Simon Stanley looks at what to do in the event of the death of a foreigner in Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Vietnam with all it’s rewards still has it’s fair share of risks. One need only look at the events of the past six months to see how adventure can quickly turn to tragedy for foreigners setting foot in this beguiling land. In February, three British backpackers were killed while climbing down a waterfall near Dalat, and in May, an Israeli tourist died following a similar accident. And of course, the death of British climber Aiden Webb in June is still very much in people’s minds. The 22-year-old went missing while attempting to summit Vietnam’s tallest peak, Mount Fansipan, alone. His body was discovered during a large-scale search and rescue mission, coordinated by local experts, utilising the skills of experienced mountain trackers and drone photography devices.
Away from these high-profile events, with thousands of expats scattered throughout its cities, and almost 8 million international tourist arrivals in 2015, foreigner deaths, as with many other countries, do happen in Vietnam. Heat exhaustion, dehydration, heart attacks, suicides, road traffic accidents, and of course, natural deaths, all claiming hundreds of foreign lives each year. “My firm has dealt with 38 foreigner deaths so far this year, from 1 January to 3 June,” says Nguyen Thi Van Anh, Director of Hady Services Company Limited, a funeral directors with more than 10 year’s experience in handling the deaths of tourists and expats in Vietnam. From their offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Van Anh and her team take care of the entire process, from arranging the death certificate to repatriating the remains or ashes of the deceased to any country in the world. Their professionalism and efficiency make them one of the top companies as recommended by the embassies of the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, France and Indonesia.
Van Anh explains that upon learning of the death of a friend or relative, after alerting the manager of your building or hotel if the death occurs indoors, the first telephone calls to make should be to the medical services and the police (see our list of useful numbers). For those of us living and working in Hanoi or Saigon, for example, our usual medical providers may have a dedicated emergency number for such events, and indeed, in the case of a road traffic accident, for example, they may already be on the way.
“According to Vietnamese regulations,” Van Anh explains, “the police must come to the place of death to make a report, and then instruct an ambulance to transport the body to a hospital.”
In the event of a suicide or the presence of any suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, an autopsy will be carried out. In certain parts of the country this may go ahead regardless of the wishes of the next of kin, although it has been known for embassies to provide a diplomatic note to waive this requirement.
In any event, a person’s body should not be moved until the police have arrived.
Once the police have approved the removal of the body, or if the person died while in medical care, the receiving hospital will issue a letter or note of death. This letter will eventually be required (among many other documents) in order to obtain the official death certificate from the Ministry of Justice. As Van Anh adds, “the most difficult part of the process is working with the police and obtaining the necessary paperwork.”
Once the immediate matters of medical aid and police involvement have been dealt with, the deceased person’s nearest consulate or embassy should be informed as soon as possible. Some, like the USA or UK, have 24-hour hotlines for dealing with emergencies like this. Once alerted, they can quickly provide guidance and translation services, and will usually suggest you contact a funeral directors such as Hady Services. Van Anh knows first-hand how stressful and traumatic this time can be for friends and relatives, and offers them her personal mobile phone number as a point of assistance 24-hours a day. “In case they need our help, we are ready,” she says.
From here, Van Anh and her team will get to work arranging the necessary paperwork for obtaining the death certificate while making preparations for either a cremation or burial in Vietnam, or the repatriation of your body (or ashes) to your home country. Nothing is off-limits in Vietnam and Hady has experience with arranging the transportation, funerals and/or ceremonies of people from a variety of countries and a variety of religions. “There is no funeral or ceremony that Vietnamese law forbids,” she says, adding, however, that cremations and burials (in particular) within Vietnam are not recommended for foreigners. “They should be taken care of by somebody who lives in Vietnam. For example, should the authorities decide to move the entire cemetery, somebody from the family should be present.”
Understandably, many foreigners in Vietnam, or their families back home at least, request that their bodies be repatriated. In the event that a cremation on Vietnamese soil is required or requested, this can be arranged, however the carrying of ashes onto an aircraft has its own rules and regulations. Whether a family wish to transport a coffin or an urn, it will usually involve the airline, the Vietnamese authorities, the hospital, customs officers, the international quarantine service, an embalming company (in the case of corpse transportation), the embassy or consulate, and, of course, the funeral directors, like Hady, who will make all of the necessary arrangements and orchestrate the whole process on the family’s behalf.
The costs of preparing and flying a body from Ho Chi Minh City to the USA, for example, are estimated to begin at around US$12,000, while cremation and shipment of ashes begins at approximately $3,500, according to the US Embassy.
In order for any of this to happen, however, and in order for the deceased’s insurance funds to be released to cover the costs, the Vietnamese death certificate must be issued. The often long-winded process of collecting and completing forms and paperwork to obtain this is something Saigon law firm Baker & McKenzie (Vietnam) Ltd. have first-hand knowledge of.
“I can’t say that it’s simple,” says partner Frederick Burke, introducing his colleague, associate Tran Chi Anh, adding that she has been through the process many times. “No, it’s not simple at all,” she begins. “To get the final death certificate issued by the provincial level Department of Justice, you need to have all of the papers of the deceased, including the passport and all Vietnamese documentation such as a visa or residence card. For most people, the document that is always missing is the proof of residency or temporary stay at the relevant address. Most expats will rent an apartment, but many are never registered with the local police in their household registration book.”
“Especially if you’re using Airbnb or something like that,” adds Burke. “There’s almost no way that the host will do that.”
“If you’re in a hotel,” continues Chi Anh, “it’s usually not a big issue. But if the person wasn’t staying in a hotel, it’s often the case that the landlord never registered the tenant with the police. And we always have a problem with that paperwork.
In order to go back to the local police, for them to issue a confirmation that ‘this person died in this location’, it’s very time consuming and takes a lot to prove. We would have to get witnesses to confirm the relevant people lived in that address. Otherwise, the Department of Justice will not issue the death certificate, and without that, we cannot wind up the personal belongings, the bank accounts, and any other property or assets.”
“Much less repatriate the body,” says Burke. “And that raises the next question about repatriation of remains. I remember one time, it was the case that they cremated the corpse before the family had actually given their approval.”
“It just takes so long to get the necessary papers to repatriate the body,” explains Chi Anh. “In practice, after the body is kept by the morgue for some time, they will suggest cremating the body, given the difficulty of issuing the papers. It takes a long time and they may not be able to continue storing the body. They will inform the family that they will cremate the body, even without any agreement.”
Executing a Will
In the case of tourists and expats who may not have their next of kin with them here in Vietnam, simple formalities such as obtaining a power of attorney can require family members to fly out in order to sign over responsibility for all the legal formalities to a local with legal expertise in such matters.
With foreigners having now been able to purchase property in Vietnam since July 2015, executing a Vietnamese will here will no doubt become more commonplace, although it’s not something Burke and his team have seen too often as of yet. “If a foreign will needs to be executed in Vietnam,” explains Chi Anh, “it will go through a number of procedures to be recognised and to enable the transfer of assets to the deceased person’s family.”
She adds, however, that under local law, certain distributions are required to be made from your estate, regardless of your requests. “In terms of wills executed in Vietnam, or those taken under Vietnamese law, there are certain mandatory rules to follow. For example, [and the same is the case if there is no will], there are certain people, like the spouse or children under 18 years-old, that will receive a mandatory share of the person’s estate, even if the will doesn’t mention them.”
“Even if you have a will, you can’t say ‘I’m going to give it all to my girlfriend and forget about my wife’,” adds Burke.
With assets and family potentially spread over two countries or more, executing a will could potentially become very complicated as more of us begin to invest in Vietnam. Taking legal advice on how (and where) to prepare your will might be prudent.
Handling a death costs money no matter where it happens. If you happen to die thousands of miles from home, it’s going to cost a lot of money. For those living in or visiting Vietnam without any sort of life or medical insurance, bear in mind that your consulate or embassy is unlikely to foot the bill for your burial, cremation, the shipment of your body or ashes, or for the fees to arrange any of this. The UK consulate’s website, for example, specifically states that their assistance will not stretch to such limits.
Even with the appropriate coverage, insurers may not pay out until the all-important death certificate is released, something that could be delayed for weeks owing to this often neglected matter of residential registration. In any event, understanding what you are and aren’t covered for is vital. Dying while engaging in certain sports or activities may render basic insurance packages void—scuba diving, rock climbing or skiing, for example. Even something as simple (and common) as riding a motorbike without a licence, or a helmet, or with two (or more) drunken passengers behind you as you ‘carefully’ trundle back from Buddha Bar, could land your family back home with a huge bill should you be injured, or worse.
If you happen to die in Vietnam’s remote wilderness, consider that the costs for the search and rescue services, and an eventual helicopter evacuation, could run into the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, not including any medical treatment you received prior to death.
“I’ve seen cases for Americans where the US consulate put up a couple of hundred dollars to help with basic expenses,” says Burke, “but I don’t think that’s a standard policy. They’d just do it in certain circumstances of hardship.”
Death is not something many of us foreigners like to think about, particularly as the cheap beers and cocktails flow, and the non-stop holiday of the expat ‘high life’ pushes many real-life concerns and worries to one side while the going is good. Burke’s final piece of advice about preparing for one’s death is, simply, to avoid it, for as long as possible: “Wear a helmet when driving a motorbike!,” he says. “That’s probably the most common cause of death for foreigners. They get drunk, they drive, they feel a bit more carefree by being here, and they’re not as careful as they ought to be.”
HOW TO PREPARE
• Store the emergency hotline number for your local consulate or embassy in your phone. You may need it one day.
• FV Hospital and Family Medical Practice both have emergency ambulance services. Find out how you can access these in an emergency and add their numbers to your contacts list. In the event of a road traffic accident, a taxi to the hospital may be quicker, so get the address in there too.
• Keep all insurance details somewhere your friends and family could easily find them. Listing the names and numbers of your relatives at home is also a good idea. Don’t assume someone will know your phone’s unlock code.
• Ensure your building manager, landlord or host has registered your residency with the local police. This will save a lot of time and effort should anything happen to you.
• Keep an up-to-date list of your bank accounts (and any other financial interests you may have), plus important internet passwords such as your email and Facebook, in a safe place, ideally with your will. Make sure your next of kin know where this is.
FIRE SERVICE 114
FAMILY MEDICAL PRACTICE EMERGENCY RESPONSE *9999
FV HOSPITAL A&E +84 (0) 8 5411 3500
INTERNATIONAL SOS HOSPITAL +84 (0) 8 3829 8424
FUNERAL DIRECTORS – HADY SERVICES +84 (0) 9 1222 3969 (24-hour)