What driving licenses are valid to drive in Vietnam?

This is a common and frequently discussed topic among the expat community in Vietnam. There is the general confusion and misinformation about valid licences for Vietnam. Rather than going through the different licences, we will talk about the differences between the actual rules and reality.

Rules: They are written regulations set by laws and decrees. Following the rules makes us law-abiding

The legalities

According to the Vietnamese traffic code, there are only two driving licences valid to drive in Vietnam

_ A Vietnamese driving licence can either be obtained by applying for the driving test or by converting a valid foreign driving licence.

Picture 1: A Vietnamese driving licence can either be obtained by applying for the driving test

_ An International Driving Permit from the convention on road traffic of 1968.

Picture 2: No other driving licence is permitted in Vietnam

No other driving licence is permitted in Vietnam. And the Vietnamese licence does not provide a legal right to drive in other countries.

Considerations about the International Driving Permit (IDP):

  • There are multiple international permits offered online, but they are not actual driving permits. Any international permit that is not from 1968’s traffic convention is simply NOT VALID in Vietnam.
  • This is how the IDP from 1968 looks like
Picture 3: the IDP from 1968
  • This is how NON-VALID permits look like

Pay especially attention to the IAA international permits that are widely sold in Southeast Asia. These like all others disclaim: “This document is a translation in multiple languages.” Indeed, they are translations, and they can serve a function in countries where the police just need to see a translation, which is NOT the case of Vietnam.

Picture 4: IAA international driving permits are not valid in Vietnam

The reality

Police may be tolerant or strict, which greatly depends on the location. The results of a traffic stop will vary a lot depending on the province or city, hence not all stops will be subject to a strict application of the law. Here are some cases that illustrate this:

Picture 5: Police stop people to check their motorbike papers and licenses


_ In poor provinces, police training may be deficient resulting in a less detailed knowledge of the law. I once made a report in Kon Tum province to retrieve a motorbike after an accident. The driver only had his IDP from Australia which is technically invalid. Yet, the police officer took the IDP as well as the original Australian licences, processed and signed the report. We can assume this could happen too in other provinces with little urbanization.

_ Also, in remote provinces and districts, police can accept foreign driving permits even though they are not valid. In some cases, tourists mentioned showing their foreign licences (without an IDP) to the police to then be accepted.

_ In large cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, and Ha Noi, police will be more knowledgeable and better trained, but it is not a guarantee that they will always go by the book. Most officers will be well informed and will not accept the wrong IDP or a foreign licence. However, there were cases where police stopped unlicensed drivers, and when getting my support in mediation police mentioned they could make exceptions when the driver is in the process of converting a license. In this case, they require a notarized translation of their foreign license.

_ Following up on the previous norm, there were cases when police said foreigners could start driving with a foreign licence and a notarized translation when recently arrived in Vietnam and while awaiting the necessary paperwork to convert their licences. To verify this, they would check the passport and visa of the person in question. Ultimately, since it is not a rule, this remains at the discretion of the officer in charge.

_ Police would also be more tolerant of tourists from countries that did not sign the 1968 convention like Australia for example. They could be tolerant when seeing that indeed the person is a tourist and cannot convert a licence locally.

Evidently, these norms are based on happenings only. The following are cases in which not having a valid licence will be an issue:

_ In the case of an important accident with a third party. Should there be damage or worse, the police will have to intervene and comply with all regulations during the investigation, especially since insurance companies may be involved.

_ In the case of an inspection or traffic stop when officers comply fully with all regulations. If stopped for an infraction of documents checking in these cases will result in a fine and confiscation of the vehicle. Inspections tend to happen twice a year for a month each time (usually mid and end of the year.) Organized large traffic stops are usually set when a specific quota needs to be reached, mostly by the end of the month, In those cases chances are the officers will comply with all laws so long as they have the knowledge of them.

Conclusion

Yes, you SHOULD have a valid driving licence to drive in Vietnam.

Yes, it is true you may not get in trouble when not having a licence, lots of foreigners have been doing so for years. But there is no 100% guarantee that you will not get in trouble.

Yes, it is true that even if stopped without a licence you could get away with the officer’s tolerance (or other arrangements), but do not expect it to be a standard.

No, if you are not able to convert a licence to a Vietnamese one nor apply for an IDP from the 1968 convention, then you possibly have no legal way to drive in Vietnam. However, in this case, police may be more lenient if you do have a valid licence for the vehicle you are driving from another country, especially if you have a notarized translation of it.

Additional considerations

Since Covid times, the Vietnamese government has initiated anti-corruption and formalization campaigns that are making enormous changes to the country. The norms mentioned are affected by these changes since there is a lot more training and controls for police now.

From 2023, the changes implemented show a lot more strictness from the government and police. This means that most people should not rely much on norms and “friendly arrangements”, it is rather the time to make sure we are complying with the rules, so get a valid licence!

 Picture 6: A valid licence in Vietnam