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.