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Vietnam Driving Guide 2020

Vietnam is one of the world's most beautiful countries, with its diverse landscape and busy cities. Explore every corner of it to your heart's content with an International Driving Permit.

Lisa Brown

February 10, 2020

INTRODUCTION

Vietnam, officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a country of nearly 99 million people with an exciting past. It is a country in which humanity, harmony, family, and community are highly valued. It was conquered by France in 1858 but declared its independence and then split into North and South Vietnam in 1954. After a war with the United States and the withdrawal of French and U.S. troops, North Vietnam took over South Vietnam. The economy has opened up since the institution of the “doi moi” policy in 1986, and the country continues to grow and expand. The country is home to 54 ethnic groups that are recognized by the Vietnamese government, and its economy has moved from being focused on agriculture to one that is more industrial and market-based.

Some Places to See

If you’re into seascapes, travel to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. There you’ll see thousands of limestone islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. They have been eroded over the years into small, jagged islands by wind and water. You’ll want to see this area by boat, not car, but you may want to take a car to get there at your leisure. You can enter caves, such as the Hang Sung Sot and Hang Dao Go, as well.
Head to Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial center of Vietnam, for a fun driving adventure. You’ll experience a glut of motorbikes and cars, so get ready to put your defensive driving skills to use. You can find most of the city’s sights in the Dong Khoi district at the center of the city. The district is easy to get around in. You can see old French colonial architecture in the district of Da Kao and see the Jade Emperor Pagoda for a view of Buddhist and Taoist religious iconography

If you like driving chaos, drive to Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi. You’ll experience street vendors and great Vietnamese city life. You’ll find several great museums, such as the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Vietnam Fine Art Museum, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Drive to Hue to visit a historic town in Vietnam by car or motorbike. It is full of artifacts from the Nguyen emperors of the 1800s and is situated on the banks of the Perfume River. It features the Imperial Enclosure with walls that stretch for 2.5 kilometers. You can cruise the Perfume River to see royal tombs and pagodas, such as the Thien Mu Pagoda with a tower that rises 21 meters into the air.

My Son is a temple city from the fourth-century Cham era. It was a Hindu religious center and was abandoned in the 1200s. You can find 20 temple buildings with influences from different Asian empires, like Malay and Indian. You can get to My Son from Hoi An, which is a testament to the driving force of international trade in Vietnam. It used to be a major trading center in the 1400s, and it was where Japanese and Chinese merchants came to purchase locally-made silks. You can find merchant houses to explore here, such as the Tan Ky house from the 1600s.

If you’re looking for verdant paddy fields, take a drive through Sapa. The Hoang Lien Mountains, also called the Tonkinese Alps, border Sapa, and some of the country’s best rural views are in this area. You’ll find many ethnic minorities here, including the Hmong, Giay, and Red Dzao. Fansipan Mountain is the best place to go hiking in the country. You can trek between small villages and see the jaw-dropping vistas of the mountains. Sapa is where to start your adventure. It was a French hill station but has grown into a tourist center.

Driving from Hanoi south to Ho Chi Min City is a great route that lets you see a lot of the coast, and it is faster than the overcrowded train routes. Vietnam’s coasts are a must-see on any trip to the country, so definitely take the time to travel the length of the country from north to south. You won’t be disappointed.

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in Vietnam.

Driving in Vietnam: Tips and Information You Need

Going to Vietnam means to take an adventure to see its stellar natural beauty and cultural diversity. Driving in Vietnam is one of the best ways to truly appreciate the country and all that it has to offer. You’ll see mountain peaks that seem to touch the sky, lush paddy fields, and blue-green sea with white beaches. No matter whether you like to travel by motorbike or car, you’re going to experience outdoor beauty that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

As you plan your trip, you’ll need to be aware of the driving rules in Vietnam and whether there is a need for you to get an international driving license. Knowing the laws and cultural expectations of driving there ahead of time will make your time in Vietnam more enjoyable and relaxing. Driving a car or a motorcycle in Vietnam will be easier when you know what to expect.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Vietnam, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

Driving a Moped in Vietnam

Driving in Vietnam versus the U.S.A. is very different. Although you drive on the right side of the road as in the U.S., you’ll see many more mopeds and motorbikes than you do in the U.S. Driving a motorcycle in Vietnam has become quite the thing to do in the country. The popularity of motorbikes in the country has increased dramatically in the last thirty years. In 1990, there were about 1.2 million, and there were more than 58 million of them in 2018, according to the Department of Traffic Safety at the Ministry of Transport. You’ll find many in Hanoi (6 million) and Ho Chi Minh City (8.5) million.

One of the best ways to travel in Vietnam is by moped. They are great for traveling wherever you need to go to cities. You’ll need a motorbike with an engine over 50 cc to travel through the different regions of the country, especially in the mountainous north and western areas. The roads in the mountains can be difficult to navigate, and you’ll need a larger motor to travel the roads, especially at higher elevations.

Scooters have long been part of the allure of Vietnam for tourists, but the government fears that they cause many urban problems, such as noise, accidents, traffic jams, and air pollution. So there has been a lot of talk about banning them completely. However, as that has not happened yet, using mopeds to get around the country is still a great way to see some of the most interesting parts of the region.

You may wonder why people wear masks while driving scooters in Vietnam. It has been reported that 8 out of 10 people wear them if they are in traffic. Face masks first started becoming popular in the 2000s to keep people’s faces out of the sun. This was popular for both men and women. Today, however, poor air quality is the reason people wear face masks so often, particularly between 5 and 6 p.m. when traffic is very heavy. If you plan on riding motorbikes in large cities like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, definitely wear a mask. You’ll notice that masks are also fashion items. It’s important to note that the medical masks people wear aren’t going to protect you from bad air quality because they don’t have the correct filter. They help you to breathe more easily, but you need a higher-quality mask designed for air pollution.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

The legal age for driving in Vietnam varies, depending on your situation. You don’t need a license to operate a motorbike or scooter with an engine capacity under 50 cc as long as you’re 16 years of age. You need a Vietnamese driver’s license to drive anything larger. If you don’t have a license in your home country or want to add an endorsement, such as for driving a car and a motorcycle, you’ll find it more difficult than you would change your foreign license to a Vietnamese license.

If you’re a foreigner who is at least 18 years old, you can apply for a Vietnamese driving license if you have a valid passport and a resident card or visa with at least three, and in some areas, no fewer than six month’s, validity. You’ll have to pass a written and practical driving test to get your license if you don’t already have one in your home country.

Applying for a License

You can get an application for a driver’s license from the Department of Transportation and Public Works in Hanoi, and from the Office of Transportation in Ho Chi Minh City. If you’re in another place in Vietnam, the local police can tell you where to find the local office that handles driver’s licenses.

You will likely need to go to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to get a new driver’s license as some of your documents will have to be verified through your embassy or consulate. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City handle many foreigner applications and are better able to support foreigners’ needs in the application process.

When your application form is complete, don’t sign it. Take it to your embassy or consulate for verification. There, staff will need to verify the information, witness, and notarize your signature. Expect to pay a fee for this service. Bring your passport, Vietnam visa or residency permit, and six or more current color passport photos. Make sure to check the needed size and number of photos at the transportation office, as this can vary depending on where you go.

You’ll need to complete a simple health and vision check, which is done at the test center or at most Vietnamese hospitals. Expect to pay VND 160,000-200,000 (USD$6.88-$8.60) for the exam.

Then take the application back to the same location you got it. You’ll need to show the completed application, two or more certified and notarized copies of your passports. You may also need an officially-authorized translation and certification of your passport into the Vietnamese language (done through a recognized translation service), a minimum of three color passport photos (Again, check the size and number with the transportation office, as this can change based on the location.), your original passport, and your health certificate. Additionally, you may need a written letter of introduction in Vietnamese from your boss, school administrator, or another respected authority that tells who you are, your country, and why you should have a license.

If you have just a tourist visa, you’re not going to be able to get a Vietnamese motorbike license. You have to have a business visa, work permit, or residence card. If you need to convert your home driver’s license to a temporary Vietnamese license, whether it’s for a motorbike or car, you will need to have a Vietnamese residence permit that is valid for at least three months. Be aware that you may need to have a residence permit that is valid for longer than three months in some places. According to the Australian Embassy in Vietnam:

  • In Hanoi, applications for temporary driver’s licenses should be directed to the Hanoi Urban Transport Management and Operation Centre, 16 Cao Ba Quat Street, telephone (024) 3747 0029, fax (024) 3747 0024, TRAMOC
  • In Ho Chi Minh City, applications should be directed to the following addresses
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • 252 Ly Chinh Thanh, Ward 9, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
  • 8 Nguyen Anh Thu, Trung My Tay Ward, District 12, Ho Chi Minh City
  • 111 Tan Son Nhi, Tan Son Nhi ward, Tan Phu District, Ho Chi Minh City
  • 04-06 Nguyen Tri Phuong, Linh Xuan Ward, Thu Duc district, Ho Chi Minh City.

In provincial areas, travelers should consult local police authorities to determine what action is required to obtain a temporary driving license in the province where the applicant resides.

If you want to get a Vietnamese license, in Hanoi, go to the Research and Training Centre – Department of Transportation of Hanoi, 01 Quoc Tu Giam street, telephone (024) 3732 1283 or (024) 3733 4681, website address (in Vietnamese only): http://hosolaixe.vn/. If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, visit this website to find a list of addresses to send your application to.

The written test is available in English, but it is not offered regularly. The test has 450 questions for a car driver’s license and 150 for a motorcycle license. The cost of the written exam is VND 400,000 (USD$17.20). To take a training program, expect to spend around VND 450,000 (USD$19.35), and they take about three months. You’ll also have to take a practical driving test for a new license. Take your original passport with you to the testing center, and pay the fee of VND 70,000 (USD$3.01). You’ll need exact change. The same testing center is for both the written and practical exams. Your driving license fee will be about VND 70,000 (USD$3.01).

Getting a license can take between five days and three months. Give yourself plenty of time to get all of the necessary paperwork done and to file the documents with the right offices. The total cost of getting a license is about VND 1 million (USD$43).

Vietnamese licenses have different categories, according to the type of vehicle(s) you can drive. License Categories A1, A2, and A3 licenses are for motorcycles and three-wheeled vehicles. These licenses don’t expire. Driver’s licenses for cars are in the B1 category, and they are valid for five years.
Driving without a license in Vietnam is no joke. You could face significant prison time in addition to fines if you drive without a license. If you are caught driving without a license, you could have a prison sentence of up to three years, and if you cause an accident, you could face up to ten years, 20 years if the accident results in death. Your vehicle can be impounded for 90 days if you can’t show a valid license if you’re stopped by the police. You can also face a fine of between VND 80,000 and 120,000 (USD$3.44-$5.16) if you don’t have proof of civil liability insurance.

Having an International Driving Permit in addition to a Vietnamese license is best if you are staying for an extended length of time in Vietnam. An IDP won’t be accepted by police in all cases. Cover your bases, and get a Vietnamese license if you plan to stay in the country for a while. This can help you avoid unnecessary difficulties with the police if you are pulled over.
If you’re getting an IDP changed to a Vietnamese license, get three passport-sized photos. (Check with the number required with the local transportation office, but likely the number will be 3.) Get a verified copy of your passport, and bring your original passport, original driver’s license, and original residence card, as well as a completed Transit Authority Form. Bring the documents to the Department of Transportation in a city with your country’s embassy or consulate. Give the documents to the officer, and pay a fee of VND 30,000 (USD$1.29). Fill out a postal form, and then your license will come to your address. Present the receipt you’re given to the courier. This process can take ten days.

Whatever your original license allows you to drive is what you can operate in Vietnam. If you don’t have a motorcycle license in your country, for example, you will have to pass a practical test for a motorbike in Vietnam. You won’t need to take the theory test. Check out the possible license statuses here to see what you need to do regarding whether you can operate a motorbike in Vietnam based on the type of license you have in your country.

Is the International Driving Permit Honored in Vietnam?

Can I use an international driving license in Vietnam? The short answer, is, yes, you can use an International Driving Permit in Vietnam, but it depends on where you are from. Some foreign visitors will not be able to use an IDP and drive in Vietnam because their countries are not signatories to the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic. With a 1968 convention IDP, you can buy an insurance policy that will cover you to ride a motorbike and car in Vietnam. Some countries are not signatories to the 1968 convention but follow the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. So, if you’re from one of these countries, your 1949 convention IDP is not accepted in Vietnam. Some of these countries are Australia, the U.K., the U.S.A., and Canada.

However, if your home country is part of the 1968 convention, and you have a motorcycle license in your country, you can register it on the IDP. Without having a license from a country that is part of the 1968 convention and having a motorcycle license in your country, you cannot legally ride motorcycles with an IDP in Vietnam. You definitely don’t want to get caught riding illegally, so avoid operating a motorbike without one.

Without a valid IDP or Vietnamese license, your travel insurance will not be accepted, and this is the case if you only have a motorbike license in your country. Your travel insurance policy may exclude touring on a motorbike if you are from certain countries. So you can’t travel where a motorcycle is the main mode of transportation, but you’re covered if there is just incidental use.

Renting a Car in Vietnam

Driving in Vietnam with a rental car may be much different than you expect as many rental companies prefer you to use one of their drivers to take you where you want to go. To rent a car in Vietnam with an International Driver’s Permit, you’ll need to have a domestic driver’s license and passport, and you need to be at least 21 years old and have had your domestic license for at least a year.

If you’re not too keen on the idea of renting a car and trying to navigate Vietnamese roads yourself, hiring cars with drivers is a doable option, especially if you have enough people to help cover the cost. You can also hire a motorbike instead of a car. In the past, you could not use an International Driving Permit in Vietnam, but this law has changed. You must have local insurance for the IDP to be valid. Most rental companies will offer you a car with a driver, and you may find it difficult to find a self-drive car to rent.

Large cities have many travel agencies that will rent vehicles with drivers for sightseeing. Most of the drivers don’t speak English. Try to see if you can meet with your guide to see if you get along with them before your trip. Find out how much English or French they speak. Expect to pay for fuel, but the drivers will usually pay for their own accommodation and meals.

Make sure this is the case with your driver. Decide on your schedule and get a copy from the agency. Use the copy as leverage if your guide is winging it. Give a tip if your experience is good. One plus to working with a driver is that they are familiar with the places you want to go to, and they can get you there safely and quickly.

You’ll want a four-wheel-drive vehicle for northern Vietnamese roads. On the other hand, you can rent a motorbike from just about anywhere. You may need to give the agency your passport until you bring the bike back. Try to sign an agreement that states what you are renting, the cost, compensation, etc. You can also hire local drivers in the north to take you around on their bikes.

The rental agency will arrange for insurance if you have a tourist vehicle with a driver. The owners of a hired bike should have insurance. You will likely be asked to sign a paper that states the value of the bike in case it is stolen, so try to park the bike where it is under guard when you can. Also, check your travel insurance policy if you plan to travel by motorbike because some of them won’t include two-wheeled travel. You don’t want to end up in a situation in which you’re seriously injured and have no money for treatment.
If you are considering traveling across an international border with a rental car, this is usually not allowed if you’re driving the car. But if you have a driver, you may be able to go into Cambodia and Laos. There are tighter regulations for this situation in China.

You should expect to pay $1,352 per week ($193 per day), according to Kayak.com, to rent a car in Vietnam, and the most popular cities to rent from including Hanoi, Da Nang, and Lang Co, according to Kayak.com. HoChi Minh City is another city with a high demand for rental cars. Some of the Vietnamese car rental companies to be aware of are the Thanh Hung Group, the Truong An Company, and the Tuan Linh Company.

Renting a Motorbike

It is in your best interest to rent a motorbike from a reliable company like Honda or Yamaha. Some people may buy cheap bikes from other travelers, but make sure you get something that has been well-maintained and that you will take care of it well. Otherwise, you’ll spend more money fixing it than you would rent one in good condition.

You will probably run into problems if you try to rent a bike from outside Vietnam and then try to cross the border with it into the country. So if you’re traveling from Laos, Cambodia, or China on a bike you obtained outside Vietnam, you could have to pay big bribes or not be allowed to cross at all. It’s best to rent a motorbike within Vietnam.

Road Conditions, Emergencies, and Scams

You probably don’t want to be like the first person to import a Tesla Model X into Vietnam in 2017. Although Teslas are high-end cars, driving a Tesla in Vietnam could be a very bad idea. Given the precarious situations on the roads in the country at any given time with traffic that is not well-regulated, children/animals/people that enter the road unexpectedly, and poor road maintenance, it is safer to not have a car that features any type of auto-drive mode, as many of the videos of people falling asleep at the wheels of their Teslas indicate.

Roads in Vietnamese cities are dangerous. Collisions are very common. The major highways are generally in good condition, but flooding can cause large potholes inroads. Some rural areas experience a lot of mud when it rains heavily. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle or motorbike in these conditions. Roads in the mountains are subject to landslides, runaway vehicles, and falling rocks.

Here are some tips for handling road emergencies and scams:

  • If you have an emergency while you’re driving, it could be a while before help arrives, as the emergency rescue system is not very efficient. Pack basic tools and supplies.
  • If your vehicle breaks down, try to use a reputable mechanic. For example, if you have rented a Yamaha motorbike, try to work with a Yamaha mechanic instead of a local mechanic if possible to avoid dealing with scams.
  • While it is not common, fuel attendants may not reset your fuel gauge before they fill up your bike, so be aware of this. It is a scam that can cost you money.
  • Try to get fuel from gas stations with pumps. Sometimes, you’ll see vendors selling fuel from plastic bottles. They may sometimes try to water down the fuel. You’ll pay around VND 21,500 (USD$0.92) for a liter of gasoline and VND 18,000 (USD$0.77) for a liter of diesel.
  • Never leave any valuables, including your helmet, on your bike. Even strapped to your bike, your belongings can be easily stolen.
  • Some roads in Vietnam may not allow motorbikes, or they may have special lanes for them, so be aware that you may have to take roads that are not as well-maintained as others if you ride a motorbike or that you may have to stay in a particular lane.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Vietnam Rules of the Road

Driving in Vietnam vs. in the USA is not that different as far as the side of the road that drivers drive on: you drive on the right in Vietnam. It is important, however, to be aware that many people do not follow the rules of driving, and the rules are not enforced very well in many cases. Driving defensively and being aware of what is going on around you at all times is critical to being safe on the road in Vietnam.

These rules of the road can help you enjoy your drive and stay safe:

  • The size of the vehicle is important on Vietnamese roads, and the bigger, the more powerful. Watch for children on roads as well as livestock. Speeding fines are strict, and police have radar guns. If you see a blue sign with skyscrapers, it means the area is urban, and the speed limit is low. Be aware that, in some cities, you cannot make a right turn at a red light.
  • When you come up to pedestrians and bikes, honking at them is a form of etiquette, not a sign of frustration.
  • Motorbikes can legally only carry two people, but you’ll likely see more. In large cities, though, the two-people-to-a-bike law is enforced.
  • You must wear a helmet when you ride a motorbike, even if you’re a passenger. Imported helmets of good quality are a better choice than locally-made helmets, and you can find them for about USD$35 in larger cities.
  • Vietnamese drivers are typically polite and aware. Trucks will often warn you before they pass by honking their horn, for example, but always stay alert.
  • When you are on mountain roads, you’ll go around many blind corners with no room, and honking your horn is the best way to notify others you are rounding the corner. (Listen for horns on blind corners to be notified that someone is coming at you).
  • Roundabouts in Vietnam don’t seem to have any set rules about who has the right of way. Go when you see the chance, and stop when you think it’s dangerous, even if it’s in the middle of the roundabout.
  • People will drive through red lights in Vietnam, so wait a bit when the lights turn green. If you’re on a motorbike and are at a 3-way intersection, you are allowed to drive through a red light if you’re going straight and no road is on your right. People also turn left on a red light at three-way intersections.
  • Check out this website for very detailed information on strategies for driving in specific circumstances in Vietnam. It can be helpful when preparing for a trip there.
  • Drive slowly and carefully in big cities. Go with the flow of traffic. Speed limits in Vietnam vary according to location. Watch for signs wherever you are. Stick to between 30 and 40 km/h in urban places and between 40 and 60 km/h in rural areas.
  • If you drive a motorcycle, stay to the right, and cars drive on the left. There is a designated lane on some busier roads for bikes.
  • When bad weather comes, be prepared to avoid travel, as visibility can be significantly reduced.
  • Vietnam has no laws about using car seats, and many rental companies don’t provide them. You might want to bring your own seat from home if you’re traveling with a child.
  • Seatbelts are only mandatory for the driver and front passenger seats, not for passengers in the back.

Also, you may see someone turning left onto a busy road, and they won’t wait for an opening. They’ll instead drive on the curb on the other side of the road until they have room to get in the right lane. In some cases, some people will not stop at an intersection and wait: they will cross over to the other side of the road as they come to an intersection when they’re trying to turn left. They’ll then turn left on the opposite side of the road. This is often done to keep traffic moving, but it’s dangerous.

What will I do if I get stopped by the Police in Vietnam

Traffic police wear yellow uniforms in Vietnam. They have a blue ID card on the right side of their chests with their name, rank, number, and department. Take a photo or write down details from their ID if you’re stopped. The man police checkpoints in large cities and help with traffic flow. The CSGT is the acronym for the traffic police.

Police often randomly stop people to check motorbike papers and licenses. There are tourist traps where officers try to get bribes from tourists as well, so beware of them. They may stop you for something you didn’t do and try to get a bribe. However, you may find that you’re waved through when you’re pulled over because you’re a tourist, and they don’t want to deal with the language barrier.

You may have to pay a fine if you’re found without the right documents. The price may be set as high as VND 1 million (USD$43), but they will often negotiate down to VND 200,000 (USD$8.60) or less. This is basically a bribe. Paying a ticket is more complicated, requiring you to go to the police station and fill out documents. It means paying more money and spending more time in the end. In tourist traps, you will probably not be able to negotiate the price of the bribe, and your motorbike may be confiscated.

To avoid issues with the police, ensure you have the right driving license and all vehicle, insurance, and identification documents. Obey all the rules of the road as well, like using your turn signal and wearing a helmet on a motorbike. You can try to negotiate the price of the bribe if you are pulled over, but, if that doesn’t work, ask for the ticket. It takes time to get you a ticket, so you may be let go. If you get the ticket, write down the officer’s identification information. This is especially true if you didn’t break the law.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Exploring Vietnam

Driving in Vietnam is definitely different in many ways from other countries. You need to always be aware of what is happening around you on the road, so there is no room for distracted driving, as you may be dealing with animals entering the road, motorbikes zipping in and out of traffic, and drivers who don’t always follow the law. With the right preparation, however, you will be able to quickly learn how to make the most of driving in the country so that you can access all of the gorgeous and interesting places to visit that Vietnam has to offer.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Vietnamese drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.