since 1997.


A decree to take effect on November 1 superseding an earlier one will continue to make it incumbent on employers to prove that they require foreign workers and that Vietnamese cannot replace them.

But employers now have to get approval from the provincial chief to hire foreign workers. Foreigners found working without permits will be deported within 15 days.

The decree reduces the validity of work permits for a broad category of foreign workers from three to two years, a provision that could aggravate the shortage of skilled workers already felt acutely by both foreign and local companies.

The decree scraps a provision allowing foreign manual laborers to work for up to three months without a work permit. This privilege will henceforth be extended only to those who come to handle complicated technical or technological issues that are beyond foreign experts based in Vietnam.

One of the most bizarre provisions in the decree is that on the one hand it enlarges the category of foreign workers exempt from obtaining a work permit, but on the other requires them to apply for a certificate saying they do not have to obtain one.

Those added to the category are teachers at foreign institutions sent to work in international schools in Vietnam managed by foreign agencies, volunteers, those with master's degrees and advising, teaching, or researching at Vietnamese tertiary or vocational institutions for a maximum of one month, and foreign workers who come here under international agreements to which state agencies are a signatory.

Earlier the exemption had only applied to members or owners of limited liability companies, service promoters and lawyers registered with the Ministry of Justice, those dispatched by foreign companies to work in their offices in Vietnam (in 11 designated sectors), heads of foreign representative offices, and project managers and individuals authorized by NGOs to work in Vietnam.

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