License to Ill

Oh my dream! A green vintage Vespa. The Born in the USA bike was the threat to anyone who broke their bike on Top Gear. Both are now in a British Museum (their picture).

A few years ago I watched the Top Gear Vietnam motorcycle special.  The guys rode through beautiful landscapes on questionable bikes.  When my motorcycling friend decided to visit me in Asia, we decided this was the best idea.  Unfortunately I realize Top Gear probably has production assistants who get to do the fun paperwork part to get a license.  My so far useless International Driving Permit is no good here.

Most backpackers don’t bother with this and just set off.  Well, I’m a weenie and have the time to make sure I’m doing things by the book in a country where the book can usually be bribed.  After much research online, I learned if you get stopped without a license, you can end up in jail for 3 years.  In an accident without a license is 10 years, and if a person dies it means you could be jail up to 20 years.  The thought of a Vietnamese prison is enough to make me do some paper and leg work.  Your bike can also get impounded for just about anything it seems, and they’ve been cracking down for the last two years with recent news they might up the enforcement again.  Foreigners cannot legally own a bike but the registration paperwork only has the first owner on it, and everything after that is a list of who bought the bike and for how much.  I contacted a Vietnamese Couch Surfer about all this, and his advice was to not get a license because “just watch carefully how Vietnamese can go without any accident and enjoy driving motobike!”  Right.  Motorbike accidents are the leading cause of death in Vietnamese people aged 18-45.

Let’s start off by saying everything in Asia takes at least twice as long as you think it will.  Bureaucracy must’ve been invented here because they’re so good at making it painful.  I started off on the wrong foot by arriving for two back to back separate holidays.  Finally, three days after I arrived in Hanoi, I could get started on getting everything together.  The photo and photocopy shops were open during the holidays.

Here’s the list of the things I turned into the Transportation Office of Hanoi:

  • 2 Application forms filled out in Vietnamese (Link to site: here, click the save to file on the bottom for the application as a word document)
  • 4 (3 x 4 cm) pictures, 2 of them glued to previous mentioned application
  • 2 notarized translated copies of my Californian driver’s license (along with copies of the license itself)
  • 2 copies of my passport info page
  • 2 copies of my Vietnamese visa passport page
  • 2 copies of my Vietnamese entry stamp passport page

Before I even got to the Transportation Office I went on a day long goose chase.  All the information I found online about notaries that translate turned out not to be valid for a non-Vietnamese speaker.  I went to seven separate offices, each person sending me to the next.  I finally ended up at a government office at 38 Le Dai Hanh who sent me to a commercial office at 187 Ba Trieu, next to the gigantic VinCom mall.  Ignore the fact that the odd and even numbers don’t match up at all across streets in Hanoi.  These people spoke English, took my forms, and told me to come back the next day.  They charged me $8.50 to get my forms back at 10 am.  I’d heard multiple people tell me the government office only translated on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday mornings but could not verify this without Vietnamese.  Outside the closed justice department offices on 310 Ba Trieu I met a fruit and juice vendor offering to “handle” the situation for me for about $7 and two hours, but I went the less sketchy route.

So a day after I wanted to turn my applications in, I finally had all my forms, plus extra copies of everything which was fortunate because most people online only needed one copy of stuff.  I headed to the Transportation Office at 16 Cao Ba Quat in Ba Dinh district (near Hoan Kiem lake).  This was the smaller of the two offices and I was more confused at this one.  The guard pointed me to the door but didn’t mention I needed a number by pressing the first green button at the stand next to him.  The lady inside served me first anyways but got quite frazzled that I didn’t speak Vietnamese and just told me “NO”.  After I stood there a while taking pictures of all the signs to translate back at the hotel, she finally came up to me and told me to come back tomorrow when someone could help me.

Well, damn, I waited too many days in bustling Hanoi already.  So I took the really convenient and air conditioned #2 bus to the other office.  2 Phung Hung in Ha Dong district, about a 30-45 minute bus ride away.  Make sure not to accidentally go to 2 Phung Hung in the Hoan Kiem district, which is not correct at all.  This office is way bigger and official looking in a huge beautiful building on the corner.  There were a lot more windows and one of them spoke halting English.  Much like the department of motor vehicles in California, the woman I was dealing with was furious at me as soon as I met her.  She was drowning under post-holiday paperwork and didn’t need this non-Vietnamese speaker waltzing in an hour before closing.  Luckily the girl who spoke English walked us through 3 rejections of our paperwork to get it in two minutes before closing.  They wanted my Vietnamese address, not my American permanent address.  For my purpose of exchange I wrote down what I had my hotel translate onto a piece of paper to show people at each office: “Tôi muốn làm giấy phép xe máy” which means “I want to do motorcycle license”.  Everyone else in the office laughed to death every time we tried to turn it in.  Later, we ran into her on the #2 bus back to the hotel and she laughed when she saw us.  She laughed less when we got off on the same stop.  I promise we’re not stalking you, nice lady.

So now five days and many headaches later, my paperwork is in and I wait.  I’ve done all I can and they told me they’re holding my license and paperwork for 11 days (7 business days) which is more than the 5 days listed.  Well, it’s Asia.  I feel like I’ve been living here after this experience.  On the upside various random people who were also in the various places I went who could speak English kept coming out of the woodwork to help me.  It helped balance all the cranky office employees I ran into.  It is recommended to bring someone who speaks Vietnamese, which I’d recommend to, I just don’t know where to find one.  I’ll be back in Hanoi in a week to see if this went well and I get my A1 motorcycle license.  If not, I’ll be off through Vietnam either way, just on a few more wheels.  I’ll update with a blog post either way.

Some links where I got useful information:

Here are the signs up in the Transportation Office if anyone speaks Vietnamese.  I think it’s the same information as the website:

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