Having just completed 3 months of riding throughout Vietnam, we’ve compiled a little bit of info that might be helpful if your considering doing the same. You won’t regret it!
How easy is it to buy bikes in Vietnam?
Easy. On most streets in major cities along the backpackers trail you’ll be asked by people in the street if you want to buy a bike. I’d advise finding a reputable mechanic/dealer to buy from, ask at you’re hostel or fellow travelers (see the bottom of the page for a good dealer in Hanoi).
There’s usually in hostels in Saigon and Hanoi backpackers trying to sell their beloved motors.
Do you need a Licence to ride a bike in Vietnam?
No. You’ll be riding illegally but that is basically what every tourist is doing around Vietnam. You won’t be asked when buying a bike and you’re not likely to be stopped by police. We spent three months riding throughout Vietnam and didn’t have any problems. There are scare stories about being stopped by police (see further down).
What should we do if the police stop us?
We were lucky. The police never bothered us. There was only one time that the police tried to wave us down but we just kept riding.
What we have been told by locals, expats and other travellers who have ridden bikes is that if the police do try to stop you, just keep driving.
We have also been told that the police mostly won’t stop westerners because they have little English and can’t be bothered with the hassle of trying to communicate. For the most part it seems that it is locals with nice bikes (they have more money) being stopped and checked. Once checked they are charged a fee and sent on their way.
If you are unlucky enough to get stopped, here’s a few handy tips we were given along the way.
Don’t stop. Just wave at the police trying to wave you down, pretend your a dumb tourist that thinks they’re waving and just keep riding. Hopefully they won’t chase you down because its too much hassle.
Talk gibberish. So we’ve been told that most of the police speak little English so won’t stop you. Some might. So if you can, just speak gibberish. Make out you you can’t speak English. So the police can’t be bothered trying to talk to you and will send you on your way.
Take your keys out and keep them. Another handy tip is if you are stopped. Immediately take your keys out of the ignition and pocket them. The police have been known to take your keys off you, and then demand you pay to get them back. This is just a way of stopping them doing this. Try making the habit of whenever you stop taking your keys out of the ignition.
Hold small amounts of money. This should be obvious anyway. Don’t keep all your money in your wallet or pockets. Just hold a small amount so if you are required to bribe the police/pay them a fee. You can only give them what you’ve got on you, not all your money.
Have your blue bike registration card handy. This is the card that proves the bike belongs to you. Its worth having it handy to show police but don’t give it to them.
Don’t give the police your passport. They may ask to see your passport but don’t give them it. This is another opportunity to make you pay to get it back.
Best advice is just to avoid them. Easier said than done but my guess is just ignore/avoid the police where you can.
How much am I likely to pay for a bike?
You can pay anything between $150-$650. For $150 you’ll get an older fake Honda Win, but that’s not to say its a bad bike. Just make sure you test ride it first. For $650 you’ll be getting a decent new (still fake) Honda Win that should run perfectly. The best bike to look out for is Detech.
I’ve never ridden a motorbike before, is it worth it?
Yes. All the yes! I’ve never ridden a bike before. Alistair has ridden one but a long time ago.
Personally I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike with gears so chose the easy option of an automatic scooter. I instantly felt more confident.
I’ve advised every backpacker I met that confidence is the most important thing. You’ll definitely look cooler on a Honda Win, but its more important to be safe.
You can always upgrade from an Automatic to a semi or a manual along the way once you’re confident.
It takes a while to get used to the busy roads but honestly, once your confident with them, they’re a breeze. Someone described the way the roads are as like the sea. The bigger vehicles (Busses and Trucks) are the whales. The cars slightly bigger fish and the bikes, the big sholes of tiny fish. Everyone is concentrating on whats in front of them so will easily just move around you if you’re going too slow. The busses and trucks will always let you know they’re behind you with their horns. Just move to the right and let them pass.
You drive on the right in Vietnam and overtake on the left generally. When overtaking lorries, if you show yourself to them either side, beep your horn to let them know you’re overtaking, a lot of them will move over to let you past. Its sometimes safer to under take rather than over take.
Any Vehicle coming towards you will likely flash their lights. This mean’s they’re coming, so make sure you give way. The best advice is to keep to the right unless you’re overtaking.
We went to Ho Tay lake (Hanoi) to practice. The lakes 18km around and the roads are winding but quiet enough to get your bearings on any bike.
Once we were used to the bikes everything was easy. It doesn’t take long to get used to how the traffic works.
If you’re considering buying/renting a bike in Vietnam I couldn’t recommend it enough. We’ve travelled through the whole country on bikes and its been an incredible journey with some of the best views and craziest roads you’ll ever ride.
If theres any way to get around Vietnam, bikes seem the be best for views/freedom.
Is it safe?
Probably not no. We have heard many horror stories. In fact when we told people we where buying bikes in the hostel. Each one had a different story to tell about someone they had seen with bad “road rash” on their arms and legs.
We’ve been lucky. We’ve ridden dirt tracks, highways, up and down mountains in the light and pitch black and haven’t encountered many problems. There have obviously been a few close calls. We’ve both crashed into a cow (see Vinh) and Alistair also fell off his bike whilst riding through a forest but we were both lucky enough to not suffer serious injuries.
The roads are generally in a decent condition. When you head up the mountains its a little different. For the most part they’re ok but you have to look out for pot holes. There can be big ones which will knock you of your bike if your not careful. Theres also just random animals sitting in the roads, especially the more rural you get. you can be whizzing around corners and then all of a sudden theres a group of cows taking up the road.
Highways are wide. If you stick to the right it feels a little like a bike lane. Trucks will just pass you. A lot of them honk their horns as they pass to either let you know they’re there or make you jump. I can’t decide which but it gets me every time.
Busses seem to be the ones to look out for though. They’ll just push past you no matter what and will appear from behind a lorry and just keep coming at you.
Be cautious on blind bends. Vehicles, especially busses will overtake at any point even if they can’t see whats ahead.
Even though we were advised by a lot of people not to get bikes. I honestly think the good out weighs the bad here. And if you’re careull and observant enough, you should be just fine.
What did your mother say when she found out?
She was surprisingly good about it! I genuinely thought she would be getting a flight to Hanoi, hunting me down and killing me herself.
I Facebook called her and worked my way up to telling her. There was a slight silence which I filled with telling her how safe it all was (slight white lies) and then she just said how I’m a grown man now (28) and she knew I’d be careful.
I do get the feeling if she saw how mental the roads were here she might change her mind.
I think my sister was more freaked out than my mum to be honest. I put a picture of my bike on Facebook and said I was looking for names. The name that got the most votes (my sister was first to say it) was ‘deathtrap’. So my scooter is now called deathtrap.
The basics of riding the bikes.
We’re no experts by any stretch but here’s a few tips that might help you along your way.
80% Back, 20% Front brakes. When you’re using your breaks you mostly use your back break. I barely use my front break and its better if you don’t too. If you slam on with the front break you’re likely to end up over the top of it. It breaks a lot harder than the back. I managed to snap the front break off my bike when I dropped it so don’t need to worry about that any more.
Wear a mask. On long journeys, and maybe short journeys too, its advisable to wear something to cover your face. There’s a lot of dust on the roads. You’ll notice it on your clothes and skin after riding a long distance. If its on your clothes, you’ll be breathing it in also. We both suffered from a cough for the first few days after riding long distance because of this. We just found some bandana’s and used them (see the picture at the bottom of the page).
Use your horn. Back in the UK we only use our horns for showing people we’re annoyed. In Vietnam horns are used all the time and if I’m honest I like the system. Use your horn to let people know you’re behind them, also use it to let them know you’re intending to overtake/overtaking. The idea then is you can keep your eyes on whats in front and ears on whats behind you.
Break into the corner, accelerate out. With any bike, scooter or moped you should never break while taking a corner. A lot of roads in Vietnam have a lot of shingle scattered all over the road especially on corners. If you apply your breaks while turning on this you have a good chance of losing grip and control of your bike. The same goes for acceleration, make sure you accelerate out of the corner not on it.
Coasting. In basics coasting is riding/driving without being in gear. It’s not advisable to coast down hill or through corners. You need your bike to be in gear so you can control yourself through the corner. The same goes for going down hill. You will end up going a lot faster out of gear but will have less control. Obviously this isn’t an issue with an automatic.
Check your oil. Our advice is to change your oil every 3-500km, try and do it after every long ride, you’ll notice the difference. Its a good time to just get your bike serviced and checked over. Look out for signs saying XE MAY. This is a bike mechanic.
Your automatic scooter is probably going to be slower uphill. We have ridden up a fair few mountains now. If its a 10%+ incline my scooter occasionally struggled. Alistair’s gears will carry him up at a reasonable speed where as I’ll be left slowly creeping up the road. Just one downside to an automatic I guess.
Use both feet when stopping. When you’re coming to a stop, put both feet down to balance your bike. You don’t want to be that guy on their side at the traffic lights struggling to pick their bike up (trust me, its embarrassing!).
Get off your bike on the left. Sounds silly but get on and off your bike on the left side (the side with the stand on). The other side is where your exhaust is and that thing could fry an egg in seconds after you’ve been riding for a while. I burned my leg pretty badly from the exhaust which took a month to heal after getting infected (see picture). Just get used to exiting on the left. That way you’ll be more cautious, especially of other peoples exhausts! Make sure to tell people riding shotgun on your bike to do the same.
Each bike will have its problems. Most bikes speedometers don’t work. Alistair’s front light doesn’t work, both our speedometers don’t work and neither do our mileage. Don’t worry about it so much. Thankfully our fuel gauges worked and so do my lights (Alistair has a head torch for when its dark).
Confidence is key. Remember, being confident is the most important thing. You need to have the confidence to ride Vietnamese roads, they can be pretty crazy at times.
Maps.me. You download the map for the place you’re visiting (i.e. Vietnam). You can then use the map offline. You can search for specific places and use the navigation tool to direct you like a sat nav. It also has key places like restaurants and petrol stations etc.
Hostel world app. The hostel world app has been really handy. Go to the side bar and look for speak the world. This is a great feature for translating. You can speak your language into the phone, and the app will translate into whatever language you need. It will speak and also write what’s been translated. We found it to be a lot more accurate than google translate. It doesn’t work on all phones. I have a Samsung Note 4 (an older phone) and speak the world won’t work.
This has just been the start of our traveling adventure, and riding bikes through Vietnam has been a crazy experience. It gave us the opportunity to take our time, see places off the tourist trail and meet some really amazing people. I couldn’t recommend it enough. Have fun and be safe!