Three years ago, the four different taxes and fees on imported cars meant that Vietnamese car buyers were facing prices more than two or three times the original price.
However, as is so often the case in Vietnam, things have changed at a pace no one could have predicted.
New cars are becoming more affordable, and one knock-on effect is the creation of a huge second-hand car market.
To discover the current state of that market, I put on my metaphorical fake moustache and went undercover as a potential customer.
With my colleague taking secret iPhone photos and a convincing backstory prepared, we prepared to meet a few different second-hand car sellers, and gauge what kind of wheels my fake dollars could buy.
Suited and Booted
At the time of writing, over 3,000 used cars are listed for sale in Hanoi across three different online marketplaces.
The first car which catches my eye is a six-month-old Volvo XC90, the only luxurious workhorse which has ever challenged Range Rover for the crown of Chief Chelsea Tractor.
I don my best suit, and go to check it out with my colleague, as we pretend to be investment consultants needing a decent motor to impress clients.
The showroom, Truc Anh Auto, contains a vast collection of second-hand luxurious SUVs and imported German saloons.
“We respray the older cars,” explains Nguyen Khang, the owner. “It makes them look as good as new.”
His claim is evidenced by a pristine BMW 5-series and a pair of white Porsche Cayennes, all more than six years old, yet looking like they rolled off the production line last week.
Khang is as sharp in his answers as he is in his appearance, and riffs off details concerning fuel economy, previous owners, performance and admin.
“We can help you with everything,” says Khang. “Insurance, registration, servicing… we can do it all.”
Va Va Voom
After getting some more information about the Volvo I had come to see, I ask if we can take it for a quick spin around the block.
After some deliberation with his colleagues, Khang returns with a key and a nod.
As I prepare to drive a car in Hanoi for the first time, I try to forget that even second-hand, this is still a US$130,000 vehicle.
Khang tells me the car has only done 10,000km, but when I check the readout inside the car, I find the true number is actually 26,000km. Taking his lead from British second-hand car dealers on that one, then.
The test drive is no different to others I’ve done in England; the nervous-looking salesman sits beside me and continues answering questions. The Volvo rides like a dream, and I can’t deny enjoying the superiority afforded to me by its sheer size.
Once back at the showroom, we look around a few other SUVs. Most of the cars he has are six years old or less, and he says the average time between getting new stock and finding a buyer is about one month.
The street contains dozens of other second-hand car showrooms, all of which Khang says regularly turnover and update their stock. The market has become more competitive since the government reduced the registration fee on second-hand cars to just 3%.
Staying at the more interesting end of a market filled with bland Toyotas and revolting little Kias, the next meeting is with a private seller, who wants US$100,000 in exchange for her two-year-old Range Rover Evoque.
The asking price is very optimistic, considering a brand-new top-of-the-range model costs around US$65,000 in the US.
We don’t even exchange pleasantries before the key is being thrust towards me for the test drive. With a couple of friends present to help translate and negotiate, the seller accompanies us on a quick drive around the area, telling us to ask questions later.
With more than 30,000km on the clock and a surprising amount of turbo lag during the test drive, I am filled with questions to try and justify the obscene asking price.
The brakes feel like they’ve had their shiny red discs replaced with wet sponge cake, and there is an oil warning light staring at me from behind the steering wheel. When I ask the seller’s associate for evidence of service history, they are unable to offer anything.
The engine is the entry level 2.0L turbocharged model, and it feels like it’s been driven to the moon and back. Despite this, the seller insists she’s only used it for modest driving around Hanoi.
A day later, I receive a follow-up message offering me a US$3,000 discount on the Evoque before I’d even made an offer.
However, the car would still cost well over US$100,000 once the registration fee and insurance have been added on; both of which the private seller also offered to help with.
In a reflection of the second-hand car market back home, I’m unsurprised to learn that if you go private, you’re asking for trouble.
At Truc Anh Auto, peace of mind was delivered courtesy of a knowledgeable, professional salesman and the offer of a one-year warranty; two things missing from any meeting with a private seller.
For the most comprehensive used car listings, check out muabanoto.vn, muaxe24.com and anycar.vn. The showroom we visited was located at 115 Le Van Luong, Trung Hoa, Hanoi. This street contains many other large second hand car dealerships