Expats play dumb

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  A foreigner drives without a helmet down a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Foreigners in HCMC say they exploit the limits of police language skills to make quick getaways. Police say they're not buying it.

RJ. an American teacher living Ho Chi Minh City, used to be pulled over by traffic police almost every weekend for driving in the wrong lane.

While fighting District 7 traffic on his way to work, RJ cut corners. When he saw the flash of the policeman's baton, he would ride his bike onto the sidewalk and wait. The minute the cops recognized he was a foreigner, however, the cops always just waved him on without a word.

This charade played out the same way, again and again until RJ finally met the wrong cop.

On the day in question, RJ didn't even bother pulling his bike up onto the sidewalk, instead, he waited to be dismissed by the side of the road.

A young policeman angrily signaled for RJ to drive up onto the sidewalk for an interrogation.

"Then they proceeded to make me wait at least ten minutes before even approaching me on my bike," he said. "The boss came over and tested my knowledge of Vietnamese. Failing to successfully communicate with me, he turned his back and walked away."

"Then his subordinate approached me, brought me to the side of the road and pointed to the cars-only lane and said "˜oto, oto' (car)," RJ said. "Then he pointed to the motorbike lane and said "˜xe, xe' (motorbike). Then he looked up at me, smiled and asked "˜ok?'"

RJ's experience is reflective of a larger game of cat-and-mouse. Thanh Nien Weekly spoke to a dozen foreigners who extolled the virtues of remaining incommunicado in the realm of Vietnamese traffic law. The language barrier, they said, often prevents traffic police from stopping and fining foreigners.

One American driver told a Thanh Nien Weekly reporter that he had been returning from a movie with his girlfriend on the back of his motorbike, when the police attempted to flag him down.

He just kept driving. "Always keep going," he advised foreign riders.

The errant American was somewhat alarmed, he said, when a motorbike patrolman gave chase and began tapping his girlfriend on the back.

"Honey," she pleaded nervously.

But he just kept driving. Eventually, the frustrated officer gave up.

Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Vo Van Van, vice head of the HCMC Traffic Police Division, said police have fined a total of about 600 foreigners for violating traffic law since 2008 in HCMC.

"A large number of foreigners visit, live and work here. We have set up a taskforce that is able to speak foreign languages to handle violations of traffic law by foreigners," he said.

A police source told Thanh Nien Weekly that this taskforce consists of two police officers.

Lt. Col. Van said the most common violations among foreigners include driving in the wrong lane, no helmet and no driver's license.

"In some cases, violators failed to present the motorbike's registration and even abandoned their bikes fearing trouble," Lt. Col. Van said. "But traffic police are not allowed to keep a driver's passport. They can confiscate other papers issued by Vietnamese agencies like visas, residence registrations or the motorbike of the violator to ensure that the fines are enforced."

Lt. Col. Van said that police handle traffic violations committed by foreigners and locals in the exact same way.

"But language is a problem," Lt. Col. Van said. "Some abuse the situation and pretend not to be able to speak English in the hope of being ignored."

Paul Finnis, director of the Saigon Children's Charity in HCMC, rejected the notion that many urban expats disregard the traffic laws because of a lack of English language skills among traffic policemen.

"I don't think this is the case and I don't see a lot of evidence of expat people disregarding the law either," Finnis said. "The only example might be those expats who don't have a Vietnamese driver's license, for instance, or who don't register their motorbike.

"This might be because it is difficult for them to understand how to go about doing so. I know that I was lucky enough to get a lot of help from a Vietnamese friend with this," he said.

To obtain a Vietnamese driver's license:

"¢ Applicants must be at least 18 years of age

"¢ Vietnamese visa valid for at least three months

"¢ Documentation: application form stamped at one of these offices: embassy, consulate, government office, private company and representative office

"¢ A photocopy of passport

"¢ A photocopy of valid visa or permanent residence card

"¢ 8 photos (3 centimeters x 4 centimeters)

"¢ A valid medical certificate

"¢ Fees: VND170,000

Certified documents will be submitted at the Department of Transport Further information available (in English) at http://sgtvt.hochiminhcity.gov.vn/web/tintuc/default.aspx?cat_id=592#content

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