There is a lot of controversy and discussion by travelers on what in fact the Passport policy is in Vietnam. I have encountered travelers that angrily argue red faced with receptionists that the Passport is the property of their government and that a photocopy would have to suffice. The receptionist is simply doing her job and fulfilling the local authority’s requirements.
All hotels are required to register you in a government database for your protection and theirs. It used to be (and still is for some) That the original passport be taken to the local police station to be recorded and then returned to the hotel to be kept on the travelers behalf for the duration of their stay. Nowadays, many hotels are computerized and the information as of 2010 can be entered via an online web site. Many of these hotels are located in larger cities and tourist areas where the local authorities would be overwhelmed by the amount of registrations so the local municipality and police district have adopted the process of the hotel copying your passport, recording the information and submitting the information in bulk. Often your passports will be returned to you after copying. Many of the smaller Guesthouses and B&B will want to retain your passport for assurance that a person will not check out without paying. (It happens more than you think) So…. In most tourist areas you will find that a photocopy of your documents will be enough to satisfy the authority’s requirements BUT……
If you are the type to adventure away from the main tourist areas and see a bit of “Real Vietnam” you will find in many cases that the local wards will still require the original passports be presented to the police for recording purposes The hotel will then be required by the police to keep your passports on hand to be presented whenever they decide to pop by for a late evening inspection to check the occupied rooms against the guests. If for any reason the hotel does not have them on hand, the establishment will be fined the equivalent of 250 USD, and with the inexpensive rates the guesthouses charge, that fine would wipe out a months profits. In areas such as District 1&3 in Saigon, the old quarter in Hanoi along with the tourist areas in cities and locations such as Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, a person may be able to retain their passport and leave a photocopy with the hotel (usually 3 star or better). Non computerized Guesthouses may require passport. Outside tourist areas and in places such as Tuy Hoa, Buon Ma Thuot, Kom Tum, Quy Nhon and other more out of the way places will be required to hold onto your passport….. End of story. The hotel has no say in the matter.
Arguing red faced with a receptionist or pointing at the property of line in your passport makes no difference. Save yourself the frustration and if you want to stay, be prepared to leave your passport with the front desk. Believe me that it is in the best interest of the hotel not to lose your documents. Hotel owners (in my province) were recently forced to attend a mandatory seminar on the security for travelers that included the handling of passports. The authorities take this matter very seriously (so it would seem). Please ignore the people who tell you photocopies are ok….. They are mistaken. There are also those that worry about not having identity cards with them……. No problem, the government knows who and where you are through this same system. As long as you have a bank card, or even your name sewn on your underwear, you can be identified. Most people have something else with them…. ie a credit card, also, if you need to rent a motorcycle, you are probably already in an area where they can return your passport without fear of liability.
There you have it…. Vietnam’s passport game. You want to stay? You got to play.