According to recent statistics, the property sector was behind the manufacturing and processing industry, which has so far attracted a total of USD12.84 billion, equaling 72.9 per cent of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow to Vietnam.1
Laws governing real estate sector, including the Law on Real Estate Business 2014 (LREB) and the Law on Residential Housing 2014 (LRH) coming into effect on 1 July 2015. There are also other documents, for example, Decree No. 01/2017/ND-C P in effect on 3 March 2017 guiding the Land Law 2013 (Land Law). These new legislations set a legal framework for real estate industry. They have introduced breakthrough improvements by reducing investment barriers and expanding the scope of real estate business. Nevertheless, there are some remaining issues as analyzed below.
- Delay in issuing land use right certificate (LURC) for foreigners
Under Decree 99/2015, foreigners are not allowed to own houses in national defense and security areas indicated by the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Public Security. Based on such list of areas, the provincial People’s Committee will direct local Departments of Construction to publish a list of commercial housing projects where foreign entities are not permitted to own houses (Foreign Ownership Prohibited Projects List). To date, such list has not been issued. Therefore, the provincial Department of Natural Resources and Environment has delayed the issuance of LURCs. This serious issue has caused confusion for buyers. Indeed, while the Government seems to have made a positive move in allowing foreigners to own a house in Vietnam, the lack of important guidance has shed doubts among foreigners who want to get in Vietnam’s real estate market.
- Uncertainties in the required approvals for residential developments
It is not clear in what circumstances a transfer of land is covered by allocation and lease by the State. In accordance with Article 32 of the Law on Investment (LOI), the in-principle investment decision (IDD) applies to projects which the State allocates or leases out land without auction, tendering or transfer. In contrast, the Land Law specifies that the only way an investment project receives land be by allocation or lease. It is uncertain under which circumstances a project can receive land by way of transfer. The absence of detailed guidelines continues to affect the normal business operations.
- Lengthy investment approval processes
A foreign invested company engaging in residential developments is required to obtain an IID or an in-principle investment approval (IIA) as well as an Investment Registration Certificate (IRC). If an IID is required, the IRC will be issued within 5 working days from the issuance of the IID. As the contents of both the IDD and IRC are related, the IRC requirement, in this case, is not relevant. On the other hand, for projects which require the IIA, the investor shall first obtain the IRC, set up a company and then apply for the IIA. There are circumstances where the investor has already set up the company but still not managed to get the IIA. This makes the investor unable to develop the project. In addition, the application process is complex, onerous in a sense that it takes at least 153 days. In particular, after the IRC is issued, the next step is to obtain an enterprise registration certificate, then a decision on selection of developer, the 1/500 planning approval and finally the IIA. Since the issuance of the IIA and IRC is based on the 1/500 planning approval, the requirement of an IRC it is unnecessary in case an IIA is already required.
- Restrictions on sources of capital
Under Article 69 of the LRH, developers of residential housing can only raise capital from sources such as loans granted by credit institutions, or financial institutions running business in Vietnam, capital contribution, investment cooperation, business cooperation, joint business, and association of organizations or individuals. It means that developers are no longer allowed to obtain capital from offshore credit and non-credit institutions. We think that there is no reason to limit the scope of residential investors to raise capital from legitimate sources. This issue, if remains existing, will affect the competitiveness of investors and their investment plan.
- The absence of detailed explanation of “foreign invested enterprise (FIE)”
There is inconsistency in the interpretation of an FIE among main laws governing real estate sector. The Land Law stipulates that FIEs are joint venture enterprises, 100% foreign invested enterprises, and domestic enterprises in which the foreign investor has invested via share purchase, merger, or acquisition. This regulation does not provide any ownership percentage. Meanwhile, the LOI states that, an economic organization with a foreign investment capital means an economic organization with a foreign investor being a member or shareholder, and enterprises with a foreign ownership of less than 51% will be treated the same as local ones. Different from the LOI and the Land Law, the LREB does not define a foreign invested enterprise. This inconsistency and lack of guidance result in confusion about which threshold defines a foreign invested enterprise in the LREB and create unnecessary obstacles for foreign projects.
Unfortunately, there are inconsistencies in the laws, which have caused confusion for buyers. In addition, the enforcement of current laws has been challenging due to the lack of specific guidelines. In fact, the restrictions provided in the legislations have limited the rights of investors and created barriers to foreign investment in the sector. Therefore, it is necessary to adopt consistent guidelines to avoid any delays. Vietnam should also continue to take steps to reduce administrative burdens, remove onerous requirements, and simplify complex processes. This is to ensure a bright future for Vietnam’s real estate industry.