Traveling by motorbike
Vietnam, with its 200,000 plus – km network of roads connecting urban centers with farming villages, breathtaking mountains to beach resorts, and rugged coastlines to lush jungles, is without a doubt one of those countries that is best experienced on a motorbike – it’s a two-wheel wonderland.
Despite the inflated luxury taxes on cars in Vietnam, the country has been experiencing a considerable rise in the number of four-wheeled vehicles on its roads and highways. However, the larger part of the local population and foreign residents still favor the motorbike as their mode of transportation, and an ever-increasing number of adventure-seeking visitors are catching on to it as well.
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam, whether in the heaving traffic of Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi or the twisting mountain roads of Ha Giang, is not as hard as people imagine. Riding safe and smart are key to having a successful, enjoyable motorbike trip in Vietnam; knowing some practical rules of the road, having the right equipment, and good planning will get you well on your way to motorbike bliss.
Rules of the road
Riding in this beautiful country, while extraordinarily rewarding, can also be daunting, so we recommend some easy tips to guide you safely through your travels.
Firstly, it is important to choose your roads carefully, and stick to the smaller roads. Not only will it make your trip far more scenic and pleasurable, but you need to keep in mind that in Vietnam, motorbikes are prohibited on freeways and motorways.
The theory is that you drive on the right, though in practice motorists and cyclists swoop, swerve and dodge wherever they want, using their horn as a surrogate indicator and warning of their approach. Logically, (warning: logic often does not apply here) passing should be done on the left, but don’t expect this to be true. Riders will often (annoyingly) squeeze themselves into any passing space available, be it on the left or on the right. By keeping to the far right of the driving lane and giving those behind you plenty of space to pass, you can potentially avoid this situation. Be aware at all times, use your rear view mirrors to glance at what is going on behind you, while always keeping your eyes on the road ahead.
Unless otherwise stated, the speed limit is 70 kph on divided roads, 60 kph on undivided roads and 50 kph or less in towns. Pushing the speed limits is a major cause of motorcycle accidents both on-road and off. One of the most important practical road rules for riding in Vietnam is, then, to stay within the speed limit. Never ride beyond your personal abilities or faster than conditions warrant. Remember also that alcohol, drugs, fatigue and inattention can significantly reduce your ability to make good judgments and ride safely. Be prepared at all times to have to avoid any number of potentially dangerous situations: an oncoming motorbike, car, truck or bus on the wrong side of the road; a herd of cows or buffalo crossing the road; or children dashing out in front of you, to mention a few.
The right of way invariably goes to the biggest vehicle on the road, which means that motorbikes and bicycles are regularly forced off the highway by thundering trucks or buses. Vehicles overtaking you assume that you will pull over onto the hard shoulder to let them pass. It’s not a game of chicken – let them pass you.
As annoying as it seems at first, it’s wise to use your horn when needed. It lets people know you’re there, and gives them an indication of what you’re doing. It’s the way the locals do it, you should follow suit.
Make yourself easy to see on the road. The more visible you are, the better chance you have of other drivers seeing and avoiding you. Wear bright reflective clothing, position yourself so other drivers can see you, and always signal before turning or changing lanes. We also recommend extending your arm and waving your hand in the direction you are turning, for extra notification of your intention.
We strongly suggest you avoid being on the road after dark, especially in the countryside, since many vehicles either don’t have functioning headlights or simply don’t bother to turn them on. Also, it is not uncommon for animals to be in the countryside or on mountain roads, at any time of the day, but they can be especially hazardous after dark.
Nobody likes a tailgater! Allow plenty of space (between 10-20 m) between you and other riders (group members, local people, guide etc.), especially on wide open roads or in the mountains, to give yourself enough time to react to any unexpected situations.
Your rear view mirrors are there for a reason – to see what is going on or coming up behind you. We repeat — use them! A backwards off -the- shoulder glance to check the situation behind you means that you are taking your eyes off the road ahead of you, albeit momentarily. Keep your eyes on the road ahead of you at all times.
Every country’s got its own system of highways, roads, streets, boulevards, lanes, alleys, etc., and each country has its own way of naming these. Vietnam is no exception, and once you understand what the road abbreviations mean, the easier it will be for you to navigate your way around and to know which roads to take or avoid. Some roads are well maintained and heavily traveled, while others — well, not. Some of the smaller, single track roads, while often offering splendid views onto hidden vistas as well as a much lower density of traffic, might be better avoided.
Here are the abbreviations most often seen on maps, and their meanings:
AH1 — The main north-to-south highway, generally very congested, should be avoided, except possibly to save time entering and exiting cities.
QL — National roads, which, in general, are paved and in good condition, easy to navigate.
QL**b — An alternative to the primary QL road, usually more pleasant, less traveled roads for a better riding or driving experience.
CT — Superhighway — NO BIKES ALLOWED, strictly for cars.
DT — Countryside roads, usually in passable condition, but sometimes in need of significant repairs. They tend to be more remote roads so they can, at times, be a little demanding.
TL — Very small roads, generally single track, sometimes not marked on Google maps, mostly used by villagers, so except for serious off-road bikers, travelers should probably avoid them.
Most foreigners in Vietnam, both resident and visiting, tend to adopt the laissez-faire attitude of “Oh, I don’t need a license HERE!” which is perpetuated by the fact that most of the time, foreigners will not be stopped by the police and therefore will never have to produce that official piece of paper: the driving license. However, we strongly recommend that you DO, at the very minimum, have a car driving license, therefore having experience in handling a vehicle.
Ultimately, you should have motorbike riding experience, or better yet, a motorbike license, under your belt before you venture out on a motorbike on the roads/streets/paths in Vietnam. Driving a car and riding a motorbike are almost, like, well, apples and oranges, chalk and cheese, completely different experiences and skill sets, so knowing how to drive a car does not automatically make you a motorbike rider.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) is an identity document that allows the holder to drive a private motor vehicle in any country that recognizes IDPs. As of August 2015, foreigners from countries who are members of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic treaty (1968), are now permitted to drive in Vietnam with an International Driving Permit (IDP). Please note that to ride a motorbike legally in Vietnam, your country’s IDP must include motorbike classification, and to be valid, the IDP must be accompanied by a valid driving license. If you are licensed only to drive a car, the IDP is not valid for riding a motorbike.
Click here for more information on the treaty and a list of participating countries.
The treaty’s list of members is long, 73 countries, but please note that among others, the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Australia are not on this list, therefore this ruling does not apply to citizens of these countries. Subsequently, citizens of these countries must have their existing motorbike driving license converted to a Vietnamese driving license in order to be able to drive or ride legally in Vietnam. This could be done in a Vietnamese embassy in your own country before you come to Vietnam, or, if you give us enough notice and send us copies of your driving license and passport, we can arrange it for you here.
Why bother? you might ask – well, without a valid Vietnamese driving license, your insurance coverage will not apply in case of an accident. In the words of insurance companies, “We can’t insure against illegal activities.” Period. So, if you want to play it safe and cover all your bases, we suggest you either get a Vietnamese driving license or bring your motorbike class IDP and current license with you.
Personal medical insurance is the most important insurance that we recommend all riders to have, to ensure coverage in case of an accident and/or the need for medical care, hospitalization, or, worse case scenario, getting helicoptered to the nearest hospital. As mentioned above, your insurance company will only cover you if you are properly licensed to ride in Vietnam. Of course, you should have a chat with your insurance company about all this before you come.
Third party liability insurance and bike insurance are unnecessary in Vietnam. If you are involved in an accident in which a Vietnamese person gets injured or whose motorbike/car gets damaged, chances are high that you will be “at fault”, even if the accident was not caused by you. You are a foreigner, therefore you are at fault – not fair, but that’s generally how it goes. After negotiation, you will inevitably have to pay a (hopefully) relatively small amount of money, depending on the severity of the injury or damage. Our guides are skilled at firstly doing everything in their power to prevent accidents from happening, and secondly, they are capable of negotiating a fair price for all parties involved.
There is no golden rule on planning for a motorbike trip; the plans are as varied as the terrains on which you’ll be riding, as well as the weather and road conditions at the time. Proper planning, with time allowed for modifications, will save you time, money, and possibly even your life. Keep in mind that safety should be your number one priority: riding in Vietnam, while incredibly satisfying, can be dangerous. We have a few tips to aid you in your preliminary decisions.
We strongly suggest that you always follow the designated speed limits. Roads in Ha Giang, and the north Vietnam mountains generally, have many twists and turns, and, while they have been much improved over the last few years, can still have sections where the surface is poor or narrow and the hills steep.
On a typical small rental motorbike such as Honda Wave or Fortune with engines around 110cc to 125cc you can expect to average around 30 km/hr to 40 km/hr, often at the lower end if there are trucks and other traffic on the road that you have to wait behind until you have a decent passing opportunity. Riding on Vietnamese roads takes a good deal of concentration, and 4 – 6 hours on a small bike covering 90 km to 140 km is a decent day’s ride.
A larger bike won’t go much faster because most mountain roads and traffic won’t support much higher speeds. On our tours we generally aim at covering 90 – 140 km from start to destination on a day with plenty of stops and exploring (which may involve riding the bike on side roads, so the total km riding might be more), and perhaps 140 – 170 km from start to destination on a day with fewer stops and less side exploration.
It is also wise that you don’t try to cover too much distance each day. The landscapes and villages in the back roads and daily life in the fields are generally so amazing and interesting that you will want to stop often. Going slowly and exploring and enjoying is the whole idea. Back roads and side excursions are often where the best bits are — those unexpected discoveries and experiences that make a trip special and memorable.
One possible way to reduce the number of actual riding hours is to store your bike in the undercarriage of a bus while you ride in comfort in the passenger area on some of the less scenic roads or freeways (which are not accessible to motorbikes). Alternatively, you could also put your bikes on the train, while you ride in a comfortable air conditioned compartment or sleeper cabin. Once you reach your destination, rested and relaxed, hop on the bike, get refueled, and set off for some fantastic riding.
Different seasons dictate a variety of weather conditions, which vary greatly from north to south in Vietnam. While you may think you have the perfect plan prepared for the number of days you are allotting to your trip, you should take into consideration that riding in limited visibility and slippery road conditions can greatly increase your chances of an accident, so be prepared to alter your plan accordingly. Remember, safety first!
Packing for a multi-day trip
Careful consideration of the right equipment and the right clothes to bring along will surely make your trip a more enjoyable, comfortable one. We always ask ourselves the same old questions when we pack for a trip: Will I really need this? Can I make do without that? Packing for a motorbike trip should be quite different from packing for an urban holiday, or beach holiday, but if you plan to do all of these, then the clothing and equipment you bring, as well as the luggage you choose, should be appropriate for motorbiking and urban/beach needs.
We think one the most important things to remember about packing for a motorbike trip is: don’t over-pack. Traveling lighter on a motorbike is essential, so we generally recommend leaving behind anything you are unlikely to need on the road. What to take depends on the season, likely weather and to some extent the length of the tour. Some things are universal, and should be taken on every trip but we can arrange for whatever you don’t want to take on the motorbike tour to be held securely for you by the hotel until your return at the end of the tour. We will also have a pre-trip briefing in a greet-and-meet chat, in which we can help you to make some of these packing decisions. We would also be very happy to answer any of your questions by email before you arrive.
Motorbike panniers are, in our opinion, the easiest, most effective, least cumbersome way to carry your clothes and gear. Leaving the seat space free of baggage eliminates the inconvenience of needing to untie your pack to refuel. All Other Path Travel motorbikes come with left & right panniers, plus a rear luggage rack designed to take a small duffel bag attached with bungee cords, or octopus straps. Each pannier has a capacity of about 20 kg, and they are made of waterproof material, reasonably shower-proof when riding in wet or misty weather. This should be plenty of storage for a tour of up to 12 days.
Clothing and gear
One of the most important and easily overlooked aspects of motorcycling is having the proper clothing and riding gear. Although gear can be heavy, hot, awkward, and intrusive, it’s the only thing that will protect you in a motorbike accident. Sliding across 20 meters of asphalt in a pair of sandals, shorts and a T-shirt will leave you with some serious road rash, or worse, serious injuries. Cover up. Period.
In Vietnam, it is possible, depending on the season, to experience a variety of weather conditions in any one day, so the best approach to clothing is to be flexible and dress in layers. See our section on “When to go: weather, seasons & festivals” for more information on seasons and weather.
As mentioned in our “What to take, traveling light” section, moisture-wicking travel / outdoor clothing is great for motorbiking, as well as trekking, which we often incorporate into our motorbike tours. Modern materials are lightweight, hard-wearing, easy to launder, are often minimal-iron, offer good protection from sun and UV, and pack small. They make traveling light easy and therefore lend themselves well to a motorbike trip.
Long sleeved shirts, even in summer, are recommended at all times. In the mountains in the winter months of December & January, it can get really cold riding so warm layers for both torso and legs are essential: we tend to wear a thermal base layer under other clothing. High quality merino wool tops, layered with other thin, but warm tops, are a good base to beat the oft times penetrating cold. As the temperature rises and falls, which is common as we ascend and descend the mountains passes, the layers can be added or shed as needed. Summer layers should, of course, be cooler, but just as indispensable in protecting you against harmful UV rays, and as added protection in case of a fall.
As the knees are often one of the first body parts to hit the ground in a fall, pants made of strong, sturdy fabric, such as jeans, are probably best to minimize scrapes and scuffs. However, jeans can be hot to wear in summer, so we suggest an alternative: cool, lightweight travel pants, the type where the lower leg below the knee can be zippered off to produce shorts for off-the-bike walking or trekking. Some protective knee guards are strongly recommended to wear, especially over top of the lightweight pants.
Regardless of the season, you should always be prepared for rain, especially in the mountains, so a good quality rain jacket and pants will make your trip a more comfortable one. Wind and waterproof rain gear based on materials like Gore-Tex will keep you dry while also allowing you to sweat, important in Vietnam’s humid climate – these days they come in lightweight versions that can pack into a small bag. Also useful and readily available anywhere in Vietnam is a rain poncho, which provides extra body cover in prolonged rain, and because of its open design, it allows air to circulate, which can be advantageous in the heat.
Footwear should be chosen with consideration to the riding conditions in Vietnam. Apart from the sometimes less-than-perfect, bumpy, pot-hole-ridden condition of the roads, often, things (people, animals, other bikes) jump out in front of you without notice, and regardless of your riding skills, it is often necessary to plant your feet on the ground to stop the bike or regain your balance. Good, closed, sturdy footwear is crucial for riding, preferably boots with some sort of reinforced toe and a good, thick, sturdy sole.
Sandals are a definite no-no. Lightweight hiking shoes or sneakers with adequate ankle support and a good sturdy sole are acceptable for in-city riding, as well as on-road countryside riding, especially on the smaller, slower bikes, as the speeds are generally lower, and the roads more predictable, and in better condition. For off road touring, or riding bigger bikes or dirt bikes, sturdier, more protective footwear is recommended. Contact us for what is needed for our Other Path tours.
Helmet & protective gear
Bringing your own helmet, if at all possible, is the best helmet option. We will provide a good helmet at your request, but we always recommend you bring your own. By law, all riders in Vietnam are required to wear a helmet. However, most local helmets are poorly designed and offer very little protection. Plus, a local helmet, even one of ours, may not fit well – we don’t carry every size, and of course, we cannot guarantee that our loaned helmets have never been unknowingly accidentally dropped by one of our previous customers. It is better to bring your own.
Whether you bring an open-face or full-face helmet is your choice – the open-face helmet is more popular in Vietnam but both are used. The full-face helmet offers more protection, but is hotter. With either style, your helmet should have a visor to protect against rain and insects. You should also bring a soft cloth drawstring bag to put the helmet in when it needs to go into the hold of a bus or the trunk of a car or the luggage rack of a train, as some of our trips use such transport for some parts. If you ask us, we will purchase a good international quality new helmet for you in Hanoi to pick up at the start of the tour – please email us at least a month before your tour start date at [email protected]
Riding gloves are another imperative piece of riding clothing. Even in the mountains of north Vietnam, it can get hot when the sun beats down, especially from March through to October. On the other hand, if there are a few days of rain, the temperature in the mountains can drop significantly and become quite cool. From November to February it can be cold even on a sunny day and very cold after a few days of rain. Click here for more information on the weather in Vietnam.
Gloves will not only protect you from the harmful UV rays of the sun and the cold of the winter weather, but they will also protect your hands from cuts, bruises, and scrapes in the unfortunate but quite probable case of an accident or fall. It’s a basic human reflex to break your fall by extending your arms, and hands can suffer considerable damage. Protect your palms, knuckles, and fingers with sturdily constructed, well-padded gloves, either full finger or finger-less. We can provide those for you upon request.
Elbow and knee guards, although sometimes bulky and somewhat movement-restrictive off the bike, will protect key body parts like elbows and knees from impact. A definite necessity for off-road biking, we also recommend the guards for typical Other Path Travel more casual, mostly on-road bike trips.
Renting or buying a motorbike in Vietnam
What to do, what to do? Rent or buy? There are so many options available. If you are planning to travel by motorbike in Vietnam (and possibly adjoining countries) for several months, then buying and selling a motorcycle rather than renting might make sense. If you are only here for a short period of time, then renting is probably the more logical choice.
OK, so if you choose to rent, the first thing you need to consider is renting from a reputable company. There are countless “renters” that will gladly unburden you of your money to rent their usually not-so-great bikes, often found in the backpacker districts and touristy areas. We suggest you stay away from these places, they are often (but not always) scammers looking for a quick buck with no regard for providing a good bike nor for your safety; it will inevitably lead to more trouble down the road than you bargained for. For more information on avoiding motorbike rental scams in Vietnam click here.
There are, however, some highly reputable motorbike rental places that we would be happy to introduce you to. In either case, be prepared to hand over your passport or a copy of your passport until you return the bike. Contact us for more information.
The second thing you need to contemplate is what kind of bike you need/want to rent. Of course, your budget, the nature of your travel and the number of people traveling on the bike should be factors in choosing the type of bike you need. Automatic bike vs semi-automatic vs manual bike vs dirt bike? How many cc’s? All to be carefully considered before you rent. For information on bike rental prices click here.
Buying a motorbike can be a less expensive (but of course, more troublesome) option to your motorbike needs. It is important to know that foreigners can not officially buy/register a bike in their own name. You need a Vietnamese person or business to do it for you. We suggest that you buy a second-hand, well maintained bike from a reputable seller who is in the business of selling the bike (under their name), who will then buy it back from you at the end of the trip. Make sure that you have the registration card with you at all times.
There will, of course, be a slight difference between the money handed over to the seller and the money returned to you, but the difference is generally the same or less than what you’d pay for the rental of a likely crappy bike. You can also buy a brand new bike from one of these safe, credited sellers, who will buy it back from you when you’re done traveling.
You could, of course, if you know your way around bikes, find a Vietnamese person to help you to buy one on your own. The price of the bike, reasonably, depends on the bike you choose. Do your research before you come. We would be pleased to help our customers to purchase a bike from one of these honest, legitimate dealers. However, as there is such a variety of choices of motorbike to buy or rent, we can not possibly give you a reasonable estimate on price.
Crossing borders on a bike
If you plan to cross over to or from any of Vietnam’s neighboring countries on a motorbike, it is important to know that ‘regulations’ are constantly changing, and each border crossing has its own rules about crossings. It is also noteworthy that getting a motorbike across the border from Vietnam to Laos or Cambodia is relatively easy, but getting it back into Vietnam can be difficult, unless you are the registered owner of the motorbike. You need to do it right, so we encourage you to check online for the most recent border crossing information.