Transparency of the Regulatory System
U.S. companies continue to report that they face frequent and significant challenges with inconsistent regulatory interpretation, irregular enforcement, and an unclear legal framework. AmCham members have consistently voiced concerns that Vietnam lacks a fair legal system for investments, which affects U.S. companies’ ability to do business in Vietnam. The 2020 PCI report documented companies’ difficulties dealing with land, taxes, and social insurance issues, but also found improvements in procedures related to business administration and anti-corruption.
Accounting systems are inconsistent with international norms, and this increases transaction costs for investors. The government had previously said it intended to have most companies transition to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) by 2020. Unable to meet this target, the Ministry of Finance in March 2020 extended the deadline to 2025.
In Vietnam, the National Assembly passes laws, which serve as the highest form of legal direction, but often lack specifics. Ministries provide draft laws to the National Assembly. The Prime Minister issues decrees, which provide guidance on implementation. Individual ministries issue circulars, which provide guidance on how a ministry will administer a law or decree.
After implementing ministries have cleared a particular law to send the law to the National Assembly, the government posts the law for a 60-day comment period. However, in practice, the public comment period is sometimes truncated. Foreign governments, NGOs, and private-sector companies can, and do, comment during this period, after which the ministry may redraft the law. Upon completion of the revisions, the ministry submits the legislation to the Office of the Government (OOG) for approval, including the Prime Minister’s signature, and the legislation moves to the National Assembly for committee review. During this process, the National Assembly can send the legislation back to the originating ministry for further changes. The Communist Party of Vietnam’s Politburo reserves the right to review special or controversial laws.
In practice, drafting ministries often lack the resources needed to conduct adequate data-driven assessments. Ministries are supposed to conduct policy impact assessments that holistically consider all factors before drafting a law, but the quality of these assessments varies.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is in charge of ensuring that government ministries and agencies follow administrative procedures. The MOJ 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 and open for comments for 60 days, and to be 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 allowed comments for the first draft only and did not provide subsequent draft versions to the public. The centralized location where key regulatory actions are published can be found here: http://vbpl.vn/ .
While general information is publicly available, Vietnam’s public finances and debt obligations (including explicit and contingent liabilities) are not transparent. The National Assembly set a statutory limit for public debt at 65 percent of nominal GDP, and, according to official figures, Vietnam’s public debt to GDP ratio in late 2020 was 55.3 percent – down from 56 percent the previous year. However, the official public-debt figures exclude the debt of certain large SOEs. This poses a risk to Vietnam’s public finances, as the government is liable for the debts of these companies. Vietnam could improve its fiscal transparency by making its executive budget proposal, including budgetary and debt expenses, widely and easily accessible to the general public long before the National Assembly enacts the budget, ensuring greater transparency of off-budget accounts, and by publicizing the criteria by which the government awards contracts and licenses for natural resource extraction.
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’s common market), but member states have not made significant progress. To date, AEC’s greatest success has been in reducing tariffs on most products traded within the bloc.
Vietnam is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an inter-governmental forum for 21 member economies in the Pacific Rim that promotes free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. APEC aims to facilitate business among member states through trade facilitation programming, senior-level leaders’ meetings, and regular dialogue. However, APEC is a non-binding forum. ASEAN and APEC membership has not resulted in Vietnam incorporating international standards, especially when compared with the EU or North America.
Vietnam is a party to the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has been implementing the TFA’s Category A provisions. Vietnam submitted its Category B and Category C implementation timelines on August 2, 2018. According to these timelines, Vietnam will fully implement the Category B and C provisions by the end of 2023 and 2024, respectively.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Vietnam’s legal system mixes indigenous, French, and Soviet-inspired 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.
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; 4) District People’s Courts, and 5) Military Courts. The People’s Courts operate in five divisions: criminal, civil, administrative, economic, and labor. The Supreme People’s Procuracy is responsible for prosecuting criminal activities as well as supervising judicial activities.
Vietnam lacks an independent judiciary and 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, there is significant risk of corruption in judicial rulings. Low judicial salaries engender corruption; 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 as much as possible.
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. 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.
The 2005 Commercial Law regulates commercial contracts between businesses. Specific regulations prescribe specific forms of contracts, depending on the nature of the deals. If a contract does not contain a dispute-resolution clause, courts will have jurisdiction over a 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.
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.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The legal system includes provisions to promote foreign investment. Vietnam uses a “negative list” approach to approve foreign investment, meaning foreign businesses are allowed to operate in all areas except for six prohibited sectors – from which domestic businesses are also prohibited. These include illicit drugs, wildlife trade, prostitution, human trafficking, human cloning, and debt collection services.
The law also requires that foreign and domestic investors be treated equally in cases of nationalization and confiscation. However, foreign investors are subject to different business-licensing processes and restrictions, and companies registered in Vietnam that have majority foreign ownership are subject to foreign-investor business-license procedures.
The new Labor Code, which came into effect January 1, 2021, provides greater flexibility in contract termination, allows employees to work more overtime hours, increases the retirement age, and adds flexibility in labor contracts.
The Investment Law, revised in June 2020, stipulated Vietnam would encourage FDI, through incentives, in university education, pollution mitigation, and certain medical research. Public Private Partnership Law, passed in June 2020 lists transportation, electricity grid and power plants, irrigation, water supply and treatment, waste treatment, health care, education and IT infrastructure as prioritized sectors for FDI and private public partnerships.
Vietnam has a “one-stop-shop” website for investment that provides relevant laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements for investors: https://vietnam.eregulations.org/
Competition and Antitrust Laws
In 2018, Vietnam passed a new Law on Competition, which came into effect on July 1, 2019, replacing Vietnam’s Law on Competition of 2004. The Law includes punishments – such as fines – for those who violate the law. The government has not prosecuted any person or entity under this law since it came into effect, though there were prosecutions under the old law in the early 2000s. The law does not appear to have affected foreign investment. On March 24, 2020, Decree 35, the second decree to implement the Law on Competition, came into effect. Decree 35 addresses issues on anti-competitive agreements, abuse of dominance, and merger control. For merger control, the decree replaces the single market share threshold for when parties must notify a merger with an approach that puts forward four alternative benchmarks based on the value of assets, transaction value, revenue, and market share. The decree also provides details on merger filing assessment.
Expropriation and Compensation
Under the law, the government of Vietnam 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. The U.S. Mission in Vietnam is unaware of any current expropriation cases involving U.S. firms.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Vietnam has not acceded to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) Convention but is a member of UN Commission on International Trade Laws for the period 2019-2025. MPI has submitted a proposal to the government to join the ICSID, but the government has not moved forward on it. Vietnam is a party to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “New York Convention”), meaning that Vietnam courts should recognize foreign arbitral awards rendered by a recognized international arbitration institution without a review of cases’ merits.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Vietnam has signed 67 bilateral investment treaties, is party to 26 treaties with investment provisions, and is a member of 15 free trade agreements in force. Some of these include provisions for Investor-State Dispute Settlement. As a signatory to the New York Convention, Vietnam is required to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards within its jurisdiction, with few exceptions. Technically, foreign and domestic arbitral awards are legally enforceable in Vietnam; however, foreign investors in Vietnam generally prefer international arbitration for predictability. Vietnam courts may reject foreign arbitral awards if the award is contrary to the basic principles of domestic laws. The new Investment law provides that only Vietnam arbitration and courts can solve disputes between investors and government authorities, while investors can select foreign or mutually agreed arbitrations to solve their disputes.
According to UNCTAD, over the last 10 years, there were two dispute cases against the Vietnamese government involving U.S. companies. The courts decided in favor of the government in one case, and the parties decided to discontinue the other. The government is currently in two pending, active disputes (with the UK and South Korea). More details are available at https://investmentpolicy.unctad.org/investment-dispute-settlement/country/229/viet-nam.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
With an underdeveloped legal system, Vietnam’s courts are often ineffective in settling commercial disputes. Negotiation between concerned parties or arbitration are 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. The Law on Commercial Arbitration of 2010 permits foreign arbitration centers to establish branches or representative offices (although none have done so).
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. Many foreign companies, due to concerns related to time, costs, and potential for bribery, have reported that they have turned to international arbitration or have asked influential individuals to weigh in.
Under the 2014 Bankruptcy Law, bankruptcy is not criminalized unless it relates to another crime. The law defines insolvency as a condition in which an enterprise is more than three months overdue in meeting its payment obligations. The law also provides provisions allowing creditors to commence bankruptcy proceedings against an enterprise and procedures for credit institutions to file for bankruptcy. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Report, Vietnam ranked 122 out of 190 for resolving insolvency. The report noted that it still takes, on average, five years to conclude a bankruptcy case in Vietnam. The Credit Information Center of the State Bank of Vietnam provides credit information services for foreign investors concerned about the potential for bankruptcy with a Vietnamese partner.