Home » Vietnam Is A Different Place For Car People 15 Years After Top Gear’s Visit

Vietnam Is A Different Place For Car People 15 Years After Top Gear’s Visit

Vietnam 15 Years Ts
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I went to Vietnam, and like any good Western tourist, I didn’t shut up about it for months after. While I was there, I bought a motorbike and rode it around the country, learning several good lessons along the way. I also spotted a great many interesting vehicles while I was there. It’s proof that wherever you find cars, you find a weird car culture lurking around the fringes, too!

The thing about Vietnam is that it’s not the same country as it was when Top Gear visited back in 2008. In fifteen years since, the country has adopted cars with great enthusiasm. Today, it’s estimated there are 55 cars in use per 1,000 people in Vietnam. That figure was as low as 23 cars per 1,000 people in 2018.  Compare that to 908 cars per 1,000 people in the USA. With a population approaching 100 million people, Vietnam is seen as one of the biggest potential growth markets for the automotive industry.

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That was readily apparent even to me when I visited in 2023. I’d last been in the country in 2016, and there were a hell of a lot more cars around versus my last visit. Naturally, as an automotive journalist, I couldn’t help but capture a few of the most interesting ones. Stick around to the end, because things get weird and mysterious.

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There’s plenty of wealth in Vietnam, it’s just not distributed particularly equally. Buying a car is still cost prohibitive for a lot of people, but those with means are happy to spend their cash on luxury models. The first notable vehicle I spotted was a lightly-modified BMW 535i.

It was a little lower than I’d like given the rough condition of Vietnam’s roads, but it certainly had presence compared to the teeny motorbikes everybody else was getting around on. The owner spotted me taking a photo and I gave him the universal sign of approval between car enthusiasts—a thumbs up. He returned the gesture.

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It wasn’t an AMG.

Oddball cars with strange decorations weren’t hard to find, either. In Phan Thiet, I happened across a BAIC Beijing X7 with a black and white vinyl wrap. Most hilarious, though, was the giant “POLIME” sticker. Not sure if they swung at “POLICE” and missed, or if it was an intentional joke. Who’s to say? In any case, Chinese cars are growing thicker on the ground in Vietnam at the moment.Pxl 20230221 003258331

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Even cooler was this Toyota Mark II that had been hacked into a custom convertible. It lived by the sand dunes and had a searing pink paint job that even covered the license plates. I’m not sure how the interior had held up that well given that it appeared to be stored outside, but it didn’t even smell slightly moldy! I just wish I’d spotted the owner so I could have asked for a ride.

Small trucks weren’t exactly rare in Vietnam, I’m pretty sure I even saw a couple of Kei-class vehicles. This weird half-van, half-box truck was a bit of an irregularity, however. Perhaps most weird is what looks like some kind of refrigeration unit mounted to the box, even though it’s branded for a tire shop. Cold rubber, I guess?

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VinFast naturally had a presence in its country of origin, most notably within VinGroup malls. However, I didn’t actually see a lot of the company’s latest models on the road. The VinFast VF8 was pretty much brand new at this point, so it makes sense that there weren’t a whole lot out there just yet.

Subcompacts were quite popular, too, like the Hyundai i10 and this Kia Disco Very. Not gonna lie, I wish they’d call it that for real.

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In Vietnam, the Discovery badge is more popular than sticking on fake M, AMG, or GT-R badges.

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My favorite find of the trip, though, was this second-generation SsangYong Korando Sport. These things had license-built Mercedes-Benz engines and five-speed manual gearboxes, and I suspect that they were at least passable off-road. More than that though, this one looked badass as hell with its black paint job and chunky tri-spoke wheels. I suspect AMG had nothing to do with it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a capable vehicle. If this model had the 3.2-liter M104 straight-six under the hood, it was packing a good 217 horsepower. Not bad at all.

Likely more off-road capable was this mighty Ford Ranger I found in the middle of Hanoi. This thing was brawny and had a full graphic wrap to boot. I’m not sure whether the owner was an architect or if they just dug the design, but hey. It’s clear they loved their car, and it would have been great for getting around to muddy building sites on Vietnam’s many dirt roads.

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Real beadlockers, or fake? You tell me.
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I never put a shopping list on my Mazda MX-5 track car because brands like “YELLOWSPEED” don’t inspire adulation. But this guy’s gone big with HKS, Momo, and Sparco.
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I think an AI made this sticker.

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It wasn’t that rare to see cheap compact cars with lots of visual customization. This Peugeot 106 was typical of the form, though the iridescent elements were a nice touch. A lot of these cars ended up looking like cheap Chinese toys, covered in fake stickers, but hey, at least they were having fun, right? Just don’t expect to see this one actually appearing on PeugeotMotorsport.com.

I was pretty impressed with the wheel choices of some of Vietnam’s local enthusiasts, though. This Genesis Coupe looked great in yellow, and the deep-dish rims were perfect for the application.

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When you’re a foreigner in a new land, you often have big gaps in understanding when it comes to the local culture. It can be difficult to know what you’re looking at, or how it came to be.

I had a moment like this when I happened across a Toyota Crown parked in a nook next to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. This one caught my eye instantly, and I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t explain why this Toyota was here, and why someone had apparently started working on it in the grounds of a museum.

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The car was in a state of some decay. It was covered in dust and clearly hadn’t moved in some time. You’d be able to tell if someone was recently working on it, because there’d be handprints in the dust and maybe some oil or tools on the ground. Instead, the area was remarkably clean. It was like the car had been jacked up and left to sit without any work actually being done.

Again, it seemed very strange to me that you’d choose a museum courtyard to work on your vehicle. Nevertheless, whoever owned this car had gotten away with stashing it there for some time. I don’t speak or read Vietnamese, so I couldn’t decipher much from the paper on the dash, but I did notice a bunch of tools and replacement fluids strewn inside.
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This thing was a manual, so it broke my heart even more that it had seemingly been abandoned. By the look of things, someone had intended to do some kind of repair and then simply walked away. The rear left door even appeared to be not quite shut properly, as if someone were intending to come right back.

I’d kill to restore this thing and take it for a drive. Realistically, that’s never going to happen, but I hope someone does. They should leave the patina exactly as it stands, because this is now a car with a history. Clearly, a loved one, too. Someone bothered to rivet the Toyota badge back on when it fell off the trunk lid; most drivers in Vietnam wouldn’t have bothered.

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I wouldn’t try attempting to recuse this vehicle unless you had an excellent fixer in Vietnam and a budget on par with The Grand Tour. If you do know anything about this car, or it’s history, though, you gotta let me know. If you’re in Hanoi any time soon, let me know if it’s still there.

Overall, I saw a great many interesting vehicles in Vietnam. There were the ultra-cheap subcompacts, a ton of workaday Toytoas, and your standard high-dollar luxury sedans. Perhaps the main thing I found missing was outright supercars. I suspect, unlike China, the roads and culture in Vietnam would make it exceedingly foolish to try and drive one in the city center. Honestly, I don’t know if you could even get the average Ferrari through Saigon.

It’s always fun to explore a new country and interpret its car culture through a naive lens. Stay tuned for my next installment when I tell the grand story of my own journey across the length of this grand country.

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Image credits: Lewin Day

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Clive Wilson
Clive Wilson
15 days ago

My eldest son has lived in Hanoi for the past seven years, so I’ve been there a few times now. There are definitely more cars on the road than there were when I first visited.

The big change last year was the number of Vinfasts everywhere. Mostly taxis, many electric.

For a Westerner, the wealth disparity can be confronting. I’ve seen more Maybachs in Hanoi than anywhere else I’ve been, but there is real poverty too. I remember seeing an elderly couple who spent each morning sitting in the street sorting and bundling the waste plastic they’d collected, so they could sell it to someone for a bit of cash. No social security, no old age pension, no safety net. Parked just a few metres down the road was a nice shiny Bentley, which made for something of a contrast.

Good to see I’m not the only one who wondered about the oddly high-status Discovery badges, too!

And there’s nothing quite like riding a two-wheeler through Hanoi’s rush hour to get the adrenalin flowing and make you giggle like an idiot. Fortune favours the brave!

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
15 days ago

Interesting to see Vietnam using Germany’s old DIN 1451 typeface for the numberplates. DIN 1451 was notorious for ease of faking the letters and numbers (C can become O, 3 <–> 8, F <–> E, P <–> R, etc.). This problem was the reason why Red Army Faction was “successful” in eluding the authorities for a long time in the 1970s.

Germany introduced the new typeface system called DIN FE-Schrift (Fälschungserschwerende Schrift, forgery-impeding typeface). This became widely adopted in many countries.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
15 days ago

Great. DISCO VERY is going to stick with me for the rest of my life.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
15 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

From this moment forward, if a child asks me how to spell “discovery”, I have the answer.

Spotimusprime
Spotimusprime
15 days ago

I had a diesel korando when i lived in in south korea. i think i paid about 700 USD for it. absolutely great knockaround truck, even with 4spd auto. got about 30mpg and fit a couple surfboards really easy. only weird thing is in even slightly colder weather i’d have to warm up the glow plugs twice before starting.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
15 days ago

“the average Ferrari” like we all have one sitting in the yard somewhere. 🙂

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
15 days ago

People who have travelled to Vietnam are like Harvard grads: they will never pass up an opportunity to tell you.

And yes, thanks for asking, I have travelled to Vietnam. It was for my honeymoon back in 2013, so before all the current tourists ruined it.

Thi
Thi
15 days ago
Reply to  ColoradoFX4

It’s because Vietnam is a magical place haha.

It is the total truth though, once you go to Vietnam you will tell everyone about it forever.

SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
15 days ago
Reply to  ColoradoFX4

Overcompensating for the lack of returnees talking about Vietnam a few decades back, perhaps?

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
15 days ago

Regarding the Crown, as per WP, blue plates with white letters are for government cars. The first two numerals indicate the departement (hangover from French colonial days, like the “75” on Parisian cars) and 80 is reserved for “Central Government, President, and Ministry of Public Security”.

Gubbin
Gubbin
15 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

The card reads “ĐẠI HỘI ĐẠI BIỂU PHỤ NỮ TOÀN QUỐC LẦN THỨ XII NHIỆM KỲ 2017-2022” which translates as “THE 12TH NATIONAL WOMEN’S CONGRESS FOR THE TERM 2017-2022”, so I assume it was a pass for an event that took place just over 7 years ago in March of 2017.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
15 days ago
Reply to  Gubbin

Thanks! Google or fluent? Still seems like an odd vehicle to (perhaps) preserve.

Gubbin
Gubbin
15 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

Google – my Vietnamese is limited to wrongly-pronounced food names. I suspect it broke down while being used to ferry attendees around the conference, and is gonna get fixed up “any day now.”

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
15 days ago
Reply to  Gubbin

Between that card and the location I was thinking that, since it’s at the Women’s Museum, maybe it is intended or planned to be on display? Maybe they just don’t have a better way to store it nor space to display it inside. Or maybe just a company car, fleet or pool car, that they haven’t quite managed to let go of?

Last edited 15 days ago by Balloondoggle
Thi
Thi
15 days ago

Surprised you didn’t see very many VF8s in 2023. When I was last there in February the VF8 was super common, though most of them being ran by Xanh SM (VinFast’s taxi company).

If you booked a luxury ride you would get a black or white VF8 with minimal taxi branding, and a normal ride would get you a teal VFe34.

As for the oddest car I’ve seen in Vietnam to go with the flavor of the post… That has to go to the 1991 Lincoln Town Car I saw in Hanoi that stuck out like a sore thumb.

It left me with so many questions on the logistics of it even being in Vietnam considering it was made back with Vietnam was under a trade embargo with the US.

10001010
10001010
15 days ago

That Korando Sport looks like it’d be fun to bang around in.

Spotimusprime
Spotimusprime
15 days ago
Reply to  10001010

i had a diesel korando in korea. can confirm, fun to bang around in.

CatMan
CatMan
15 days ago

The Genesis Coupe wins the day for me

Leon Muks
Leon Muks
15 days ago

Pop rivets are – uh – popular there.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
15 days ago

Polime is one spelling of the Vietnamese word for polymer. Perhaps that wrap was advertising car wraps.

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
15 days ago

Considering cars like the Suzuki Every Joypop Turbo, Toyota Deliboy and Mazda Bongo Friendee exist, my brain had no trouble thinking the Kia Disco Very was a real thing.

Jmfecon
Jmfecon
15 days ago

It would be nice to see one in an iridescent wrap with Very Disco instead.

Sarah Blikre
Sarah Blikre
15 days ago

I was kinda sad that it was just supposed to say Discovery. I like Disco Very much more.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
15 days ago
Reply to  Sarah Blikre

We should do a change.org petition to demand that Land Rover rename the Discovery thus.

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