A Backpacker’s Guide to Biking Through Vietnam

The cor­ners of my mouth twitched slight­ly and I gripped the bike hel­met to my side as if cling­ing to the edge of a cliff for dear life. Stand­ing on a con­crete island smack dab in the mid­dle of a main high­way in Hanoi, Viet­nam dur­ing rush hour, I thought, “What the hell have I got­ten myself into?”

Cars, motor­bikes, pedes­tri­ans, cart push­ers, and ani­mals melt­ed into one swirling hot mess of whirring col­ors, shapes, and sounds. There are no traf­fic lights, police or traf­fic pat­terns to be seen. It was like watch­ing an anthill under attack. Vehi­cles spilled out from an inter­sec­tion one after anoth­er with­out a sin­gle glance or pause, as oncom­ing traf­fic swerved around them. And here I was with my friend Joram, about to hop on our new­ly pur­chased bikes to learn how to nav­i­gate this insan­i­ty before set­ting off on a month long adven­ture bik­ing from the North of Viet­nam, end­ing in the South­ern cap­i­tal, Ho Chi Minh City.

We didn’t know any­thing about bik­ing, or what to expect. All we knew was that we were will­ing to grit our teeth, buy the damn bikes, strap on our bulky back­packs and become com­plete­ly vul­ner­a­ble to this for­eign land.

And, we’re not the only ones. Bik­ing Viet­nam is quick­ly becom­ing a pop­u­lar pref­er­ence for back­pack­ers look­ing to get off the beat­en path, or out of the typ­i­cal tourist scene.

Buy­ing a Bike
The motor­bike reigns supreme as the ulti­mate mode of trans­porta­tion in Viet­nam, and buy­ing or rent­ing is a cheap, quick process. Trav­el­ers attempt­ing to tack­le the full length of Viet­nam start off buy­ing a new or used bike in Hanoi (North to South) or in Ho chi Minh City (South to North). Cov­er­ing the entire coun­try takes about a month, depend­ing on where you want to go and how long you stay in each destination.

Some pre­fer to bike just a sec­tion of the coun­try. The infa­mous Hai Van Pass in cen­tral Viet­nam is known for an exhil­a­rat­ing ride careen­ing around sharp moun­tain curves, with the South Chi­na Sea a vast sheet of sap­phire on one side and loom­ing lime­stone giants on the oth­er. For short trips such as this, rent­ing is the way to go.

Joram and I bought our babies from Hanoi Motor­bikes since we knew vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing about the process. Run by expats who have exten­sive expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge bik­ing Viet­nam, it was com­fort­ing to con­verse in eng­lish. They offer the whole enchi­la­da for around $350—a ready-to-go used bike, hel­met, bag racks, straps, dri­ving lessons, and a map with route recommendations.

Anoth­er option is to buy from a fel­low bik­er fin­ish­ing up their trip. For Sale ads are plas­tered across hos­tel and hotel walls. A used bike runs from around $200 USD and up, depend­ing on the condition.

When buy­ing the bike, of course take it for a spin. Ask what type of main­te­nance and repairs have been made, if oil has been changed, etc. If you are hap­py with the bike, make sure you are giv­en the “blue card.” This is the title and puts the bike under your ownership.

The Strug­gle is Real…
My Viet­namese sou­venirs do not con­sist of objects, but rather mem­o­ries of break downs, close calls, tears of frus­tra­tion, and a nice lime-sized exhaust burn scar on my right shin. Alas, they also con­sist of mem­o­ries of the set­ting sun blot­ted out by dozens of kites flown by smil­ing chil­dren on the side of the road, lin­ger­ing tastes of savory dish­es that I will nev­er know the name of, tak­ing rice whisky shots with Viet­namese truck dri­vers at the Nhà Nghỉ  in the mid­dle of nowhere, and stop­ping in the dead heat of mid­day to skin­ny dip in a pris­tine crys­tal moun­tain lake with no oth­er liv­ing, breath­ing soul in sight.

There were days when my bike was an angel, pow­er­ing up and down the steep­est cliffs, tack­ling long, exhaust­ing four to six hour rides. But, there were also days when an expect­ed easy dri­ve turned into a gru­el­ing sev­en hour ordeal due to break­downs or grav­el roads pock­marked with angry pot­holes and construction.

It’s tough, but with chal­lenge comes self growth and a one-of-a-kind learn­ing expe­ri­ence. I’ll nev­er for­get hit­ting a large jagged rock on a dirt road in the coun­try­side, and hav­ing to bail on my bike. Luck­i­ly, I wasn’t injured, but I was left try­ing to fig­ure out how to get my two-wheeled com­pan­ion out of the deep rice pad­dy next to the road. Next thing I know, an old­er Viet­namese cou­ple pulled up on their bike. With­out a word, they got right down to it, and after some huff­ing and puff­ing, my bike was free. No mon­ey or words were exchanged—just warm smiles as they rode off, the woman wav­ing from the back of their bike.

You and that tem­pera­men­tal steed will form a steel bond, weld­ed through sur­viv­ing the thick and thin togeth­er. Thank­ful­ly, there are “Xe May” signs every­where for bike mechan­ics, even in the most remote areas, so when your bike does give up—and I promise, it will—you can bet help isn’t too far. And gen­er­al­ly, repairs are cheap as dirt.

The Viet­namese know a bike inside-out from the time they are born. It’s not uncom­mon to see a fam­i­ly of four cruis­ing around on a sin­gle bike or young kids fix­ing them in a shop. A mechan­ic can pick out the prob­lem and get it tak­en care of in a pinch. Stick around and watch them at work; you will start to learn some mechan­ics your­self. And, before any work is done, nego­ti­ate on a price.

Then, there’s the Weath­er.
Our first week on the road, Joram and I jet­ted north from Hanoi to the serene moun­tain town of Sap­pa. We were expect­ing glo­ri­ous green land­scapes and breath­tak­ing views, but were dis­ap­point­ed to make the har­row­ing, moun­tain­ous ascent only to get punched in the face with freez­ing rain and walls of fog.

We both had noth­ing in terms of warm cloth­ing or rain pro­tec­tion. Luck­i­ly, shops sell out­door gear every­where in Hanoi and along the roads. Make sure to car­ry a pon­cho, thick jack­et, pants, socks, gloves, scarf and hat. Cov­ered shoes are also essential.

The hot cli­mate in the South means long days of dri­ving under an unre­lent­ing sun. Keep cov­ered in light cloth­ing and wear sun­block to pro­tect from sun­burn. Always keep a water bot­tle on hand to ward off dehy­dra­tion. Down­load a weath­er app and check it fre­quent­ly to help plan your days.

Dri­ve Like a Local
It’s all about adap­ta­tion. Back home in the good ol’ west­ern world, there are laws to abide by and cour­tesy when dri­ving. But in Viet­nam, it’s a whole oth­er ball game. Keep your eyes ahead of you at all times—obstacles will present them­selves and you must learn to expect the unex­pect­ed. You nev­er know when a water buf­fa­lo will jump into your path, or a minibus will be tak­ing the steep moun­tain curve as you are com­ing from the oth­er direc­tion. Don’t fret—your brain will rewire, sens­es will sharp­en and you will be dri­ving with the flow of traf­fic like a local in no time.

So yes, the strug­gle is quite real and tests patience. But if you are look­ing to get out of your com­fort zone, it can be pos­i­tive­ly life-chang­ing and you will learn a lot about the coun­try and your­self. Tack­ling this chal­lenge expos­es you to an incred­i­ble cul­ture that delves much fur­ther than the typ­i­cal tem­ple tour or bus ride packed with oth­er trav­el­ers going to the same touristy town, stay­ing at the same west­ern­ized hostels.

You get stuck in vil­lages that many trav­el­ers haven’t heard of and meet­ing oth­er for­eign­ers is far and few in between. Instead, you become part of every­day Viet­namese life. You do as the locals do, trav­el as they do and depend on your­self for sur­vival in get­ting from point A to point B.

When you do meet anoth­er fel­low bik­er on the road, the bond cre­at­ed is a spe­cial one. After a treach­er­ous week with­out see­ing anoth­er trav­el­er, we spied three back­pack­ers as they cruised past us on the side of moun­tain. The sun was begin­ning to set, and we were tak­ing a break. As they passed, they instant­ly made a U turn and bee lined it for us. We all end­ed up chat­ting for an hour, swap­ping sto­ries of our expe­ri­ences. It was refresh­ing to see oth­er eng­lish speak­ers after a week on our own. But, most of all, we were over­joyed to meet oth­er for­eign­ers that were going through the same exhil­a­rat­ing jour­ney as us.

Trav­el­ing on a Motor­bike isn’t for Every­one…
Maybe you’re on a time crunch, on a tight bud­get, or enjoy trav­el­ing with the ease of a bus or train. In the end, it all comes down to per­son­al pref­er­ence and what you are look­ing to get out of your trip.

But, if you have the time and inter­est, even if you are nervous—give it a go. You may be sur­prised to see just how much you can achieve and get through. Noth­ing com­pares to the feel­ing you get upon arrival at your final des­ti­na­tion, dis­mount­ing and pulling that dirt splat­tered hel­met off your sweaty head after a long day on the path of uncer­tain­ty. Your body is sore and all you want is an ice cold Saigon beer—but you feel con­fi­dent, accomplished—and that beer is well deserved. Everyone’s jour­ney is unique, and the des­ti­na­tion becomes a reward that is earned and appre­ci­at­ed, not just a mere check off the old trav­el itin­er­ary. And, after you get a taste, you’ll nev­er want to get back on a cushy, air con­di­tioned bus ever again.