In March, Alex and I spent 3.5 weeks motorbiking across Vietnam from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. It was an incredible experience that cemented our love for this beautiful and fascinating country. This is part one of a multi-part series documenting our trip, including logistical advice, lodging info, and helpful tips.
Motorbiking Vietnam has always been on my bucket list, and unlike most people it actually has nothing to do with Top Gear - I didn’t even see the Vietnam special until we were already in the country! Rather, I’d read accounts online of people who’d traveled across Vietnam by motorbike and was keen to try it. It seemed like the best way to get off the beaten path and see as much of the country as possible.
Only one problem: I can’t drive a motorbike. In fact, I didn’t even learn to ride a bicycle until 2016. Alex has been driving us around Asia on motorbikes this whole trip, so his skills are very strong, but I’ve only driven one a couple brief times in a vague attempt to learn, so I was in no condition to put my ‘skills’ to the test in Vietnam, where there are more motorbikes than people and the average driver appears to have either a daredevil streak or a death wish (or both).
A lot of people do choose to learn to drive motorbikes for the first time in Vietnam, but let me just say that is incredibly irresponsible! Not only are you putting yourself at risk, you’re endangering everyone else on the road too, from your erratic driving. Vietnam has different road ‘rules’ than anywhere else, and if you lack confidence on the bike you are setting yourself up for potentially lethal failure. Don’t do it! Ride in back of someone with more experience. I promise it’s still fun.
As we mentioned in our Motorbiking Vietnam FAQ, you technically need an international driver’s permit PLUS a motorcycle license from your home country to legally drive in Vietnam, but in reality almost no tourists possess those two things. Cops are unlikely to stop you due to the language barrier and because they have other priorities, but if you do get stopped you will be expected to bribe the officer. Yeah, it sucks, but it’s just the way things are done here. For the record, we never got pulled over - it seems relatively rare. For more details see our FAQ.
Another thing to note is that unless you possess the IDP/motorcycle license combo, you are driving illegally and therefore your travel insurance will NOT cover you if you get in a serious accident while motorbiking in Vietnam. Whether or not you want to accept this risk is a personal decision, but it absolutely needs to be considered. There’s no way around the fact that driving a motorbike in Vietnam is dangerous and if you’re considering it, you need to do your due diligence in researching traffic laws and local driving habits.
Basically, people here drive like maniacs, at least from a foreigner’s perspective. Traffic lights and stop signs are purely decorative and just because a street is one-way does not mean people ever follow that rule. People don’t look when changing lanes or turning, they just pull out and expect you to get out of the way. The main rule of driving in Vietnam is ‘every man for himself’ and everyone just focuses on what’s directly in front of them. Somehow, it generally works, but it does take a LOT of getting used to.
Motorbikes are not allowed on Vietnam’s main highways, not that you’d want to take those anyway - they’re ugly and dusty. On a bike you’ll be stuck to smaller highways and side roads, so make sure to select ‘Avoid Highways’ in your Google Maps settings when planning. Taking the scenic route mean going between places takes a very long time! As a result, don’t ever plan on covering more than 200km in a day. We suggest doubling whatever time estimate Google Maps gives you for a realistic idea of how long it will take to get from A to B.
It would be impossible to describe all the intricacies of Vietnam’s road rules here. Wikivoyage has good info on the Vietnam page here and Tigit Motorbikes has great advice here. Don’t be discouraged if you try to google something basic like ‘motorbiking Vietnam tips’ and all you find is melodramatic forum posts from people talking about how dangerous/illegal/stupid/etc it is to ride a motorbike here as a foreigner. That kind of stuff is all over the internet and it’s extremely frustrating for those of us who have already decided to do the damn thing.. Hence why I’m writing this!
Since we’d be riding on one bike, we wanted to make sure it would run properly and wouldn’t just break down on us in the middle of nowhere like some old bikes are wont to do. We broke down the options (renting vs. buying) in our aforementioned Motorbiking Vietnam FAQ so check that out for more info. We rented a 110cc Honda Blade (which we dubbed Stormy Daniels) and adored her. Tigit assured us she was perfectly capable of hoisting two people plus gear across the whole country, and they were right!
We obviously couldn’t fit both of our big packs on the bike so we rearranged things. We packed our essentials for a month of travel into Alex’s backpack and brought that with us, while everything else went in my backpack which Tigit shipped to Saigon to be stored until we arrived. We secured Alex’s backpack and a small daypack to our bike with several bungees and a luggage rack. Turns out we didn’t miss any of the stuff we shipped to Saigon - traveling with limited luggage was an unexpected (and much-needed) lesson in minimalism. Plus we learned that Alex is a much more skilled packer than me, so now he gets to do that all the time. ;)
We also purchased (from Tigit) a GPS pouch for our bike. It’s a waterproof storage bag that clips onto the front of the bike, allowing you to use your phone’s navigation while driving. This was invaluable as it allowed us to always have Google Maps up and running. It’s safer than a regular phone mount because it’s much harder for a random passerby to snatch, and the waterproof aspect is crucial for Vietnam’s notoriously crazy weather.
We each purchased sim cards from Viettel in Hanoi for about 250k dong ($10) for 10gb of data and a few minutes of talk time, which was more than enough. Virtually all hotels, restaurants and cafes along the way had excellent WiFi but I wouldn’t recommend doing this trip without a sim card just in case of emergency.
Definitely get a helmet with a visor, this is great for blocking the wind and keeping bugs, dust, dirt, etc out of your face. One other thing I found really helpful was a face dust mask. The roads, especially around major cities, are extremely dusty and polluted. I actually had a Buff from our Everest trek which I wore over my nose and mouth, but you can buy proper masks anywhere in Vietnam for a couple bucks and it really makes a difference. The locals all wear them so you’ll blend in more, too.
One other thing I haven’t seen mentioned in other blogs about motorbiking Vietnam is what to wear when driving. Ideally, you want as much protection as possible for when (not if) you crash. Most crashes are minor but you’ll likely as not end up with some road rash. That being said, it’s Vietnam: it’s hot as balls, so I can understand the desire to wear shorts. I wore long sleeves and leggings every single day on the road, while Alex usually wore shorts and a T-shirt. That brings me to my next tip: WEAR SUNSCREEN. You’re exposed to the elements on a bike and that includes the sun. Do you really want a gnarly farmer’s tan? I didn’t think so.
Comfort is also a big issue. There’s no way around the fact that motorbiking for long periods of time is very uncomfortable on your butt. We stopped roughly once an hour on our longer days for ‘butt breaks’ because you can only shift awkwardly in your seat so many times before it stops being effective. We don’t have any tips for avoiding tush ache other than taking lots of breaks.
Mentally, it’s important to note that motorbiking Vietnam, while wonderful and interesting, is also very mentally and emotionally draining. While riding the bike you have to be constantly alert - it’s not like a car where you can kinda zone out and be okay. You’re constantly on your guard. There’s also the stress of being in non-touristy (and often very remote) areas of a country where English is not spoken and having that added level of difficulty in everything you do from getting gas to buying dinner to finding accommodation. Coming off the bike after a six hour drive in cold rain and trying to order dinner unsuccessfully through a combination of Google Translate and sign language makes for a good story after the fact, but in the actual moment it is incredibly stressful. You’ll also see a lot of upsetting or uncomfortable things: extreme poverty, animal cruelty, disgusting bathrooms, and huge insects, just to name a few.
My best advice for dealing with this stuff is to pace yourself. If you see something upsetting or you’re caught up in the stress of being in a foreign country, take a couple days off if you have the time. This applies to any travel, really, but when going through an experience this intense it’s doubly true.
So, now that I’ve got all the logistics out of the way, let’s get on to the main attraction: our actual route through Vietnam!
Our trip took 25 days not including a week each in Hanoi and Saigon. We went at a relaxed pace but definitely could have taken more time. I think two weeks is the absolute minimum for this kind of journey, and that would be really rushing it. We got three-month single-entry visas, but if you get a multiple-entry visa (more expensive) you would have the option of taking your bike over the border to Laos or Cambodia.
You basically have two options when planning a motorbike journey through Vietnam: north to south (Hanoi to Saigon) or the reverse. South to north seems more common, and as a result there’s a surplus of backpackers selling their bikes after finishing their journeys in Hanoi which makes buying one easier. We opted to start in Hanoi because we found a cheap flight there from Taipei. It ended up working in our favor, because by the time we got to Saigon, which has the worst traffic in the country, Alex was very comfortable navigating Vietnamese roads.
Our route was as follows (distance in parentheses):
DAY 1: Hanoi to Tam Coc (110 km)
DAY 2: Sightseeing in Tam Coc
DAY 3: Tam Coc to Nghe An (200 km)
DAY 4: Nghe An to Ha Tinh (220 km)
DAY 5: Ha Tinh to Phong Nha National Park (80 km)
DAY 6: Sightseeing in Phong Nha
DAY 7: Phong Nha to Khe Sanh (200 km)
DAY 8: Khe Sanh to Hue (180 km)
DAY 9-10: Sightseeing in Hue
DAY 11: Hue to Hoi An + Hai Van Pass (120 km)
DAY 12-15: Sightseeing in Hoi An
DAY 16: Hoi An to Dak Glei (170 km)
DAY 17: Dak Glei to Kon Tum (120 km)
DAY 18: Kon Tum to Quy Nhon (200 km)
DAY 19: Quy Nhon to Nha Trang (210 km)
DAY 20: Nha Trang to Da Lat (140 km)
DAY 21-23: Sightseeing in Da Lat
DAY 24: Da Lat to Cat Tien National Park (170 km)
DAY 25: Cat Tien to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) (150 km)
For the sake of brevity (hah!) I’ll breaking up our trip recap into three posts, each covering roughly a third of our journey. These will include the route we took, lodging, travel tips, and sightseeing tips for each city we visited along the way.
Thanks for reading Part 1 of our series on motorbiking Vietnam! Stay tuned for upcoming posts by following us on Instagram @screwtheitinerary or liking us on Facebook.