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Motor scooters and mopeds are the main form of transport in Vietnam. They can be seen everywhere from the smallest alley in a city to remote mountain villages. As such, many tourists choose to adopt a "when in Rome" policy and hire or buy a scooter and travel the country on it.

What isn't at all clear, is what the legality of this is. The internet is confused on the matter, with google prefering to link to deleted posts on TripAdvisor forums (although the follow up comments would indicate that no, it isn't legal unless you prepare for (and pass) a Vietnamese test. My Lonely Planet guidebook indicates similar. Other sources say it is possible to get a Vietnamese license after presenting a foreign license and appropriate credentials to the proper government body. Some blogs and tour companies claim "of course it's legal, don't be silly" but provide no explanation or evidence for this. About the only thing that seems widely agreed is that the IDP is not accepted in Vietnam (although Wikipedia disputes even this).

As for why this should concern a traveller, when the behaviour (tourists driving scooters) seems broadly tolerated: it is always possible that the government will choose to change policy on enforcement. Moreover, if the activity is illegal, and the traveller is either seriously injured or accrues some legal liability, it is likely that insurance will refuse to pay out.

Bonus points if the answer covers cars as well (although car rental doesn't appear to be widely available)

References or indications of the law(s) relevant would be appreciated, as would any update on the state of IDPs (apparently changing) in Vietnam.

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    The three Top Gear presenters rode a scooter and two small motorbikes through Vietnam. You can read about the driving test they took in the relevant Wikipedia article (7th paragraph of summary section). Of course, Top Gear is not always a good guide for how you should behave abroad. ;-) – RedGrittyBrick Nov 12 '15 at 14:50
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    @RedGrittyBrick The reality of the arrangements made, and what is shown on TV are often not the same. Top Gear is a TV entertainment program, and it is safest to perceive it as fiction. I would imagine as the Top Gear team all would have had business or journalism visas, it was possible to get their licesnses converted. – CMaster Nov 12 '15 at 14:57
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+100

Little Bikes are Simple

No license is necessary for motorcycles under 50cc, or electric bikes (e.g. Australian Embassy). You may, however, struggle to find such a bike for rental; electric bikes might be possible to get hold of in the big cities, but you're not going to be going on a road trip on one.

The Law on Bigger Bikes

For bigger bikes, or cars, it's more complicated.

Vietnam is a signatory to The Vienna Convention On Road Traffic (1968). It is also a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention, but that doesn't seem to matter here (which is important later).

If:

then according to this circular from the Vietnamese Ministry of Transport, you may use it from 1 October 2015. (The signed original is here, but it's harder to translate.)

Thanks to @nhahtdh, the translation of Section 11 says:

Article 11. Using the international driving permit from the countries participating in the Vienna Convention issued in Vietnam

  1. Holders of IDP issued by participating countries of Vienna Convention while operating a motor vehicle in Vietnamese territory must carry the IDP and national driving license in accordance to the classfication of vehicle under operation; must comply with the road traffic law of Vietnam.
  2. If the IDP is retained temporarily in violation of road traffic law of Vietnam, the retention period may not exceed the driver's permitted period of stay in Vietnam.

Why the Conflicting Advice?

Many countries are not signatories to the Vienna Convention - Australia, the US and Canada are notable examples, and this is presumably why their travel advice tells you that you need a local license. According to the circular, your license is not valid. Only licenses issued by participants in the Vienna Convention are valid, so yours are not.

European countries tend to be signatories, and this is why France and Germany for example will tell you that an IDP is accepted. The EU countries negotiated for this reform, and are happy with the situation.

Enforcement and Recognition

I can't comment as to whether this distinction between Vienna Convention countries and others is effectively enforced, or whether IDPs are accepted in practice by your average member of the traffic police. I would not want to be the first person to be pulled over by a cop in a rural area who hadn't seen this sort of thing before.

From a report on a local (closed, hence no link) Facebook group, even if you have a motorcycle license from your home country but no IDP, you may get pulled over, and your bike impounded. In this case, they even reportably refused a bribe. This is still rare, and the fines - perhaps around $150 - small by Western standards, but it does happen.

From personal experience, the traffic police in Hanoi are more active now than they were a few months ago. This is a good thing, but maybe not if you don't have a license.

Getting a Vietnamese License

It is possible to transfer an existing motorcycle license into a Vietnamese one (and similarly for cars). New Zealand has some detailed advice - it involves notarising your license, getting a bunch of passport photos, and waiting for a week or two. Going through an agent might be easiest - I had someone do most of the legwork for me, and all I had to do was show up to have my photo taken.

Alternatively, the test doesn't look too hard. The Theory Test may sometimes be available in English, although other sources say it isn't. If it's in Vietnamese, an agent is likely to be able to provide some tips...

In either case though, this isn't something you'll be doing on a short holiday here!

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    Just noticed the the UK FCO Travel Advice pages actually cover some of this too, should have thought to look at them before gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/vietnam/safety-and-security – CMaster Nov 20 '15 at 10:32
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    I am not very familiar with English legalese. This is my best effort translation of Article 11 quoted in this answer: 1. Holders of IDP issued by participating countries of Vienna Convention while operating a motor vehicle in Vietnamese territory must carry the IDP and national driving license in accordance to the classfication of vehicle under operation; must comply with the road traffic law of Vietnam. 2. If the IDP is retained temporarily in violation of road traffic law of Vietnam, the retention period may not exceed the driver's permitted period of stay in Vietnam. – nhahtdh Jun 14 '16 at 3:10
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Three unalterable facts:

  1. Yes, you need a Vietnamese DL to lawfully operate a scooter in Vietnam
  2. No, a tourist cannot get a Vietnamese DL
  3. Nobody, nobody, in Vietnam cares about the above two unalterable facts

I rented a scooter in Danang last month. The rental process consisted of me handing over 100,000 đồng (just under $5 USD) and the clerk giving me the key and a helmet and pointing in the general direction of the bike. No questions, no paperwork, no insurance, and certainly no license.

Danang is by far the most orderly and law-abiding city in Southeast Asia; it's practically Geneva. I am sure the process would be even more casual elsewhere, although I do not how that would even be possible.

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    He gave you a helmet, so obviously he cares deeply about your safety on their roads. – Doyle Lewis Nov 12 '15 at 14:19
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    @DoyleLewis -- the desk-clerk, like every hotel desk-clerk in Vietnam, was a (quite attractive) woman, and so far as I can tell, the only traffic regulation enforced anywhere in the country is the helmet law. – Malvolio Nov 12 '15 at 15:57
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    @PeterGreen -- this was a 110-cc scooter. My ability to hurt anyone but myself was sharply limited. If I had planned on doing this ahead of time, I would have bought evac insurance before I left the US. – Malvolio Nov 12 '15 at 15:59
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    So this didn't happen? Well my international drivers license expired anyhow, so I guess one thing that I won't have to renew then. Interesting fact from the article though "only 3.8 percent of the population holds a driver's license of any kind. " – Voo Nov 12 '15 at 17:47
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    @Malvolio The kinetic energy of a person plus a 110cc scooter doing, say, 20mph is more than enough to cause serious injury to a pedestrian or cyclist, or to put a big dent in the side of a car. Don't kid yourself into believing that you have to be driving a hummer at 90 before you can hurt anyone. Also bear in mind that your medical insurance probably won't cover you if you hurt yourself while doing something illegal. – David Richerby Nov 13 '15 at 0:17
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Legally to drive a motorcycle in Vietnam you do need to have a Vietnamese driver's license. There are plans underway to introduce the acceptance of IDPs but I have not heard anything to confirm that it is in effect yet (as is the case with many government projects in this part of the world anticipated date and actual finished date are often months or years apart ;-)

Getting a Vietnamese DL requires that you have a business visa, work permit or residency permit. They don't allow tourists to apply. If you have the right entry status and your home driving license has a motorcycle endorsement, then it is just some paperwork to get the license. But without then a driving test is needed

There are unfortunately many rental shops that take the "no worries mate" approach and rent out scooters to foreigners without proper licenses on the grounds that police are unlikely to stop them to check.

  • Any references for that (or explanations of how you know?) It chimes with what I've gleaned, but right now looks no more reliable. – CMaster Nov 12 '15 at 9:57
  • Personal experience plus reliable travel trade partners in Vietnam. – user13044 Nov 12 '15 at 10:00
  • Amusing, a relative of mine rented scooters in both Cambodge and Vietnam and actually did not even THINK about whether it was legal or not (and neither did it occur to me). – Matthieu M. Nov 12 '15 at 13:12
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Officially Vietnam is not a signatory of the 1949 convention, but doesn't yet recognize International Driving Permit, does so irregularly1 or honors it2, depending on your sources.

The only official references3 or other rules I found still point to the same information provided in other answers here, namely:

  • A driving license is required to drive, including motorcycles
  • Vietnamese driving licenses are only delivered to foreigners with residence permits/work visa/student visa of more than 3 months

However in a somewhat well known article 2015 is the year where Vietnam was supposed to start recognizing IDP. Scanning the Vietnamese Transportation Department for circulars dated 2015, returned a couple of links that seem related to driving licenses and IDP, but the PDFs are in Vietnamese, here and here .

It should be noted however that an IDP is not enough to drive abroad, it's merely a translation of your driving license class and restrictions, which should normally be presented with your national driving license.

As for any transition period and given the lax approach to the enforcement of these rules I expect one shouldn't rely on the IDP being recognized everywhere just yet.

1 2015 threads
2 expand the list and check the note for Vietnam
3 dated 2014

1

Fast forward to 2017.

  1. You can legally drive in Vietnam if you have a Vietnamese Drivers license and Also if you have a License for your home country that allows you to operate the same type of vehicle you will operate in Vietnam AND you have a matching IDP.
  2. If you get stopped by the police you can generally come to a financial agreement to get off with a wave.
  3. If you crash and are injured while driving a motorbike, or you are a passenger who knowingly rode on/in a bike/car where the driver was illegally operating the bike/car without a license there is 99.999% likelihood any travel insurance you may have thought you had is voided for coverage.
  4. If you hold a visa for at least a 3 month stay in Vietnam you may be eligible to take the test and get a local license. (Best to get a 6 month/12 month visa to ensure your license is good and does not 'expire' if you decide to stay on a bit longer)

You want to be covered by accident insurance in Vietnam...to get you out of here if there is medical trouble. Your life is worth more than trying to save a few dollars by driving illegally.

  • Are you suggesting that Vietnam no longer accepts licenses with an IDP as mentioned in @edc 's answer above? – CMaster Jun 27 '17 at 13:49
  • They have never accepted an IDP as a legal drivers license. They do not require one to get a Vietnamese drivers license. If you have a foreign language license from another country (say Qatar, Oman - in Arabic, from Taiwan in Chinese, Italy in Italian, etc..) they will require the license to be translated 'locally' to be used in combination with the original document to process a drivers license application. The policeman on the street only accepts a VN license as a legal permit to drive. 90% of them do not read or speak any other language than Vietnamese. Their law works for them. – Future.Travel Jun 28 '17 at 2:55
  • @CMaster you got me intrigued. I asked locals and the expat community. The VN community are still under impression that the VN license is only acceptable. I did have the head of a large German lawfirm here comment and say 'legally' the system works... eg the foreign drivers license and IDP. Both must be on your body at time of police inquiry. The issue then becomes whether the police know about the decree. My suggestion is to print a copy of the decree and keep it with your licenses. Next would be to have your IDP translated to Vietnamese for the police to read when they stop you. – Future.Travel Jun 28 '17 at 15:21
  • This link may help you to understand about driving in Vietnam using an IDP. It does NOT work for everyone as Vietnam only recognises IDP's from some countries... [link] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Convention_on_Road_Traffic [/link] If your country is not a signatory you are note eligible to drive in VN with an IDP – Future.Travel Jul 4 '17 at 4:40
  • Does type of visa matter to apply Vietnamese driving license? For example, would 3 month tourist visa accepted? – Eonil Feb 5 '18 at 5:36

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