No more free rides for foreigners in Vietnam

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Two foreigners being pulled over by the traffic police on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in the popular tourist destination of Mui Ne. The recent ban in tourist areas on renting motorbikes to foreigners without local driver's licenses has renewed the call to make it easier for them to drive legally. PHOTO: QUE HA

As several provinces have banned renting motorbikes to foreigners without local driver's licenses, people are once again calling on Vietnam to make it easier for them to drive legally

During his two-week stay in Nha Trang last November, Gololobov Andrey wanted to travel around the coastal town by motorbike.

Despite not having a Vietnamese driver's license, the 42-year-old Russian tourist had no problem renting a motorbike.

But Andrey died when he lost control of the bike and collided with a wall on Tran Phu Street after crashing into the plastic stools outside a café. Witnesses said he was traveling at around a hundred kilometers an hour double the speed limit.

Following a rash of accidents involving foreigners nationwide, authorities in Khanh Hoa Province (home to Nha Trang) have forbidden local shops from renting motorbikes to foreigners without Vietnamese driver's licenses.

The decision was made following a recent directive handed down by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT).

Meanwhile, the traffic police in several tourist areas like Mui Ne and Phu Quoc Island too are cracking down on foreign drivers.

The move aims to protect foreigners in Vietnam, where roughly 30 people die from traffic accidents every day.

In the first half of this year, more than 5,500 traffic accidents nationwide killed 4,913 people and injured 3,465 others, an increase of 193 cases and 255 fatalities over last year.

Enforcing the Traffic Law for foreign drivers, however, is controversial, with experts and insiders concerned that it will negatively impact tourism and frustrate the expat community, which has long been critical of how difficult it is to obtain a Vietnamese driver's license.

According to the VNAT directive issued on August 21, foreign tourists renting motorbikes has become more common, and the demand has created a bustling market of motorbike rental shops in tourist destinations and big cities.

"Hiring a motorbike is considered an adventurous and interesting way to tour the country, but driving amid Vietnam's complicated traffic poses serious risks," according to the directive.

At a recent consular meeting in Moscow on July 9, Russian representatives urged their Vietnamese counterparts not to let Russian tourists rent motorbikes if they do not have local driver's licenses.

Foreign privilege

Typically, traffic police in Vietnam are reluctant to pull over foreigners due to language barriers, allowing many violators to get away scot-free.

Captain Truong Quang Phuoc of Ho Chi Minh City's Thu Duc District said the number of foreigners violating the Traffic Law and causing accidents is on the rise of late.

"The most common violation is drinking and driving. Other violations include not wearing a helmet and carrying too many passengers," he said.

Alex, a British expat living in HCMC, explained what happened when he was pulled over: "When I got off the bike, the police officer saw that I was a foreigner and told me to continue."

In many cases, foreign drivers found to be at fault in fatal accidents receive far more lenient punishment than locals.

Taiwanese expat Chen Chang Hao was convicted of "violating regulations on controlling road means of transport" for driving on the wrong side of the road and crashing into a local man in Binh Duong Province, killing him, in May 2012.

Hao was eligible to receive up to three years in prison, in addition to paying a fine of up to VND50 million. However, on August 14, the HCMC People's Court decided to fine him just VND30 million (US$1,410), sparing him jail time or even probation.

In 2011, the same court expelled Makhov Vladimir Vladimirovich from Vietnam for traffic violations that caused the death of a local man.

The court said Vladimirovich was taking his wife from the Thuy Si Resort in Phan Thiet Town in the central province of Binh Thuan to Mui Ne Town by car, although he did not have a Vietnamese driver's license. On his way, he crashed into a street vendor, who later succumbed to critical injuries.

Tough talk

Although there are no official nationwide statistics, several localities have reported an increase in traffic accidents caused by foreigners. They had already taken measures to tackle the issue before the recent VNAT directive.

In May, Binh Thuan authorities promised to clamp down on shops that rent motorbikes to foreigners without driver's licenses following 20 road accidents involving tourists in Mui Ne during the previous three months.

Lieutenant Colonel Dang Tran Duong, chief of Phan Thiet's traffic police, said the increasing number of foreign tourists driving on local roads constitutes a threat to public safety.

At a meeting on traffic safety in August, Bui Tuyet Minh, director of Kien Giang Police Department also warned about the increase of foreigners driving recklessly on Phu Quoc Island, which is a UNESCO-recognized World Biosphere Reserve and one of Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations.

"Local authorities in Phu Quoc will not hesitate to pull over foreign drivers in order to avoid regretful cases," she said, adding that common violations include driving in the wrong lane and drunk driving.

Unfeasible requirements

Meanwhile, many people said that in addition to cracking down on foreigners without driver's licenses and the shops that rent motorbikes to them, relevant authorities should simplify the procedures for them to drive legally.

According to regulations, only foreigners who have lived in Vietnam for at least three months can apply for a driver's license. Since there is no test available in English or any other foreign language, applicants must be relatively fluent in Vietnamese.

Nguyen Van Dung, head of Nha Trang's traffic police, said most foreigners to rent motorbikes are tourists who are in Vietnam for a less than a month and therefore cannot satisfy the three-month residency requirement.

Nguyen Van Dan, deputy director of the Khanh Hoa Department of Transport, said the language barrier is the biggest problem.

Local media reports on the ban against renting motorbikes to foreigners without driver's licenses have attracted a number of comments online.

Paul Simos, who has written a book he sells online that instructs foreigners in Vietnam how to obtain a local driver's license, said there should be a quick practical test for the issuance of short term licenses.

"This way they will be in the system and legal," he said.

"Why is it so easy to rent a motorbike without a license? Enforcement should begin with the motorbike rental shops," wrote another netizen.

Pham Huu Nam said it is necessary to enforce the Traffic Law thoroughly for both local and foreign drivers.

"However, there should be easier requirements to allow foreigners to obtain a local license," he said, adding that the driver's license exam in Vietnam should be available in the languages commonly spoken by tourists.

However, Melvyn Jones, who said he visits Vietnam every year, pointed out that if foreigners were to obtain Vietnamese driver's licenses, it would not reduce the amount of accidents.

"Both Vietnamese and tourists can drive like lunatics. What is needed is more training and law enforcement."

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