Expatriates who violate traffic laws in Vietnam are let off the hook by the language barrier or small bribes
Motorists wait at a traffic junction in Hanoi. Many expats say they avoid traffic tickets by pretending not to speak English or by paying small bribes.
The traffic officer just waved Alex on after pulling him over for speeding on Ho Chi Minh City's Hung Vuong Street.
"When I got off the bike, the police officer saw that I was a foreigner and told me to continue," said the British expat.
Many foreigners like Alex do not fear being pulled over thanks to situations like these. Often they pretend not to speak Vietnamese or English, knowing that traffic police do not have any mechanism to deal with such a situation. Foreigners also know that simply dealing with paperwork for foreigners is a hassle many police would rather do without.
Thus, Alex said he has seen people "getting away with almost everything on the streets. If someone is stopped, the maximum punishment they will get is a VND200,000 (US$9.6) fine."
But this kind of fine is often taken unofficially and off the books, in lieu of impounding the violator's vehicle as per official protocol.
A Malaysian expat who has been in HCMC for three years said he began riding a motorcycle nearly two years ago and has been stopped three times by the police.
"I have never paid any money, I just remove the keys and look at them until the police lose interest," he said.
A Singaporean expat in HCMC, who also wished to remain anonymous, also said the city traffic police do not want to deal with foreigners due to the language barrier.
"As long as you have the ownership papers the traffic police here don't really want to deal with foreigners if you are unlucky enough to be stopped by one. It only costs VND50,000 and they let you go scot-free."
"I have friends who have been stopped many times in District 1 and they have been fined or asked for donations to the police funds," he said.
In an interview with Vietweek last year, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Vo Van Van of the HCMC Police Department said traffic police have officially fined hundreds of foreigners for violating traffic laws in HCMC over the past few years.
"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, adding that the most common violations among foreigners include driving in the wrong lane, no helmet and no driver's license.
But a source told Vietweek that the foreign languages taskforce actually consists of only two police officers. At least 50,000 foreigners are living and working in HCMC, according to the Immigration Department,
"In some cases, violators fail to present the motorbike's registration and even abandoned their bikes fearing trouble. 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," he said.
Van admitted that language barrier remains a problem and some violators abused the situation by pretending not to be able to speak English in the hope of being ignored.
But he still argued that police handle traffic violations committed by foreigners and locals in the exact same way.
Indeed, both foreigners and locals are able to avoid hefty traffic fines by paying small bribes.
"The amount of "˜support' to be rendered depends on your violation, usually half of the official fine, or a third if you can plea hardship," said an American expat who wanted to remain unnamed.
For many violations, police can legally impound your bike or license and the fines and fees to reclaim the properties far exceed the small bribes asked for on the spot.
At a recent meeting held by the city People's Council, the municipal legislature, Major General Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the city's police department, said that there was corruption among traffic police and his department would punish any wrongdoing strictly.
He said the municipal police department will build a portal to receive people's complaints about corrupt traffic officers. Other undercover measures will also be used to detect and handle corruption, he added.