Map – check, pimped up Honda Cub – check, Hello Kitty helmet with ponytail hole – check, drivers license… So you’re going to cruise the coast from Saigon to Hanoi, hoof it up the Ho Chi Minh Trail or challenge your road skills on the city streets. You’ve splashed out on the right insurance, but will you be covered without the appropriate papers? Computer says no.
Getting your international drivers license converted to a Vietnamese one is not that difficult (though it can be tedious), especially if you are starting your escapade in one of the big cities. The first thing you need to do is take your home country drivers license down to your embassy and get it translated into English (it appears that you need only a provisional or full drivers license to get a motorbike license).
Then, or if it already is, get yourself down to the People’s Committee building with your license (and embassy translation if needed), passport, visa and six passport photos for translation and notarisation (red stamping). You’ll need to leave these with them, so take copies as a back up. When you pick them up you’ll need to take the notarised and translated documents to another office; ask them to write down the address for you.
Head straight to the counter at the next office, where you will be advised whether you can apply for your license directly or you will need to take a drivers test for both. You will (you guessed it) have to go to another office, your final hurdle before you get your shiny new license which takes – and this is an excuse for a little side trip — up to 10 days.
If you have to do your test you will be given a date on which you will need to arrive at the same office at 08:00 to be put through a short figure of eight and obstacle course usually involving a few speed bumps and a corner, without stalling or putting your feet down. As for the written test, most foreigners are not expected to complete this as it is in Vietnamese; if you do, then you’ll usually be provided with a translator who will tell you which boxes to tick for a pass. You pick your license up approximately 10 days afterwards. The cost of all the above varies but in January 2013 in Da Nang the cost was $10. The validity should be the same as your original license.
The above is how it should work, however we are in Vietnam and rules are subject to change and vary from city to city. [Editor’s note: Our Hanoi correspondent found the process more time consuming and was also asked to undergo a health check; Saigon may also be more complicated.]
If you don’t have 10 days spare to hang around and collect your license and you are in either Hanoi or Saigon, ask at your guesthouse for someone to take you to the Department of Traffic (So Giao Thong) to find out about the procedure, and whether there may be any ways to speed up the process. Sometimes it is possible to pay a ‘tourist price’, a few dollars more, to speed things up considerably.
In smaller provinces it’s quite unlikely that there will be an official procedure for obtaining a Vietnamese drivers license, so do stick to the big cities where this has been done before. When dealing with officials and procedures in Vietnam always approach each stage with a smile and patience (even if your patience has been tried to the point of grabbing one of those red rubber stamps and throwing it at something). Try to look at least a little bit smart and be respectful – if you are pleasant to deal with, people are more inclined to go out of their way to help you.
Remember that to drive a motorbike or car legally in Vietnam you need a Vietnamese license — international licenses are not valid here. Many people have driven through the entire country without ever being asked to provide one, but laws change and sometimes there are government clampdowns.
Finally, if you really want to drive legally in Vietnam but don’t want to go through the application process, it’s legal to drive a motorbike that is under 50cc’s without a license. Although you may baulk at the idea of such little power, my most reliable and fun bike is a 50cc Honda Super Cub, with two gears and a top speed of 75kph. It may struggle with steep mountainous climbs but if it breaks down in the middle of nowhere, there is always someone nearby who knows how to fix it.