Despite changes in Vietnam’s traffic laws and a new law that recognizes international drivers' licenses, it is not yet clear what specific limitations may apply to foreign drivers. This, coupled with the hazard of locals driving dangerously, means that it is not advisable to drive a car in Vietnam, although many foreigners do drive motorbikes.
Before 2015, tourists were not permitted to drive in Vietnam at all. Now, although the laws are set to change and international drivers' permits will be accepted, there is still some uncertainty about restrictions that may be imposed, particularly on driving a car, so it's very important to check the situation before deciding to rent. Keep an eye on embassy websites for any changes.
It is still a better option to rent a car with a driver, who will, hopefully, speak some English. Cars and minivans with drivers are readily available from private and state-run travel agencies, tourist offices, and through most hotels in bigger cities. You are charged by the kilometer, by the day, or both. A daily rate runs from $70 to $100 per day, depending on a number of criteria: the city in which you rent the vehicle; whether it has air-conditioning; the make of the car; and your bargaining skills. The agreed price should include gas and tolls, but clarify all this before you set off. Travel agencies can also arrange for English-speaking guides to accompany you and the driver. For overnight trips you're generally responsible for the driver's lodging costs as well, which may or may not be included in the quoted price; make sure to clarify this up front.
Note that most rental cars lack seat belts and the provision of child seats is unusual. You should negotiate a price in advance and check out the vehicle before you rent it. Note that the name "Land Cruiser" is overused in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi. Too many people consider a Land Cruiser—made only by Toyota—to be any four-wheel-drive vehicle that's not a Russian jeep.
If you have hired a car and driver and the car breaks down, you should not be held responsible for the cost of repairs. Make sure everyone is clear about this before you embark on a long journey. Mechanical and engine problems with Japanese-made cars and SUVs are rare, but expect breakdowns if the vehicle was made in Russia. Most mechanical problems can be fixed, and there are mechanics on virtually every block in the cities.
In case of a traffic accident, remember that the foreigner is always at fault. So, in minor accidents, even if you've done nothing wrong it's a good idea to stay in the car and let your driver do the talking or to try to get out of the situation as quickly as possible without involving the police. Even if the case seems crystal clear, you'll likely be fighting a losing battle and will probably be asked to pay damages immediately even if you are not to blame. Many of Vietnam's civil laws provide for the underprivileged, and as a foreigner you are automatically considered privileged.
Unleaded gasoline is sold by the liter in Vietnam. (There are about 4 liters to the gallon, which will usually fill a motorbike tank.) Gas stations sell at a government-regulated price of 25,000d per liter and payment must be made in Vietnamese dong. Minsks and some other makes of motorcycle take a 2%–4% oil-gas mixture; oil is added after you purchase your gasoline. Always check that the attendant has reset the meter to zero before he starts to fill your tank and check your change, especially if you are paying with a large bill. Gas sold by vendors on the street is a good option when stations are closed. The prices are slightly higher, however, and it's not unheard of for watered-down gas of the lowest octane to be sold on the street, just buy enough to get you to the next gas station and fill up there.
Any traveling by car you do will be with a hired driver, so he (drivers are rarely women) will be the one responsible for finding adequate parking. On many streets in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi it is illegal to leave an unattended car; the streets are simply too narrow or crowded. Instead, cars—and motorbikes and bicycles—are often parked in guarded lots, driveways, even on roped-off pieces of sidewalk. A few streets have marked automobile parking, and some of the newer high-rises in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have underground or elevated garages. In most small towns and at the entrance to beaches, private home owners and parking attendants will offer to look after bicycles and motorbikes for no more than 5,000d. These are the safest places to park bicycles and motorbikes and will prevent your bike or helmet from being stolen, or being removed by the police for parking illegally. At night always check what time the attendant's shift ends—if your bike is still there, he will most likely take it home for safe keeping overnight. If this happens you’ll need to make other arrangements to get back to your hotel and return in the morning to be reunited with the bike.
Highways are the main transportation route for cars, public buses, trucks, tractors, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, and a host of farm animals. Highway 1 is the primary north–south commercial route and is the backbone of Vietnam's road system. It has been upgraded along its entire length, which extends from near the Chinese border, north of Hanoi, through Ho Chi Minh City and to the heart of the Mekong Delta in the south. Other major roadways include Highway 5 from Hanoi to Haiphong; Highway 6 from Hoa Binh to Dien Bien Phu; Route 70, which bisects the northwest; Highway 7, the Nghe An Province route into Laos; Route 14 through the central highlands; Route 22, west out of Ho Chi Minh City toward Tay Ninh and the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh; and Route 80, through the upper Mekong Delta. A second north–south route, the Truong Son Highway, is currently under construction. An ambitious project, it will follow a similar route to the famed wartime supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once completed, it will cut through Vietnam's western mountains and extend from the northern province of Ha Tay to Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam's major roads are for the most part paved, and the entire country's road network is continually being upgraded with extensive soft loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Road conditions in the north are far worse than in the south, where the U.S. war effort built or paved many of the roads. Thoroughfares labeled national roads cover only 15,3600 km (9,544 miles) of Vietnam's transportation system; only 84% of these roads are paved. The lowest category of roads, called provincial or district roads, account for 83,000 km (51,574 miles) of the system. Only 58% of these are paved. Most dirt roads turn to mud during the rainy season and become impassable. Despite some stretches of highways having speed limits up to 100 kph (60 mph), road transportation is very slow in Vietnam. When working out approximate journey times by bus or car a more realistic average speed to work from is approximately 30 kph (20 mph).
When driving (or, more likely, being driven) around the country, try to travel during the day and be extra vigilant during rush hour—around 8 am and from 4 pm—when traffic is at its heaviest. Driving at night can be hazardous because many vehicles either don't have lights or drive with their high beams on at all times, and it is difficult to see bad spots in the road.
Driving in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi should be left to the experts.
There is no motoring organization to provide emergency assistance in Vietnam. If you have a problem on the road and are driving a rented vehicle, call the rental company for help. Otherwise, phone the police emergency number: 113. Try to enlist the services of someone who speaks Vietnamese to tell the police where you are and the nature of your problem.
Rules of the Road
Considering that Vietnam's streets are a frenzy of motorists, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians, it's no surprise that the country's traffic fatalities per capita are among the highest in the world. There seems to be a vague understanding among riders, drivers, and pedestrians that they're all in it together. But this doesn't make the streets much safer. Traffic police are treated with contempt, pedestrians seem oblivious to the flow—and danger—of vehicles, late-night construction workers play cards in the intersections, and children have been known to dart into streets without warning.
Though traffic lights are all over Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you shouldn't put too much faith in them; red lights are often ignored, especially at night and especially in Hanoi. Right turns on red are forbidden, although you'd never realize this by watching an intersection. One-way streets are also dangerous, as there is usually a trickle of traffic flowing the wrong way. And although the Vietnamese technically drive on the right side of the road, the concept of lanes has yet to catch on. Road safety laws and speed restrictions do exist, but they change frequently, are poorly communicated and rarely upheld.
Driving a motorbike in smaller towns like Hoi An is easier than doing so in hectic Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but driving skills remain poor throughout the country. When riding a motorbike or bicycle, use your skills of predicting, timing, and weaving. It is imperative that you use the horn, since most drivers rarely glance around before changing lanes. Unfortunately, since everyone uses the horn at every opportunity, it has become less of a warning and more of an announcement of one's status as a motorcycle rider.
Always give the right of way to trucks, army jeeps, and buses. It's not that they don't necessarily want to stop for you—they just might not have any brakes. The best way to get through traffic on foot, using extreme caution, is to walk at a steady pace across the street and watch out—oncoming vehicles will have a better chance of avoiding you if the drivers can get a sense of where you will be going next, and if you stop suddenly, it's harder for them to judge.
For border crossings into Vietnam from the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia and China, it is not advisable to drive because Vietnam imposes heavy import taxes on foreign vehicles and formalities are rigorous, involving a lot of pre-planning, paperwork and luck—even armed with the appropriate import papers, visas, and permits, your vehicle is likely to be refused entry. Even major tour companies are not immune, and get around it by switching vehicles and drivers at border crossings. Vietnam does not issue visas on arrival, but many reputable travel agencies offer pre-arranged visas, which are available to citizens of most countries, including the United States, but only to those landing in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Danang. This makes for a convenient option for those who don’t live near a Vietnamese consulate, but note that in high season, you may be stuck waiting in line for some time. You’ll need to pay your visa fee in cash; as of this writing, the cost for American citizens is $45 for a one- or three-month single entry visa, $65 for a 30-day multiple-entry visa, and $95 for a longer multiple-entry visa.