Confiscated Motorbikes Pile Up as Vietnam Goes After Drunken Driving

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Motorbikes — the preferred mode of transport in Vietnam — are piling up in impound lots in Ho Chi Minh City as it becomes more cost effective for some owners to abandon them than to pay the fines to get them back.

The city, Vietnam’s financial center, has gotten more aggressive in targeting drunken driving in recent years by raising fines and confiscating vehicles. Those fines are now often higher than the value of the vehicles, which many drivers are not reclaiming, officials say.

Now the police are wondering what to do with them.

Some residents are so frustrated by this that they are airing their complaints publicly, even though criticizing the ruling Communist Party can be risky in Vietnam.

Nguyen Khang, 30, who works at a bank in Ho Chi Minh City, said an inefficient and needlessly punitive system was holding motorbikes “hostage.”

“The relevant authorities also understand this,” he added. “But fundamentally, they have not yet found a more holistic approach.”

The zero-tolerance campaign against drunken driving echoes previous efforts in Vietnam to promote public order — by, say, clearing food vendors from the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — that were widely perceived as heavy handed.

Hue-Tam Jamme, an expert on urban development in Vietnam, said the abandoned motorbikes reflect a transition: As more Vietnamese join the middle class and buy their first cars, the bikes are becoming less essential in a country that is widely known for its motorbike traffic.

The rate of car ownership in Vietnam is still far below that of richer countries, though it jumped by from 3.3 to 4.8 cars per 100 households from 2018 to 2020, recent government data show.

In Ho Chi Minh City, cars account for a relatively small portion of vehicles on the roadway — 13 percent in 2018, according to Professor Jamme’s data, but their presence has already led to street-level tensions. There have been occasional physical altercations between car owners and residents who resent the loss of space for motorbike parking and sidewalk commerce.

“The motorbike is not the status symbol it used to be,” said Professor Jamme, who teaches at Arizona State University and studies the role that the vehicles play in Vietnam’s cities and its economy.

“I’m not that surprised that people are ready to let go,” she added. “A big, heavy fine might be the trigger to say, ‘OK, all right, I’m not even picking it up.’”

A four-year campaign against the harmful effects of alcohol has been a major factor in the impoundment of vehicles across Vietnam in recent years. Among other changes, the maximum fine for drunken driving roughly doubled in 2020 to the equivalent of more than $300, which is more than the average Vietnamese worker’s monthly salary. The law prohibits people from driving with any amount of alcohol in their system.

The campaign has had tangible effects in a country where beer flows freely at sidewalk restaurants and binge drinking is common. Nationwide beer sales dropped by at least a quarter almost immediately; tens of thousands of people lost their driver’s licenses; and last year traffic-related accidents, injuries and fatalities all declined, the Ho Chi Minh City police said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, nearly 155,000 vehicles were seized in 2022, most of them motorbikes, and most as a result of alcohol-related traffic violations, a local police official told the state-run news media last month.

Nguyen Huu Liem, 56, a construction worker in Ho Chi Minh City, said that both his license and motorbike were confiscated in January after he had “a little bit to drink to relax with a friend at the end of the day.”

“In my opinion, the fine is excessive for the average worker,” he said.

His motorbike is worth five million Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of about $200. The drunken driving fine he received was about $80 more. He paid the fine anyway, he said, because the police told him that it was the only way to get his license back.

Other drivers are leaving their bikes in Ho Chi Minh City’s police impound lots, and the pileup is creating administrative headaches.

As of last month, the city’s traffic police department was short on motorbike storage by 100,000 square feet, about the size of a city park, the police told the local news media. Thousands of bikes have been sold at auction, but the backlog has continued to grow and fires have occasionally broken out at the lots.

Jack Dang, 35, a construction worker in Ho Chi Minh City, said he had witnessed groups of people scavenging for motorbike parts inside the lots.

“Once they’re brought here,” he said, “it’s over.”



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