The passion of Vietnamese Driver's License

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Our man on the plastic stool picks up the daunting gauntlet of a driving test in Vietnam and lives to tell the tale

A German woman practices driving in a figure eight at the course maintained by the Agency for Granting Driver's Licenses in Tan Phu District. Foreigners in Vietnam are only required to drive in a figure eight and make a series of simple turns in order to obtain a driver's license for life. The author failed this test twice.

Two months ago, I decided to seize a particularly pretty day by plugging music into my ears and riding up the Saigon River toward my favorite bar. 

Just before I opened up my throttle on Nguyen Huu Canh a traffic policeman waved me into a pile of poor bastards.

I had been driving without a license for three years and had come to think of myself as something of a legal barracuda"”difficult to catch and poor tasting once caught.

Keep calm, I thought as I pulled the ear buds out of my head. Just pretend you don't speak any Vietnamese.

"License and registration," the officer said in perfect English.

Without thinking, I handed him my registration card and lied: "I left my driver's license at home."

He shrugged. "Go home and get it," he said. "But leave your bike here."

There was nothing left but to come clean.

"I don't have a license."

The officer heaved a quick, triumphant sigh and commenced with the charges. "You cannot listen to music and drive in Vietnam," he said and then tapped my cockeyed right turn signal. "Your light is broken. And you have no license."

I sank in my seat awaiting the verdict.


"You must change to a Vietnam license and pay US$200. We will keep your bike for a month."

In a final act of desperation, I handed him my business card. Somehow, the officer's deep respect for the fourth estate moved him to let me off without paying a cent.

"Get Vietnam license," he muttered as I sat back on my bike.

"I will Officer," I replied sincerely. "But before I go, let me just say that your English is exquisite."

"No," he said.

"Yes," I insisted. "It's really, really exquisite."

And then he turned beet red and grinned at the ground. I would have to keep my promise to this man.

Where to begin

I began the process by downloading an official application form off of a website run by an evangelical university professor with a terrible bike repair shop in District 7.

The professor had done a bad job of fixing my turn signal, but he had provided the English-speaking world with a thorough list of the things we'd need to obtain a driver's license.

Step one involved having some lucky duck at the District 1 People's Committee translate my California driver's license for roughly $1 per word.  At the FV hospital, I spent $80 on a battery of tests to prove my fitness for the road.

At the end of it all, I wasted a morning and $50 at the US Consulate to get a final stamp on my form.

Paperwork completed, I strolled into the dark office of the Agency for Granting Driving Licenses at 1 p.m., when everyone was still in the throes of their sacred two-hour lunch nap.

When my favorite person in the world woke up, she decided to make a phone call.

I stood staring at her. After a few minutes I pulled a long, smelly sandwich out of my bag and began devouring it, inches from her face. For the next twenty minutes, I ate while she cooed and giggled into her telephone.

When she finished talking, she flipped through my application and handed me a series of forms that I couldn't read. To preempt all of my stupid questions, she handed me an Indian guy's completed application to copy.

After filling everything out, she gestured to the dark glass door of the Agency's doctor"”who may or may not exist.

I pressed my health check form from FV Hospital in her direction, causing her to scoff.

"When will he be here?" I asked.

She pointed to a series of empty plastic benches.

"Look," I said pushing the FV form back to her. "It even has a stamp on it!"

She sneered and smiled and sneered again.  She pushed the FV form aside and handed me an indecipherable hand-drawn map and a diagram of the testing course: a figure eight followed by some zigging and zagging.

She produced a calendar and dropped a finger on a date"”two Sundays away.

"Can I take the test another day?" I asked.

"No," she snapped.

The big day

The rain cleared just as I arrived at the agency's testing center in Tan Phu District.

Several long-suffering Vietnamese girlfriends were drying off their clueless American boyfriends while German couples dutifully ran through the course.

I found my favorite person, grumpily administering a written exam to hundreds of Vietnamese teenagers.

"Don't worry," she said. "Just stay in third gear and keep going; it's impossible to fail."

The test did, indeed, seem easier than taking an eye exam. Perhaps it would be the easiest test I had taken in my life.

I spent some time giggling at the Germans. Then, out of boredom, I borrowed a bike from a visiting Vietnamese Australian and carefully looped my way through the course.

"Wow," he said. "You're even better at this than me."

Yes, I was.

As a panel of judges emerged from the building and began calling foreigners out to take the test a pathetic desire to achieve the best score in the history of the Agency for Granting Driver's Licenses crept into my heart.

I mounted a red plastic Wave and ground it from third into start"”weaving carefully through the lines.

I'm the best they've ever seen, I thought, as I finished the eight and commenced the zigging. I'll go down in history as the best

"Calvin Godfrey," a disembodied voice cried over the loudspeaker before I could finish zagging.

Back at the gate, an impish young administrator handed me my passport.

"You went the wrong way," he said. "You failed."

My ego imploded.

"Can I take it again?" I squeaked.

"No," he said with relish.

One last shot

I spent the rest of the weekend replaying my spectacular failure over and over again in my head. No one had really explained to me what I'd done wrong. Something about looping when I should have turned.

I could take the test againmy favorite person in the world had arranged everything so that I only had to pay a small re-registration fee for my second shot.

The following weekend, I drove toward my destiny through a terrible storm. Wind tore through my plastic poncho and allowed sheets off rain to seep into my bones. When I could no longer see the road, I pulled over and spent a good 15 minutes cowering under a banyan tree.

I arrived at the testing center to discover that two giant trees had fallen"”one into the street and one through the front fence.

In the parking lot, I was accosted by a big blue-eyed butterball named Jerry, whom I came to think of as the Ghost of Expats Present.

Jerry had only arrived three weeks ago from Australia, where he had worked in computers. Now he was an English teacher.

"Why are you here?" he asked.

"I don't know," I muttered. I really didn't. My spectacular failure had plunged me through the thin existential ice I skate on out here.

"Well," he said, pulling his girlfriend"”a spectacularly tiny woman in elegant clothes"”into his armpit. "I've been traveling here for years. I had a reason to stay here but then she dumped me. Now I've got a new reason, isn't that right honey?"

I turned on my heels and headed to the edge of the dreaded figure eight. Minutes later, the judges appeared and immediately called out Jerry and my name.

We both failed.

Jerry was granted another chance instantly. I had to beg.

"Go get a coffee," the hateful, English-speaking test administrator spat. "Just watch and make sure you know what you have to do."

He had broken me. I sat silently drinking coffee and gazing out at the foreign drivers as Jerry rattled on and on about hourly wages, the CELTA and the rule of law.

"You know, if I fail again I'm just going to buy a license for a million dong," he said. "You don't even have to take a test or anything. You pay when you pick it up."

I tried to exit my body and visualize my success. I began to feel every shift of my weight"”every loop and turn.

Most of the teenagers had finished their tests and streamed out of the testing center to watch. If I failed, I decided, I would lay down on the course and demand that they drive over me until I was dead.

I don't remember successfully completing the test. All I can remember is my favorite person in the world running up to me and slapping me on the arm.

"You passed," she said as she pushed me toward the testing center to sign a final form. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jerry wobbling out onto the course, to the amazement of all of the Vietnamese test takers.

From inside the building, I could hear the crowd ooh and ahh and finally explode into a terrible laughter.

Jerry wandered in out of the rain.

"Did you fall over?" I asked.

"Almost," he said.

I launched into a long confession about the importance of this test and the need for all of us to be broken down into a puddle of desperate goo and built back up into licensed drivers. Once he could make the figure eight and successfully zig and zag Jerry would be a better man"”a complete human being.

"Nah," Jerry said with a shrug. "I'm just gonna buy one."

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