To ride a motorcycle across an entire country. An unusual, epic adventure, but it Vietnam "bike packing" is a somewhat normal way to see the country.
Vietnam is famous for its beautiful beaches, high mountain peaks and amazing food. The food, landscape, and history of the North and South is drastically different, once divided, now united. To see and experience it all, one could take overnight buses, jump on a tour, or you blaze your own, unique route on a motorcycle, and hit the road for weeks or even months.
I'll share with you how I ventured cross country, how to navigate, find a bike and what interesting experiences that I had while driving from Hanoi to the most northern border of China, and all the way south to Ho Chi Min on two wheels (while working online at the same time!)
When I arrived in Vietnam, I didn't have much of a plan, just a very short checklist of things I knew I had to do to start my cross country adventure. I landed in Hanoi and had to...
1- Get a motorcycle
2- Learn to ride said motorcycle
3- Figure out where I was going
Since Vietnam is a long skinny shaped country, driving north to south, or south to north. Most visitors will start in either Hanoi and go to the Ho Chi Minh or reverse, from Ho Chi Min to Hanoi. But there is another very popular destination for those on two wheels. It’s something called the Hai Giang Loop. It's a 4 day loop on the most northern point of Vietnam, near the border of China.
So, to decide where to start. If you begin your trip in Ho Chi Minh and you head North, you will end your trip with most phenomenal mountain landscapes.
Or you could start in the north and start with the most beautiful and dangerous roads and work your way south to hang out at beaches. I went from north to south, for no reason other than the least expensive flight into Vietnam at the time took me to Hanoi. Some other bike packers told me I made a huge mistake starting in the north and doing my first week on the Hai Giang Loop. But, I honestly don't think it was a mistake. The entire country was beautiful and really fun.
When it comes to seasons influencing your ride, or the direction you take, Vietnam doesn't have much variation in seasons. The north is a little cooler than the south, and I actually ended up buying a jacket for my ride in the Hai Giang loop (most northern part) , because it has higher elevations and is so far north. Basically, the whole rest of the ride was hot and humid, and I wore pants and a flannel. Most rainfall happens around October through December, so if you would like to avoid riding in the rain, skip those months because getting caught in a rain is inevitable, since it's tropical and humid.
So now you need a bike. You have two sure options; you can buy a motorcycle and sell it after your trip, or you can rent a motorcycle.
If you rent a motorbike, there's plenty of places in Hanoi to pick one up. The most popular rental shop is STYLE motorbikes, and it's a pretty good example of what most of the typical rental places have to offer. They rent you a bike for $190 per month. They have different maintenance centers and they will cover all the costs for maintenance along your journey. They will give you a detailed map, a riding lesson, and lots of information you need to start your trip.
The rental places will take a large deposit, and they will rent you some helmets and knee pads too. They will also shamelessly rent to anyone. You don't need any sort of ID or license. You don't even need know how to drive a bike at all. They will give you a riding lesson and then they'll send you on your way onto the craziest highways in the world.
Renting is a perfectly fine option. Keep in mind they will charge you or take your deposit if you crash the bike or cause excessive damage. Also take under consideration how long you want to be on your trip. If you're traveling for three months and you're paying $190 every month, it would make more sense financially to just buy a bike, as I did it.
If you decide to buy a bike, you can go on all these different Vietnam buy/sell motorcycle backpacker groups on Facebook and easily find one. Also, in hostels, bike packers who have just finished their journey post For Sale posters. At the end of my trip that's how I sold my bike. I printed out a For Sale poster and posted it in the 5 main hostels around Ho Chi Min.
Another way to find a motorcycle is to go to local shops and they'll also sell your bike. To find a shop, just ask around maintenance places, hostels, and locals near the tourist areas. Bike packing is gaining popularity so fast that there are many good options for shops where the owners speak English, and know what tourists are looking for. I bought my motorcycle at a local shop. A friend recommended them to me, and they had a good reputation. This shop sold me a Honda Win for $300 cash. A fair price considering it was in great good shape. After my trip, I sold my motorcycle for $250, which the buyers agreed was also fair.
There are two options when you're renting a motorcycle, you can get a semi automatic or a full manual. The popular semi automatic bikes are easy to find and the most popular was the Honda Wave. Semi automatics are probably just as reliable on long trips as full manuals. When it comes to full manuals, the number one, most popular motorcycle, the most iconic foreigner piece of equipment in Vietnam is the 100-150cc Honda Win. I bought a 100cc Honda Win.
When you're buying your motorcycle look for a few specific things..
1 - Look at the engine. It's probably going to be an aftermarket engine. If you're looking at a Honda Win, Vietnam stopped making them in 2000. You're most likely going to be sold a Frankenstein bike with different parts from different bikes, including parts of the Chinese made Honda Win. Don't worry too much, no matter what you're being sold, look at the engine for rust. You'll see some of these bikes have had their engines completely painted over to hide the rust. Take a close look at it.
2 - Oil on the ground? Look at the ground it is sitting on to see if there is a patch of oil. Is this bike leaking? Do the sellers move the bike often to mask the leak? Come check the bike out one day, and come back the next day to see if the bike is parked in the same spot and leaking, or run your finder under the bottom to catch obvious drips.
3 - How is the tread on the tires? If the tires are balding, don't buy the bike, or see if they will slap on new tires for you.
4 - If you're like me, and you're are no expert on motorcycles, look for the obvious things: check the lights, the turn signals and the horn. The horn is very important in Vietnam!
5 - Test drive it! Try to test it “cold”, which means don't let anyone warm up the bike for you. Try to start it and drive it after it hasn't been driven since the day before. How easily is a cold start? Do the gears slip? Doesn't matter how cool the bike looks, how well does it function?
I have never seen a working speedometer with my own eyes in Vietnam, the speedometer probably will not work…
No matter how good of a bike you think you've picked, it will break down at some point. And that's ok, it's part of the adventure. That's just the way things are while riding a motorcycle in Vietnam. Luckily, repairs are not very expensive.
Lots of sellers know what bike packers would like to have as little bonus items on their motocycles. Most shops will add a a phone holder, so you can look at maps. Some have even rigged up the phone holders to charge your phone while you drive. Many shops will weld extender bars on the back for your backpack and give you bungee cords. I went out and bought my own helmet and boots.
Only once in 1,600 miles did I ever find myself completely broken down and stranded. I had been to a mechanic earlier that day and I called him back to tell him the bike broke down again, and he kindly came and picked me up. Usually mechanical problems are noticeable before the bike leaves you stranded.You may start to hear a funny noise, or there's a little oil leak, or maybe your horn stopped honking. Give your bike a look over, a walk around, and test the lights before you head out for a 200 mile ride that day. All the repairs I needed cost between one dollar to twenty dollars. I never once spent over twenty bucks on a mechanic in Vietnam.
A very important thing to remember, is you have to get your oil changed every 400 km (250 miles). I know it's sounds like a very frequent amount of times to change your oil, but some maintenance workers can use some pretty sketchy oil, like old oil. Keep a note on your phone on when you had your last oil change.
It's also helpful to keep a note on your phone of a list of words in Vietnamese that are common motorcycle language. For instance, the word "oil change" is "thay dầu". A lot of words can be found with Google translate or asking a Vietnamese friend, like a hostel worker. Charades works too, but it's less fuss having a quick list that you can whip out.
Okay, so you have a motorcycle! How do you ride it? If you already know how to ride, great. If it's been a while for you like it had been for me, I went on YouTube, and watched beginner videos and followed the gear changing motions with my hands and feet. But the roads are mayhem to an American like me.
Getting in and out of any big city was, for me, a nightmare. The traffic is insane, people cut everywhere, always honk, and people will talk or yell at you in a foreign language. I found Hanoi to be more stressful than Ho Chi Minh. Once you get on the highway it's smooth sailing, right? Nope, still crazy.
Here are the rules of the road in Vietman and a lot of other Southeast Asian countires:
Lanes, traffic light, sidewalks, everything that makes motor traffic and foot traffic organized, seems to disappear. Often motorcycles drive on side walks, lanes become completely invisible, and cars all just smush very, very close together. There are not very many traffic lights, but when one is present, it is so often ignored by everyone. Stay calm, and follow the flow of traffic. Place yourself in the middle of a herd of motorbikes if possible.
Everyone honks for every reason. Coming from America where drivers are really passive, or passive aggressive, honking was very overwhelming for me at first. But people honk for every reason, not and less often are the honks "angry". Drivers honk to say "excuse me", people honk to say "get out of my way", people have to say "hello", and people have to say "I’m going to cut you off and you if don't yield, you will die." It's important for you to join in with the honking, and learn why people honk and do the same, honk for "excuse me", honk for "I'm merging", honk for "I'm here". Except in Thailand, people in Thailand don't honk very much at all.
Thailand, Malaysia, India, Nepal and Indonesia all drive on the left hand side of the road. Miramar, Cambodia and the Philippines drive on the right hand side of the road.
This can get confusing, especially when crossing borders on a motorcycle. I find it easier to switch sides in my head, by driving in the daytime with traffic. I just follow where everyone else is going and try not to be in the front of the line at a stoplight. The only times I caught myself turning into the wrong side of traffic was at night when no one else was driving around me. After a few days of following traffic, you will be comfortable driving on the other side.
Consider when driving in Vietnam on a one lane highway, with one lane headed in one direction and one in the opposite. These are some of the most common roads outside cities. Fast drivers drive on the inside slow drivers driving the outside. The section of road closest to the sidewalk is an "anything goes" zone. People will drive the opposite way, they'll park there, they'll set up cockfighting, and have food stalls. Be very aware, and expect literally anything. Even the sidewalk is used as a road, or an "anything goes" zone. People often drive on the sidewalk. Be ready for anything. Because anything and everything will happen.
Fellow backpackers I drove around the country with always teased me for driving slowly. But I had spent two years in Southeast Asia and seen many accidents. One accident that I saw in Thailand stuck in my head forever, where a kid was crushed under a bike and bleeding to death. I drove slower because I didn't want to hit any kids, animals or hurt myself. And guess what… driving slow paid off, I never got in a single accident in Vietnam. I never slid out, never hit anyone, and no one hit me, because I didn't override a speed that I felt out of control. I would drive fast sometimes, sure, but only when I felt like I was in control.
At the same time, driving too slow could be dangerous because people are going overtake you and cut you off, and that can be dangerous I would try to drive low to medium speed if that makes sense. Whereever you feel like you can be in control.
Always drive sober. Don't drive tired. Grab a Vietnamese coffee if your eyes are getting heavy or just pull off and take a nap.
You're going to see lots of people without a helmet in Vietnam but you should always wear a helmet. And not just any helmet, buy I would reccommend to buy a full face helmet. This is the most important thing that you should invest money in while driving across Vietnam. You can get cheap helmets, knockoff DOT helmets, but try to go to a reputable place and get a really good helmet. Wearing a full face helmet can seem like overkill in the heat and humidity, but if you hit the ground you're gonna want a real helmet.
I also wore elbow pads and knee pads up in the mountains and for a long time after, up near the Hai Giang loop where I was doing more offloading, and it was easier to take a spill, even going slow. I kept the pads until I was farther south and the weather became excruciatingly hot. I gave the pads to another girl on a motorcycle who is heading in opposite direction towards the mountains.
You don't need a license in Vietnam, but there are corrupt police that will definitely try to take your money, because you're a foreigner and you don't have an international license. I had my normal California Drivers license, which had a motorcycle endorsement on it, and I had my international drivers license which was a piece of paper I got at the AAA before I left the USA. It cost $20 and are good for one year. I realized halfway through my Vietnam trip that the international drivers license had expired, but police never checked the date and always let me off the hook.
When you're driving in really touristy areas like Hai Giang the police are going to try to stop you, they look out for groups, as well as foreigners. I recommend carrying a second wallet that I like to call a "decoy" wallet. The "decoy" wallet is just a second wallet that a cheap wallet that you keep a very small amount of money in. Like five to ten US dollars. When the police pull you over, you can use the decoy wallet for bargaining the price of your ticket. Open up your wallet and you say “this is all I have” and show them the small amount of money. Sometimes they let you off the hook and pocket your five dollars instead of the one hundred dollars and the original ticket they were threatening you with. Sometimes police try to escort you to an ATM to take out cash. Don't put any debit or credit cards in the decoy wallet, say your card was stolen.
Now I know it seems wrong to lie to the police, and show them a fake wallet, but a lot of police in South East Asia are often corrupt and will lie to you. They are just trying to rip you off because they think you're a rich foreigner. Even if you have all the right paperwork, if you're pulled over on your bike, or stopped at a border, they are gonna try everything to pocket some money for themselves.
Each journey will be different, unique and exciting. Here are just a select few of my personal highlights on my motorcycle trip around Vietnam. Going in order from north to south.