by Mark Carle
|Little wiggle room: Driving in Viet Nam is really about "being attentive and listening to vehicles around you". — VNS Photo Mark Robert Carle
(VNS) Most foreigners in Viet Nam manage to avoid obtaining a Vietnamese driving licence. No one seems to worry, not even the authorities. The motorbike hiring companies willingly accept foreign licences - even if they are out of date. However, some drivers realise that in the event of a serious crash, penalties and compensation could reach thousands of dollars. That is why a few wise drivers take the trouble to go through all the red tape and tests to qualify. Resident Mark Carle makes the following observations:
I haven't taken a driving exam because I don't know how to drive a manual shift bike. Indeed, why must we take the test on manual bikes when automatics are far more common on the road?
In most countries, drivers must pass a stiff course that teaches them all about driving - and then sit for an exam. Rather than a test, maybe police could hold driving courses to educate drivers, so to speak.
After the course, a different test could be given, one that incorporates more than stop and go, weaving in and out and figure eights as the Vietnamese test entails. This could include when to obey traffic lights and zebra crossings and when it is OK to go the wrong way down one-way streets.
Vietnamese have grown up with this traffic. They experience it from childhood as they and their siblings are driven by their parents about town.
Vietnamese know exactly what to expect and, I sense, when to expect it. We foreigners on the other hand are at the mercy of our luck on most days. I drive maybe a tad too cautiously. I also only watch the road in front of me and to my slight front right and left (peripheral vision).
I let the person behind me watch me and those around me, that's his or her job. Through observation of native drivers, I see that the use of rear-view mirrors is minimal. Indeed, many drivers take their mirrors off because they find them a nuisance.
However, they are used when necessary, like changing lanes or occasionally when turning. Now this doesn't count for the "wild boys" who combine excess speed with a mad weaving in and out. Getting rid of them for a start would make the streets considerably safer. There are so many pregnant women, children and the elderly on motorbikes who could not survive being clipped by one of these ignoramuses.
According to the transport ministry, since the beginning of this year, 9,265 people have been killed on Vietnamese roads, while 8,375 others have been injured in traffic accidents. This is much, much higher than in many Western nations. A year ago in HCM City, a foreigner while driving without a licence hit and killed a street vendor. He was first sentenced to 18 months in prison, but this was later overturned and he was expelled from the country.
If foreigners plan to take up residence here and drive, they should be expected to take a driving course of some type to familiarise themselves with how to handle things.
A co-worker recently came back from driving in a small town and felt ready to take on Ha Noi.
When I saw him after a short 5km drive, he was visibly shaken - and feeling that Vietnamese were crazy. Frankly I don't see much wrong with their driving.
It's really about being attentive to the road and listening to vehicles around you. How people wearing headphones do it, I have no idea. I rarely see Vietnamese wearing them, but nearly 80 per cent of foreign drivers do.
They're virtually cutting off one of the most vital senses required for conscientious city driving. Throw in the many distractions, such as motorbikes hauling 15 cases of beer or about hundreds of eggs in crates, bottles of water and the occasional refrigerator and it all spells trouble for an untrained foreign driver.
But the main candidate for the most dangerous hazard in Viet Nam surely goes to the deep holes in the road with "warning" branches sticking out of them.
I'm sure that getting a licence is not welcomed by my fellow foreigners who are used to the freedom of hopping on a rented bike and zipping off, just as I did my first day, with no motor biking experience. I know a few friends with years of biking experience in the US and Australia, who've had a few serious accidents and near brushes with death.
The chances of accidents for foreign drivers are high. I experienced a fairly serious one the first day I learned how to drive.
I don't want things here to be like home, but I do want the streets to be a much safer place for everyone, foreigners and Vietnamese alike. My ideas won't solve the traffic problems here, but we don't need to be part of the overall problem either. — VNS