Vietnam

Executive Summary

In 2017, Vietnam attracted a record level of foreign direct investment (FDI) of USD 17.5 billion, an 11 percent increase from 2016. Continued strong FDI inflows are due in part to ongoing economic reforms, a young, and increasingly urbanized, population, political stability, and inexpensive labor. The country remains one of the few in Southeast Asia with sustained manufacturing growth. Vietnam hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in 2017, which put a spotlight on its regional economic integration and improvements to the business climate. Internal factors such as a sustained budget deficit, a weak domestic sector that has low linkages to the global supply chain, falling productivity, and a financial sector overburdened by non-performing loans all added to pressures for reform.

Vietnam experienced a shift in FDI from the high-tech sector to energy in 2017 as Vietnam estimates it needs USD 170 billion in additional energy infrastructure to meet its growing electricity demand, which the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT) estimates will grow at a rate of 10 percent to 12 percent a year. As a result, the energy sector dominated FDI inflows, including Nghi Son 2 Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) project (USD 2.8 billion), Van Phong 1 BOT project (USD 2.6 billion), Nam Dinh BOT gas-fired power plants (USD 2.1 billion), and the Block B-Omon pipeline (USD 1.27 billion). In addition, other significant non-energy investments included Samsung Display, which increased its investment by USD 2.5 billion.

Despite strong FDI inflows, significant challenges remain in the business climate, including corruption, a weak legal infrastructure and judicial system, poor intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement, a shortage of skilled and productive labor, restrictive labor practices, and impediments to infrastructure investment.

Table 1

Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 107 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business” 2017 68 of 190 www.doingbusiness.org/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2017 47 of 128 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country (USD M USD, stock positions) 2016 USD 1,492 million http://www.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2016 USD 2,060 http://data.worldbank.org/
indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

AmCham’s March 2017 report noted that its members face significant challenges with inconsistent regulatory interpretation, irregular enforcement, and unclear laws. The report also noted that a survey of AmCham members in the ASEAN region found that, more than in any other ASEAN country, American companies perceive a lack of fair law enforcement in Vietnam, which heavily affects their ability to do business in the country. The 2017 PCI report found that access to land and security of business premises were the primary concern for foreign companies investing in Vietnam. However, the report also found improvements in the area of post-entry regulations (regulations businesses face after they start operations), and the burden of administrative procedures was declining. In addition, according to that report, corruption has become less prevalent in certain areas for FIEs.

In Vietnam, the National Assembly passes laws, which serve as the highest form of legal direction, but which often lack specifics. The central government, with the Prime Minister’s approval, issues decrees, which provide guidance on a law’s implementation. Individual ministries issue circulars, which provide guidance as to how that ministry will administer a law or a decree. Ministries draft laws and circulate for review among related ministries. Once the law is cleared through the various ministries, the government will post the law for a 60-day comment period. During the comment period or ministry review, if there are major issues with the law, the law will go back to the ministry that drafted the law for further revisions. Once the law is ready, it is submitted to the Office of Government (OOG) for approval, and then submitted to the National Assembly for a series of committee and plenary-level reviews. During this review, the National Assembly can send the law back to the drafting ministry for further changes. Laws are also submitted to the Communist Party’s Politburo for review via a separate process.

Drafting agencies often lack the resources needed to conduct adequate scientific or data-driven assessments. In principle, before being issued, regulations go through an impact assessment. The quality of these assessments varies, however.

Regulatory authority exists in both the central and provincial government, and foreign companies are bound by both central and provincial government regulations. Vietnam has its own accounting standards to which publicly listed companies are required to adhere.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is in charge of ensuring that government ministries and agencies follow administrative processes. The Ministry has a Regulatory Management Department, which oversees and reviews legal documents after they are issued to ensure compliance with the legal system. The Law on the Promulgation of Legal Normative Documents requires all legal documents and agreements to be published online for comments for 60 days, and published in the Official Gazette before implementation. Business associations and various chambers of commerce regularly comment on draft laws and regulations. However, when issuing more detailed implementing guidelines, government entities sometimes issue circulars with little advance warning and without public notification, resulting in little opportunity for comment by affected parties. In several cases, authorities receive comments for the first draft only and make subsequent draft versions unavailable to the public. The centralized location where key regulatory actions are published can be found at http://vbpl.vn/ .

While Vietnam’s legal framework might comply with international norms in some areas, the biggest issue continues to be enforcement. For example, while anti-money laundering statues comply with international standards, there has yet to be a prosecution. Therefore, while all state agencies participate in reviewing the regulatory enforcement under their legal mandates, regulatory review and enforcement mechanisms continue to be weak.

International Regulatory Considerations

Vietnam is a member of ASEAN, a 10-member regional organization working to advance economic integration through cooperation in economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields. Within ASEAN, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC ) has the goal of establishing a single market across ASEAN nations (similar to the EU), but that goal appears far off. To date, the greatest success of the AEC has been tariff reductions. As a result, more than 97 percent of intra-ASEAN trade is tariff-free, and less than 5 percent is subject to tariffs above 10 percent.

Vietnam is a party to of WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has been implementing the TFA’s Category A provisions. However, Vietnam missed the February 23, 2018, TFA deadline to submit its Category B and Category C implementation timelines to the WTO due to the government’s slow bureaucratic process.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

The legal system is a mix of customary, French, and Soviet civil legal traditions. Vietnam generally follows an operational understanding of the rule of law that is consistent with its top-down, one-party political structure and traditionally inquisitorial judicial system. Contracts are regulated by various laws and regulations, with each type of contract subject to specific regulations.

If a contract does not contain a dispute-resolution clause, courts will have jurisdiction over a possible dispute. Vietnamese law allows dispute-resolution clauses in commercial contracts explicitly through the Law on Commercial Arbitration. The law follows the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) model law as an international standard for procedural rules, and the lawmakers’ intention is indeed arbitration-friendly.

Under the revised 2015 Civil Code, all contracts are “civil contracts” subject to uniform rules. In foreign civil contracts, parties may choose foreign laws as a reference for their agreement, if the application of the law does not violate the basic principles of Vietnamese law. When the parties to a contract are unable to agree on an arbitration award, the dispute can be brought to court.

The 2005 Commercial Law regulates commercial contracts between businesses. Specific regulations provide specific forms of contracts, depending on the nature of the deals. The hierarchy of the country’s courts is: (1) the Supreme People’s Court; (2) the High People’s Court; (3) Provincial People’s Courts; and (4) District People’s Courts. The People’s Courts operate in five divisions: criminal, civil, administrative, economic, and labor. The People’s Procuracy is responsible for prosecuting criminal activities as well as supervising judicial activities.

Vietnamese courts will only consider recognition of civil judgments issued by courts in countries that have entered into agreements on recognition of judgments with Vietnam or on a reciprocal basis. However, with the exception of France, these treaties only cover non-commercial judgments.

Vietnam lacks an independent judiciary, and there is a lack of separation of powers among Vietnam’s branches of government. For example, Vietnam’s Chief Justice is also a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. According to Transparency International, the risk of corruption in judicial rulings is significant, as nearly one-fifth of surveyed Vietnamese households that have been to court declared that they had paid bribes at least once. Many businesses therefore avoid Vietnamese courts.

Along with corruption, the judicial system continues to face additional problems. For example, many judges and arbitrators lack adequate legal training and are appointed through personal or political contacts with party leaders or based on their political views. In addition, extremely low judicial salaries engender corruption.

Regulations or enforcement actions are appealable, and appeals are adjudicated in the national court system. Through a separate legal mechanism, individuals and companies can file complaints against enforcement actions under the Law on Complaints.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The 2014 Investment Law aimed to improve the investment environment. Previously, Vietnam used a “positive list” approach, meaning that foreign businesses were only allowed to operate in a list of specific sectors outlined by law. Starting in July 2015, Vietnam implemented a “negative list” approach, meaning that foreign businesses are allowed to operate in all areas except for six prohibited sectors or business lines. In November 2016, the National Assembly amended the Investment Law to reduce the list of 267 provisional business lines down to 243.

The law also requires foreign and domestic investors to be treated the same in cases of nationalization and confiscation. However, foreign investors are subject to different business-licensing processes and restrictions, and Vietnamese companies that have a majority foreign investment are subject to foreign-investor business-license procedures. Since June 2017, foreign investors can choose to apply for ERC and Investment Registration Certificate separately or through a “one-stop-shop” process, which saves time and cost. Investment procedures for the seven major provinces of Binh Dinh, Danang, Hai Phuong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Phu Yen, and Vinh Phuc can be found at https://vietnam.eregulations.org/ .

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Vietnam Competition Administration (VCA) of MOIT reviews transactions subject to complaints for competition-related concerns. In 2016, VCA received 18 complaints on unfair competition, but did not investigate any cases. Instead, it focused its attention on violations in multi-level sale activities, sanctioning 41 enterprises and revoking 15 multi-level sales certificates.

The Government of Vietnam is currently revising the 2004 Law on Competition, which it expects to adopt in 2018. The new draft substantially expands the criteria by which firms will be judged as exercising market power. In addition to the traditional criterion of market shares, the law will also consider other factors such as firm size, ability to erect barriers to entry, and the ability to control consumer markets, distribution channels, or input supplies. An important feature of the new law is that it will introduce leniency to firms and individuals that are first to report on market-power abuse, which is a best international practice and found to be highly effective in the United States and Europe. In addition, this law will ensure that SOEs in Vietnam comply with its international trade treaties.

Expropriation and Compensation

Under Vietnamese law, the government can only expropriate investors’ property in cases of emergency, disaster, defense, or national interest, and the government is required to compensate investors if it expropriates property. Under the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement, Vietnam must apply international standards of treatment in any case of expropriation or nationalization of U.S. investor assets, which includes acting in a non-discriminatory manner with due process of law and with prompt, adequate and effective compensation.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Vietnam has not yet acceded to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) Convention. MPI has submitted a proposal to the government to join the ICSID, but this is still under consideration.

Vietnam is a party to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, meaning that foreign arbitral awards rendered by a recognized international arbitration institution should be respected by Vietnamese courts without a review of cases’ merits. Only a limited number of foreign awards have been submitted to the MOJ and local courts for enforcement so far, and almost none have successfully made it through the appeals process to full enforcement. As a signatory to the New York Convention, Vietnam is required to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards within its jurisdiction, with very few exceptions. However, in practice, this is not always the case.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

The government is not a signatory to a treaty or investment agreement in which binding international arbitration of investment disputes is recognized, and has yet to sign a BIT or FTA with the United States. Although the law states that the court should recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards, Vietnamese courts may reject these judgements if the award is contrary to the basic principles of Vietnamese laws.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Vietnam’s legal system remains underdeveloped and is often ineffective in settling commercial disputes. Negotiation between concerned parties is the most common means of dispute resolution. Since the Law on Arbitration does not allow a foreign investor to refer an investment dispute to a court in a foreign jurisdiction, Vietnamese judges cannot apply foreign laws to a case before them, and foreign lawyers cannot represent plaintiffs in a court of law.

In February 2017, the government issued Decree No. 22/2017/ND-CP (Decree 22) on commercial mediation, which came into effect in April 2017. Decree 22 spells out in detail the principle procedures for commercial mediation. More information on Decree 22 can be found at http://eng.viac.vn/decree-no-.-22/2017/nd-cp-on-commercial-mediation-a487.html .

The Law on Commercial Arbitration took effect in 2011. Currently there are no foreign arbitration centers in Vietnam, although the Arbitration Law permits foreign arbitration centers to establish branches or representative offices. Foreign and domestic arbitral awards are legally enforceable in Vietnam; however, in practice it can be very difficult.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, Vietnam is required to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards within its jurisdiction, with very few exceptions.

There are no readily available statistics on how often domestic courts rule in favor of SOEs. In general, the court system in Vietnam works slowly. International arbitration awards, when enforced, may take years from original judgment to payment. According to the 2016 PCI report, 19 percent of businesses chose to avoid the Vietnamese court system during disputes in 2016 due to concerns related to potential bribery during the process.

Bankruptcy Regulations

In 2014, Vietnam revised its Bankruptcy Law to make it easier for companies to declare bankruptcy. The new law clarifies the definition of insolvency as an enterprise that is more than three months overdue in meeting its payment obligations. The new law also provided provisions allowing creditors to commence bankruptcy proceedings against an enterprise, and created procedures for credit institutions to file for bankruptcy. Despite these changes, according to the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Report, it still takes on average five years to conclude a bankruptcy case in Vietnam, and the recovery rate on average is only 22 percent.

The Credit Information Center of the State Bank of Vietnam provides credit information services.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The State collectively owns and manages all land in Vietnam, and therefore neither foreigners nor Vietnamese nationals can own land. However, the government grants land-use and building rights, which can be held privately. According to the Ministry of National Resources and Environment (MONRE), as of November 2017, the government has issued land-use rights certificates for 96.3 percent of land in Vietnam. If land is not used, according to the land-use rights certificate or if it is unoccupied, it reverts to the government. Vietnam is building a national land registration database, and some localities have already digitized their land records.

State protection of property rights is still evolving, as the state can expropriate land for socio-economic development. Under the Housing Law and Real Estate Business Law passed by the National Assembly in November 2014, land can only be taken if it is deemed necessary for social-economic development in the public or national interest, and is approved by the Prime Minister or the National Assembly, as well as the Provincial People’s Council. However, “socio-economic” development is loosely defined, and there are many outstanding legal disputes between landowners and local authorities. Disputes over land rights continue to be a significant driver of social protest in Vietnam. Foreign investors also may be exposed to land disputes through M&A activities when they buy into a local company.

In addition to land, the state’s collective property includes “forests, rivers and lakes, water supplies, wealth lying underground or coming from the sea, the continental shelf and the air, the funds and property invested by the government in enterprises, and works in all branches and fields – the economy, culture, society, science, technology, external relations, national defense, security – and all other property determined by law as belonging to the State.”

The Housing Law and Real Estate Business Law extended “land-use rights” to foreign investors, allowing titleholders to conduct property transactions, including mortgages. Foreign investors can lease land for renewable periods of 50 years, and up to 70 years in some poor areas of the country.

Some investors have encountered difficulties amending investment licenses to expand operations onto land adjoining existing facilities. Investors also note that local authorities may intend to increase requirements for land-use rights when current rights must be renewed, particularly in instances when the investment in question competes with Vietnamese companies.

Intellectual Property Rights

The legal basis for intellectual property rights (IPR) includes the 2005 Civil Code, the 2005 Intellectual Property Law as amended in 2009, the 2015 Penal Code, and implementing regulations and decrees. Vietnam has joined the Paris Convention on Industrial Property and the Berne Convention on Copyright and has worked to meet its commitments under these international treaties. On January 1, 2018, the 2015 Penal Code entered into force with clearer guidelines on the application of criminal penalties for certain acts of IPR infringement or piracy. However, enforcement agencies still lack clarity and experience in how to impose criminal penalties on IPR violators and continue to wait for further implementing guidelines.

Circular No. 16/2016/TT-BKHCN, which amends and supplements a number of articles of Circular No. 01/2007/TT-BKHCN, one of the core regulations in the Vietnam IP system, came into force on January 15, 2018. IP attorneys expect the circular will have a significant, positive impact on patent and trademark examination procedures, but also expect further revisions in 2019 and in the IP Law revision. With technical support from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Vietnam in 2017 also completed a National Strategy for Intellectual Property to create a roadmap for promoting innovation and a more effective IP framework by 2030.

Although Vietnam has made progress in establishing a legal framework for IPR protection, significant problems remain and new challenges are emerging. The country remains on the Special 301 Watch List. In 2017, Vietnam had mixed results in its efforts to protect IPR. Vietnam’s continued integration into the global economic community, as well as increasing domestic pressure for IP protections, may be harbingers of positive change. Nevertheless, infringement and piracy remained commonplace, and the impact of digital piracy and the increasing prevalence of counterfeit goods sold online continued to undermine the IPR environment. The increasingly sophisticated capabilities of domestic counterfeiters, coupled with developing smuggling routes through Vietnam’s porous borders, were also worrisome trends. There are ten ministries sharing some level of responsibility for IPR enforcement and protection, which often leads to duplication or confusion. Additionally, the roles and power of these ministries and agencies varies widely.

In 2017, the National Office of Intellectual Property (NOIP) reported receiving 80,599 IP applications of all types, of which 39,250 were registered for industrial property rights (up 1 percent compared to 2016). NOIP reported granting 1,745 patents in 2017 (up 22.6 percent) from 2016. Industrial designs registrations reached 2,267 in 2017 (up 56 percent from 2016). In total, more than 28,310 protection titles for industrial property were granted out of more than 58,870 applications in 2017 (up 9.4 percent from 2016). The General Department of Customs caught 32 cases of infringement with fines for infringers totaling USD 19,470 in 2017. Most cases involved interception of goods in transit through Vietnam to Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

The Copyright Office of Vietnam (COV) received 27 copyright petitions, settled 26 cases, and received 10 requests for copyright assessment in 2017. COV also reported it issued 6,294 copyright certificates in 2017, a small decline compared to 2016. In 2017, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism Inspectorate (MCSTI) carried out inspections for software licensing compliance on 63 companies, a decline from 2016. Authorities discovered 54 violations that resulted in fines of USD 68,700, a 31 percent decrease in fines from 2016. The inspectors also carried out five inspections of individuals and companies selling art and photography that resulted in one infringement finding and a fine of USD 88. In September 2017, the MIC-affiliated Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) published a list of 83 websites found to infringe on copyrighted information.

For more information, please see the following reports from the U.S. Trade Representative:

Special 301 Report:
https://ustr.gov/issue-areas/intellectual-property/special-301/2018-special-301-review 

Notorious Markets Report: https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Reports/2017 percent20Notorious percent20Markets percent20List percent201.11.18.pdf 

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

9. Corruption

Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) determined Vietnam had taken positive steps to improve some areas of its anti-corruption legal framework and policies. However, Vietnam’s rank of 107 out of 176 in the global index reflects the country’s continuing challenges. The CPI narrative section recommends more public-sector reforms, such as government protection for whistleblowers, encouraging NGO participation in investigating anti-corruption, and enforcing an independent judiciary and legislature.

Corruption is due, in large part, to low levels of transparency, accountability, and media freedom, as well as poor remuneration for government officials and inadequate systems for holding officials accountable. Competition among agencies for control over business and investments has created overlapping jurisdictions and bureaucratic procedures that, in turn, create opportunities for corruption.

Vietnam’s 2005 Anti-Corruption Law requires that government officials declare their assets and sets strict penalties for corrupt practices. However, a government official acknowledged in March 2017 that asset declarations by government officials do not include actual income and asset levels, and are not useful in fighting corruption.

The Government has tasked various agencies to deal with corruption, including the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption (chaired by the Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen), the Government Inspectorate, and line ministries and agencies. The Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption was formed in 2007, and since February 2013, has been under the CPV Central Commission of Internal Affairs. The National Assembly is also mandated to provide oversight to the operations of government ministries. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have encouraged the government to establish a single independent agency that with oversight and enforcement authority, and to ensure enforcement is carried out.

A new Penal Code came into effect in January 2018, which introduced a number of provisions relating to corporate criminal liability and corruption, increased the risks for businesses in the country. While the previous Vietnamese criminal code only provided for criminal liability for individuals, now corporate entities can face criminal sanctions too. The New Penal Code also criminalizes private-sector corruption—something that was absent from Vietnam’s previous anti-corruption regime.

Vietnam signed the UN Anticorruption Convention in December 2003 and ratified it in August 2009. According to the 2017 PCI report, corruption declined, with 59 percent of enterprises reporting paying informal charges (bribes), which accounted for about 10 percent of their revenue. The law does not cover family members of officials, but does cover ranking members of the Communist Party.

The government increased its scrutiny of conflict-of-interest concerns in public procurement since late 2016. For example, in 2017, the National Assembly called the Minister of Industry and Trade for “question and answer” hearings to address whether special interest groups influencing the approval and management of “megaprojects” had adverse economic and environmental impacts.

However, to signal the government is serious about reforming government procurement, the Prime Minister approved, in July 2016, a 10-year master plan for procurement, to develop the national e-Government Procurement Application. This will emphasize and promote online tendering to increase transparency and reduce corruption opportunities. To this end, the government is working to roll out an e-bidding public procurement site in late 2018, which will supplement its existing e-procurement  portal.

There are laws prohibiting companies from bribing public officials. While some private companies have internal controls, ethics, and compliance programs to detect and prevent bribery of government officials, the government does not require companies to establish such internal codes of conduct.

For the past two years, the government has embarked on a large anti-corruption initiative. As a result, perceptions of corruption, and the burden of administrative procedures, are both declining. While high-profile arrests have grabbed the focus of the news media, less attention has been paid to institutional changes meant to prevent corrupt activities, including greater transparency and civil-service reforms to encourage accountability. In 2017, there were statistically significant declines in three core indicators of corruption: 1) the share of firms believing informal charges are common; 2) the estimated bribe payments by firms as a share of revenue; and 3) whether commissions are necessary to win government procurement contracts. The 2017 PCI findings are consistent with the annual UN Development Program’s Provincial Administrative Performance Index (PAPI) survey.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency responsible for combating corruption:
Mr. Phan Dinh Trac
Chairman, Communist Party Central Committee Internal Affairs
4 Nguyen Canh Chan
+84 0804-3557

Contact at NGO:
Ms. Nguyen Thi Kieu Vien
Executive Director, Towards Transparency
Transparency International National Contact in Vietnam
Floor 4, No 37 Lane 35, Cat Linh street, Dong Da, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phone: +84-24-37153532
Fax: +84-24-37153443
kieuvien@towardstransparency.vn

14. Contact for More Information

Economic Section
U.S. Embassy
7 Lang Ha, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Vietnam
+84-24-3850-5000
InvestmentClimateVN@state.gov

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