When thinking of the romantic idea of starting up your engine and riding across the length of Vietnam there are generally two schools of thought. Firstly that it’s the stupidest idea ever. The roads are wild, bad and dangerous and most riders are woefully inexperienced. The second is the opposite. That this is the adventure of a lifetime, the best way to see the country and an easy way to get from one end to the other! Some rather naively think it’s actually a shorter trip! Well. We’re here to tell you the truth lies very much in the middle but it is one of the many things to do in Vietnam that we recommend! We set off having never ridden a motorbike before with brave stupidity in the chaos of Saigon with a 3 week target in mind! 7 weeks later we finally sold them, after the most amazing, challenging and downright insane few weeks. Here’s our tips, advice and what we learnt during that time: The ultimate guide to Vietnam by motorbike!
Buy a good bike: The number 1 tip for Vietnam by motorbike!
This is the most important thing you will do and its important for a few main reasons: safety, enjoyability and overall cost. Most backpackers go for the Honda Win, a cheap Chinese fake for around $200-$300. Don’t be fooled, you can’t ever get hold of a “new” or “Genuine” one. The problem with these bikes is that they never work properly, they are built to fall apart, be made to look good as new and then fall apart again. It’s a great money spinner but a sure fire way to have a frustrating, expensive and even dangerous trip.
So many people we met along the way on Wins had a catalogue of breakdowns and spent at least an extra $100 on bodged up jobs all over the country. They had got stranded, had bits break at dangerous moments, crashed due to faults and had amazing days ruined stuck at the side of the road! They also spent much more money on fuel and oil changes too! Another idea, which we did see on occasion for those less confident, is an ATV. Many of those available need some work in order to be suitable for long distance trips but can be better for carrying luggage, two people and covering challenging terrain. Honda 4 wheeler parts are available in most towns and cities along the way, however for discount atv parts you will have to stick to major towns and cities.
We did our research and bought our bikes from a company called “Tigit”. Owned by a British guy they offer a range of bikes for every level of rider. We opted for the Honda Blade 110cc, a good beginner bike with gears and durability. With Tigit you pay what feels like a lot to begin with, $1000 for each bike but with a buy back guarantee of $800 it’s a great deal for almost new bikes that are well maintained as well as 24 hour support along the way and free helmet rental. This is by far the best way to do Vietnam by motorbike.
Our bikes ran and ran, we had literally no break downs over 2,500 miles each, not even a hint of one. They ran smoothly and safely with good breaks, gears and tires. Our speedos worked, petrol gauges and our Odometer, we had mirrors and good lights, all things most Honda Win riders are missing and that can make a huge difference when it comes to both safety, not getting stranded and again general enjoyment of riding. Upon getting back into Hanoi we took our bikes to the Tigit offices and after a brief look over the bikes we were wired the money back to our account within half an hour!
Also always make sure to get the blue card for your bike, this doesn’t need to be re-registered in your name but it proves ownership. Don’t accept a bike without one otherwise you might get it taken off you, ending your Vietnam by motorbike adventure right there!
*Note: We are in no way affiliated with Tigit and paid the full price as normal customers, they really are just a great company! Check them out here: www.tigitmotorbikes.com
Here are some stats from the bikes which show you just how cheap these “expensive” bikes ended up!
Distance: 3788 KM / 2354 MILES
Petrol: 915,000 / £32.30
Oil change x 3: £8.79
Bikes from Tigit: $200 / £160
3855 KM / 2395 MILES
Petrol: 1,085,000 / £38.30
Oil change x 3: £8.79
Bikes from Tigit: $200 / £160
GRAND TOTAL: £409.60
6 WEEKS: 42 DAYS / £9.80 PER DAY FOR BOTH / £4.88 EACH
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Don’t forget maintenance
A simple but easily overlooked area of long distance motorbike riding. Even the most pristine bike will start to have a few aches and pains after riding over challenging terrain for days on end over 1000s of KM. Our bikes needed the oil changing every 1000km, older ones such as the Win need one every 300km. This costs around $4. Make sure to check your tires too, getting them changed is inexpensive and for those on a 4 wheeler cheap atv tires are also easily available.
Washing your bike, tightening and oiling the chain, checking the tires, breaks and other areas are all small, cheap and easy but help avoid major breakdowns. As our bikes were almost new Honda would perform much of this for free, only charging for the oil itself. You should also make sure to use petrol and oil from reputable stations and garages. Filling your bike with cheap street petrol is going to completely ruin your engine and may even explode! (Plus, petrol is crazy cheap in Vietnam!)
I can’t tell you not to head out on this adventure if you have never ridden a bike before, that would be hypocritical of me. However I do wish I had at least practiced a little before strapping my bags on and setting off for a 300km ride…which of course was a frightening, nerve jangling and a dangerous nightmare! Seriously, our Vietnam by motorbike trip was almost over before it began! A great idea is to give it a go on a smaller scale first, try out a bike and tour the city before thinking about going on a much longer adventure! Taking an XO Vietnam tour is a great way to have a go first if you are nervous!
That first day I was shaking and really felt like we had made a mistake. Riding here is serious despite what the shops tell you. Newbies don’t despair, you can still complete this amazing adventure. Just maybe don’t save your first time on a bike for rush hour Saigon traffic as I did!
Really consider the road conditions and driving style in Vietnam.
Riding in Vietnam is dangerous, sorry mum, but its true! Sure, cruising speed is pretty low for motorbikes but people are crazy, insane, off the Richter mental when it comes to driving. They don’t indicate, check their mirrors, break before pulling out and often drive on the wrong side! Huge trucks and buses hurtle passed at well over 100kph on YOUR side of the road, heading straight for you with their horn fully on. Beeping is normal, for anything and everything its a case of beeping your way through most junctions or traffic! Vietnam by motorbike: insane!
Some of the roads are also so bad, full of potholes, gravel and dust making it hard to see, breath and even stay on the bike! The experienced riders we’ve spoken to have all said Vietnam is the craziest and most dangerous country they’ve ever ridden in! You have to become an aggressive rider yourself to survive here, don’t take it lightly, they are bloody crackers!
Plan for longer than you thought
We planned on riding from Saigon to Hanoi in 3 weeks, 7 weeks later and we had finally finished up in Vietnam! Doing the Vietnam by motorbike trip isn’t a quick way to get from one side of the country to another!
Seriously consider how long you have to spend here and try to plan a realistic route and time scale out. Those who hop from tourist spot to tourist spot on buses travel much faster. You on the other hand will have to stop every 200-300 km depending on the roads, our longest day was towards the end and an absolute slog at 475 km, not recommended at all!
Remember though, in Vietnam you can now get a Vietnam visa on arrival which is really useful when entering the country!
You will go slower, have to stop for your aching arse, take photos along the way, contend with the traffic, get lost and stay over in some random locations! However, importantly this is the best part and where you get to see the real Vietnam in the towns, cities and villages hardly anyone stops at!
If you only have a couple of weeks and want to only do the main tourist loop then consider instead renting bikes along the way at some of the cities such as Hoi An for the countryside and Hai Van Pass and Phong Nha for the HCM trail and park. These are usually only a few $ a day.
Get ready for some gruelling (but epic) days
I had literally no idea before I started this Vietnam by motorbike adventure just how much hard work it is! Biking over long distances really takes a strain on you mentally and physically. Your backside hurts, your hand will cramp up, your back will ache and you will be drained from concentrating so hard! 18 hours days, waking up before sunrise and arriving after sunset only to do it all again the day after!
Dirty, dusty, sweaty and road worn is how we felt most days, but it all feels like part of the adventure. Some days it will rain harder than you could ever imagine and you realise just how little protection from the elements a motorbike offers, you will shiver and wonder what do did to deserve this! Then will come the unbearably hot and dusty days, the tarmac giving off radiant heat below you and the dry dust sticking to your sweating face, filling your mouth with grit and blinding your eyes!
But honestly, some of the most challenging days on the bike turned out to be the most memorable and the best adventures of them all!
Plan out a rough route and get a good GPS
It’s a good idea to plan your time at least a little. Vietnam is a big country and time gets away from you fast on the bikes. Pick a mixture of well known towns and cities and coastal routes and mix it up with riding through remote locations in the mountains to get the best out of the country.
Do lots of research and pick the best roads too, that makes a huge difference! Of course, you might not stick to it religiously, but its best to have a rough plan. Using Map.Me and google maps are also great apps for both route planning and not getting lost once on your way!
Always consider the remoteness of your route
When you are weaving in and out of traffic in the cities and gliding down the coastal routes you might wonder what I am talking about. But as popular as some places are in Vietnam there are many that are still somewhat uncharted territory and very much isolated and dangerous. By all means, these too are the best roads in the country. Heading up the Ho Chi Minh trail and not seeing another person for hours as we negotiated the jungle lined track was amazing. Travelling through Vietnam by motorbike is like travelling through several countries, weather systems and conditions, always be prepared!
However these things should be prepared for. Check your route before hand and always take extra fuel, water, food, batteries and enough cash as often small towns won’t have an ATM. Also consider the implications of taking a fall in these areas and drive with extra caution or let someone know your route and expected time of arrival beforehand. Its also a good idea to know where a few hostels/ hotels and towns with supplies are along the way.
Buy a Vietnamese phone
You don’t need anything fancy or expensive but a smart phone will help. Get some minutes and data on a Vietnamese sim so you know you can call for help or access maps etc at any time. This was also important for us with Tigit too as they also had Watsapp for questions and emergencies. Again, this could be a lifesaver!
Prepare for all weather conditions / dress well
Heading to South East Asia you could be forgiven for leaving your thermals, jackets and long pants at home! Well here’s a wake up call, it gets bloody cold in Vietnam and anyone who has ridden a bike will know that that is amplified by 100 once you get riding!
Be prepared to travel through several weather conditions. It will be hot in Saigon, Hanoi and along the coast. Don’t be tempted to wear flip flops and go without a helmet, this is just plain stupid and Vietnam also has some strict Helmet laws. Further north it will get cold and wet. Wear layers and invest in either waterproof clothing or one of the ponchos the locals wear! Also bear in mind they can be awkward to ride in and reduce visibility. Ride according to the weather, fog can descend quickly in the mountains and dust is also a problem in the dry areas. Buy goggles and a mask too and a cover for your bag and get a dry sack for valuables, preparing for the weather makes it all much more fun!
Police and insurance
Whilst it is technically illegal for you to ride in Vietnam, even with an international license, most of the Police don’t care. However do be aware that in Mui Ne they are highly corrupt and have a bribery scam on the go. We wrote about it here : Avoid the police in Mui Ne.
You also should consider that this makes your insurance invalid in most cases and riding a motorbike is inherently dangerous. Take your time to consider whether you think it is worth it and be sure to drive as safely as you can. We also suggest looking into one off insurances for this trip and speaking to the people at Tigit over these concerns.
Vietnam by motorbike: Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
Don’t let us scare you or put you off, on the contrary riding through Vietnam has to be one of the most amazing things we have ever done. The adventure of a lifetime, life changing even and the opportunity to see this country up close and personal in a way we just would never have been able to do.
However we also met many people who were clueless and naive about exactly how hard and dangerous this is. Be serious about it before you go for it and you will remember this experience for the rest of your life! Get your Vietnam visa sorted either before you travel or as you enter the country and you are sure to have the most amazing experience you can imagine!
Also Cat Ba and Ha Long bay after returning the bikes and of course countless towns and villages along the way!
Highlights not to miss
For us the highlights were the central highlands around Dalat, an adventurers paradise with Canyoning, waterfalls and rural tribal villages within the mountains.
Then the small city of Quy Nhon on the coast with its virtual lack of tourists and Giants causeway style basalt columns rising out of the perfect blue waters as well as tiny untouched villages. This was one of the benefits of travelling Vietnam by motorbike, finding these off the beaten track treasures.
The surrounds of Hoi An provided us with the most amazing and emotional look into the lives of local people and the effect of the war. Meeting farmers and fishermen and trying out their way of life. We also met up with an motorbike enthusiast from the US and rode all over Da Nang with him! Riding the Hai Van pass over to Hue was also one of the most spectacular and perfect roads in the entire country and the reason we wanted to do Vietnam by motorbike in the first place.
Riding through the isolated tracks of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail as it wound it’s way through the jungle on the Laos border was one of the most wild and adventurous experiences on the bikes. Seeing no one for hours, crossing mountains and rivers, tiny hill tribe villages where people would run out to say hello. This was just an amazing place to be! Then the caves of Phong Nha and the amazing karst mountains covered in forests provided amazing adventure and stunning scenery. This makes all the hard times of travelling Vietnam by motorbike worth it!
Heading up to Sapa was our absolute highlight of Vietnam by motorbike. We took a 2 day ride through villages and stayed in the most amazing family homestay celebrating Vietnamese New Year with them and the whole village. We then trekked for 2 days with H’mong women through the mountains and rice terraces of Sapa, a truly wonderful, beautiful and fascinating region.
Finishing off in Hanoi we met some amazing people and fell in love with a city that on the second time around felt almost like home! There are so many wonderful places in Vietnam to visit that even in 7 weeks we felt we could have seen so much more!
Places that fell short
We were a little too preoccupied with sorting the bikes in Saigon to really immerse ourselves in all honesty so didn’t really connect with it.
Mui Ne and Nha Trang are much of the same, some nice coastal regions and roads but totally overtaken by Russian tourism to the point where you hardly feel like you are in Vietnam! There is also the Police issue in Mui Ne which all in all make these cities not worth the effort.
Hoi An itself is a wonderful and lovely little historic town. However once again tourism has ruined it, mostly locals who hound you at the sight of your western face. It makes visiting here feel like a zoo and not really pleasant at all. Worth seeing but a little annoying and disappointing!
Despite loving Phong Nha we also hated it! Everything is so overpriced and frankly a rip off. Up here they have the monopoly on the caves and you can pay an absolute fortune for some tours, talking 1000s of dollars! Most are not at all worth that price and you can do them cheaper on your own, however many are basically owned by these money grabbing companies.
Places we wish we visited
I wish we had stayed in the highlands from Dalat to be honest although the coastal region was lovely down here or cut back up earlier and followed the Ho Chi Minh trail for a little longer.
If we had time and the energy we would also have loved to head over to Ha Giang and do the Northern Loop. Not one for the inexperienced we would head back in better weather and do this in a couple of weeks as a trip in itself.
Our overall feelings about riding through Vietnam
Having the bikes really allowed us to see the country in so much more detail, to get of the beaten track with so much more ease and experience everything with much more intensity. It was also one of the hardest things we’ve done but by far one of the best. The riding days were long and tiring and we would often encounter the full range of weathers and temperatures in one day! Before getting on a bike here I had never ridden a motorbike, I had to learn in the crazy traffic of Saigon and quickly! But after this I feel like I have found a new passion and hope to get a bike one day again and maybe even travel like this again having acquired a new skill too! Overall, travelling Vietnam by motorbike is by far one of the highlights of our travelling lives!
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