The wind whistling through your hair, beautiful landscapes whizzing by. The freedom! Travelling through Vietnam by motorbike is one of the best ways of seeing the country, a way to reach nooks and crannies others don't. With no timetables to rely on except your own flights of fancy, it's both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time.
This is the romantic side of travelling Vietnam by motorbike. The reality, although incredible and one of the top experiences in the country, is challenging: it takes a lot of preparation and research. With busy city streets and reckless driving the norm, Vietnam roads can be dangerous, and you'll need to know your stuff. These are our top tips and tricks for staying safe and making the most of the adventure of travelling Vietnam by motorbike.
Travel insurance is a given for every trip you're on, but perhaps especially when travelling Vietnam by motorbike. Considering that driving in Vietnam is very different from Western countries – the rules are taken with a pinch of salt which can cause dangerous incidents – it's all the more important to make sure you're covered. One thing to look out for with travel insurance when you're intending to rent or buy a motorbike in Vietnam is to make sure this activity is actually covered. Some insurers exclude "motorbike touring" for policyholders from particular countries, so make sure you check the wording.
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Motorbikes less powerful than 50 cc (cubic centimetres, basically the engine size and power output of the vehicle) can be ridden in Vietnam without a motorbike license, which will be fine if you're using it briefly for one part of the country. However, it will be inefficient if you're planning on touring the length of the country – in which case, 125 cc is more suitable.
For the latter, you'll need a Vietnamese driving license (an International Driver's Permit is only acceptable if your country of issue has signed the 1968 convention – the UK, Australia, USA and Canada have not). Plenty of people do still drive without one and risk getting caught, but it's not a good idea as if anything happens to you without one, your travel insurance will be invalidated.
Buy or rent from reputable companies – a firm favourite among travellers is the Vietnam motorcycle rental Tigit Motorbikes. Avoid cheap knock-offs; it might seem tempting to go as low as US$200 when buying, but you'll be incurring more costs in the end with multiple breakdowns – not to mention a lot more hassle and delays. For ease and simply just staying safer on already dangerous roads, go for a well-maintained bike for a little more money from a reputable brand you recognise such as Honda or Yamaha. You're also more likely to be able to sell it off at a similar price you bought it for wherever you end your journey .
Vietnam is a long, thin country, and deceptively large – it's easy as a traveller to forget that it covers a vast range of weather types. It can be very hot and sticky in the south, whereas in the north you should be prepared for potential rain and the cold. Obviously this will all depend on what season you travel in, but it's worth packing for all weather types.
Although the traffic speed is low, the congestion is high, which can cause a lot of problems on the road. Vietnam has built good highways, but these are reserved for cars and trucks only. Additionally, highways come with a toll, so many vehicles end up using the rough roads that motorbikes must use. This adds to the danger of travelling Vietnam by motorbike, but you're much better off if you're prepared for just how crazy it can be. In addition to the poor roads, stalls and livestock are often perched at the side, so always be aware and have your wits about you.
The horn will simultaneously be your friend and your worst enemy in Vietnam. Drivers have no qualms about blasting it loud and proud, so while there's a lot of noise, you will have adequate warning for anything happening on the road most of the time. This is also the case for any nauseatingly winding roads with blind spots – the only way to let other drivers know you're there is to use the horn!
A top Vietnam motorbike tip: never be the first to do anything. As so many locals use motorbikes (motorbike is the preferred mode of transport for over 90% of Vietnamese) and know a lot more than you do about traffic etiquette and when to take the chance, your mantra should be to act like one drop in the stream. Following other bikes is the best way to stay safe.
When you travel Vietnam by motorbike, you're not limited by where trains or buses deliver you; if you point at a spot on a map, chances are you can go there. You'll meet more locals and have unique experiences others may miss out on when sticking to the beaten path. Is there anywhere you shouldn't miss in Vietnam? Definitely allow more time for the north – with its lush mountainous landscape, it's an absolute pleasure to drive around and take your time. Plus, it's cooler there than the south and you'll be dealing with less city traffic. Remember that feeling of freedom we mentioned? Yeah, that's what this is all about.
You've got the bike, know the rules of the road and are feeling good – but what route should you take?
Main route:Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi (or vice versa) is the main route people take, with a travel time of between one to three weeks. The roads here follow the east coast, with access to other must-see destinations such as Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang.
Ho Chi Minh Road: Starting just outside Ho Chi Minh (no surprises there), this road takes the western border route from the city towards Hanoi, particularly amazing for nature lovers who want a bit more peace and quiet with incredible scenery.
Ha Giang Loop: If you thought Ho Chi Minh Road's scenery was stunning, you haven't seen anything like the Ha Giang Loop. In the very north of Vietnam is Ha Giang, where this route starts, and circles back, taking about three to six days to complete. Road quality varies, so make sure you're prepared.