Think it’s just you and your vintage wartime era motorcycle riding through the beautiful rice fields of Vietnam? Think again.
The reality of a Vietnam motorcycle trip is more like oncoming buses and trucks barreling into your lane, motorists cutting you off and appearing out of nowhere, and daily repairs for broken clutches, loose bike chains, and flat tires. Before you set off on one of the most epic rides of your life, be prepared and understand that Vietnam is like the Wild West of motoring. These tips for your Vietnam motorcycle trip just might save your life.
1. Learn to ride BEFORE you start your Vietnam motorcycle trip
The best thing you can do is to learn how to actually ride a motorcycle BEFORE you ride in Vietnam. Take the beginners course at your local motorcycle riding school and learn riding techniques and defensive tactics before hopping onto a classic Honda Win (ie. Deathtrap on wheels) and you’ll probably increase your chances of survival tenfold. Vietnam is NOT a safe place to be learning how to ride, shift, and handle the chaotic traffic and aggressive drivers of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Unfortunately, countless of unlicensed and inexperienced travellers get on their first motorbike in Vietnam because the laws are extremely “flexible”. Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death in Vietnam (age 15-29) with 59% of collisions being caused by motorcyclists. There were countless situations where having at least the basic knowledge of operating and riding a motorcycle probably saved my life.
2. Buy a good, Full Face Motorcycle Helmet
Helmets in Vietnam range widely in both quality and price, but you definitely get what you pay for. Avoid the $10 USD plastic brain buckets and spend the extra $30-40 USD for a good full face motorcycle helmet that protects your entire head, face, and chin. Trust me when I say that you do NOT want to Google images of motorcycle accidents. Not only will a good full faced motorcycle helmet save your face, it’ll likely save your life. I paid $50 for my full face helmet and, luckily, never had to test it in a real situation but I felt much more comfortable riding in it.
3. NEVER ride at night and limit riding to 4-6 hours per day maximum
Never, ever, EVER, ride a motorcycle at night in Vietnam. I made this mistake, only once thankfully, on my journey and I vowed never to do it again. There are often no lights on the highways and roads and your motorcycle’s headlights are likely to be extremely weak. This combined with the fact that all cars, trucks, and buses keep their high beams on while they drive (because there are no lights on the roads), means that every time an oncoming car passed me, I was momentarily blind for about a full 2 seconds before my eyes were able to readjust to the darkness. I can’t stress how dangerous this was. The one time I rode at night, and it was only early evening, I rode past 4 motorcycle accidents in 3 hours and at least 3 of them had to be fatal. The bikes were completely totalled, shattered into thousands of pieces. At one scene, I even saw the rider’s body, covered with a blanket and only their feet sticking out from underneath. Needless to say, it was a sobering sight. Don’t be one of them.
4. Thoroughly inspect your Motorcycle before you buy it
This is where Tip #1 becomes useful because if you’ve never ridden a motorcycle before then you’ll have no idea whether or not the one you’re looking at is any good at all. Even then, if you don’t tinker with motorcycles, then you’re also likely to still be a bit in the dark, but at least you’ll have an idea. Make sure you give it a good test ride and test the brakes, lights, horn, and clutch. The speedometer and odometer are likely to be broken though, as this is common to keep the odometers at 0 km. Check out Anthony Milotic’s tips on buying a motorcycle in Vietnam for some more useful information.
5. Plan for 3-4 weeks from HCMC to Hanoi, don’t ride every day
The journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, or vice versa, is almost 2000 kms and is filled with beautiful scenery and amazing places to explore, so don’t rush. You could probably make the entire journey in 10-12 days of constant riding but you’ll be missing so much of the culture and people that it’ll just be a blur. So pace yourself and switch between riding days and resting days and don’t rush your Vietnam motorcycle trip.
6. Expect breakdowns, flat tires, and delays… EVERY DAY
No matter which make or model of motorcycle you buy, it will break down on you. And almost daily. And if not, then you’ll get a flat tire on those days where your motorcycle is actually behaving fine. Luckily, motorcycle mechanics can be found everywhere along the way so you’re never too far away from one.
7. Buy a Honda Win
And since your motorcycle will be breaking down quite often along the way, you’ll want one that every mechanic can repair. Enter the Honda Win. Not only is it the most common and easiest to repair but it’s also the most reliable of all the makes available. So save yourself a headache or two and make sure you buy a Honda Win.
8. Take the Ho Chi Minh highway, avoid the AH1 Coastal Highway as much as you can
Not only is the Ho Chi Minh Highway so much more beautiful and scenic, it is much safer than the coastal highway AH1. This is because the coastal highway is used by all the major buses and trucks to transport people and goods between the coastal cities. Unfortunately, since most of the interesting cities like Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Hue are along the coast, it’s unavoidable, but take HCM Highway whenever you can.
9. You need a Vietnamese Motorcycle license to ride but there are ways around it
Like not having one. My friends and I must have been lucky because we never once got pulled over or stopped during our 3 week motorcycle ride in Vietnam. But I’ve heard that even if you do, a simple “gift” of monetary value will suffice to get you on your way. However, if you want to be absolutely certain that you’ll have no problems, you can read about it in this post on Travelfish by Caroline Mills about the arduous process of getting a Vietnamese motorcycle license.
10. Buy a poncho, waterproof bag covers
Vietnam has a tropical climate and if you don’t get caught in the rain once during your ride, then you must have the luck of the gods on your side. Instead of relying on divine fortune, buy yourself a poncho and backpack covers to keep yourself and your clothes dry. There’s nothing worse than being soaked to the bone and then finding out that your entire wardrobe is completely wet as well.
11. Remember the Rules of the Road in Vietnam
- There are no rules. Anything goes and even all the laws and traffic lights, when there are actual traffic lights, are “optional”.
- The bigger you are, the more right of way you have. As a motorcycle, you’re slightly above a scooter but still below the smallest car. Buses and trucks will come into oncoming traffic and play chicken with you with about as much regard as they would an ant. So yeah, be prepared to get out of their way. Often.
- Look ahead, not behind. In Vietnam, and most of Asia, you are responsible for paying attention to things in front of you, not behind you – that’s just the way it works. So don’t be surprised, or angered when you’re cut off, as you will be quite often – just be prepared.
- Use your horn liberally, everybody else does. Don’t be silent or else they won’t know you’re there. Think of a short honk as more of a reverse sonar ping just to let them know you’re coming up behind them and they should get out of your way.
- Most importantly, go with the flow. Obey or disobey signals, signs, and lights like the locals do and always proceed with caution, even if you legally have the right of way.
12. Ride with a Buddy / Buddies
Friends don’t let friends ride alone. Not only is it be safer to ride with a buddy, but you’ll have someone to share this amazing adventure with and watch your back as you ride. I met this amazing Dutch couple, Chris and Eveline, only a few days prior to our journey, and we rode together for most of the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. We even bought matching motorcycles! I know, how cute, right? Anyway, we instantly clicked, planned the route together and had an epic 3 week ride. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been liked to have done the entire trip without them. Don’t do your Vietnam motorcycle trip alone.
13. Be aware, alert, and always be scanning
Awareness and alertness is paramount to survival when on a motorcycle and it’s probably even more important in Vietnam simply because of the sheer amount of chaos and traffic that will constantly come at you. Buses and trucks barreling down at you in oncoming traffic, in YOUR lane; pedestrians, dogs, cats, and chickens running across the street; potholes and puddles in the middle of the highway; and other cars and riders all jockeying for position to pass each other. They all come at you from every direction and when you least expect it. I shouldn’t have to say this but, absolutely NO alcohol because you will need every split second of reaction time.
My Vietnam motorcycle trip was one of the most amazing and fulfilling experiences that I’ve ever done in my life. The memories, sights, experiences from those 3 weeks, I will never forget. But you will be faced with daily challenges and risks so it’s best that you prepare yourself properly. This is definitely not a journey you want to just embark on a whim and being prepared may just save your life.
The time we found a gas station in the middle of nowhere pumping out super loud techno.
What was your experience like on your Vietnam motorcycle trip ? Do you have any other life saving tips to help other future riders?