Boon for Vietnam property market as more overseas cash goes home
Encouraged by an easing of real estate laws and a thriving economy, the Vietnamese diaspora is sending record homebound remittances and adding impetus to a property sector now undergoing a boom after emerging from the doldrums.
House and condominium buys - in cash - will bolster the market recovery just as the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) prepares to tighten criteria on domestic home loans to avoid a repeat of a painful 2011 collapse that left $6 billion of unsold properties and banks crippled by bad debt.
Experts say a healthier economy in the United States, where many of the diaspora live, and Vietnam's improving business prospects are encouraging people to send money to their old country.
Procurement manager Vu Ngoc Mai settled in Europe after studying in the Netherlands 18 years ago and said she trawls the internet daily in search of bargain property investments.
She sent cash to Vietnam in 2012 to build a small block of apartments in Hanoi, which her family rents out.
"I'm looking to buy a condominium to lease to foreigners," said Mai, now a Netherlands citizen, who works for a telecoms equipment firm in Belgium.
"It'll be my savings for a later stage, when I return."
SBV expects remittances to hit a record $14 billion this year, and to be equivalent to 6.4 percent of gross domestic product.
Up 15 percent from 2015, Vietnam's remittance growth would eclipse the 4 percent increase expected by the Philippines, Southeast Asia's top remittance receiver as a share of GDP.
The real value of remittances could be far higher than the SBV estimates, as the National Financial Supervisory Commission reckons an additional $2.7 billion may have been sent home last year via unofficial channels.
Not just Viet kieu
These inflows are fuelling an economy that grew 6.7 percent last year, its fastest pace since 2008.
There are many people like Mai. Vietnam's diaspora numbers about five million, known as "Viet Kieu", or overseas Vietnamese.
They include Vietnamese who emigrated or work abroad in places like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, or those who fled as "boat people" around the time of the Vietnam War, who - including their children - are citizens of numerous Western countries. The United States had 1.5 million citizens of Vietnamese origin according to a 2010 census.
A man walks past the State Bank of Vietnam in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters
Seventy percent of remitted cash went into production and businesses, lured by solid consumer spending from rising household incomes and middle class growth, making remittances "a vital source of funding for Vietnam's economy," according to HSBC economist Izumi Devalier.
According to SBV, a fifth of cash sent to the country last year went into real estate. That is supporting property prices, according to Le Hoang Chau, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Real Estate Association, which has warned of potential instability if the SBV gets strict on home loans.
After the SBV slashed dollar deposit rates to zero in December, more and more foreign cash, official or unofficial, is going into property.
Prices have recovered sharply to near pre-crisis levels.
By the end of 2015, the price for an average high-end apartment in the southern commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City had risen 21 percent to fetch $1,949 per square meter, while the price in the capital Hanoi rose nearly 10 percent to $1,592, according to global property adviser CBRE.
"When the market started to pick up in 2014, lots of families were using a mortgage or a home loan. We see less and less of that now which strongly suggests that the money is coming from (overseas) families in cash," said Marc Townsend, managing director of CBRE Vietnam.
New legislation has also helped, easing restrictions on ownership by foreign citizens, with Japanese, South Korean and Singaporean investors keen to buy, as well as Viet Kieu of various nationalities.
The number of successful property transactions recorded in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - once called Saigon and the capital of the former South Vietnam until 1975 - rose 75 percent from 2014 to total 38,050 last year, according to the Construction Ministry.
In Macau, Trang, a Vietnamese woman working there who gave only her first name, is sending money home to her brother. She wants it invested in business and property.
"Stashing cash under mattress is now very old fashioned," she said. "The young generation won't do that anymore."