A group of motorbike rental shops appear be advising their foreign customers to practice driving on the sidewalks of Pham Ngu Lao Street, a neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City known as the "Westerner's zone" or backpacker's area.
In August of last year, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism issued a directive urging provincial authorities to crack down on businesses that rent motorbikes to unlicensed foreign drivers.
Some provinces, at the time, seemed eager for the opportunity, though the directive appears to have fallen on deaf ears in Pham Ngu Lao.
The dangerous and illegal practice runs began after a recent spate of fatal traffic accidents involving foreign drivers -- presumably in the interests of safety.
“These ‘Westerners’ often drive like they're flying after just a couple hours of practice. I have to avoid them, for fear of the way they drive,” said Nam, a 60-year-old xe om (motorbike taxi) driver in Pham Ngu Lao.
“I often end up seeing them come back with hands and feet covered in bandages,” he said, adding that he believed the injuries to be the result of traffic accidents.
Many motorbike rental services confirmed that they had told their customers to practice driving on the wide sidewalk of September 23 Park before heading out into the city and nearby localities.
On October 30, two foreigners were spotted driving two motorbikes on the park sidewalk.
One young man, driving a Honda Win, repeatedly stalled the engine while switching gears. He kept a constant eye on the transmission pedal while driving.
Later that morning, more foreigners took their rented bikes across Pham Ngu Lao Street to the unofficial training course.
Nam, the xe om driver, claimed to have seen these unofficial "students" hit pedestrians during their unregulated "practice sessions."
“A week ago, a foreigner suddenly rushed his motorbike across the street and into a café. He sustained serious injuries but luckily no passers-by were injured,” he said.
Thanh, a resident of the city's downtown, said he has seen many foreigners driving dangerously.
“I don’t think they have a driver's license. They are driving even more dangerously than many reckless locals,” he said.
According to the HCMC traffic police department, the number of foreigners visiting, living and working in the city has increased in the past several years and the number of traffic violations has kept pace with that trend.
The agency's English-speaking squad fines hundreds of drivers a year, particularly those driving without a license or in the automobile lane, a police source said.
A foreigner driving a motorbike without the required helmet in Vietnam. Photo: Duc Tien
But that's hardly the worst of it.
The agency has recorded four fatal traffic accidents involving foreigners this year.
The accidents claimed the lives of four drivers and left seven others injured. The foreigners in three of the cases were found to have been driving in the wrong lane.
In a recent case, South African Chani Cawood died on the spot after her motorbike crashed into a truck in downtown HCMC on September 28.
The 24-year-old woman, who was driving on Ton Duc Thang Street in District 1 at nearly 1 am, reportedly crashed head-on into the truck. Witnesses said the truck ran over body and her motorbike, killing her on the spot.
Earlier on September 21, Brazilian American Otavio Fleury also died at the corner of Dinh Tien Hoang and Dien Bien Phu streets in District 3 after he lost control of his 250cc motorbike.
The bike jumped up onto a sidewalk and sent him flying into the wall of a Lotteria restaurant.
Police say he was driving too fast and was killed on impact.
It is unclear if Cawood and Fleury were properly licensed or not.
According to the HCMC Traffic Police Division, most foreign expats and tourists respect the Traffic Law in Vietnam.
“Only a small proportion violate the law and we treat them with the same measures we apply to locals,” said an agency official who asked to remain anonymous.
The city's transport department issued 793 new driver's licenses and renewed 5,000 others for foreigners so far this year.
He said that it is illegal for relevant services to lease out motorbikes to people who do not have a driver's license.
“But in reality, many services ignored the regulation for profit,” he said.