When I first arrived in Vietnam some years ago I rented a motorbike and drove away from the shop that rented it to me without giving any thought to the Vietnamese laws pertaining to driving privileges. More importantly, the proprietor was not the least bit concerned either.
Over time I learned that my US driver's license did not apply to motorbikes in Vietnam but I could get an automobile license for the duration of the time before my California license expired by simply having some paperwork done, but this did not give me motorbike privileges. For a few more years, I did not give any thought to the implications of this and drove my motorbike with impunity but then a flurry of activity among fellow expats resulted in most of us going through the process of getting (or in some cases, attempting to get) a Vietnamese motorbike license. Part of this was because of rumors that enforcement was about to become a more important issue with the authorities.
Now there are really three parts to this little story: The issue of foreigners, especially tourists, driving motorbikes, the question of the process of getting licensed, and the enforcement of traffic and licensing laws.
When I drove off on my rented bike that first day I gave little thought to the reality that I was literally taking my life and possibly that of others into my very naive hands. My first inkling of this came at the first intersection I came to when I signaled for a right turn. As I proceeded to turn the corner I was confronted by a Vietnamese on his bike coming directly at me at a much higher speed than my own and on my side of the road. Fortunately I was able to swerve around him, shouting an English obscenity as I did so, only to get a dirty look in return. Obviously, in his mind, I was the offender.
Over time, it became clear that Western driving protocols do not apply on the streets of Vietnam. Except at traffic "roundabouts" (and not always then), most Vietnamese bike drivers make left turns by crossing before their turn into the left lane and turning directly into the path of oncoming traffic.
In many cases they proceed in that lane until an opportunity opens in the traffic flow and then cross over into their own lane. In the meantime everyone else in the correct lane must avoid them. Often the offender does not even reduce speed while offending.
Getting a motorbike license to drive legally is a mixed bag. I was able to get mine because a friend had a friend in the police who facilitated the process and I was not required to deal with the written test.
I did have to do the driving test which I passed with flying colors as I'd been driving here for some years by then. Other expats I know paid a local go-between to get one for them. Many still do not have one and no one seems to care much about this. An earlier article in Vietweek probably explains this when it said that most Vietnamese police just do not want to deal with the language problem.
I am also highly suspicious as to how rigorously the brand new car drivers of Vietnam are tested, especially if they are influential. My wife and I recently came upon a new, very expensive Lexus that had driven backwards into a tree and lamp post. We were told no one was hurt but the car and lamp post were both destroyed. The tree will recover.
A very young woman was sitting on a wall behind the car with her head in her hands. Bystanders told us she had just gotten her car and license that week after a period of driving instruction. She had been pulling out of a school driveway into traffic, and had panicked at the number of cars in her path. She had attempted to change gears and accelerate but managed to get into reverse, resulting in the scene we came upon. Of course she had to pay for the destroyed electric pole and I am sure her husband or father will have something to say about the car but it would appear that her skills were not very well established by her driving teacher or the person who tested her.
The expat and tourist must be on the alert to avoid hurting themselves and others as Vietnam catches up with the rest of the driving world.
By Harry Wilson, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the April 6th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
The writer is an American expat who lives in Da Lat