In 2008, the legendary TV series Top Gear steered its way to Vietnam. Amid much fanfare, Messrs. Clarkson, Hammond and May drove from Saigon to Hanoi and then on to Halong Bay, a journey that took them eight days atop a Minsk, a Super Cub and a Vespa. It added impetus to a growing craze that created the ‘motopacker’ — a backpacker who, following the style of the presenters of Top Gear, would rock up to Vietnam, purchase a motorbike, and travel from North to South or vice versa.
Yet there was a little problem — licensing. Back in 2008, foreign motorbike licenses weren’t accepted in Vietnam. So, the Top Gear escapade was essentially illegal, not that the BBC and the programme’s producers cared for following the law — this is Vietnam, after all. And to this day, unless you have a motorbike license from a country signed up to the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic together with an international driving permit, or are prepared to drive a vehicle with an engine under 50cc, or take the test for a motorbike license in Vietnam, or have an ASEAN country license, then driving a motorbike in this country is just not allowed.
Where it Goes Wrong
We have laboured this point many times and I will labour it again. If you don’t have a motorbike license, then no matter how good the policy, you’re not insured. As a friend who runs a hostel in central Vietnam recently told me, a female backpacker who’d had an accident called him up and asked if he could say, for the purpose of the authorities, that she was riding a bicycle. Her injuries meant extensive hospital bills and the realisation she’d have to pay for it all by herself. He said no.
I was recently staying at a guesthouse, also in motorbike accident-prone central Vietnam, when a French twenty-something traveller came off their bike and was rushed by taxi to the nearest hospital with their foot hanging off. That morning had been their first foray on a motorised two-wheel vehicle and despite constant warnings from local travel industry workers, they had been wearing shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt.
There is a way round this, one that would give first-time drivers valuable road experience and will guarantee that they are insured. It won’t stop all the accidents — motorbike drivers are 40 times more likely to be killed on the road than their four-wheel-driving nemesis, but it will mean that should trouble fall, then the injured party will be covered.
It’s called the CBT, the Compulsory Basic Training that all motorbike drivers in the UK have to take before they are legally allowed to pull out, instructor-free, onto the roads. Most Western and many non-Western countries have an equivalent. In the UK, once you’ve passed your CBT, for two years you hang Learner plates off the back of your bike before having to take your test. During this time you are insured.
In Vietnam this could be condensed into regular one-day training courses at centres in Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. The charge for foreigners could be fairly low — say US$35 or around VND800,000 a day, meaning that if run properly, it could be a nice little money-spinner.
By only taking a day, it won’t affect motopacker tourism in Vietnam — it will also be good for motorbike-driving expats. And by law, as long as it’s properly enforced, no-one, be they an expat, a tourist or local, could be allowed to take a motorbike on the road without having the equivalent of a CBT.
This isn’t my idea. It comes from a conversation with a friend, Ben Mitchell, who we featured in the last issue. We both know that the introduction of the CBT isn’t going to substantially reduce the thousands of people killed every year on Vietnam’s roads. But if at least it takes a few percent off these figures, and reduces non-fatal accidents, then surely it could be designated a success?
As for Top Gear, while the Vietnam Special gave free marketing to Vietnam, as many an impressionable young traveller might testify, it was a tad irresponsible.
Illustration by Zoe Osborne