Riding a Motorbike in Vietnam
Anyone who has been to Vietnam before knows that Vietnam equals traffic madness, mainly for the reason of the amount of motorbikes that are present in the country. You can visit cities, or the most deserted little towns, but motorbikes can be found anywhere. The iconic Honda Win is very famous as a backpacker’s motorbike. For somewhere between $175 and $300 you will find yourself buying a Honda Win of a backpacker or a mechanic. Not planning to ride a motorbike? Maybe arriving in Vietnam will change your mind… so scroll down below and read about all my tips and tricks about renting, buying and riding a motorbike in Vietnam!
First Things First: Renting or Buying a motorbike
Buying? Buying a motorbike? Are you insane? Well no… As I stated above, buying a motorbike in Vietnam can be as cheap as $175, doesn’t mean the bike is of the greatest quality. Especially the famous Honda Win’s have been known for breaking down on a weekly basis; if you are an unlucky buyer perhaps even on a daily basis. I have heard tens of stories of backpackers investing more money in their bikes than that it was actually worth. So the second option is to rent a motorbike, but how beneficial is this? Let me list some of the advantages and disadvantages of buying a motorbike first:
- Not dependent on when you have to return the bike
- Full freedom
- No deposits paid
- No paperwork
- Risk of bike breaking down
- Possible large repair cost
- Time it takes to sell the bike again
- Initial investment made
So yes, overall, there are many advantages for buying a motorbike. My main reason to buy a motorbike or tell someone to buy a motorbike would be the feeling of freedom. Once you buy a motorbike it is completely yours, you can paint it, pimp it, take it apart, fix it…. Whatever you desire. You do not have to take into account that you have to bring the motorbike back on a certain day, you are free to roam wherever and for as long as you feel like! How about we look at the advantages and disadvantages of renting a motorbike:
- Certainty of a well working bike
- Less risk of having costs concerning the bike
- Don’t have to spend time on selling the bike
- Can be inexpensive
- Less Freedom
- Possible high deposits
- Risk of scams
I have bought a motorbike on my first trip, got it repaired once with a cost of 5$, so no biggie. However, the second time, when I realized that I would stay in the same place, I opted to rent a bike. Renting a bike with Viet Motorbikes in Hanoi, can be as cheap as $50 a month. Service is great, and it is very careless, a perfect option for if you are staying in an area or if you return to the same location and already know when you are leaving the country again. Be aware of companies scamming you though; large deposits, claims of damages done to the bike etc. are not uncommon. But… are you traveling from North to South, have no schedule, and are looking for a bit more freedom? Then maybe buying a motorbike, even if it comes with more risk, is for you.
What to look for when getting a motorbike
Have made up your mind about renting or buying? Good! Nonetheless, even when you rent there are a couple of things you need to pay attention to when picking a motorbike. If you buy a motorbike, make sure you get a blue card with the bike that matches the license plate. Another number that should be on your card and the bike is the frame number, to be found on your steering wheel right, and the engine number, below the engine on the left side. The blue card is your registration card, and the proof of you owning the motorbike (even if it doesn’t have your name on it). Besides that, it is all pretty straightforward, but just to be sure I still put a checklist together:
- Check the profile on the tires, roads can be slippery
- Are your head and back light working?
- Are the direction lights and break light working?
- Is your fuel meter working? You kinda want to know when you need to gas up again!
- Ask how often oil has been changed
- Maybe most important: is your horn working?
- Are both breaks working properly, are they not too loose or too tight?
- Put the motorbike on a high standard to check if your back wheel does not move left and right
- Do a test ride to see if you can get the motorbike in neutral (located between your 1 and 2 shift)
- See if the motorbike starts without its kickstart
- Check to see if there are no oil stains on your engine there should not be any oil leaking
- Take a seat on your motorbike to see how the springs are, it should bounce back immediately (not yoyo)
- Check to see if the kickstart works, make sure to put your bike in neutral for this
- Test all gears, which might mean you have to find a piece of road where you can get up to 70km/h, shifting gears should be easy. In its 4th gear a Honda Win should get up to 75km/h.
- Ride in all gears to make sure that the gears do not shift back to neutral (this would indicate a damaged gearbox)
- Check the chain and cogwheel of the bike for any damages
Feeling comfortable and safe on your bike is important, especially with the insanity of the traffic in Hanoi. So make sure everything works. Not sure? Get a mechanic to look at your bike before you start your journey!
Got a motorbike? Great! Now Let’s Talk about Safety
The best thing you can do is accept the insanity of the traffic and just go with it. It might be a bit overwhelming at first, especially the honking, but trust me, you’ll get used to it. Some practical tips:
- Rules? There simply are no rules. Stick to the basics… ride on the right side of the road, keep your eyes on the road and be alert. Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is different from driving in Europe, so even if you stick to the rules, 99% the locals next to you won’t. So be alert and stay safe!
- Wear a helmet. No, I am not your mom, I know, but with (1) the insanity of the traffic and (2) the amount of police checks I would strongly advice you to still wear one. Wearing a helmet is mandatory in Vietnam and not wearing one could result in unnecessary bribes paid to police officers. We all travel on a budget, that money can be spend in better places.
- Use your direction lights, everyone tailgates in Vietnam, you can’t go around it. So make it a bit easier and safer for the person behind you and use those direction lights on time.
- Honk. Honkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonk. Honk at least 1000 times a minute, you cannot go riding around Vietnam without honking. Honk because someone is going to slow, because they go a bit to the left or right, because the light is green and they are not riding the first millisecond, or just because you feel like it. JOIN THE HONKING GAMES! Okay, now without joking, everyone honks every two seconds, for absolutely no reason.
- People will surpass you from the left and the right, cars will come in your lane, every honks at you… this is all common. Just make sure to stay calm and keep your focus on the road!
Riding any bike above 50cc (which is basically any bike) is illegal for foreigners in Vietnam. And yes, everyone still does it, including me, but it does come with some risks. Riding a bike above 50cc means you are doing something illegal; high chance that if you get involved in an accident your health insurance might not cover the bill, so be sure to check this out before hand! A little bit more about this, as an example, can be read on World Nomads, one of the biggest travel insurers out there.
That said, cops obviously know that riding a bike above 50cc is illegal, hence another opportunity to bribe you if they do see you. You might not get stopped, you might get stopped 20 times. So just to be smart, put that big roll of millions of Dong deep in your backpack. Keep an equivalent of something between 200.000 to 500.000 Dong in your wallet. In that case, if you do get stopped, just state that this is all the money you have. Be nice, smile, and offer them those 10$, it will most likely be the easiest thing to do.
Hitting the road!
Yes? You are still pursuing this adventure? You are going to ride a motorbike in Vietnam? Perfect, stay with me a bit longer to read some more tips! So now that you have a motorbike it is time to hit the road and not look back. Here are a couple of things you should consider taking with you:
- A helmet, obviously
- A raincoat or poncho, yes it can rain in Vietnam
- Suncream for when the sun in shining
- A jacket if you are riding in winter months or going higher up into the hills
- A lock for locking up your bike at night (or in sketchy places)
- Multi tool to change the oil yourself or secure that mirror back on
- Bungee cords and a rain cover to secure and protect your backpack
- A sim card with internet data and a battery pack
- Enough water to last you for a day
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam: the route
The most written trail is from North to South, or vice versa, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Between these two cities you can find the famous Ho Chi Minh Highway. However, following this road might not lead you to all the places you want to visit. I would definitely recommend visiting Phong Nha, Hoi An and Da Lat besides the start/end points of Hanoi and HCMC. If you have a little bit more time and am not done with your motorbike yet, consider exploring the North to see beautiful places such as Sa Pa or Halong Bay. Another area that is becoming more popular for backpackers is the Ha Giang area. An area situated in the North of Vietnam that is home to some of the most beautiful mountainous scenery!
Now the question is, how are you finding your way in a country you don’t speak the language? Well that is why I would advice you to buy a sim card with internet data and bring a battery pack with you. So far, out of experience Google Maps has been the most reliable source for finding the way around. Do note that you have to almost double the time as given, even with a motorbike you tend to travel slower than cars. Planning on going a bit off the path? Download the app maps.me , an offline maps app. So far, maps.me has been one of my favorite apps for riding motorbikes around Asia!
There you go!
You now have all information on riding a motorbike in Vietnam. Yes, it might be a bit risky concerning safety and costs, but there still is a reason why such a large part of backpackers decide to get a motorbike. To us it is a feeling of freedom, the opportunity to stop anywhere you like and discover places the bus and train companies don’t go. We might regret our decision once or twice when that bike breaks down, but it is the feeling of adventure that got us out there. No matter what you decide to go for, we can’t stress enough that accidents happen, safety first. Looking for more information about Vietnam? Don’t forget to check out my Vietnam travel guide! Oh, and don’t forget to pin it!