What are your legal lease rights?

Dear Hadrien,

In January, I agreed with my landlord to sign a one-month lease agreement (uncertain of my plans at that time) and that I could leave at any time if I gave him a week’s notice. Now that I actually want to move out of the apartment, the landlord is starting to cause trouble for me. He doesn’t want to return my deposit unless I give him a month’s notice, and is also asking me to pay taxes for one year of rent! Since January, I have not signed any other lease agreement with him, but he seems to base his claims on some papers that he helped me fill out for my temporary residence registration. Can he just do that and what are my legal rights?

The key to understanding and hopefully resolving your current situation has to do with your relationship with your landlord, as a result of the joint interpretation of the contractual provisions under the initial one-month lease agreement that you signed in January, the oral agreement on the extension of the term, and the legal provisions of Vietnamese law governing the extension of lease agreements in respect of residential houses and apartments.

Before entering into the details of the matter, I would like to warn you and our dear readers that as in many legal systems around the world, civil parties in Vietnam enjoy a great amount of freedom in determining the conditions of their relationship as provided under the contract that will bind them.

Consequently, one should always be prudent when becoming a party to a contract, even if that contract seems to be as trivial as a short-term lease agreement. This seems obvious but it is worth reiterating.

Without being able to actually review the contract that you signed, I unfortunately cannot provide any definitive advice on your specific legal position, but I can share some thoughts with you in more general terms.

Based on the description of the facts that you gave in your question, I understand that you have signed a lease agreement for a period of one month without agreeing in writing on any automatic extension of the term. On the basis of that written agreement, at the end of the term of the contract (i.e. after a month as from the moment the lease agreement became effective, which should be the date when you moved in) your contractual relationship with the landlord for the lease of your apartment should have terminated automatically and, as a consequence, you should have moved out of the apartment and your landlord should have reimbursed you the deposit that you paid. However, I understand that there was an oral understanding with your landlord that you would stay longer than a month, without any written amendment to the lease agreement to reflect this.

The Vietnamese Civil Code states that any agreement for the lease of residential houses and apartments must be made in writing. Failure to do so makes such an agreement void and invalid. One consequence of such principle is that the term of a lease agreement may only be automatically extended if there is a provision to that effect in the written lease agreement.

Therefore, your landlord may not validly claim that you are bound by a verbal agreement on the conditions of the extension of the term of the contract and he likewise cannot argue that your initial agreement has been automatically extended for one year or longer or that the papers that you filled out for your temporary residence would serve as a new lease agreement.

The same applies to his claim that you would be liable to pay any taxes for a period of one year. Paying income tax as a lessor of a residential apartment is your landlord’s own responsibility and without being able to provide evidence of your written agreement to the contrary, his claim is groundless.

Being aware of your rights to use them as leverage in your negotiations is surely one helpful thing, efficiently enforcing those rights before a civil court is unfortunately something very different. Starting court proceedings in Vietnam for a case like yours is probably not worth your time and money.

I would suggest you discuss the situation tactfully with your landlord once more on the basis of the clarifications of your legal position as set out above, and trying to find a mutually acceptable solution. Making some concessions, for example, by agreeing to apply a one month notice before moving out of your apartment in order for the landlord to have sufficient time to find a new lessee, could help you reach a compromise. If you do come to an agreement with your landlord, make sure to execute a new detailed contract that reflects the full extent of the agreed terms and conditions of the lease.

And in the future, remember to always avoid half written, half verbal agreements. Everything should be inked!

Every month, Hadrien and Marijn answer legal questions from Oi readers. If you have any legal questions you want answered, send them to [email protected]

A member of the Paris Bar, Hadrien Wolff has been practicing law in Vietnam for more than seven years, currently as a partner of Audier & Partners based at its HCMC office. Having gained extensive legal experience in the Netherlands and Cambodia, Marijn Sprokkereef is an associate at the Hanoi office of the same firm. Audier & Partners is an international law firm with presence in Vietnam, Myanmar and Mongolia, providing advice to foreign investors on a broad range of legal issues. 

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