How to be a freelancer in Vietnam - Travelling Homebody

How to be a freelancer in Vietnam

Freelancing in Vietnam

Thinking about jumping on the bandwagon and freelancing in Vietnam, or using the country as a base if you’re a digital nomad? In this post, I’ll tell you the one thing you absolutely, positively need to know if you want to be a freelancer in Vietnam — and it’s the one thing that no one tells you.

I started working as freelance writer and editor in Vietnam early in 2017. I had arrived in Hanoi as a volunteer a few months earlier — in November 2016 — and was reinventing myself after a corporate life in Australia that hadn’t gone as planned. At 53 years old, tired of a being a rebellious hamster on a wheel spinning into career oblivion, I needed a new direction, new challenges, a new me.

The big question was: what am I going to do?

Vietnam was appealing to me — I had visited for the first time in 2010 — because it had a low cost of living compared with Australia, an easy lifestyle, and was one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. It was on the radar for tourists, with locations like Halong Bay and Hoi An on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. And Kong: Skull Island also helped pique the interest of travellers who wanted a more exotic, cultural experience. Increased tourism meant more work opportunities for an old Australian chick like me. I didn’t know how, but I knew there was life after the hamster wheel.

As luck would have it, being a native English speaker who could write well worked in my favour. I ended up as a freelance writer, working for an expat magazine and tour operators in the Vietnamese travel and hospitality industries. Money was coming in, and I was making a name for myself. I was living the dream.

Living in the wild, wild west (east)

When I arrived in Vietnam in 2016, it was the wild west in terms of visas. No one, and by no one I mean employers and authorities, cared if you worked on a tourist visa. It’s essentially a cash economy, so people were okay with being paid in wads of cash — wads of cash that solved many problems. As long as the money was coming in, everything was không sao (no problem). Although it was common for English teachers and those in hospitality and tourism to work on a tourist visa, writers, editors, web developers and social media marketers, drop shippers — anyone who had a laptop and a good internet connection — were also on tourist visas. You exited and re-entered Vietnam every three months to renew your tourist visa — an excellent opportunity to visit other parts of Asia.

Không sao.

In 2017, I decided to legitimise myself as a freelancer in Vietnam — and thus make myself more employable — by ditching my tourist visa and visa runs, and applying for a one year business visa. The advice I received at the time was as long as I didn’t work full-time and wasn’t doing work that a Vietnamese person could do, the authorities were technically ok with it. It was considered a gray area, and usually a blind eye was turned. My 12 month business visa was approved and I did cartwheels. Freedom!

My business visa: what I didn’t know

It didn’t help that my visa agent — someone who was supposedly a friend — didn’t tell me what he actually had to do to get me a business visa. He didn’t tell me he had registered me with a fake sponsor. He didn’t tell me that the fake sponsor was under a ghost company. He didn’t tell me that the ghost company was raided by the financial police. He didn’t tell me that the financial police had found my passport details. He didn’t tell me I had been slapped with an administrative penalty (blacklisted). He didn’t tell me that being blacklisted did not allow me to renew my Vietnamese visa — any visa.

It took me one month to sort it all out. From Bangkok, because I could not re-enter Vietnam. One month where I wondered if I really wanted to be in Vietnam. I fought to go back though, because my Australian cat was there. My friends were there. My work was there. My life was there. I visited embassies in Bangkok. I lobbied embassies in Hanoi. I had friends offering me advice and support and information so I could re-enter the country. Luckily, the social enterprise I volunteered for agreed to sponsor me for a legitimate business visa and I was allowed back in — after paying the penalty. And in the meantime I started a marketing company, which authorises me to work in Vietnam legally.

It was all incredibly expensive to sort out.

The Vietnam visa situation in 2020

In 2020, anyone who enters and exits regularly on a tourist visa risks being questioned by Immigration and deported. In 2020, if you work on a tourist visa, you risk being blacklisted, or worse, deported with no notice — even if you have built a life here. In 2020, anyone who has a business visa MUST have a legitimate company sponsor them AND have a work permit with a labour contract. In 2020, if a visa agency organises your sponsorship for a business visa and a work permit, it is likely you will be blacklisted because this sponsorship is fake and therefore illegal. And if you were thinking about risking it and just staying on a tourist visa (I don’t advise it), from 1 July 2020, you will need to exit and re-enter Vietnam every 30 days.

You can read the Law on Immigration here. I wish I had way back in 2017. But I was so green I was cabbage looking.

The one thing you need to know

So what is the one thing you absolutely, positively need to know about freelancing in Vietnam?

You can’t.

At least, not legally.

As a freelancer, you can’t get a work permit unless you are sponsored for a business visa by the company you work for. Freelancing means that you don’t work for one company. You work for yourself.

It’s an immigration Catch 22.

And it’s a Catch 22 that most countries in the world haven’t dealt with.

Image by Quang Nguyen vinh from Pixabay 

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  • Linh February 23, 2020 at 1:11 PM

    I met her in a sofar sound last year, and I truly impressed her confidence. She spoken Vietnamese very well ..chém gió, không sao đâu, bla bla ….You know, I imaged a duck that sat near me :v haha .
    If you read this comment, please tell me who I am ? . I’m a your friend in your Facebook

    • Diane Lee March 3, 2020 at 9:08 AM

      I remember! I hope I can sit next to you at SoFar Sounds again soon!


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