This is not a fun travel story, this is a warning. I’ve seen so many people asking if they should get an international or local driving license, and so many people recommending them not to get it, that I feel this is necessary.
Me too asked this question once, and me too got recommended not to get one. Plenty of reasons not to get it: It takes time, is costs money, the police won’t bother foreigners anyway, the police is corrupt either way, and the list goes on. What I want to share with you here is ONE very good reason to get your paperwork sorted before you hit the roads abroad.
That reason is jail.
In 2014 at least two Dutch people were involved in serious road accidents in Vietnam. I was one of them. I’m the one who got out and didn’t have to do any jail time. The other guy, Tim Valk, was less lucky. He got locked up in a Vietnamese prison facing a 20 year penalty for causing a deadly accident without driving license. Somehow he got released after some months. Specifics of how he got out are unknown, but it’s known in the media that there were tens of thousands of Euros involved.
Tim’s story and mine have a lot in common. We were both riding motorbikes through Vietnam, we both didn’t bother getting a proper Vietnamese license and we were both involved in accidents that were not completely our own faults.
In my case I wasn’t even driving when it happened, I was waiting for traffic to pass until I could make a left turn. Then I suddenly got hit from behind by another motorbike driver, who then slammed into the asphalt. There was blood everywhere and a huge crowd of people gathered to help out and to be available as witness. Once the other driver was on his way to the hospital, the police arrived and took me and my motorbike with them. At this point you can probably guess what their first question was. They wanted to see my license.
The police officers barely spoke English, but thanks to help from the Dutch embassy I was able to make some sense out of what was happening. They were officially investigating the accident and they wanted to see my license. Everything went by the book. The foreign ministry was notified of an accident involving a foreigner. The Dutch embassy got more and more involved. I had to stay in town, which was a little nothing in the middle of nowhere, and come to the police station every day. They kept asking for a license and I kept avoiding the topic.
After about a week the Vietnamese man woke up from his coma, all healthy. He remembered exactly what happened and told the police the accident was his fault. It took two more days for him to sign the papers and the case was closed. I refused compensation for the damages on my bike and I was on my way again.
I hope you understand I have been very lucky here. I also hope you understand this can happen to anyone. The chaotic traffic on foreign roads, your inexperience with their traffic laws and their relaxed attitude towards alcohol on the road all make the chance of this happening much bigger than it would be back home. I also hope you understand this situation would have been a lot less stressful and risky if I would have had the driving license. Not having a license makes you guilty in nearly all situations, whether it’s very obvious that it’s the other person’s fault or not.
Just one last note before I close: I don’t want to discourage you from driving on foreign roads or in Vietnam in specific. I had a great time driving around Nam and it’s been one of my best travel experiences so far. It’s definitely the best way to see the country and there are plenty of cool places to see where you wouldn’t come by bus. So: highly recommended, but play it safe!