Accidents lurk around every corner in Vietnam, whether you’re barreling into a motorbike or tripping on uneven sidewalks. If you’re sick of worrying about expensive visits to the hospital then this guide will help you choose the right health insurance plan. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Fred Wissink.

The day after I interviewed a health insurance broker for these tips, I had my first near-fatal motorbike accident. A woman pulled onto the highway and broadsided me, causing our bikes to interlock and both of us to tumble to the ground, while the truck next to us missed my head by centimetres. If that’s not a sign I should get health insurance, I don’t know what is.

For people like me who are used to not having health insurance, the idea of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a plan can sound worse than continuing to take our chances. After all, nothing serious has happened yet. But in a place like Vietnam, it could happen at any time.

So for those who find looking for the right plan too daunting, I’ve spoken to some insurance companies and brokers who suggested keeping these tips in mind:

Get something — anything
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get basic coverage. There are very affordable plans available with local insurance providers like Bao Viet or bigger companies with locally-run offices, like Liberty. They offer them for as cheap as $350 a year. They won’t cover much, but at least it’s something.

“Even if it’s not great, it can keep you alive until you can get money through networks,” says Pascal Ho Ba Dam, the director of insurance broker If Consulting. “You don’t want to shatter your dreams over $350.”

Don’t forget that if you ride a motorbike, you’ll need a valid Vietnamese driving licence in order for your provider to cover you for any accidents.

Consider a broker
Some people are wary of brokers, but in the case of health insurance, they can be invaluable. There are plenty of brokers around, licensed and not, who will steer you towards certain providers so they will get commission. “Lots of these financial advisors [in Vietnam] are basically agents for insurance companies,” says Rob Russell, the general director of the Vietnam office of JLT, a worldwide insurance broker.

But there are also brokers who work with so many providers that they don’t favour one over another. “We’re [JLT] very much independent,” Russell says. “If your insurance policy runs out and you want to change [insurance] companies, it doesn’t matter to us if you renew with the same company, we still get paid.”

It’s also important to find out exactly how you pay for your coverage and how the broker makes money. Most licensed brokers will have clients pay the insurer directly.

An added benefit of having a broker is that it tends to have more leverage against the insurer if the company does try to get out of covering you, something that most individuals would have to hire a lawyer to fight against.

Look international first, then shop around
“Look at an international company first, but if your budget can’t handle it then look locally,” Russell advises. “And don’t just take the first policy you are presented.”

International companies are much more efficient and experienced, and you are more likely to be reimbursed quickly, but they are also much more expensive, usually at least 20 percent more. It also helps that international companies have a worldwide reputation to maintain.

Although the local insurance market has developed and improved quickly, licences for health insurance companies have only been available in Vietnam since 2005. This means that the claims departments at some local companies do not have much international experience. Keep in mind that some international companies with local offices are registered in Vietnam but operate independent of their global branch and may not be up to the same standards as elsewhere.

Dam of IF Consulting says fraud and kickbacks still can be a problem, so be wary when dealing with claims departments.

Think about your future
Where will you be in a year? Do you often travel outside of Vietnam? These may seem like obvious questions, but they are important to ask when choosing the right plan. Some companies will extend coverage to other countries that you don’t live in, but usually for an extra cost. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in a country that isn’t in your zone, consider paying extra so that area is covered. While travelling, you may have to pay upfront for hospital bills, but usually will get reimbursed later on.

Get direct billing
This is a pretty standard practice in most parts of the world, but only recently has it become commonplace here. Hospitals in Vietnam tend to see people as customers rather than patients, Dam says, so direct billing will speed up the treatment process. If you don’t get direct billing make sure you have access to enough cash to convince doctors to start helping you.

Buy in a group
Most insurance companies will offer group discounts, usually with five or more people. If you have a small business, or even a club, then get a group together and approach a provider. While everyone in the group has to get a policy, each person can get one that suits his or her needs.

There is a range of companies in Vietnam and abroad to consider. Here are some popular options worth checking out: AIG, Allianz, April International, Chartis, Bao Viet, Blue Cross, Groupama, Liberty, Lloyds TSB, Skandia, and William Russell.