Driving in Vietnam can be quite intimidating as a foreigner. Especially if it is your first time. We recently got back from a trip to Vietnam where we drove pretty much all day for a week. Today we want to share all the tips we have picked up, as well as our own experience with you.
In Vietnam, you drive on the right side of the road. You need to have a valid International Driving Permit or a local Driver’s License. This is important for insurance purposes in case you get into an accident. The largest vehicles usually have the right of way, and the horns are used to signal your position.
There are a lot of differences between traffic in the west and in Vietnam If you are used to driving in Europe, or North America, we have a lot of tips you need to know before heading out into traffic.
We will give you some information about rentals, insurance, and how to make sure your motorbike doesn’t get stolen on your trip.
Driving in Vietnam
Driving in Vietnam is going to be quite a shock for you. As we arrived on our first day in Vietnam, the first impression we got of Vietnamese traffic, was the madness Hanoi calls traffic.
If at all possible, we recommend starting your trip outside Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Especially if this is your first time driving a scooter or motorbike.
But if you do decide to start driving out of the two large cities as we did, we have a few tips to keep you reasonably safe.
Driving out of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City
First of all, don’t panic. The traffic inside the city moves very slowly. There is a 30 km/hour speed limit, and in the heavily congested main roads, you will be lucky to get to drive your bike faster than 20 km/hour.
All the traffic coming in every single direction is still very confusing and stressful though. We recommend that you stay far to the right, so you can blink into the side and stop to check directions etc.
Try not to start your trip out in the afternoon, as rush time inside the city is not a good way to start driving in Vietnam.
If you need to cross traffic to make a left turn, over to another road, try to slowly stray over in a predictable manner. And if you can, try to follow other drivers’ lead.
If there is a traffic light, get to the front of the line and position yourself so that you can head off in the right direction ahead of the rest of the traffic. But until you get a bit used to driving in Vietnam, try to follow other drivers lead.
In roundabouts, nobody quite knows what they are doing. Just try to follow other drivers heading in the same direction and use them for cover until you get the hang of it. Stopping inside the roundabout is often acceptable and reasonably safe compared to driving into oncoming traffic.
Hazards to Watch Out For
Inside the city, the biggest dangers are buses and large cars. Other scooters are usually not huge hazards when you drive slow and watch out for traffic in every direction.
The problem with the large vehicles is that you can get pinched in between them if there are multiple ones. You will also want to avoid passing buses on the left side, as they do stop to pick up and drop off passengers.
As far as other motorbikes go, the biggest problem is their unpredictability. In Vietnam people just don’t follow traffic rules unless the police are watching.
You need to be prepared that people can come in any direction at all times, people will stray over in front of you, they will come in from side roads, and on the left people WILL drive in the opposite direction of traffic.
Leave some room on the left for people driving the opposite direction, as well as some buffer for people ramming into traffic from side roads.
People behind you is not a problem as long as you drive predictably (don’t make hard stops or quick turns unless you have to). In Vietnam, you pretty much only need to watch out for dangers on the sides and in front of you.
People coming from behind will do the same for you. They will also honk their horns to make their presence known if they wish to pass you. I don’t think the Vietnamese use their mirrors at all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t though.
Watch out for bikes, el-scooters and foot traffic as they move a lot slower than the rest of the traffic. You need to be prepared for this.
Driving in Vietnam: Left or Right?
Technically everybody should drive on the right side of the road in Vietnam.
But in reality, everybody drives everywhere. Sidewalks are also up for grab during rush hour.
You should stay on the right when driving a motorbike in Vietnam. The other lanes are usually reserved for larger vehicles. But you need to leave a bit of space between you and the sidewalk.
Bikes, pedestrians and scooters WILL drive against oncoming traffic. You will find them on the very right of the road.
For you, this means you stay a little away from the sidewalk, to be prepared for them. This is also good practice for making room for slower traffic than you (think bikes, tractors, slow drivers, etc).
The other situation where you will find people driving in the wrong direction is when they are coming from a sidestreet, and trying to cross the road you’re on to make a U-turn in an opening behind you. This may seem silly (it is), but they often do it because it is faster for them than it is to drive in the right direction to make a U-turn further up the road.
For some visual examples, here is an article by another blogger we found useful as well.
Driving in Vietnam Without License
I would strongly recommend against it.
There are multiple reasons to have your papers in order, but the main reason is that your INSURANCE MAY NOT COVER YOU if you get into a serious accident without a valid license.
As far as law-enforcement in Vietnam goes, driving without a license is not an issue. We heard that a large number of Vietnamese people don’t have their driver’s license. But then again, they are in their home country, and probably don’t need to worry about keeping their traveler’s insurance valid like you do.
Police generally won’t bother you as long as you drive properly and follow the rules. And we read online that people who get stopped usually just have to pay a small “fine”. As a side note, we drove past countless police check-points and random officers, and we were never stopped.
Vietnam Motorbike License
You can quite easily obtain a Vietnamese Driver’s License. There are multiple agencies willing to help you out. You are going to pay a premium since you are a foreigner, but you will also be handheld through the entire process.
Depending on whether or not you have a driver’s license in your home country, the process usually takes 1-2 days and will cost you 100-200 USD from what we learned from our research online.
International Driving Permit in Vietnam
Thankfully, Vietnam now accepts international driver’s permits. Both 1, and 3-year licenses are valid (from Norway), but we were recommended to get the 1-year version of the IDP.
If you have a valid license for riding a motorbike, getting an International Driving Permit is the easiest way to drive legally in Vietnam.
Depending on where you are from, there are different steps to obtain an IDP. We recommend that you start planning how to obtain yours as soon as possible, as processing time can be up to a few weeks (it is here in Norway) if you need to use snail mail to send them proper photos.
Vietnamese Police and International Driving Permits
We have heard stories of some Vietnamese Police not accepting IDPs if you do end up getting stopped.
Chances of getting stopped are quite low, but it is something to keep in mind. You may have to pay a “fine” to be allowed to continue.
If you end up meeting some less honest police offers we have found a few tips from other travelers online:
Don’t let them take your key: Stop your bike, take your key, and put it in your pocket. This way the police can not hold your key hostage for a larger fine.
Only keep 100,000-500,000 VND visible in your wallet: This seems to be the acceptable range these “fines” will cost you. Best to not flash the entire federal reserve.
Solve small accidents on the spot: if you get into a small accident, it is best to pay the Vietnamese driver off (even if it is their fault). Foreigners tend to get stuck with the blame if the police get involved.
In general, just try to get away from these situations as fast as possible, and don’t make a huge fuzz over it, nothing good can come from it.
But take this advice with a grain of salt, as it is all curated online. We never had any issues with the police during our trip. But it is nice to be prepared in case something like this were to happen.
How Safe is it to Drive in Vietnam?
While driving in Vietnam may seem insane and suicidal at a glance, there is a method to the madness.
It is for sure not as safe as driving back home. Especially for us foreigners who are fresh of the plane (or bus?).
But once you get the hang of the traffic, and realize how everything works, driving in Vietnam is fine.
Things to Avoid to Stay Safe
For your safety, I have written a list of the most dangerous things we witnessed on the road in Vietnam, so you can try to avoid them and stay safe.
Mountains and Rural Roads
The most dangerous areas to drive in Vietnam is in rural areas. This is not because of the friendly farmers, but because of the bad maintenance of the roads.
They are full of sand, holes, and just parts of the road straight up missing. You need to be EXTRA careful if you decide to drive on these roads.
The mountains can be hazardous if you don’t have a semi-auto, or manual motorbike. You need to be very careful driving the little scooters up into the mountains because if the brakes get too hot and fail on the way down the mountains, then you are in serious trouble.
Every now and then you will see some drivers that you KNOW will create dangerous situations. Signs to watch out for:
Young men (and women!): Often not careful, and they will drive too fast.
People without helmets (or shirts): These are often the young men that will drive very irresponsibly. But there are also grown men that will do this.
Overloaded Motorbikes: They don’t have as much control, and will have a harder time stopping, or avoiding obstacles. You want to stay FAR away from these. You will see motorbikes overloaded with both items and people.
Often you will see all three of these combined. It is not that uncommon to see an entire family (baby included) cruising down the road on a little motorbike, everybody without helmets and proper clothing, of course.
Large trucks & minivans: Large trucks are the kings of the road in Vietnam. Many of them will not stop driving at any cost (losing their own life included). You really need to watch out for them on the highways. Minivans are similar to trucks, but they will drive a lot quicker and drive very dangerously.
Just try to take it very slowly in the beginning, and assume nobody knows how to drive. After a while, you will start to understand little by little how to drive in Vietnam.
If you have driven in Asia before, you may have an easier time adapting to Vietnamese traffic. I strongly recommend checking out some videos on YouTube to get an idea of what to expect.
We did an entire VLOG series on YouTube where we documented our experiences as they were happening on the road, plus we give some really valuable tips in-depth tips on driving in Vietnam.
If you have any questions, feel free to comment on any of the videos, and we will respond to you.
We hope you have a wonderful trip to Vietnam. We really enjoyed our drive down there, and hope you will do the same!