Never in a million years did I ever see myself even driving a motorbike let alone buying my very own and biking across an entire country, but that’s exactly what I found myself doing through the beautiful nation of Vietnam. It all started with a very persuasive group of German backpackers at our hostel in Sihanoukville, Cambodia who convinced first Liam and then subsequently myself that we should follow their lead and take the plunge into bike ownership.
After a positively bizarre night bus ordeal through Phnom Penh, we woke up in the heart of the buzzing metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City where we spent a whirlwind 24 hours. Due to time restraints, we couldn’t follow the typical backpacker moto-trail beginning in Saigon itself. Instead, we skipped the very southern point of Vietnam, opting to spend more time in the north at the end of our trip. We conquered another crazy night bus excursion and found ourselves in the gorgeous mountain oasis of Da Lat. It was here that we acquired our trusty (or not-so-trusty, in my case) steeds and began our two-wheeled adventure.
For 4 weeks we wound our way through breathtaking mountain passes and spectacular coastal highways. We dodged massive semi-trucks and herds of baby cows. We found ourselves in tiny minority villages, in the midst of mind-boggling traffic in Vietnam’s biggest cities, amongst glistening rice paddies, and at one point possibly even inside a communist party meeting point. There were moments of utter bliss and of complete desolate misery, but in the end, it was one of the most unique and astonishing experiences of my life thus far.
Through all of the breakdowns, route-changes, cultural immersions, and other seemingly endless trials and tribulations, I took away quite a few lessons that I believe anyone thinking of tackling the Vietnamese roadways should know.
Automatic vs. Manual.
Everyone is going to have their own opinion when it comes to what kind of motorbike to buy. I am the farthest from an expert on any vehicle in existence and ended up riding a glorified Vespa for over 2000 kilometers, but here’s my two cents worth. I can’t even drive a manual car so I didn’t think that the roads of Vietnam on a two-wheeled death-mobile would be the best place for me to learn how to shift gears. In hind sight, I think I potentially could have done it if I had had the confidence – apparently it isn’t too hard to pick up – but I opted for the automatic option and I enjoyed the mindless execution that allowed me to really take in my surroundings. However, my old automatic was pretty volatile and broke down just about daily. Its tiny wheels couldn’t handle the mountains of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and after spending a fortune on repairs I eventually ended up having to sell it for nothing and buying a totally new bike in Hoi An. What. A Nightmare.
My second automatic, although newer and with bigger wheels, didn’t fare much better. I would venture to say that the vast majority of the mechanics in Vietnam have seen me in tears somewhere on the side of the road.
Liam decided on a fully manual Honda Win (a very popular choice for backpackers) and experienced virtually no breakdowns whatsoever. Both of our bikes were quite old, and neither one of us had really good resale values when we reached Hanoi. In short, I would recommend newer bikes. They are a bit more expensive, but tend to save money when it comes to repairs and resale costs. If you are like me and want to go the automatic route, a newer bike is almost essential, and it might even be worth looking into a semi-automatic model.
No matter what type of bike you decide on, its essential to make sure that it comes with a blue registration card. You will need this if you happen to have any run-ins with the police (Me: twice, Liam: never. Typical.) or if you want to resell at the end of your journey.
Also, most bikes will come with a luggage rack and bungie cords. These are a necessities, and its nice to have them included in the price of your lovely new motorbike!
When it comes to traffic laws in Vietnam, they seem to be more suggestions then actual enforced measures.
- Traffic lights and road signs seem to be lax guidelines, and I found it best to simply follow the locals’ lead. Millions of motorcyclists grace the Vietnamese roadways; its pretty safe to say there will always be someone to trail.
- Typically, bikers should stick to the shoulders, or little outside lanes, on busy roadways. Most of the time they don’t even seem like they’re part of the road, but motorbikes tend to give way to larger vehicles. Stay out of the way.
- Honking is a courtesy when passing, even though it’s the most annoying thing ever and it scares the hell out of you every single time it happens.
- Stick to the Ho Chi Minh Trail whenever possible. As a general rule, the HCM Trail will lead you the most beautiful vistas and keep you from the industrial truck routes and monotonous, busy highways on the coast. Although the Ho Chi Minh option might seem longer on Google maps sometimes, it tends to be well worth it for the spectacular landscapes and lack of traffic. We learned this the hard way.
- BE VIGILENT. When I first began researching our motorbiking adventure, I scared my self senseless reading all kinds of horror stories on the internet. I was sure it was just a matter of time before I ended up in a ditch on the side of some rural Vietnamese roadway. Its not that bad. The majority of the time the roads were very quiet, and I was always able to stick to speeds that I was comfortable with. That being said, nobody gives way when it comes to passing. Bikers are the bottom of the automotive totem pole, so there are times where a bus will be passing a car that is passing a semi-truck, and you just have to get out of everyone’s way. I felt very safe most of the time, however defensive driving and vigilance can truly make a difference between life and death. Be smart.
- Some roads don’t allow motorbikes. We weren’t aware of this and were loving our lives, sailing down a gorgeous big highway through northern Vietnam until the police told us we weren’t allowed. We had to backtrack and ended up spending two nine hour days on a horrible, near-impassible dirt track as opposed to the easy little four hour trip we were supposed to have from Lao Cai to Hanoi. Rough times. Lots of tears.
The Little Things
I picked up a few little personal tips that helped me out along the way.
- Helmet, helmet, helmet. Invest in a good helmet. If you’re buying from another backpacker or even from most mechanics, a helmet will usually come with the bike. However, if your included-with-purchase helmet happens to be an ill-fitting child’s bicycle helmet (I’m speaking from experience here) make it a priority to find a quality helmet before you hit the road.
- Its dirty. As beautiful as the landscapes can be, the roads can also be very dirty at times. Mud, dust, smog, and all kinds of other questionable substances can get kicked up right into your face. I wore either my prescription glasses (which are now ruined – thanks, Vietnam) or my sunglasses at all times to protect my eyes. I also found that having an exfoliating face wash felt amazing to get all the grime off at the end of along day of riding.
- Long sleeves are a good idea. Despite the insane heat, lightweight long sleeves and long pants are really great for protection from the sun, dirt, and – worse case scenario – from scraping your skin on the road if you have any falls.
- Sunscreen. So much sunscreen.
- Audio books can be a great option. Days when we were on really boring stretches of industrial highways, I found it made the time go by much faster when I was listening to a good book. I may have looked like I was some badass biker chick listening to classic rock (probably not), but it was definitely Harry Potter.
- Find an app that makes your music louder. For times when the scenery was awesome, music always made everything seem more cinematic and gnarly (yes, gnarly). I tend to lose headphones like its my job, so I stick to the cheap, non-noise canceling ones. The wind, traffic, and engine noise sometimes made it hard to hear, so maybe look into downloading an app that amplifies the volume of your music.
- A Vietnamese sim-card is vital. We both had sim-cards with loads of data and used them almost constantly for Google maps, translator apps, and Facebook messenger to contact each other and other biker buddies.
- Find a place to stay before you arrive at each destination. I found it best to have a specific hostel or hotel in mind before arriving in each town. Its much better to have things at least semi-lined up rather than sitting on the side of the road, in the rain, at the end of a 7 hour day of riding, trying to search for a room in a tiny Vietnamese town.
- Leave origins early in order to reach destinations before nightfall. Its so much easier to find your way through foreign cities when there is still daylight outside.
- It will almost always rain during the day. To be fair, this depends on the time of year that you’re traveling, but we pretty much could bet our money on a massive rain shower at least once a day. Always have a rain jacket on hand and have your bags covered with tarps at all times.
- Breakdowns will happen, but someone will always be able to help you. As previously stated, I spent almost as much time getting my bike repaired as I did on the actual road. As frustrating as it was, it was comforting to know that no matter where my bike decided to fall to pieces, someone nearby could always repair it. Even when on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, it was still possible to find someone to help.
So those are my completely unknowledgeable views on biking your way through Vietnam. Difficult as it was some days, it was one of the most immersive traveling experiences I have ever had. I feel like I really had the opportunity to get to know Vietnam so much better than I would have had we stuck to more traditional backpacking methods.
I’ll definitely never forget my month motoring through Vietnam, and I think both Liam and I will always love the fact that we can say that we did it!