Motorbikes are a beloved and convenient mode of transportation in South East Asia. In Vietnam, they are especially popular among backpackers who want to drive from one end of the country to the other.
Lots of people buy a bike for a long trip or do rent a bike for the day to explore and get around more easily. I went for a combination and rented a motorbike for an epic 10-day journey from Hanoi to Hoi An.
Driving a motorbike is a great way to travel through Vietnam as you have the freedom to go where and when you want and you get to see more of the countryside than if you travel by bus or train. Here are a few things to know about riding a motorbike in Vietnam.
1. Which bike to choose
First things first: what kind of bike will you be driving? It all depends on your experience. Inexperienced drivers might want to start with an automatic scooter, whereas more experienced drivers can take a semi-automatic or manual motorbike. I personally prefer a semi-automatic bike as they are not as heavy as full automatics, easier to steer, not as jumpy and the gears give you more control over the bike. I had only ever driven an automatic scooter a couple of times and I drive manual cars, so the semi-automatic gear shift was easy enough to manage. I had it down after a couple of times around the block.
In Vietnam, you’ll see lots of different scooters and bikes, but Honda is definitely the most popular brand. Be aware that a lot of bikes aren’t actual Hondas but cheap Chinese knockoffs. You can easily recognize backpackers from their Honda Win, a cool looking but absolutely terrible motorbike. They are notoriously prone to breakdowns and you won’t see locals drive any, they often stick with Honda Dreams. My bike was a Honda Future, only a couple of years old and an absolute dream to ride. If you’re only renting a bike for a day in the city, 100 CC will be enough (unless it’s two on a bike). If you want to drive in the countryside and have luggage, you will need at least 125 CC bike or a 150 CC if you’re driving with a passenger.
The final thing to consider is whether you want to buy or rent your bike. This all depends on your experience and your itinerary. If plan to drive the whole length of the country, know at least a bit about motorcycle maintenance and have at least a month, buying is a good option. Buying a cheap backpacker bike in Hanoi and selling it in Ho Chi Minh is likely the most cost-efficient way to do it. Just be aware that these backpacker bikes are heavily used, worn out and constantly break down. So don’t be surprised if you end up spending a lot of time and money on repairs and take someone who knows how to spot a good bike (if you can’t) with you when buying one.
Renting a bike will give you more of a guarantee that you’ll have a pleasant ride on a quality bike. Rental bikes are newer, better maintained and come with the guarantee that all repairs (that aren’t due to your error) will be refunded by the rental company. This a good option if you only mean to drive part of the country, for a couple of weeks or if you, like me, know nothing about motorbikes.
It’ll end up a bit more expensive since you are not selling the bike after your trip, but in my experience, it was well worth the extra money. There are several different rental companies with multiple offices that allow drop-offs in a different city. I went with Flamingo Travel and had a great experience, but you could also look into Motorvina and Tigit.
2. Where to go
Vietnam is a big country with a lot of beautiful places to visit. The elongated shape makes it easy to form an itinerary that hits all the highlights, simply by going south to north or north to south. This means you are also likely to keep running into the same people again and again as everyone does roughly the same trail. The roads are geared towards this as well with the 1A highway and the Ho Chi Minh Highway both running the length of the country.
I avoided the 1A highway as much as possible as it’s generally busy, with lots of trucks and boring as it offers little in the way of scenery. The Ho Chi Minh Highway, in contrast, is an absolute joy to drive. It runs through National Parks, mountains, rice fields, and little villages. The roads are well maintained, quiet and lined with plenty of petrol stations and restaurants.
I would recommend starting in Hanoi and spending most of your time in north and central Vietnam, which were my favourite parts and have the nicest drives. From there take the Ho Chi Minh Highway down. I also really loved the Hai Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An, so don’t skip that. When planning your bike route, consider how much time you want to spend on the bike each day.
My maximum distance was 300 km which took about 70-8 hours after which I was completely fried. Take as much time as possible to shorten your drives and take rest days, your body will need it. To plan my stops in between cities, I would look up on Google Maps and maps.me where there were hotels along the way, although I also stayed at a couple that weren’t on any map.
One day took us through a National Park where there were no shops, restaurants or petrol stations and we had to keep driving to make it out of the park before dark, which we narrowly managed. I also ran out of petrol here, but luckily one of the guys had a bottle of petrol with him for emergencies, always make sure you have one of those!
3. How to navigate the crazy traffic
I wrote a bit about the traffic in Vietnam in my post on things to know before you visit Vietnam, comparing it to fish in an ocean. Don’t let the madness of the traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh deter you. As soon as you get out of the city, there is much less traffic, especially on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
And the traffic, in general, is not nearly as crazy as it looks. It is actually a very organised chaos that functions according to two main principles: big is king and always mind the person in front of you. This means that you make space for vehicles that are bigger than you and you mostly focus on the traffic directly in front of you.
While driving in the countryside or on the highways, always pay attention and watch out for people suddenly pulling onto the road. Use your horn to announce your presence, especially when driving fast. Drive carefully but confident in a way that others can anticipate your behaviour. As one local told me: drive as if there’s a rock, roadblock or water buffalo around each corner because there just might be. This goes especially in the mountains, where you don’t want to cross into the path of an oncoming truck in one of the hairpin turns.
I’ve seen plenty of backpackers in Vietnam with injuries ranging from sprains and broken bones to huge bad wounds and scraped off skin from motorbike accidents. So always make sure to wear appropriate clothing, footwear, and a good full-face helmet.
4. How to maintain your bike
I knew basically nothing about motorbikes when I rented one for 10 days in Vietnam. And I still don’t know much as my beloved Gloria didn’t break down once. Luckily, every man, woman, and child in Vietnam seems to be versed in the basics of motorcycle maintenance and will be able to help you out of you break down somewhere. There are also plenty of mechanics that can fix pretty much any problem for a few dollars, although they’ll often try to overcharge you.
As a frame of reference, fixing a tire should cost about 50.000-100.000 Dong. Make sure you have enough cash on you at all times, in case you need to get something repaired.
To keep your bike in good condition, get the oil changed every 800 km or more frequently, the chain greased every couple of days, take a spare bottle of petrol with you in case of emergency.
5. How to deal with the police
So, officially you’re not allowed to drive a motorbike in Vietnam unless you have a Vietnamese driving license. International driver licenses are not valid, which means that you are also not covered under your travel insurance (unless you have made specific arrangements with them).
However, rental companies don’t care about this and will rent you a bike regardless. It is only an issue if you get into an accident or get stopped by the police.
If you get into an accident or damage someone else’s property with your bike, try to sort it out without involving the police. Be prepared to pay through the nose. The police rarely enforce the license rule and take bribes of around 200.000 Dong instead (except for in Mui Ne where bikes are regularly seized and tourist face hefty fines for driving without a valid license). Make sure to have 200.000 Dong on you in a separate pocket in case you get stopped by the police. Another tip I got from a local was to pretend to only speak German (or Spanish or any other language) if you are stopped by the police.
luckily I never had to test any of this out myself. To lower the risk of a fine, be sure to stick to the speed limit (40 km/h in urban areas, 60 km/h outside the city, and 80 km/h on the highway) and always wear a helmet. As you should anyway!
Planning a trip to Vietnam? Be sure to check out my other posts on Vietnam as well!
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