By Alison Bate

I’m finally legal, after five months of zoom-zooming around Hanoi.

Yesterday, I went to pick up my Vietnamese motorbike license, after a tortuous but entertaining journey.

Like nearly everyone here in Hanoi, I’ve broken rules that I wouldn’t dream of flouting in Canada. Ridden my Yamaha Nouvo daily without a license and without insurance; carried passengers without a helmet; and occasionally even ridden the wrong way down main roads. That’s what Hanoians do, and it’s simply the best way to get around the city.

It’s nerve-wracking at first, driving on the crazy, noisy no-rules streets. But after a while, you get used the rhythm of the roads and learn to never look back – only ahead.

I’ve never been stopped by the police and if I had been, the advice was simple: pretend you don’t speak any Vietnamese. As most of the police don’t speak English, either, they are very reluctant to stop westerners or Tays, as we are called.

But now, after endless paperwork, getting a Vietnamese car license, a battery of photos, a medical and a figure-of-eight driving test, I’m finally legal.

Ten days ago, I joined four other colleagues at Language Link for the final big hurdle: the practical test.

My Yamaha is an automatic, and the test is done on Honda Wave semi-automatics. So the guy I rent my scooter from did a swap for one day so I could practice using gears and a foot brake.

His main advice: “Take the test in third gear, and don’t put your feet down. If you go outside the lines, keep going. They are not looking to fail foreigners.”

“How will I get there?” I asked him. “Guess I’ll have to take a xe-om (motorbike taxi)?”

“No, everybody rides there on their own motorbikes. No problem.”

Pix parking lot
The parking lot full of motorbikes we all rode BEFORE taking the test in Hanoi

He was right. When I drove illegally to the test and parked my Yamaha, the lot was already jam-packed with everyone else’s scooters and bikes.

Very few Vietnamese I know have taken the test – let alone foreigners – so it was a bit of a surprise to find 200-300 people waiting, all ordered to arrive at 8 a.m.

I got there early about the same time as my colleague Kristel and had a bit of a practice on my own scooter and then her Honda Wave. Then Jonathan, Micky and Caleb also showed up.

Everyone was milling around watching the practice sessions, and now and then, an official would gruffly move people away from the railings, for no good reason. People shuffled back immediately.

Huong, from work, had been patiently shepherding us through each hurdle and was there on her day off to help us out again.

A giant classroom with blackboard over the way was full of people taking the written part of the test. We’d bypassed this stage, having our overseas driving licenses translated and notarised into Vietnamese. But just outside the classroom, two impressive lists included all the details about the candidates: everyone’s name, date of birth, our passport numbers, full home addresses, etc. Not much privacy here in Hanoi.

I was No. 132 on the list, a depressing thought as we waited and waited while the day got hotter and hotter.

At one stage we were herded upstairs to sign more forms and pay a 70,000 dong fee. Groups of candidates were shuffled across to the yard, like cattle in a job lot.

Five Wave machines and helmets were provided, and I became more and more nervous as the waiting game began.

Finally, the tests started. Some people went the wrong way round the figure of eight; one man went straight along the slalom bit; and one young woman with high cork heels tottered onto the bike, revved the engine and the bike took off without her and promptly fell over.

Watched by a tut-tutting audience, she immediately walked away from the arena, knowing she’d failed. But most people were very confident and really good – and why wouldn’t they be? Most have been riding bikes since they were teenagers.

Pix motorbike test
Kristel aces the Vietnamese motorbike test

Kristel was the first of our group to get called. She drives a Wave regularly and was pretty confident. She’d collected her own helmet from the parking lot: “I’m not getting lice,” she said firmly, and marched out and did just fine.

Huong had taken hold of the microphone so she could say our names properly. When my turn came, I collected a tiny jockey-cap helmet and settled onto my machine.

The bikes were left permanently in third gear, so all my gear practice wasn’t really necessary. But at least I now knew where the foot brake was. It was all over very quickly, and when I went over to the judges’ table, Huong gave me the thumbs up.

More officials checked my passport, Vietnamese drivers’ license and handed over another piece of paper for collecting the license at a later date. Yesterday, I did just that. But as I collected the large orange laminated license, instead of feeling proud, I felt kind of sad.

My days as an outlaw motorbike rider are over.

(Posted Friday Sept.28, 2012)

Pix motorbikes in hanoi
Ready to face Hanoi’s traffic jams …legally.