It is illegal for a foreigner to own a motorbike in Vietnam. You need to have residency to obtain a Drivers License. And international DLs are not recognized either.
So, how does one buy a motorbike in Vietnam? How do so many foreign nationals motorbike Vietnam illegally and get away with it? And what about the police?
Purchasing a bike:
Buying a motorbike in Vietnam is a piece of cake. There is no paperwork, no fees, and no registration. Let’s face it, you can’t buy one legally, so how could there be. The only thing to know when buying a motorbike is to obtain the ‘blue card’.
The blue card is the vehicle’s registration paperwork. It will not be in your name; it is in the name of some Vietnamese national. But don’t be put off by that. You’re probably going to sell the bike when your trip is over anyway. And the blue card operates on the 9/10s rule. Posession of this card is the same as ownership for all intents and purposes.
Getting away with it:
No one cares. That’s the simple answer. Now if you do something heinous like maim someone or seriously damage property while driving, you will probably have an issue. But if you are safe and/or settle your accidents quickly (in cash), you will not have an issue.
For the most part foreign drivers and the police have a tacit understanding. We just don’t look at each other. Normally when I am passing police officers (they stand on the side of the road and occasionally wave people over), I look away from them. They do the same.
The other day I was driving pretty fast through the outskirts of a town and another biker was weaving in and out of traffic with me. He was Vietnamese, I am not. So when we approached the police (well above the speed limit), he was waved over and I was not. The police thought about pulling me over but noticed the backpack strapped on the back of the bike, hair on my arms, and a white face with a big smile. I’ve seen this happen many times. If you are a foreigner that looks Vietnamese, you probably will get pulled over but later be sent on your way (see below).
However, there are times when we forginers will get pulled over. Just this morning I was doing about 85 in a 30km/h zone. I saw the police in plenty of time to slow down, but I wanted to test the waters. Sure enough, this time I was pulled over.
The officer came over to me, tapped on my speedometer on the bike, and shook his head. He lowered his palm a couple times indicating I needed to slow it down a bit then waved me on. Proof positive, as far as I am concerned, that they don’t want to mess with unlicensed foreign drivers on bikes they don’t own.
1. For the first time today, I saw police with radar. And this was in a smallish city. It actually was a kind of impressive gadget. I stopped, walked back, and observed for a while. The machine is an amalgam of binoculars, radar gun, and printer. When someone gets pulled over they are shown a picture of themselves with their mug and recorded speed. No questions.
I asked if I could take a picture of their speed trap, but they told me no. So I snuck across the street and took the above photo surreptitiously.
2. There are some police, usually in major cities, that I have heard of that will shake down a foreign traveller. When riding, I always keep about 200,000 Dong ($10US) in my pockets and the rest of my money safely tucked away elsewhere. I figure I can buy my way out of most trouble with that. Thankfully I haven’t had to do it yet, but after several months motorbiking in Vietnam and talking to others doing the same, I feel confident.
The bribery will usually only take place in large towns where a particular officer has competent English skills – enough to get his point across. The old “if you put something in his hand, and you are free to go” kind of thing. This also will not happen if the checkpoint is manned by a large number of officers.
3. Finally, wear a helmet anytime you are in a populated area. (I often don’t wear one when I am remote and there is no traffic.) They take it seriously here and while they will probably let you pass if you are exceeding the speed limit, they probably will not if you are without a helmet.