Right, there seem to be a load of people who keep reading my posts on “Bikes in Vietnam”. I’m guessing thats because you’re interested in riding there. But the fact is, I wrote “Bikes in Vietnam” for my own amusement, but more importantly, I wrote it BEFORE my trip. Now I’ve actually done it, I can hopefully tell you something useful about the realities. So I’ve decided to write one last post on my blog. If you want to ride bikes in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia for that matter), this is for you. All information is correct as of early 2011.
Bikes in Vietnam
First of all, if you’re thinking of riding a bike through Vietnam, its a brilliant experience. I met loads of backpackers who did the whole Saigon-Hue-Hanoi thing by train or bus, but they didnt have a fraction of the experiences I had riding it. Do it.
Vietnam has a universal biking culture. Everyone rides. This is excellent for lots of reasons, but there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
Pretty much every bike of any description in Vietnam is less than 150cc. This is because there are massive import duties on anything over this. Bikes over 150cc are incredibly rare, and likely to be obscenely expensive. So pretty much anything you get is going to be slow and tiny by western standards. Embrace it. You dont want to be going any faster than 35mph (60kph) anyway, because this would be horrifically dangerous for reasons which should become clear a bit later on.
Whether a bike or moped is a “genuine” Honda or Suzuki seems to be a hugely ambiguous area in SE Asia. The Vietnamese go out of their way to ensure they buy the real thing, and buy new from dealers. But on the used market, its safe to assume any moped you buy was not made in Japan. It may be made by the manufacturer, but in Vietnam or Thailand, or it may be one of the endless Chinese copies. Bikes are slightly more likely to be genuine, mainly because there are relatively few of them, so they arent worth copying. There are plenty of bikes with bits of other bikes on them though. But the point is that it being a fake is not necessarily a problem, just take it into account when considering the price. I rode a fake Chinese bike for the whole trip.
Which Kind of Bike?
If you’ve decided to buy a bike, the first thing you need to decide is, bike or moped?
If you’re staying somewhere, and you’re not travelling overland any real distance, get a moped. Theres a reason they’re everywhere. Everyone knows how to fix them, parts are everywhere, they’re incredibly easy to ride and generally faster than the bikes. Thats it.
However, if you want to ride through Vietnam (or anywhere over distance in SE Asia generally), you should get a motorbike. This is for 2 reasons –
Firstly, because they have a proper seat. When you load the back of a moped up with all your stuff, you have to sit on pointy bit of seat on the front. This is not comfortable unless you’re happy with dented buttocks. Also, its helpful if you dont have knees, since the plastic legshield thing is generally not designed with western ones in mind. After 7 hours on a moped you’ll be chewing the handlebars. You’ll have a numb arse on the bikes too though, you can just stand it a bit longer.
The second reason, and the really important one, is the tyres. Normal mopeds in asia have tiny narrow tyres. They are not designed for for all your gear and your huge western arse. The tyres just pop with depressing regularity. A couple of the guys that I rode around with got mopeds, and you could expect at least a puncture a day. We had a day when one moped got 5 punctures. Dont do it. The bikes by comparison have fat balloon like tyres, and they bounce most things off. I had 2 punctures in 2 months riding the same roads as the mopeds, because I was on a bike. Buy a bike. Are we clear?
Bikes have their downsides though. There are loads of bikes in Vietnam of all different kinds, and almost all of them have the same problem. They’re oddities. The Vietnamese generally dont ride them, so mechanics don’t really stock parts for them. So if all goes well with the serious mechanical stuff on your bike (with its completely unknown history of endless abuse, crashes and bodging), you’ll be fine. But if it doesn’t, and you need serious parts for some random 1990’s Suzuki in the middle of nowhere, that could be less fun.
Minsks don’t have this problem. There are parts about for them because they were made for so long. There are even dealers specifically for them. Do NOT buy one. To be totally fair to them, they have a comfy seat and they’re better than average offroad. But they are horrifically unreliable. One of the guys that I rode with had one, it broke down all the time, and no mechanic could fix it for more than a few hours. I wanted to try riding it just for the experience, but it was always broken. It once broke down 6 times in one day. And when it broke down for the seventh time, he just rolled it off a cliff and walked away. True story. Bad times. He wasn’t the only one with a similar tale of Minsk-based woe.
And thats where the “Win” comes in. The Win is a chinese copy of some old Honda design, but the important part about it, is that it uses a copy of the old Honda C90 moped engine. Now every mechanic in Asia knows how to fix a C90, and every puncture repair shed in the middle of nowhere has mechanical bits, which means you dont have to worry about that part at least. And its reliable, unlike the Minsk. Not that its without faults mind you. The Win is pretty slow, with rubbish brakes, its vibey as hell, and not particularly comfortable. But on the upside it is tough as old boots. Massively overloaded, I must have bottomed out the front suspension hundreds of times on mine. I snapped off mudguards and kicked off the front sprocket cover hitting a pothole, covered it in mud, and rode it flat out everywhere. I gave that bike some serious abuse, and it took it all with aplomb, and didnt let me down once. I genuinely think it represents the best compromise for riding in Vietnam.
That said, pretty much any bike will do the job. And you’d be surprised how well a 125cc Japanese cruiser copes offroad when you have no choice. And if you can find a moped with fat tyres, go for it. But dont buy a Minsk. Really. Don’t.
Buying a Bike
Most people buy their bikes off westerners, and sell them to other westerners. Thats the reality. You can either get them off tourists selling them at the end of their trip (look out for adverts at hostels, or just ask around), or there are westerners running businesses selling bikes to tourists in both Hanoi and Saigon. But i’m not going to give any names, because none were very good in all honesty. At best, they could be described as amateurish. If you can, buy one off a fellow tourist, you’ll get a better price. Expect any bike you buy to need work, they’ve all had a hard life. If you buy off a tourist, ask them to be honest about any problems it has. If they’ve been riding it for a while, they’ll know if it has any issues, any noises its started making, and how to start the damn thing. You can try to get any problems sorted before you head off into the wild then.
If you possibly can, find a friendly Vietnamese person and ask if they can help you buy a bike. One of the staff at our local hostel offered to help us when we needed to buy a moped in Hue, and although she knew nothing about bikes, she took us to a dealer who literally wheeled out mopeds for us until we found one that was basically brand new, and we got it for much less than I paid for my battered old bike. She did all the translation and haggling for us, in her free time, and refused to accept any payment from us at all. We could only thank her profusely. I don’t know if you will be that lucky, but there were certainly genuinely helpful friendly people all over Vietnam (and equally the occasional person out to get as much of your cash as they could).
For the record, I ended up buying a bike off a western dealer, and although it was straight, and it ran ok, it was burning serious oil. By the time I got half way down Vietnam I needed to have one of the valves replaced and the chain and sprockets were wrecked. I should have spotted the knackered chain and sprockets myself though really. Rookie error.
Prices for mopeds and bikes are about $250-650 USD. I’ll give you the prices paid by the people I met, and what they got for their money, as a general guide.
$250 – A horrific looking moped that looked like it was constructed from bits of other crashed mopeds. Crankcase was cracked.
$300 – A supposedly fully overhauled Minsk. Dont.
$350 – A used but immaculate Suzuki moped, with Vietnamese assistance.
$400 – My battered Win “Pooey”.
$500 – A tatty but working Suzuki GN125.
$650 – A brand spanking new Chinese Win.
When it comes to selling, you’re going to have to take what you can get. If you’re selling to a tourist, you can probably get pretty much what you paid. To everyone else, they generally know you have to sell, so its just down to if they want to be nice or really screw you over. Some people got horrific prices selling to Vietnamese people in Saigon. I sold to a tourist and made a small loss, easily worth the use I’d had out of the bike.
Mechanics in Vietnam, and SE Asia generally, are excellent, and of the get-the-job-done-and-think-nothing-of-it type. Its a core profession. Many of them work and live in the same small shed. They work fast and efficiently with a tiny collection of tools and equipment, and charge a pittance. There will be a mechanic in every single tiny hamlet you will visit, and if he’s not available, experienced amateurs are abundant (even if they are, in some cases, massively inebriated). In some cases, if they fix the bike but haven’t given you any parts (innertubes, fluids etc.), they will refuse to let you pay them. In huge contrast to most financial transactions in Vietnam (where you can expect to pay more than the locals, and if you’re not careful, much more), I dont think I was ever charged more for work on the bike than a local. Brilliant blokes. You can feel free to fix your own bike and sort your own punctures, but frankly, they are much faster, very experienced, and incredibly cheap.
Spares and Repairs
Generally speaking, its not worth carrying loads of spares. Either they’ll have the parts where you’re going, in the case of a Win or a moped, or you wont be able to get them easily even in the cities anyway. But if you have a bike, it is worth getting some spare innertubes. Out of the way places only stock moped-sized innertubes. Dont bother with anything else except maybe a pair of pliers, an adjustable wrench and some duct tape. The mechanic, usually a short push away, will have pretty much everything else.
Tourists cannot legally own bikes in Vietnam. You need to be a resident with a home address. Therefore, when you buy a bike it should come with a registration document, probably laminated, and made out in the name of a Vietnamese guy you’ve never heard of. This is normal.
Similarly, you cannot realistically get a license. International motorcycle licenses, and those of other nations, are not recognised. Getting a Vietnamese license involves getting the test questions translated from Vietnamese and all kinds of nonsense. Don’t bother.
And there’s no vehicle insurance available for tourists either. Make sure you get travel health insurance and make sure it covers you for riding bikes.
But, and this is the important bit, none of the above is generally a problem. In the cities, I can only assume that the Police have been told to leave the tourists alone, because we were completely ignored on the bikes. In more out of the way places, I was told not to stop for police, as they’re likely to be corrupt and looking for a bribe. I can’t tell you what happens when you do stop, as I followed this advice to the letter and sped past 3 or 4 attempts to pull me over by Police on foot at the side of the road. Nobody chased us.
Roads and Traffic Laws
Major roads in Vietnam are generally tarmac, somewhere between perfect and badly potholed. The less it’s used, the better the surface is likely to be. Off the major roads, expect anything. Tarmac is perfectly possible, but dirt or gravel are also likely to put in an appearance. Cambodia and what I saw of Laos are a much more serious proposition. There, even the major highways can be dirt/gravel, and anything off them is likely to resemble a hiking trail. Bridges will be incredibly rickety wooden affairs.
Forget everything you know about traffic laws, particularly things like right-of-way, using only one side of the road, and any concept of personal space. The faster you do this, the quicker you will have a reasonable chance of survival. There is a nominal drive on the right system, but its very much just taken as general guideline. Right-of-way is determined entirely by size. If you’re the biggest thing on the road, it is the job of everything else to move out of your way. On a bike, that puts you above pedestrians and cyclists, and below everything else. Cars, vans, trucks and buses will behave as though you’re not there, and its your job to make sure you’re not. People will take to the verges/pavements without hesitation, and its perfectly when riding in the cities to be surrounded by bikes, riding directly across your path and generally swerving around. Indicators bear no relation to the intended action. Even in the countryside, vehicles, children and animals will just wander out in front of you. I saw a buffalo come out of a ditch and 2 Vietnamese guys on a moped went straight into it, resulting in them bouncing off the buffalo and over a hedge. Stuff like this will happen. If you assume that insane traffic maneuvers are about to take place at any time, you won’t be surprised when they do.
Routes and Maps
I didn’t see a single decent roadmap in SE Asia. There were a couple of half-decent city maps. Thats it. So in my only real recommendation, i’d like to recommend “The Rough Guide Map – Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia”. You can get it on Amazon and so on. It was absolutely brilliant, and very detailed. You do need to take the really tiny place names with a pinch of salt, but other than that, faultless. It’s also printed on plastic, so it doesnt matter if you get it wet, which you will. While travelling on the bikes, it was just known as “The Bible”. Its now mounted on my wall with my route drawn on it. I’m sure other maps are available, but I only had that one, and I didnt need anything else. I suppose I could have taken a GPS, but it didn’t seem as fun as duct-taping a compass to my speedo and having a map in my hand.
There are 2 main routes that run from Saigon to Hanoi. The shorter one, on a more coastal route, and the one used by most of the traffic, is simply known as Highway One. The one which runs further inland, is much quieter and much more mountainous, is known as the Ho Chi Minh Highway (or HCMH). I would highly suggest you take the HCMH. The brief stretches of Highway One I rode were a nightmare of blaring trucks and dodging potholes. By contrast, 90% of the HCMH was beautiful quiet tarmac, with only the remaining 10% being buffaloes, waving/suicidal children, mudslides, crazy bus drivers etc.
Which brings me on to another reason to take the HCMH, or any route less travelled. The further you get from the big population centres, the less used to tourists they are, and the friendlier they generally become. Once you’re away from the major cities, you’re more or less a minor celebrity. Being quite tall, people wanted to come and stand next to me just to marvel at my height, like I was a circus giant. And children would run out of houses just to wave at you as you went past. Its worth it just for that, I’m telling you.
I only attempted 2 border crossings on the bike.
The first was at Lao Bao, just north of Hue, where you can cross from Vietnam into Laos. The Vietnamese told us they were happy to let us leave, but that Laos would not let us in. They even let us walk across the border and ask them. There the very nice Laotian border guard told us politely but firmly that we were welcome, but the bikes were not, because the bikes were not in our names (an assumption in which he was entirely correct…). But when I actually got to Laos, I saw bikes riding around with Vietnamese plates, so I’m guessing there is a much less strigent border somewhere. Good luck finding it!
The other border I crossed was from Vietnam into Cambodia, in the South, just east of Chau Doc. We paid a fee, they stamped our books, we were through. They didnt give the bikes a second glance. Easy peasy.
If you’re still reading at this point, I’m just going to put some bits and pieces of potentially useful information in, as and when I think of them.
*Pretty much every house and hotel in Vietnam has somewhere secure to store motorcycles. If it doesnt have somewhere specifically for it, they’ll bring the bikes into the building. I bought a bicycle lock at the start of the trip, and didnt use it once. The only exception I saw to this was the old quarter in Hanoi, where space is at such a premium its not possible. But they have bike parks dotted around, where you can drop your bike and they’ll keep an eye on it overnight. Although, the only time I actually used one, when I picked the bike up the sidestand was snapped off, and I had to give them some seriously meaningful looks (all that was really possible in the circumstances), until they got it welded back on.