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July 7, 2021

A New Dawn for Cryptocurrency in Vietnam?

Over the past decade, cryptocurrency has been a consistently hot topic in Vietnam. A recent surge in the price of Bitcoin (BTC) from approximately USD 4,000 to nearly USD 65,000 in just over a year has turned up the heat more than ever. According to a recent report by Statista, Vietnam is ranked second among 74 countries surveyed in terms of the percentage of respondents who said that they used or owned cryptocurrency in 2020.

The considerable interest of Vietnamese users has in turn grabbed great attention from the government, specifically regarding how it can effectively regulate and potentially utilize this type of currency. Recently, the government issued Decision No. 942/QD-TTg dated June 15, 2021, approving the strategy for development of e-government toward digital government for 2021-2025 with orientation toward 2030 (“Decision 942”). Decision 942 raised a stir among Vietnamese investors as it seemed to hint at the government’s growing openness toward cryptocurrency, which to date has been largely opposed.

Legality of Cryptocurrency in Vietnam

For a general picture of cryptocurrency’s legal status in Vietnam, it can be briefly summarized that (i) there is no legal definition of cryptocurrency; and (ii) cryptocurrency is not yet explicitly recognized as either an asset/property or a means of transaction.

Thus far, the government’s opposition to cryptocurrency has been relatively clear. Under Official Letter No. 5747/NHNN-PC dated July 21, 2017, the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) explicitly stated that cryptocurrency in general and BTC and Litecoin in particular are not legal currencies or means of payment in Vietnam; thus, any issuance, supply, or use of them as currency or a means of payment is prohibited, and subject to administrative or even criminal sanctions.

Later, on April 11, 2018, the Prime Minister issued Directive No. 10/CT-TTg to agencies including the SBV, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Public Security on increasing the management of activities related to BTC and other cryptocurrencies, with the aim to control, prevent, and deal with transactions related to cryptocurrency. In response, two days later, the SBV issued Decision No. 02/CT-NHNN, which requires credit institutions, payment intermediary organizations, and SBV units to strengthen measures to control and deal with transactions related to cryptocurrency.

Although cryptocurrency is not legal in Vietnam, an interesting case arose in 2020, when the Criminal Police Department proposed prosecution of 16 defendants in the case of a robbery of cryptocurrency (including BTC and other cryptocurrencies) equivalent to VND 35 billion, under the charge of “theft of assets/property”. This charge raised a contentious debate over whether cryptocurrency should be recognized as an asset/property under Vietnamese law, because otherwise, it would be impossible to accuse someone of “theft of assets/property” in this situation.

Does Decision 942 Open a Door for Recognition of Cryptocurrency?

While Decision 942 does not specifically mention cryptocurrency, it interestingly assigns the SBV to research, develop, and pilot the use of “virtual currency” (“tiền ảo” in Vietnamese) based on blockchain technology, without elaborating any further. It remains unclear whether such blockchain-based “virtual currency” under Decision 942 refers to cryptocurrency or any other virtual currency.

According to Associate Professor Dinh Trong Thinh, Senior Lecturer at the Academy of Finance, with this new pilot program, the government plans to issue a virtual VND (that is, a currency that is still Vietnamese currency, but has been issued and circulated in the digital space), and this is not related to cryptocurrency like BTC. The value of this new virtual currency, if codified and put into practice, would depend on the government’s decision, rather than fluctuating in price based on the market, like other cryptocurrencies. (See related article in Vietnam Finance.)

It should be noted that in March 2021, Vietnam’s Ministry of Finance announced that they had established a research group on virtual assets and virtual currency, with the aim to achieve an appropriate policy and management mechanism for them.

Are these signs that the government is ready to formally allow cryptocurrency, and even embrace it? It will be interesting to see what further steps the government takes to respond to this emerging trend.

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