Motorcycling in Vietnam

After two months I’ve gathered some thoughts and tips for anyone who is thinking about riding in Vietnam.  The long and the short is that this was one of the highlights of my year round trip but very hard to do legally, pleasantly and thoroughly if you want to do it on a short vacation.

A cow’s (and bus’s or other motorbike’s) favorite thing to do: get in my way right as I’m coming by.

Legality:

This is the one you see the most disagreement about.  Although your International Driving Permit will list Vietnam as a covered country, the government has decided otherwise.  Travel insurance generally won’t cover you for accidents if you are riding illegally, so to be covered you do need a local license.  I covered how to get a local license here, in this post.  It did take me a month and my friend from Texas failed to get one when my California license went through.  If you do want to have your bases covered, I’d recommend having an International Driving Permit ready, a translator, and some wiggle room in time.  I’m aware most people think I’m nuts, but you don’t need your insurance to cover you until you really need them in any situation, so I’d rather be safe.

Stranded (repairs and other concerns):

I actually didn’t have to worry about much on the road.  I carried some snacks at first, but there is everything you need on the road.  Only once the entire two months did I worry about finding a place to sleep in the middle of a national park, and even then I found one shortly.  A guesthouse, a restaurant, and a repair shop are always nearby.

It does feel like everyone in this country knows how to fix a bike and strap large amounts of objects onto the back of them.  I never had any serious problems with my bike and it was pretty easy to find someone to fix problems or give an oil change.  The hardest part is convincing the mechanic that what you think are problems are in this country.  I could never really get anyone to fix my slightly leaning kickstand (only one even tried, one other told me to put a rock shim under it) or fix my taillight for night driving (they tried, but they also didn’t care, no one really uses them).  Then you get to watch in a mix of amazement and cringing as you see them make do with what they have and fix your bike with spit and tape.  But hey, it always worked, so who am I to complain?

Language:

It took me months to learn how to count to ten.  There are a few useful words for riding:

– “Sua Chua/Son Sua”: repair, with accents I am not including.  The former is confusing because with different accents, it is the word for yogurt.  Which they do sell at repair shops along with ice cream (kem). “xe may” means motorcycles in case you accidentally spot a bicycle or car repair.

– “Khach San/Nha Nghi”: Hotel/guesthouse.

– “Quan”: restaurant.  On the road it is more common to see “com dia/pho/bun/chao”: rice plates, rice noodles, rice noodles and rice porridge.
[DSCF124] a cow’s (and bus’s) favorite thing to do: get in my way

Dangers:

The people here drive crazy, but there are some general rules.  They just don’t make sense to most Western people ever.  The biggest rule is this: if you can go, go, and try not to stop.  The other big rule is that size wins.  So this is why you see people jetting everywhere in between giant buses and trucks who will do as they please.  Also, please use your horn always.  Here it means “I am here, where you can’t see me”.  So use it loudly and often like the locals.

Roads and route info:

The 1A highway was the bane of my riding existence.  Some of it was beautiful but this is where most of the buses and trucks that tried to run me off the road were.  The road is also often in bad condition with so many heavy vehicles, so there are rather deep grooves running over the road.  It’s like driving parallel to foot deep speed bumps constantly.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is very beautiful in the north, lush with greenery and mostly empty.  I highly recommend riding on it.  I hear in the south there is construction at the moment so I had avoided it.

The northwest loop is a good one week excursion if you just want to ride and see scenery but do nothing else.  The views were gorgeous and changed so much daily I thought I had changed countries.  That said, there are chunks of road west of Sapa that are so covered in landslides that it was the most dangerous rock and dirt roads I drove the entire time I was in the country.

The Mekong Delta is rather flat so it is good for anyone who is riding a bicycle as well as motorcycle.  The roads are in pretty good condition and the cities not so far apart, so it’s a good place to start and get some practice in if you need it.  Also, enjoy a ferry ride or five with your motorcycle!

Useful things to have:

There was wifi in most of the places I stopped.  The guides I used were a few years old and many were rather loud in proclamations of no wi-fi or ATMs nearby.  This country has exploded in wealth and development, so wi-fi is pretty common now.  ATMs I had a little more trouble with but it was still pretty easy to find one in most towns.

Getting a local SIM card is really pretty useful.  Instead of a paper map I used Google Maps, which worked great.  Vinaphone and Viettel have great coverage all over the country.  The only place I didn’t have coverage was on the ocean.  For about 2 dollars a month you can get unlimited internet for maps and looking up other useful info.  Google translate is useful for communicating the more complicated things you can’t pantomime.

We got extra butt cushions because these tiny bikes were not made for long rides or for big foreigners.  Many people ride 300 km a day, which on tiny 100-150 cc bikes means almost all day riding.  Do your butt a favor and either ride less or get something cushy.

Wear protective gear.  I ran into four separate people with oozing pus wounds and one with her entire legs covered in open wounds.  No one else does, but accidents are common in this country, particularly for travelers.  Be ready.  I opted for my full face American helmet over the only top of the head flimsy fashionable ordeals here.  You bet I was glad I had it when I took my slow tumble to the rocks and the side of my helmet, that would not have been covered in a Vietnamese helmet, was missing paint.

Random last tips:

I’m a slow traveler.  Most backpackers zoom from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or the reverse in a mere three weeks.  I did it in almost three months and relished every moment.  This is a large beautiful country, and if you have limited time I recommend only trying to see part of it.  You can get from one end to the other but they seemed to miss a lot of stuff in between.  Those were my favorite parts of the country.

So there you go, the basics of riding in Vietnam.  I do recommend this trip for any experienced riders with lots of free time.  I never did manage to find a couple where the woman was riding out of sheer want.  I met one couple where the woman rode because they had to carry three kids.  I think I saw another woman get in front of her man for two seconds before deciding it was a bad idea and letting him ride.  Shame, the men don’t seem to ride any safer or better.  In any case, Vietnam is a beautiful country that I greatly enjoyed seeing on two wheels.

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