77. Keeping It Legal

It’s not easy to navigate the bureaucratic paperwork and pitfalls of maintaining a residence in a foreign country.

Traveling to, and living in, a foreign country involves a lot more than simply packing a bag and buying an airplane ticket. In Vietnam, it seems the finer points keep getting more and more complicated.

If you’re reading, prepare for an onslaught of acronyms.

I have now been in this Southeast Asian country for almost 2½ years, having arrived pre-pandemic at the end of October 2019. The initial process of obtaining my work permit and temporary residence card (TRC) was frustrating at the time, as it required me to surrender my six-month tourist visa and return to Vietnam with a new designation after a brief “visa run” to Thailand. But it was relatively painless compared to what I’ve been through during the past five months.

Obtaining a work permit requires a job contract and, thus, sponsorship. In 2019, that was easy. It didn’t take long after I completed my teaching certification before I was hired by ABC Learning, an international language academy whose true identity I will shield. I provided my university diplomas, my proof that I was qualified to teach English, a criminal background check (CBC) from the United States, and a medical clearance after a full physical examination in Vietnam. ABC took care of the details, and for two years I rarely gave it a second thought.

Document renewal

A couple of months before my TRC was to expire — on January 6, 2022 — I began planning for the renewal of my documents. I had not foreseen that the process would be complicated by my having been granted a 60-day contract break by ABC to travel in Vietnam, formally effective January 1 but practically so from December 14, the start of the Christmas holiday period.

The first important step was having a new CBC drawn up. Although I had satisfied this requirement when I first came to Vietnam, the country’s federal government determined that it must be done again every couple of years. Who knew what trouble I might have got into while I was locked inside a house or apartment, teaching online English classes as the COVID-19 virus convinced a nation that the germs were too widespread to breathe clean air?

The CBC form now was much more complicated than previously. I was expected to list every one of my residential addresses since I was 14 years old (there were a great many). Then I would provide that list to the DakLak provincial Ministry of Justice in Buon Ma Thuot (BMT), the city where I lived during most of 2021, along with copies of my passport, a valid visa and/or TRC, and a Registry of Stay (RoS) for my home rental — all of it notarized and stamped by the police station in my urban ward. The justice ministry would take between two and four weeks to give a thumbs up.

Registry of Stay

This is when I discovered I didn’t have an RoS. The owner of the wonderful three-bedroom house that I rented in BMT had never previously leased to a foreigner, and she wasn’t fully aware of the laws regarding such. Thus although ABC in BMT helped complete the forms, my residence was never registered with police.

My girlfriend’s best friend said she knew someone who could help us, a veteran police officer who could discreetly obtain a legal form in exchange for “coffee money” (5 million Vietnam dong, or VND, about US $225). It took him about 10 days to produce a stamped certificate that confirmed my residence and employment in BMT, but which ultimately proved worthless.

In mid-December I fled to Ho Chi Minh City (HCM). The head ABC office there set me right on the procedure of obtaining a CBC, communicating directly with BMT on the RoS and assisting me with completion of the form — which I then delivered to an HCM post office for delivery back to DakLak for that province’s approval. It would be mailed to the ABC office in HCM within two weeks, I was assured, then would be assimilated with my other paperwork necessary for my new work permit, which was to expire with my TRC.

Lost in translation

By Christmas, it was clear that my paperwork would not be completed before I was “illegal,” so it was essential that I pay for a three-month extension (3 million VND) to allow time to handle other bureaucratic details. Although I was anxious to begin my travels through the country, I couldn’t do so without valid documents. So ABC shipped my passport to Vietnam immigration offices in Hanoi, the national capital. Two more weeks passed before it was back in my hands, the visa extended to March 27.

I began my domestic travels, secure in the knowledge that as soon as my CBC was mailed to ABC from DakLak, my work permit processing could proceed rapidly. But that wasn’t going to happen just yet. I was in the coastal resort city of Nha Trang, far from HCM, when I received a phone text from the postal service notifying me that my application to DakLak had been turned down because it was not fully translated from English to Vietnamese.

Before I had mailed the document, both ABC and the postal service had assured me everything was in order. DakLak’s Ministry of Justice had other ideas. I asked ABC to help me, but twice got no response. It wasn’t until I returned to HCM in the last week of February that I returned to the post office myself, to discover the translation issues were minor — but I would still have to find a native speaker to help me.

Not a criminal

I slogged back to the ABC office, where I was assured they would quickly have the document translated and returned to DakLak for approval. Two weeks later, nothing had yet been done when I was summoned to retrieve the document and register it at the main Ministry of Justice office in HCM. There I was turned away and told the document should have been registered in BMT — as I had been trying to do since November.

Now, of course, I was once again living in HCM. So I must be registered at the central police station in the Tan Binh district’s Second Ward, where I had rented an apartment. Police told me they could do nothing until I had an RoS from my new rental, at which time I would be required to start from scratch and submit an entirely new CBC application as a resident of HCM rather than BMT.

In the meantime, my three-month visa extension had once again run full-term. ABC provided me instructions for sending my passport with another 3 million VND by express mail to a broker in Hanoi. As of today, my passport is somewhere between here and there and here again.

I have signed a new lease with a landlord who understands the RoS process. When my passport (and visa) get back to me, I can be legally registered with police, and once again fill out the forms and apply for my CBC. Then ABC says the company will proceed with my work permit, as I thought was occurring several months ago.

Wow! 160,000 Viet Nam Dong! That’s about US$7.00. (JGA photo)

Paying it forward

And there’s the other issue: Getting paid. When it comes to renewing documents, paying a couple of hundred dollars in fees here and a few hundred more there, costs add up quickly.

But ABC as an employer has been reliably unreliable in financially supporting its corps of foreign and Vietnamese teachers and staff. At first, delays and cuts in salary payments were justifiable as a result of the pandemic, with the company losing income as students’ parents withdrew them from the program. But as months grew to more than a year, and the head ABC office in Hanoi became increasingly ambiguous about íts intention to pay a back salary that, in my case, grew to about 140 million VND (US$6,000), many teachers began to leave a sinking ship.

Recently the company has made progress against its employee debt, but I am still owed more than 75% of my back salary. I’ve indicated to the management that I will consider ending my contract break if direct deposits to my bank account can cut the debt to half of the original, and if my work permit and temporary resident card can finally be procured. But I have lost a lot of trust.

In the meanwhile, I’m glad to have found other employment, teaching three classes a week in the Media and Communications program for Swinburne University of Technology. If APAX can’t come through as promised, I’ll turn to Swinburne as my work-permit sponsor.

I’ll be paid, the university tells me, as soon as I open a new account with the bank to which it makes its direct deposits.  I can do that as soon as my passport and visa extension get back to me from Hanoi.

Someday, I keep telling myself, all this will be ancient history.

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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