To preface this: as an expat, you probably shouldn’t ride a motorbike in Vietnam. If you’ve never been on a motorbike before, you absolutely should not attempt to ride a motorbike in Vietnam. So – I decided to try and learn how to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam. After all, how else could I expect to attempt a ride to Da Lat in a few days? It couldn’t be that hard.
Our AirBNB host had a bike that he allowed guests to use to get around town. I had never ridden one and was really only familiar with the principals of using a scooter. So I decided to give it a shot. All in all, it did not go very well. At first I could not figure out how to get into neutral so that I could even move it. After thirty minutes, I finally figured out how to work the clutch. But somehow I’d managed to get the key cover closed, and couldn’t figure it out.
So away to Youtube and Google I went. This actually was quite helpful. I figured out what I felt I needed to know. I knew how to get the key in the ignition finally, how to switch gears properly, how to kill the engine, control the throttle, and brake.
In the private front courtyard I managed to get comfortable riding the clutch in neutral and jumping into 1st. I got used to the “friction zone”. As well, I figured out how to purposefully stall the engine – and more importantly not stall the engine.
So feeling ready to take a more serious attempt at riding, I went out and began to make my way out of the alleyway. It wasn’t pretty. The throttle was jumpy, and the bike jerked forward and back and I managed to “power walk” my way through the first alley. Turning down the second alley I suddenly came across what seemed to be the entire neighborhood out enjoying the day. It was obvious to the older adults that I had no business on a bike. Their faces only showed disapproval to put it lightly. I made my way past them though without any issues though (still hadn’t stalled the bike yet) and continued on down a third alley.
I turned down a fourth and final narrow alley which would lead to the roadway – and managed to run into a wall. Luckily no one saw that happen and there was no damage to the bike because I was going something like 2 mph. However, the children caught up to me quite quickly and were quick to point and laugh at my ineptitude. Watching the children mock me and looking at the busy street ahead of me, I decided that it would be beyond stupid of me to proceed out into the street. A Vietnamese roadway during the best traffic conditions is as bad as the worst traffic you’ve ever seen in a big city, during rush hour.
So I turned around and headed back towards the house. Once again, the elders shot ugly looks my way. Unfortunately, I messed up even further and managed to finally stall the bike directly in front of them. In shame and defeat, I got off the bike and pushed it back down the alleyway back to the house and right where I found it.
I could learn to ride, I had no doubt. But I needed more space than a narrow alley way and to not have the neighborhood shooting poisonous looks my way. Our host would be back the next day, and I’d just ask him to take me out somewhere to learn. It really is necessary here, because it’s just so inconvenient otherwise.
The next day came and went, our host was coming back from a vacation in Da Lat for Tet and got in late. I explained the predicament to him, and he seemed pretty amused. He then explained that I could just use the automatic scooter he had instead as it was much easier, and the next day he would assist me in getting a SIM card for my phone so I could have GPS.
I got up early the next morning, and we went on our way to get the SIM card. I hopped on the back of the scooter and off we went. Luckily, riding on the back gave me a quick eye-opener into how to manage traffic which is much less intimidating once you’re a part of it and not on the sidelines.
Once we got back, I then took the scooter for a spin around the neighborhood to gauge my comfort level with it. I was amazed at the difference. It was far smoother and easier to handle, and thankfully no gears to mess with. It was just get on and go. And the traffic really wasn’t too bad to handle – though admittedly it was completely different from driving in US traffic.
Since I felt comfortable, I came back and we prepared for our trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels which would be a pretty serious test of our ability to ride a bike through Vietnam. It should have been a 40km trip each way – but things happen. You can read about our adventure here.
There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re driving around in Vietnam. I think one of the most important things is to remember that although there are rules – there are no rules. You should be ready and expect anything to happen: people driving on the wrong side of the road, jumping into traffic, stopping randomly, cows and livestock in the road, and people talking (or stalking) you. So you have to drive defensively, but be sure to take initiative.
Because of this, you should always wear your gear. Getting a full riding outfit is pretty difficult unless you know where to look or brought one from home. But at the very least, you can always get a helmet. It’s the law – for good reason. Traffic related deaths in Vietnam are soberingly high, and it’s in your best interest to protect yourself. If you can’t get full gear in addition to a helmet, at least wear closed-toe shoes, sunglasses (for the sun and protecting your eyes from dust and such), and seriously consider wearing long-pants and sleeves if you take a prolonged trip. Getting a sunburn on your arms and legs is not fun as we discovered on our way to Cu Chi.
Cars on the road also always have the right of way and they will act like it. If you see one coming the other way, or from behind, just move on over as far as you can to the right. The cars, while relatively few compared to the number of bikes, are still readily found. They have no problem going anywhere on the road, and won’t think twice about running you off the road. They will usually at least give you the courtesy of honking.
Which leads to the next thing: honking isn’t rude, it’s just the norm. You can use honking for just about anything in Vietnam. But it’s main purpose to inform others that you are passing them, coming up behind them, or want you to move. It’s something I’m not particularly used to in the States, but here I have had to force myself to do it.
Your bike is almost certainly used. This means that it’s parts are possibly going to break, if they’re not already broken. You might as well assume that the speedometer and odometer aren’t going to work. Flat tires are a common occurrence (I got two flats in two days). And anything can break. The good news it that repairs are cheap (an entire new tire costs ~$20), fast, and just about everyone can fix basic repairs. A mechanic is seemingly always just on the next corner.
When it comes to cops (which we thankfully have not had to deal with – yet), the best advice I can give is to relay what I’ve read elsewhere. Do your best to not draw attention to yourself (by driving properly) and don’t make eye-contact. If you should find yourself pulled over, then you should prepare to get fleeced. Vietnamese cops are notoriously corrupt, and they will ask for a “non-receipted fine” – read bribe. They’ll take what they can get from you, so it’s wise to have a “fake” wallet with only a few bills that you can hand off rather than a huge wad of cash. It is technically illegal for expats to ride and own bikes in Vietnam, you need a Vietnamese Driver’s License – an International Driver’s License won’t cut it. So when you get pulled over, the cops have all the power. If the option is open to you, speaking English and feigning ignorance might get you off the hook because they’ll get tired of trying to deal with the language barrier, but cops are more frequently speaking English or know someone who can, so this option is being less reliable. You can also call a Vietnamese friend who “owns” the bike who might be able to get you off the hook. All in all, it is illegal, but there are rarely consequences in Vietnam if you do ride.
So if you’ve decided that you really are ready to go anyways, you’re going to need a bike. The Top Gear Vietnam episode has inspired many people to make the ride from Hanoi to Saigon – an epic 2000+ km ride through the mountains, beaches, jungles, and valleys. We thought about trying it, but it’s not quite going to work out because we just have too much gear. But anyways, there are a variety of methods to obtain a bike. Buying new is pretty much out of the question because of paperwork and needing a license. Buying used is easy – just go to any bike shop and make a purchase. You can buy one used for anywhere between $150 and $400. You can also purchase from other expats who have completed their journey and are selling the bike before they continue on. If you go this route, you will have to sell your bike at the end as well though, so keep that in mind.
If buying a bike isn’t your thing, you can rent a bike. This is a great option if you’re just wanting to ride around town. But at the same time you can get rentals that will allow you to go from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh via http://flamingotravel.com.vn/. They have a wide range of options and great support for any issues you run into along the way. Renting, which can cost a bit more than buying depending on your intentions, does have the benefit of convenience. You don’t have to bother with selling at the end, and generally they’ll help if not take care of all repairs you may need to make.
Our favorite place to ride was in Cat Ba Island. Here we pretty much had the island to ourselves and felt pretty relaxed riding around. It really was a great experience, although we did have to be careful to avoid the pot holes. Briana had a chance to ride around here, since the traffic was none existent and is a great place to learn in Vietnam if you’re uncomfortable.
If a sense of adventure strikes you – definitely ride a bike in Vietnam. It’s a trip of a lifetime, just be safe!
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