Mar 29 2012
Traffic in HCMC is ridiculous: it’s noisy, congested and totally awesome to navigate. To look at the traffic from the outside it would most certainly seem chaotic; people driving on the sidewalk, almost no regard for traffic lights, people swerving around people at whatever speed they desire. It’s so crazy that most people would be surprised to learn there are actually traffic laws that are actually enforced.
For years Western visitors to Saigon, and the rest of the country for the matter, have enjoyed an even further escape from the lightly enforced laws of the road; the few police on the street have been reluctant to pull foreigners over. But the times, they are a-changing. There are now more police on the road than ever and more who speak English. So if you decide to join the madness and rent a bike, here are some tips if you are unlucky enough to be stopped by the iron hand of the law.
First, know what you can be pulled over for. The fewer rules you break, the less likely you will be harassed. Some things are obvious: not wearing a helmet will get you stopped, speeding is against the rules and riding with more than two people will get an officer’s attention.
Some traffic laws are lesser known: the left lane is reserved for cars, so if you enter it with a bike you can be stopped; excessive honking is actually against the rules; and having your headlights on during the day is a stoppable offense. Also, remember the fact that if you don’t have a Vietnamese drivers’ license then you are also breaking the law; your international permit is effectively worthless in the country. Sometimes police officers will just pull you over for being a Westerner, banking on the 99% chance that you won’t have the proper documentation.
If you do get stopped — usually by an officer who will walk into the middle of the street and point at you — remember to play it cool, follow directions and try to stay positive.
Most of the time this is how it goes down. The police here are notorious for using Western tourists to line their own pockets; generally after they stop you and inform you of your infraction they may simply write an amount on a piece of paper and demand that you pay it in cash on the spot. In my experience this number has been 500,000 VND, which compared to a fine in the Western world is pretty low.
This number is negotiable. I learned this the first time I got pulled over, when the officer wrote 500,000 VND on the ticket but I only had 200,000 VND in my wallet. I showed him the situation, he took the bill, and I drove away. The second time I was stopped, he wrote 500,000 VND, I simply gave him 200,000 VND, and he let me go. My tip is to not drive with 500,000 VND bills in my easily accessible wallet. Keep your big bills somewhere else, like in your backpack or your motorbike seat, and drive with smaller stuff. An officer will usually always accept 200,000 VND. If they insist on more you can either give it to them or have your bike confiscated for a month, which will be quite the hassle.
If you get pulled over, pay the fine and move on with life; it’s not a crazy amount of money — and besides, it’s quite likely that you probably were breaking the law.
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