Tales from a Motorbike. 6 Tips for Safely Experiencing Freedom in South East Asia
Cold, wet and with frazzled nerves I rolled up to our hostel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter after having spent the last 36 days and 4,117 km touring Vietnam on a motorbike. The journey took me from Saigon to Hanoi, over to Cat Ba Island then up to Sapa while traversing hilly mountain passes, bone-jarring country roads, sketchy highways, and chaotic cities.
I’ve never ridden anywhere like Vietnam. It is an exhilarating experience in an amazing country filled with beautiful surroundings and friendly people. If you’ve thought about a similar adventure – I encourage you to go for it, but before you do here are six things you should know about motorbiking in Vietnam.
Jump on and enjoy, nothing gets as close to freedom as biking in South East Asia.
1. Vietnamese Drivers are Unpredictable
They will merge onto a road without looking. They will drive the wrong way ON A HIGHWAY in YOUR lane. Buses will pass trucks passing buses – and will be using all of the roads while doing it – it’s your job to get out of the way. Drivers will turn left across traffic from the far right side of the road. They will signal left and go right if they signal at all. They will park in an active traffic lane, they will stop suddenly. Working brake lights are an option, mirrors are an accessory only, there is no blind spot check.
Drive while pretending everyone else is there to kill you and survival chances level up.
2. There is Always a Mechanic Nearby
Your bike is going to break down. It’s not a matter of if but when. If your bike is brand new you’ll get a flat tire. If you, like some of us, choose to buy a used one depending on how much it’s been rigged up already with chewing gum and zip ties you’ll be fixing something.
Not to worry though, even in the smallest of towns there will be a mechanic close by. The whole time I’ve driven in Vietnam the only instance I’ve had to ride long distance for a repair was when I got a flat on the Ho Chi Minh trail –even then it was only 10k until the nearest town. Costs vary, it saves to ask first. Keep general maintenance up and you should avoid preventable problems.
Don’t worry about getting stuck in the muck, a mechanic is never far!
3. Avoid the Highways if Possible
They’re ugly, have road conditions that go from smoothly paved to highly potholed in seconds, and moreover they’re dangerous (see #2) and not fun to ride on. You can get extremely stressed out navigating the main thoroughfares here and that’s when you make mistakes.
The best rides are on the back roads where the scenery is nicer, the traffic is practically nonexistent and the locals are more likely to wave at you from the roadside then honk maddeningly. The worst rides and scariest incidents I’ve had were all on the highways.
These roads might be windy but they are more predictable than highways.
4. Overestimate your Travel Time
Ignore how long Google Maps tells you it will take. Even if the distance is right it WILL take you longer to cover it than you think. The roads might be okay, perhaps not but you’ll never know. If you can avoid bike problems (see #3) you’ll still have fuel stops and map check stops. You’ll get lost, stop for lunch and need to take a break every few hours to stretch and let the bike cool down. Not to mention the fun parts when you stop for good photo ops along the way.
To avoid driving in the dark, and trust me on this – you don’t want to traverse unlit unpredictable road conditions – make sure to add two hours to each route minimum.
5. Technically it’s Illegal
Yes, you’ll see foreigners riding scooters and motorbikes. Almost every touristy city will have a scooter rental shop. However, TECHNICALLY it’s not legal. You can get pulled over and if the police want they can find you and/or confiscate your bike for up to six weeks. Not a fun scenario to explain to the rental office and if you bought a bike that can definitely ruin your trip.
Don’t give them a reason – ALWAYS wear a helmet, don’t speed Too Fast Too Furious style through small towns and (though I didn’t tell you this) if you see the traffic cops – khaki-clad gents holding what looks like a race baton – look straight ahead and go around them. When in doubt you can try to play the ‘ I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to drive’ card.
Yes, everyone may be doing it, but you’re a foreigner it’s different!
6. Have Fun
Even I forgot this one from time to time while being hell-bent on reaching the next city. Repeat to yourself “the journey is the destination”.
The whole reason to travel Vietnam by motorbike is for the freedom, fun and joy of having the wind on your face, sun at your back and direction of your choosing. Don’t let things stress you out too much – you will find a mechanic, you will find fuel and you will find a place to stay.
Follow the above rules and you’ll have a great time!