When travelling through Vietnam it is impossible to look anywhere (even up at times) without seeing a sea of motorbikes in all shapes and sizes, carrying anything from a 7ft water boiler to a fully grown cow and everything in between, sometimes all at the same time. This seemingly mad situation is partly as a result of Vietnam’s insane import taxes on cars but mostly due to the fact that there is no better or more practical way to travel one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in the world.
So as the saying goes; when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Two wheels is not necessarily the safest (or most legal) form of transport but it is already a right of passage for many backpackers in Nam and even if the long open road doesn’t appeal to you, moped day rentals offer a fun and cheap way to explore the caves of Phong Nha or the beaches of any number of coastal towns.
So first things first, the legal side of things. As with most countries in the world, in theory you must have a license, you should have insurance and unless you have kleptomaniac tendencies you should also own the bike you are riding. Legally obtaining a license is near impossible due to endless bureaucracy and red tape, and as a result getting insurance to cover your riding is likely to be a pricey affair.
Ownership of the bike also offers a bit of a grey area, you should always ask for the ‘blue card’ when buying a bike, which is essentially a deed of ownership. However as you will most likely be paying cash and not be registering ownership with the authorities due to the aforementioned lack of license, there is not a huge amount to prove the bike is truly yours should you need too. Luckily in practice, these are only minor hiccups that can, 9 times out of ten, be solved by a small on the spot ‘fine’ straight into the pocket of any over curious policeman who may show an interest. The insurance and safety gear side of things is at the individual’s discretion, but if you still struggle to ride your little sisters push bike round the park then maybe this is not the adventure for you.
Always wear a helmet in Vietnam or you will attract unwanted attention from the police. Wearing a helmet on a motorbike is a mandatory requirement and is heavily enforced particularly in the South. The standard of helmet also counts, check that yours has a holographic sticker on the back – if it doesn’t then it won’t meet legal requirements and you not only risk problems with the police but with your personal safety too.
Choosing and buying a bike…
Although automatics are available, the Honda Win is the noble steed of choice for the vast majority or travels aspiring to be the protagonist of SE Asia’s answer to the Motorcycle Diaries. The Win is a great all round bike with enough power to get you over the undulating terrain while still avoiding any danger of going airborne when you go full throttle on the straights. Manoeuvrability is great and the suspension is soft enough to allow you to maintain feeling in your backside for the majority of the time. Buying a bike in mint condition is sadly a prospect that is to good to be true, but due to their abundance over the past few decades, replacement parts and expert mechanics offering their services for next to nothing are available on ever corner.
Unless you yourself are a bike mechanic (and will therefore be far more knowledgeable than me) follow these top tips to ensure you start out with the best ride possible…
- Address any issues before you hand over the money, it will be in the interest of the seller to help you.. Aim to pay in the region of $200-300
- go for a test ride and listen for any dodgy noises or rattles
- make sure the wheels spin straight (not a joke!)
- the engine should be able to stay running for at least a minute without cutting out (usually a simple matter of adjusting the choke.)
- there should be no fluid leaking from the suspension (will look like an oil smear)
- make sure you get two keys and the blue card (ensure engine number actually matches the card)
– brakes should be as tight as possible but don’t expect any wonders (count on braking distance, not the brakes themselves)
- try to avoid bikes which have been re painted, this is often a sign of rust underneath
- the list goes on, but a little common sense goes a long way.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are the two best starting points in terms of choice of bikes to buy and finding people to recruit into your soon to be infamous biker gang, but in contrast they are also by far the busiest cities in Vietnam and therefore can be a daunting start point for the novice rider just getting the hang of things. As an alternative Hoi An also offers a fairly decent selection as well a far more tranquil traffic situation by comparison to the big cities and gives a slightly shorter distance for those who may not have the time for the whole country.
Unless you enjoy excessive smoke inhalation, playing chicken with buses and lorries full or livestock and views devoid of scenery, then avoid the the main road running up the coast like the plague and head inland for the Ho Chi Minh trail where your mind will be constantly blown by the unending 50 shades of green in every direction and the excitement you’ll bring to the small kids in rural areas who have never seen a farang before.
If you have the time don’t just limit yourself to the stretch between the big cities, the mountains of the north are arguably the best bit and if you’re feeling really adventurous then riding on into Laos or Cambodia is just one dodgy boarder crossing away… Enjoy the legroom and freedom to explore that you won’t have the luxury of on the tourist buses, the world is your oyster, happy riding!