Motorbiking Vietnam Part 1: Everything You Need to Know

Motorbiking Vietnam | Phong Nha Ke Bang

Motorbiking VietnamIf you’re heading to Vietnam, you might be debating whether or not to embark on the infamous motorbiking trip: Traveling the entire length of the country on your own, riding along the coastal highways, passing through dramatic landscapes, GoPro-ing your epic journey and documenting every crazy day via Instagram (guilty). The ultimate road trip, right? It might sound kind of amazing, and that’s perhaps because you haven’t done enough research.

Luckily, I researched vehemently and knew all about the dangers of the Vietnam roads. Unfortunately, this wasn’t until we had already bought our motos and were 4 days into the so-far-terrifying journey.

But okay, I’m a non-adrenaline-junkie-20-something-year-old-girl who had just ridden a motorbike for the first time 2 weeks prior. Have I mentioned it was terrifying? There were about 4 times I literally, actually thought I was going to die. Times when huge semi-trucks ran me off the road or swerved so fast into my lane that I almost crashed into one of the eight other bikes that were within 4 inches of me at all times (there’s a serious lack of spatial awareness in Asia). I’ve honestly never been so scared in my life because there was a very real possibility that I could’ve died at any moment on that bike.

I doubt any horror story will dissuade the majority of you, so here are some tips if you decide to undertake this harrowing journey anyway 😛

Excuse the long post – here’s what I go over:

•  The Basics of Motorbiking in Vietnam
•  Buying a Bike
•  Planning the Route
•  My Exact Route and Itinerary
•  Driving Basics
•  Navigating
•  Maintaining Your Bike
•  Expenses
•  Selling Your Bike
•  Finding Accommodation
•  Dos and Don’ts
•  Top Must-See Places

The Basics

•  How long does it take? It took us about 3 weeks, staying a couple days at a few of the main cities. This was about 12 days of riding (2-5 hours of riding a day).

•  How much did it cost? Transportation alone cost about $400 (including the cost of the bike) or $250 after selling the bike in Hanoi. (Click here for the total cost of traveling through Vietnam)

•  What did I ride? I bought a Yamaha Nouvo 125cc and the boys each bought a Honda Win 100cc.

•  Where did I start and finish? I started in Ho Chi Minh and ended in Hanoi.

•  Best moment? Riding through Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park! Seriously the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

•  Worst moment? Riding at night during the first couple of days. I wasn’t super comfortable on my bike yet and we were forced to ride at night after many break-downs and other mishaps during the day. 

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Buying A Bike

Ho Chi Minh Nights | Motorbiking Vietnam

There are tons of shops in the city center of HCM (Ho Chi Minh) that sell used bikes. There were also plenty of people who had just finished the trip and were keen on selling their bikes. Like any vehicle-purchase, the best way to find a reliable bike is to shop around, compare prices, and test drive. I opted for a “scooter” (Yamaha Nouvo, 125cc), as I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before and there wasn’t enough time to learn, while the boys each bought a Honda Win (100cc).

We ended up buying from a small shop in the center for 6,700,000 Vietnamese Dong ($300USD) each. We also bought helmets and gloves for another $15USD. Make sure your bike has a luggage rack with bungee cords to strap your bags on and a chain + lock is nice for peace of mind! (It’s also good to check that all of the lights and everything on the instrumental panel are working, the oil was recently changed, and that the chains are oiled if you get a motorcycle).

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Planning the Route

There are two ways to go: North – South, or South – North. We started in the south, Ho Chi Minh (AKA Saigon by the locals). We had 3 weeks total and we wanted to end in Hanoi to sell our bikes (some people go even further north to Sapa, some even head to Laos afterwards). When you’re planning your route, it’s best to have a rough guide of where you want to stop, but to also be flexible. Things happen (usually in the broken variety) and it’s likely you’ll get held back for a day or so. You’re also bound to meet others doing the same route or the opposite – in which case they’ll be able to give you good tips about where you’re heading.

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Our Route & Itinerary

Here’s our route and how long we stayed in each place. The red pins are each city we stayed in and the greens pin are short stops. The blue line shows the route of the overnight bus I insisted we take after reading about how the roads were particularly dangerous in this area.

[Best viewed on a computer – click each pin for more info. Click HERE if this map is unavailable on your current device.]

  1. Ho Chi Minh: 3 Nights
  2. Mui Ne: 1 Night
  3. Phan Ri Cua: Short stop
  4. Phan Rang: 1 Night
  5. Nha Trang: 2 Nights
  6. Buon Ma Thuot: 1 Night
  7. Da Nang: Short stop (where the overnight bus brought us)
  8. Hoi An: 2 Nights
  9. My Son temples: Short stop
  10. Hue: 1 Night
  11. Dong Hoi: 1 Night
  12. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park: 1 Night
  13. Cua Lo: 1 Night
  14. Ninh Binh: 1 Night
  15. Ha Long: 1 Night
  16. Cat Ba Island: 2 Nights
  17. Hanoi: 2 Nights

*Stay tuned for another, more in-depth post about our exact route and where we stopped on the way!

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Driving Basics

The routes we took consisted mostly of smaller highways, as we attempted to stay off the AH1 (a horrible, 2-laned, semi-truck-ridden-highway where most motorbike accidents probably occur due to the insanely small roads, obscene amounts of construction, and semis that recklessly drive on the wrong side of the road to pass other trucks). Each leg was around 2 – 5 hours, usually taking 2 to 3 breaks for food, bathroom breaks and gas. Driving through small villages was one of the best experiences – you get to see a really authentic side of the culture with zero tourists and attractions. We’d usually stop at tiny shops for lunch, where they’d only have one pot of some mystery food we would try for 50 cents.

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Maps.me Vietnam
Screenshot from the Maps.Me app

Navigating

This was the tricky part. We downloaded MapsMe – a great app that allows you to download cities/countries that works with GPS offline. This was super helpful to plan out routes and to gauge how long each trip will take, but it’s hard to navigate on a phone while riding a motorbike. This is when it’s important to have a working instrument panel to track how many kilometers you’ve traveled (one of many luxuries we didn’t have).

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Maintaining Your Bike

There’s a pretty big chance something will break on your bike (although mine was solid the entire time, regardless of how many times I crashed it). Luckily, most Vietnamese ride motos as well and so most of them know how to fix them. We had a dozen problems on the way up to Hanoi and there was almost always a friendly Vietnamese to help us!

It’s also important to change the oil every 500 kilometers or so. You can check it regularly with the dip stick and it’s pretty cheap to change regardless. We also made sure to get petrol fairly often (especially since our fuel gauges were amongst the many broken devices on our bikes). Our usual routine was to fill up the night before each leg. Petrol is super cheap and usually cost less than $5 to fill up the entire tank. Both mechanic shops and petrol stations are everywhere and easy to find in Vietnam. In bigger cities, ask locals for the best mechanics to ensure you don’t get scammed. We were also told to be cautious about what mechanics sell you – getting the standard oil change is fine (premium isn’t necessary) but make sure they’re opening a new bottle when changing your oil!  

The town we broke down in for 5 hours (Note to self: always carry cash because towns like these [obviously] don't take cards :|)
The town we broke down in for 3 hours. Note to self: always carry cash because towns like these [obviously] don’t take cards or have ATMs 😐
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Expenses

Motorbiking Vietnam Expenses

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Selling Your Bike

This part was super stressful. We rode around the city to a few different used bike shops to compare prices and also put For Sale signs on our bikes. We were a bit pressed for time (and pretty sick of riding through the insane streets of Hanoi) and I ended up selling my bike for about half of what I purchased it for. The boys were able to sell their motorcycles for a bit more (around $180). I didn’t do a whole lot of research, but it seemed like the North – South route had better bike prices: cheaper to buy/sell in Hanoi and more expensive to buy/sell in HCM).

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Finding Accommodation

We would only book accommodation the day before or the day of (if at all). This was always for the bigger cities too, like Hoi An and Ha Long. When we stopped in small towns (sometimes this happened unexpectedly because of a flat tire or broken shift lever), we would usually just try to find something (riding around and looking or asking locals). It was a bit intimidating in the beginning, but all part of the adventure :).


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Dos & Don’ts of Motorbiking Vietnam

•  DO be super, super, SUPER cautious and defensive when driving! Driving in Vietnam is a fend-for-yourself type of place. You don’t really have time to worry about the people behind you (as most people are mere inches behind you in busy areas), just focus on what’s in front of you! The only semi-serious injury (bad enough to visit the hospital) was in result of Jeff crashing into Nate’s luggage rack at a red light. Whoopsies. 

•  DON’T do this trip alone! (Or even at all, if I’m being honest..) Accidents happen and it’s not as much fun getting lost by yourself. 

•  DO get a bike that has a working instrument panel (as fun as it is to guess how many kilometers you’ve driven. Or how fast you’re going. Or how much gas you have left.)

•  DON’T just wear a shirt/shorts. Protect yourself as much as you can! (I’d usually wear long-sleeved breathable shirts and pants and tennis shoes) Wear a helmet of course and gloves are a good idea also (coming from somebody who crashed 3 times the first day). 

•  DO take your time riding – try to only ride around 200-300 kilometers a day and enjoy your surroundings

•  DON’T ride at night. Unless you like driving in the pitch black. On gravel or newly-paved-still-wet roads. With trucks driving in the wrong lane and running you off the road. (These all happen in the daytime too, but it’s a bit easier when you can actually see.)

•  DO wear a CamelBak for easy hydration

•  DON’T stop for the “police”. Yes, I’m serious. There are so many men on the side of the road/highway that wave down foreigners to “fine” them. It’s a common scam because foreigners don’t know any better (and are used to following the law). Most of these guys are just trying to scam you and we were told not to stop for them (which is pretty terrifying and slightly exhilarating.)

•  DO stop at small villages and eat as much pho and local food as you can! 

•  DO stay off the AH1 (highway) as much as possible south of Hoi An. It will be the death of you.

•  DON’T forget that driving a 100cc bike on shitty, gravelly roads is a LOT slower than you’d expect. A 200 kilometer trek might not seem far, but it often took upwards of 5 hours to go that distance when you account for traffic and dirt roads.

•  DO get early-morning starts. It can be brutally hot and it’s way more pleasant in the AM (and there’s less traffic as well).

•  DON’T hit the gas when you panic. It will just make you fall harder and faster (I may or may not be speaking from experience). And also, DON’T crash your bike into another bike while attempting to park. Especially in front of the hotel staff where you’re staying. 

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Top Must-See Places

1. War Remnants Museum, HCM

War Remnants Museum, Vietnam

2. Hoi An Ancient City

3. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park + Dark Cave

Phong Nha Ke Bang | Motorbiking Vietnam

4. Hai Van Pass (the mountain route from Hoi An – Hue)

5. Tam Coc + Mua Cave in Ninh Binh

From the top of Mua Cave in Ninh Binh, Vietnam | 15 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Vietnam

6. Ha Long Bay (obviously)

Motorbiking Vietnam: To Ride or Not to Ride?

This trip was both the highlight and lowlight(?) of my Southeast Asia trip. Motorbikes are insanely fun and we saw some amazing sites and villages we would’ve never seen otherwise. Was it worth the near-death experiences? Yes, but only because I didn’t actually die or get seriously injured. We saw plenty of gnarly wounds, broken limbs and damaged bikes to know that this trip was not for the faint of heart. So would I do it again? Absolutely not and I encourage anybody who wants to do it to take every extra precaution and really research everything to know what you’re getting yourself into. And of course, enjoy the trip of a lifetime :)

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