Tips for Motorbiking in Vietnam

We thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of some tips for riding in Vietnam, because it really is a whole different world than most places. Knowing some of these certainly would have helped us in the beginning, so we hope we can help out a future rider before they set off on their own trip. It’s a working list, so things will be added occasionally.

  1. Don’t assume the Vietnamese drive like you drive in your home country, because they don’t. Conventional rules of the road don’t apply here. The faster you learn and adapt to their way of driving the better, and safer, you will be.
  2. People pull out without looking at all. It is very common to take a left hand turn, drive on the wrong side of the road, and merge to the right when there is an opening. People will also just ride on the wrong side of the road if there is a barrier between lanes and they’re not going far.
  3. Very few people use blinkers ( directionals ). Instead, they will hold out their arm in the direction they’re turning. It’s easier to see, and since nobody even looks at your blinkers, it’s safer.
  4. When making a left hand turn on a busy street, most Vietnamese will move all the way to the right side of the road and wait till they have an opening. If you try to hug the middle of the road  and make your left when you have space there is a chance someone from behind you will try and overtake you on your left and that could end very very poorly.Have a working horn! It will be your lifeline. People wouldn’t even know you’re there without it. It gets aggravating after a while hearing it constantly but rest assured it’s for your own good.
  5. If you’re purchasing a Honda Win/Wave/Dream/ Any other bike to take you across the country, assume things will go wrong. Most of these bikes are knockoffs and not legit Hondas, despite what anyone tells you. They’re junk bikes, often many years old and have seen more use than you can imagine. Luckily, there are mechanics everywhere. Look for “Xe May” (Motorbike) or Sua Xe Me” (Fix Motorbike) and someone there should be able to help. I’ve seen some people recommend going to “Rua Xe”, but that just means “Car Wash” so unless you’re looking for a cleaning there’s not much they can do.
  6. If you do purchase a bike, it should go without saying, but just in case, don’t purchase a bike without a blue card. The blue card is the identification for your bike. Without it, there is no way to prove you’re the rightful owner, and should you get pulled over they could potentially confiscate your bike. Don’t worry about the name on the card because the bike just needs to be registered once and it’s good. Nobody has a blue card with their name on it unless they purchased a new bike, and nobody does. No backpackers at least.
  7. If you can, try to buy a bike with extra long mirrors, or find a place to purchase them. This is something we both wish we had done, but it’s so far into our trip it’s not worth getting. The short mirrors that come on most of the bikes in Vietnam suck and you can’t see much other than your shoulder.
  8. Spend the extra few dollars and get a Vietnamese SIM for your phone. It only cost about $5 USD a month for unlimited data, and should you get stuck in the middle of nowhere, you’ll be happy you had it. Even on a backpacker’s budget, you should be able to afford that. We recommend Viettel. So far we’ve been across most of the country and always had very good service.
  9. Just in case. download maps for Vietnam on your phone so you can view them even if you don’t have service. We regularly use Google Maps as well as Maps.ME, however, things change rapidly in Vietnam. New roads are being built everyday and the maps may not always be 100% accurate.
  10. If the GPS directions tell you it will take 4 hours to get to your destination, assume it will take 6+. Only once have we made it in the time estimated, and it was because we didn’t make any stops whatsoever. These bikes are not touring bikes. Your ass will hurt, your back will get stiff, and your bike will need a break just as much as you. We stop roughly every 45 minutes, stretch, let the bike cool down a bit, then continue on. You will also have to stop for bathroom breaks, lunch, and to take pictures of the beautiful scenery you’ll be driving by. Don’t rush to get wherever you’re going if you don’t have to. Enjoy it.
  11. On that same note, get up and leave at an earlier hour.  We are not morning people and have a terrible habit of leaving between 11 and 12 every time we head out.  The midday sun makes the ride seem that much longer, and the earlier you leave in the morning the more likely you are to have the road mostly to yourself.  Get up, have breakfast, and get on the road.  It will give you more time to enjoy your destination and you’re less likely to get stuck driving in the dark while getting overtaken by massive double decker buses who could care less about your well being. 
  12. Fill up gas when you can and keep track of how far you’ve gone since your last fill up. Most gas gauges do no work on backpacker bikes so you’ll need to stay on top of that. The Win has a fairly large tank so it’s not as big of a deal, but the other bikes, the Semi-Auto bikes, have pretty small tanks. We keep a spare bottle of gas under our seat just in case something should happen. It’s come in handy quite a few times.
  13. REMEMBER TO CHANGE YOUR OIL! I (Anthony) once knew a guy who bought a brand new car, didn’t change the oil for 25,000 miles, and the car seized and died. Go figure. Don’t be like him. The oil on these bikes needs to be changed every 400-500km, but to be on the safe side I recommend changing the oil between 300-500km. It should only cost you 80-90,000 VND (<$5)
  14. Don’t assume there will always be food further on down the road.  If you’re hungry and you pass ten roadside stands with pho and com tam, stop and eat!  There have been a few times we’ve kept going in order to get as far as possible before having to stop, and we’ve ended up having to get way into hangry mode before food was available again.  Keep extra snacks with you and always have plenty of water.  You can’t always count on either to be readily available  (Quick Note: If your hotel or hostel sells cold water buy some before you head out.  Cold water is almost nonexistent along the Vietnamese highways.)
  15. Always keep some money on you, but keep most of it hidden away within your bags.  Vietnamese traffic cops are notorious for taking bribes, but they will take whatever they see.  You don’t want to get stuck giving them 2 million dong because you just took money out of the ATM and forgot to hide it away.  Better to stick to your guns and tell them that’s all you have (even if it isn’t very much) than to have to shell over $90. 
  16. Do like the locals do and wear a face mask!  Anthony doesn’t like to wear his very much, and it can make a 90 degree day feel even hotter, but anytime I forget to put mine on I always regret it at some point.  It keeps the bugs, smog, dirt, and exhaust fumes out of your mouth and nose, and you blend in a bit more so you’re less likely to be spotted by traffic cops.  Plus they make some pretty cool ones!
  17. Make sure you have rain gear readily available.  The weather in Vietnam can change in an instant and just because the sky is cloudless and perfectly blue one minute doesn’t mean it can’t be a threatening dark grey the next.  We have our rain jackets from home as well as big plastic ponchos we purchased in Saigon.  They have both come in handy many times.  Also make sure you wear comfortable clothes and try to be covered as much as possible.  Yes it is very hot, but once you get going at a good speed the wind will keep you cool, and if you do dump your bike you’re going to be thankful for the extra layers between you and the pavement.  We ALWAYS wear sneakers on the bikes for protection and because they won’t slip or get caught when we’re changing gears.  It also makes it much easier to put your feet down and stop at a traffic light if you’re wearing shoes with some traction.  A girl in our last hostel lost two toes because she was wearing flip flops while driving her bike.  Don’t make the same mistake. 
  18. This should go without saying, but never drive your motorbike when you’re intoxicated or overtired.  Reaction time is your biggest weapon when motorbiking, especially in a country like Vietnam where there are no real rules of the road.  If you’re drunk or exhausted you will get in an accident (even if it’s a small one) IT WILL BE YOUR FAULT.  It doesn’t matter if someone pulled out in front of you or if they were driving the wrong way down the road you will have to pay the consequences, and although Vietnamese people are amazing, you could end up being on the hook for a lot more than what the actual damage is worth.  What’s more, your insurance will not cover you if you get injured while driving a motorbike unless you have a Vietnamese license (I have yet to meet a backpacker who does) even if you are licensed back home.  You will have to pay out of pocket for any hospital expenses so get a good night’s sleep the day before a long ride, and don’t be a drunken idiot.  Don’t push your luck.   
  19. Watch out for obstacles in the road.  This might seem obvious, but they can take you by surprise especially if you aren’t paying attention.  Don’t be shocked if a cow appears out of nowhere and decides to mosey across the road then stop halfway and sprint back in the direction it came.  The same goes for dogs, chickens, goats, and other motorbikes. 
  20. Go at a pace you’re comfortable with.  If you’re new to motorbiking take it slow!  Start early and give yourself plenty of time to get from A to B that way if you’re moving at a slower pace you have plenty of light and you aren’t in a rush to get to your destination.  When we first started out I (Breada) went VERY slow which frustrated Anthony at times, but gave me time to get comfortable with my bike and riding on two wheels.  It’s better to get somewhere slowly and in one piece than to not arrive at all.  As you get more comfortable your pace will speed up, and you will relax, but always remember not to get overly confident because that’s when people really make mistakes. You don’t have to grip the handlebars so hard you give yourself white knuckles, but don’t drift off into a daydream either.  A good mix of caution and confidence will get you by just fine. 
  21. *FOR PEOPLE GOING TO MUI NE* – Cops are notorious in this town for posting up near the road leading to the White Sand Dunes and pulling over over foreigner that drives by. Unlike the rest of Vietnam where 100,000 or 200,000 will get you out of trouble, these cops are even more corrupt and creedy than your average and will demand bribes upwards of 2 million VND. It’s been going on for years, and it hasn’t stopped. We suggest you park your bike at your hostel/guesthouse and get a guided tour to the Dunes. We booked our tour for 120,000 VND each from the Mui Ne Backpacker Village, and it saved us from the possibility of getting the shaft from the cops.
  22. HAVE FUN! It may seem scary at times, but if you’re smart and don’t try anything stupid motorbiking in Vietnam is a wonderful experience.

Any other tips you would like to see added please comment!

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Add Your Comment
    • Lesley
    • August 1, 2016

    World Nomads insurance covered us for motorbike riding in Vietnam because we had licences back in Australia. If you plan on biking through Vietnam or SEA it is worth getting insurance that will cover you.

      • Anthony Forlizzi
      • August 1, 2016

      Did World Nomads specifically tell you you were covered or are you assuming because you had licenses from back home? In Vietnam you must possess a Vietnamese license in order to drive legally, which almost nobody gets because in order to get the license you need to be living in Vietnam at least 3 months before you are eligible to get it. Even if you’re licensed back home ( which I am ) that status isn’t recognized by the Vietnamese government so technically you’re breaking the law. And if you are breaking any laws your travel insurance is void.

      That is the information for Australian citizens from your embassy regarding the driving laws.

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