Riding through Vietnam by Motorbike is definitely an epic adventure. You are way more flexible, you will have some amazing 180° views while driving through the mountains or along the coast and you will see/meet real locals far away from tourism.
Despite all these good reasons to ride by motorbike, it can be quite dangerous for many reasons. According to the World Health Organization, on average, road traffic accidents kill approximately 14,000 people in Vietnam every year and are the leading cause of death among those aged between 15 and 29 years. Motorcyclists account for more than half of the fatalities.
The second danger are the motorbikes itself. The Backpacker Bestseller N°1, the famous “Honda Win” , is to 99% a chinese fake product. Honda stopped producing this model in 2000. So basically you buy a motorbike where probably all parts have been changed at least once, mostly with cheap second hand parts. The problem is that you really never know what exactly you are buying – so it all depends on your luck. Unfortunately we weren´t lucky, our Honda Win (We bought it for 270$) started burning on the second day and we were lucky when we could resell it for at least 105$ to a mechanic. This guy just painted the burned parts and sold it again for 250$ the next day – a suicide bike!
Two other guys joined our trip. One of them almost crashed on the first day because a part of his back wheel broke while driving. The other guy bought a bike for 85!$ from another backpacker. He had several problems on the way but he made it up to Ha Noi and sold it there for 175$ to another backpacker.
We didn´t want to risk it again and decided to rent a bike. We found a really reliable bikeshop called StyleMotorbikes. They offer almost new bikes from 110 to 130cc and the rental prices start at $180 for 1 month. They also warranty for any mechanical breakdowns when you are on the road and equip you with phone holder, luggage rack, bungee cords, map and lock as well. It might be more expensive than buying and selling a motorbike but it´s definitely worth it.
On another forum I found this graphic, which explains the “circuit of life” of a backpacker bike quite well:
If you don´t know how to drive a manual motorbike, the shop as well as the Backpackers will show you how to do it. But safety first! If you are not used to the asian traffic (It works slightly different than back home in Europe ;)) you may want to rent a scooter first to see how it´s like and if you feel comfortable. Right in front of the train station of Saigon, there´s a big square with almost no traffic – a perfect place to start. If you start in Ha Noi, driving around the Ho Tay lake is the way to learn it- nice and curvy road with almost no traffic (cars are not allowed to drive there).
Here are some useful tips to know before you start:
- When buying a bike, ensure that it comes with a Blue Vietnamese Registration Card (a little blue card that has a serial number, make and model, name of the original buyer, etc). You’ll need this to avoid getting your bike impounded. Every bike should also come with a license plate.
- Make sure you have a travel insurance which includes full medical evacuation coverage. Most areas in Vietnam have insufficient medical care for road accident victims, and evacuation will probably ruin you financially. If you are driving illegally (with no A1/A2 licence) they won’t pay anything – but maybe you were codriving when the accident happened
- Get an international drivers permit from your National Automobile Association (If you have a motorcycle A1 or A2 licence). If you don´t have a valid licence, you are technically driving illegally.As long as you are not driving to fast and you are obeying the road rules, you probably won’t get stopped by the police.Except in Mui Ne (see below), the police all over the country was really nice and they are not trying to scam you like in other asian countries (for example Thailand and Indonesia).
- Get a local 3G SIM card for Navigation, Vinaphone offers unlimited mobile internet for one month on prepaid that cost 100,000D. Navigation with GoogleMaps and Maps.Me works well in Vietnam, despite the fact that you are not allowed to ride on some highways and speedways. That´s why you should download and follow one of the motorbike routes.
- Choose your route ! You can always switch between the different routes,from the mountains to the coast, but you should take one as a basic route. There´s an awesome vietnam blog on the internet called vietnamcoracle.com where you can find all necessary informations and download the routes to your phone. You can find 5 different routes from South to North here.
- Buy a decent helmet! Don´t drive with the Vietnamese Coconutshell on your head. It will probably cost you around 25-80$, but it will safe your life and you can usually resell them easily to other backpackers. Motorbike gloves can be useful as well.
- Avoid Mui Ne. Apart from red,white and yellow sand dunes there isn´t much to see there. But this town is full of corrupt and fake police, which is looking for anything to let you pay. If you want to go there anyways, here you´ll find all necessary information how you can probably avoid them.
- Take your motorcycle on a bus or a train, if you are running out of time. Traveling by train can be quite relaxing and is more comfortable than you might think. You can choose between different classes, from wooden hard benches to a comfy bed. I can highly recommend the soft seats because it is comfortable and not expensive at all. To bring your bike costs a little bit more, but the most expensive part is the wrapping itself. Do not fill up your tank before getting to the train station as the petrol is drained prior to boarding.
- Never drive in the dark. Driving at night can be hazardous because many vehicles either don’t have lights or drive with their high beams on at all times, and it is difficult to see potholes in the road.
- Always have some sunscreen, creme for burnings and big plasters with you. The sun can be really strong while driving and you´ll probably get burned on your legs from the exhaust ( A so called Vietnamese Tattoo). In this case , run burn through water for 15 minutes immediately (dont use ice; you may cause frostbite), don’t pop blisters. and cover it with gauze or non sticking dressing material. In the worst case you could get a blood infection so don´t take it to easy!
- Never drive alone. Try to find travel companions at Facebook pages like “Vietnam Backpackers Travel and Sales“, “Thailand,Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam Backpacker/Traveler“, “Backpacking Vietnam by Bike- Sales and Advice“. Just post something about yourself and the route you wish to take and I´m sure you´ll find some travelers who wanna join you.
- Drive slowly around curves! Road conditions can change immediately, animals can be in your way and not infrequently busses and trucks do overtake in front of curves as well (Always horn).
- Calculate with 40 km/h when planning your route. Especially when you are from Germany (where you can drive as fast as you want on some motorways), it is hard to imagine that you hardly make 50 km per hour. Within towns the speed limit is 40 and on speedways 60 km/h for motorbikes (80 km/h for cars).
- Change oil at least every 500km, also check the tire pressure and chain tension. Look for shops by the side of the road which have signs reading Xe May or have an air compressor out the front and motorcycle parts hanging in the shopfront.
- Safe some time to explore northern Vietnam. It is supposed to be the most beautiful part to ride a motorbike, if you are an experienced rider (We went there only for a couple of days but it´s so worth it! We highly recommend the drive from Yen Bien to Mu Cang Chai to SaPa.). Check out the Sapa to Ha Giang Tour and the Extreme North Ha Giang Loop.
- Follow my recommendations! 🙂
To see the top recommendations of my Vietnam Trip (Where to find the craziest Bar/ A good taylor in Hoi An/ Cheap Hostel with Sauna in cold Da Lat and the best Vietamese Pizza etc) download the App Stamptravel and follow me there –> 2travelis2live 🙂
- Have fun!