If you’re like me and you crave freedom in your travel, the flexibility to go wherever you want and do as you please without being locked into following a schedule, succumbing to certain bus routes, and genuinely enjoy the authentic side of travel and meeting the locals of the countries that you visit and making friends everywhere then do I have some information for you, Vietnam is the place for you!
It should also be noted that even the mere thought of taking a cheaply made motorcycle across an entire country (especially one as developed as Vietnam, or lack of development) is not for the faint of heart and honestly I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it takes a certain type of crazy to enjoy it thoroughly, but if this kind of thing is up your alley like me, then you will fall in love with this beautiful country, the ridiculously welcoming and friendly locals (albeit a little strange at times), and establish a deep love/hate connection with your trusty steed of a motorbike.
In this article I’ll attempt to highlight some of my favorite part’s of motorbiking from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) up to Hanoi, share anything I would find useful before going into a trip like this, offer random insights, and share some lovely travel stories along the way!
Buying a Bike and Getting Out There!
From what I learned talking to multiple bike dealers all over Saigon, and from other travelers who had also done a similar trip in Vietnam the general consensus for purchasing a motorbike was around $200 give or take, if you’re not so much in the long term travel category and can afford a little nicer bike then by all means go for one up to around $300 (unless you have some serious funds and can get a real motorcycle).
For $200 you get a mostly functioning piece of machinery that will typically get the job done. As I learned the hard way, try your best to go for the more well known brands in the business such as Honda or Kawasaki, Honda especially is everywhere in SE Asia and is by far the most reliable option, my friend that traveled Vietnam with me purchased a Honda Win for about $250 and had close to zero issues with it, while I rushed into it and purchased something called an Attila…not my best move.
If you want my opinion on the brand Attila, just don’t do it, easy as that, I’m pretty sure that my bike had to limp to the finish line as it barely made it the distance. The gauges didn’t work after day one and the engine would turn off whenever it felt like it, usually when I stopped, I swear that bike hated me. Just to reiterate again and beat the dead horse here, if I could go back in time and get a different bike, it would absolutely be a Honda, I’ve driven those in other countries in Asia and never had an issue.
When purchasing the bike, give it the usual look over, checking; tires and tire pressure (give them a nice kick to check), the engine, lights, signals, fuel gauge, etc. Most importantly be sure to take it on a test drive, no matter what the dealer tells you, you can absolutely take the bikes on a test drive and if he says you cannot, then walk the whole 10 meters to where the next bike shop is (seriously they sell those things EVERYWHERE in the cities).
You can buy bikes from motorcycle shops, hostels, tour companies, hell you can buy them from a random guy on the street, that’s how my buddy got his and it all worked out!
One thing is for sure in Vietnam, motorbike is the way to go and it’s absolutely the local way to do it, everyone drives motorbikes, it’s pure organized chaos in the cities for getting around because of just the sheer amount of motorbikes on the roads. It truly doesn’t seem like anyone has a damn clue where they’re going or what they’re doing, but everyone somehow does at the same time.
I like to compare the roadways of Saigon and Hanoi to the networkings of a hornets nest, a ridiculous amount of things moving in all directions and even crossing each other’s “lanes” and somehow it’s just the norm, seriously try it, people in Vietnam just avoid you it’s ridiculous! Walk across the street’s in the cities and you’ll watch as everyone avoids you like the plague and you’re just walking in awe of how you’re still alive and untouched, especially the very first time, I won’t spoil it too much but dammit it’s kind of fun!
Lastly for this subject, barter barter and barter some more! As previously stated you can buy bikes anywhere and everywhere, so use this piece of information to your advantage. Much like almost everything else in Asia that I bartered for, I basically use the same tactics whether it’s a $1 bracelet or a $200 motorcycle. I’ll tell the salesman that I saw the same type of item or bike a little ways down the street and like I’m walking off, or just start off with a ridiculously lower price than what they offered and gradually raise it up little by little and act like he’s really killing you everytime the price is raised.
To me I find bartering to be way too much fun, I make a game out of it and see how low I can get things, but I’m just a strange person like that I guess so do whatever you feel for!
Another key part to note would be SELLING the bike, no matter if you make it across the whole country or just to some small town in the middle of nowhere. You can generally get back about what you bought it for, unless you’re like a certain Montanan you shall not be named who decided to get into a fight with a pothole and through off the wheel alignment and left a decent sized gash along the whole left side of the bike. If your bike is in around the same condition that you bought it for, then my advice would be to just be determined for what you want for it, give each person your best sales pitch, and don’t quite until you get the price you want for it as you can sell it anywhere!
We sold ours to the same gentleman who ran a tour guiding company, he was skeptical on mine but I have him a decent price because well, it barely made it to the finish line. You can sell the bikes to hostels, businesses, motorbike dealers, tour companies, guiding companies, fellow travelers and just about anyone that might have interest in buying a used motorbike.
For selling to fellow travelers you can just ask around at hostels (typically at Hanoi or Saigon as these are the starting points for people) and just see if anyone needs a bike. There are also online boards for it which I don’t know the names of specifically but it was mentioned when talking with people about it, or just make a flier for it and post it around at hostels with your contact info if you’ll be in that town for a little while!
Places To Go and Travel Tips
Alright I can’t tell you where to go or twist your arm here, but I will absolutely tell you the places I enjoyed the most, favorite stretches of road, etc.
For our particular route we bought the motorbikes in Saigon and drove them to Hanoi over the course of a couple weeks, so there is no one size fits all plan it all depends on how long you have to spend in the country and which parts you want to spend more or less time in.
- Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) itself is pure chaos, it’s one of the more chaotic places in SE Asia that I traveled to and anyone who has been there will probably agree with me. It’s largely populated, very industrialized, more motorbikes buzzing around than you can shake a stick at, and just how people drive is something to behold. One of the best things to do immediately that will never get old to me would be just crossing the street here, drivers weave around you like you aren’t even there because it’s the norm for people to just start walking across the street while there is heavy traffic on each side, it’s ridiculous.
You could honestly just close your eyes on a somewhat busy street and walk across to the other side and every person would weave around you (please don’t actually try this at home people). We didn’t spend much time in Saigon as we wanted to get our bikes and get out onto the open road as soon as we could, but I was told by fellow wanderlusting travelers that Saigon has plenty of its own charms like the Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam war memorials, cooking classes, and just the food and coffee in general everywhere around here, it’s Pho’king amazing…….I won’t apologize for that pun.
- Mui Ne is a nice little stop off, albeit pretty touristy. It mainly offers the Fairy River expeditions, red and white sand dunes, and some beautiful beaches and resorts if you’ve got the money. Much like any of the other hostels that I stayed at in Vietnam I don’t think I ever paid more than like $6, so take your pick the quality is actually really nice for what you pay for I’d like to mention especially in Mui Ne, it costed us next to nothing for a dorm room but it was in a prime location and a very nice stay!
As for my favorite part I’d wager that would be the red sand dunes, they just seem so random being these massive sand dunes across from the ocean and the beaches, exploring around them can eat up a good hour or two and feel free to jump, slide, roll, push your friends down them, etc. Also if you want to pay a few bucks you can rent a little mat from one of the local women in the pointy hats for sliding down the dunes, I didn’t do this but it looked like a good time!
- Da Lat, mostly well known for the mountains and nature that surround it (which is perfect for this guy), take your pick on the waterfalls in the area, I personally enjoyed Elephant Falls but there are several to choose from! A popular activity, word on the street, is repelling/canyoneering down some of these said waterfalls so if you’re into that kind of thing then this is the place to do it!
MOST IMPORTANTLY, well I like to think so atleast, is that just past Da Lat the road from there to Nha Trang is by far my favorite road that I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving a motorbike on. The landscape gives you a little bit of everything, as it is in high altitude and features hundreds upon hundreds of turns, so this one might make you a little dizzy as well. You pass by waterfalls, rice paddies, mountains, green fields as far as the eye can see, and the road itself didn’t have much traffic at all so it’s just you and the road. We decided that with the dense fog the place basically just looks like Jurassic Park, so if that helps give you a better feel for it then there you go!
- Nha Trang is a city of beaches and beach resorts, didn’t spend a whole lot of time here but it’s great for a day in the sun lounging out on the beach or going for a swim, if the sun is out that is! I do remember one thing, the spring rolls around here were second to none, so take that for what it’s worth! From here we cheated on our motorbike a little bit and took a train for a quick stretch. You can take your motorbike on the train almost anywhere in ‘Nam, it’s awesome because you literally just buy a ticket for yourself and one for your motorbike and then leave it with them and they load it up and take it off for you.
- Anywhere in the countryside, small villages, huts, etc. Just go meet the locals I urge you! We met so many amazing locals who, for the most part, rarely spoke English but with the help of the Google Translate app for smartphones and fun games of cultural charades we were always able to communicate, and that in itself is so cool to me! People were always accommodating everywhere we went, and would go out of their way to lend us a hand or give us directions or advice if they could.
There were constantly rain storms everyday especially in the southern and central parts of the country, and whenever a major storm would come through we would always have to find a place to hunker down and wait it out. Almost every time we had to find a place for cover the nice locals would take us in, sometimes feed us, sometimes give us beer and try to learn English (the kids are adorable in Vietnam they would always wave at us and yell “helloooooo!” as that’s mostly all they knew of English).
- Da Nang: Vietnam’s third largest city, it’s got a much less chaotic feel to it than Hanoi and Saigon (not saying much). It’s got beaches, nightlife, mountains, hikes, and come on the place has a light up dragon bridge how cool is that?! A couple days here would definitely suffice but the city has a lot going for it, just doesn’t get the press that the other two large cities get!
- Hue: Pagoda’s, memorials, and tombs galore in this magnificent city! If you’re looking for some more of the historical side of Vietnam than look no further than Hue, some of my personal favorites to see were the Hue Imperial City and the Thien Mu Pagoda, as well as checking out the Vietnam-American war historical museums.
These museums gave me a weird uneasy feeling with a side of guilt being an American visiting this country, as the war was not so long ago in the history books and the people were all so ridiculously friendly to me in my travels around the country, makes you a little sick to see their side of it and how they saw us as the “imperial” invaders fighting over borders.
- Dong Hoi: This was a place that we merely kind of passed by with a quick little stop, but this area is well known for its caving! More specifically for the Phong Nha Caves and Son Doong Cave, which when open (wasn’t when I was there) is supposedly one of the natural wonders of SE Asia, so as you would imagine I wasn’t overly pleased having to miss that one!
Don’t quote me on this but I believe it is the largest known cave in the world, and the only way out there for most people would be with a tour as there are a variety to choose from (unless you have the connections to take you out there without a tour, do that if you can of course).
- Halong Bay: A Unesco World Heritage site for a reason it has to be seen to be believed. Beautiful massive limestone rocks cover the surroundings landscapes in this amazing location just East of Hanoi. The most popular and easily accessible way to get here is to book a tour (barter for it of course) from Hanoi, the company will bus you from Hanoi to the boat launch and from there the boat will take you out to Halong Bay, there are a multitude of companies and boat styles to choose from, from small shitty tug boat-esque boats to fancy gold lined cruise liners with fine dining and the works.
Whichever one you pick they all seem to have around the same itineraries, kayaking around the limestone rocks, snorkeling, taking you to the Halong caves and many more. This all depending on how long you wish to stay, some offer 1 day 1 night packages, 2 days 1 night, 2 days 2 nights, and so on and so forth. This area absolutely reminded me a lot of the Krabi area out in Thailand and the El Nido lagoons of the Philippines, with their vast crystal clear waters and enormous limestone rocks with views that are hard to beat, not to mention the sunsets are amazing.
- Hanoi: Vietnam’s second largest city with an overpowering amount of culture to it! You could spend days just wandering the streets, visiting the many vendors, the night markets, checking out the nightlife and just meeting locals on the streets it’s just a bustling and fun place to be in my opinion! My favorite markets in Vietnam were on some of the small side streets within the central portion of the city and for some of the night markets they close down large areas of the city for them, they’re kind of a big deal!
Most international flights will fly into or out of Hanoi so it makes for the perfect place to start or end your Vietnam trip, just observing all the culture of the place is enough to make it worth a trip! One thing that should be noted that we found to be way too much fun was the things that people would attempt to squeeze onto their little motorbikes around here, it was like a competition to see who could fit the most on their bikes without it toppling over, it was sketchy but hey there are basically no regulations on anything around here.
Hell I even saw a guy hauling 20 ft. underground pipes with his motorbike, with the pipes just dragging on the ground, nobody said it was a good idea but it takes place anyway, what we use pickup trucks for in the US they attempt to use a motorbike for in Vietnam, it’s a sight to see for sure!
Vietnamese food and coffee absolutely deserves some high praise, honestly if I could pick one country from the 14 that I traveled to in 2016 that I could just eat forever, it would be Vietnamese food, It’s amazing and also the best bang for your buck! For $.50 to $2 per meal you get a good portion of food and it’s all ridiculously delicious no matter who prepares it. Some of the classics being the Bon Mi sandwich (baguette bread with assorted meats, veggies, and sauces), Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), and Spring Rolls (exactly how they sound).
In my experience the small villages where nobody speaks English but the locals just seem genuinely happy to meet travelers are my favorite places to get food, we would stop at all kinds of authentic hole in the wall places everywhere imaginable in small villages or on the side of the road and get Vietnamese food and coffee, rest assured we ate very well in this country. Vietnamese coffee with their sweetened milk of “Caufe Su Da” (pardon my spelling) as it is in Vietnamese is just about the best coffee I’ve ever had.
You don’t get much for quantity but the quality always makes up for it, and it packs an espresso style punch to it. It’s a combination somewhere between a french press and an espresso, no matter what it really is, if a bee had knees, Vietnamese coffee would be those knees….now I’m craving one as I type this, why do I do this to myself, why.
One more important thing to note about eating in Vietnam. My friend and I came across a life changing correlation between how tiny the restaurant tables and stools are and how amazing the food/coffee is. The smaller the stools and tables the better the food, easy as that, we would make it a point to find the tiniest tables possible and eat there, it never failed us and I pass this onto anyone reading this with confidence (I’m not liable for your food poisoning if that does happen, sorry).
The locals truly got a kick out of this 6’3″ larger framed American sitting on these tiny little stools everytime and I just embraced it, I have no shame and I found it great as well, except for the one time when I literally flattened the stool by being too heavy (I paid the woman for the damages). A friend of mine in the Philippines once detailed my travels around Asia as being “Gulliver’s Travels”, as I am too damn big for a lot of parts of Asia, but hey life moves on and I get a kick out of that stuff.
Things to Watch Out For
- POTHOLES, but really, they suck. Especially in the southern regions of the country there are potholes everywhere and it just becomes a game trying to avoid the things. It’s all fun and games until somebody wrecks on these potholes, as this is what happened to me and it wasn’t pretty. Somewhere a couple hours from Mui Ne one fateful afternoon we were playing the usual game of dodge the potholes, until I was leading the way going too fast and came up on one the size of the entire road (why has no one fixed that one by now!?!).
As soon as I saw it it was too late, I hit my brakes as hard as I could and went into the pothole sideways, spitting out the other side fully grinding against the rocky pavement, I was in shock as I stood up. I picked the rocks out of my arm and shoulder, the gash on my arm was down to the bone and blood poured everywhere, my friend immediately went to go find help somewhere in this tiny village of like 30 people in the middle of nowhere Vietnam.
I limped to a nearby house bleeding like crazy, showed the man out front my wounds and he swooshed me away (this is the only time I experienced a local being this unfriendly to me). As I walked back to my bike confused, a man approached on his motorbike and saw my wounds and the blood everywhere, he made a motion to get on the back of his bike to find the “hospital” and I obliged and hopped on.
He brought me to a small wooden shack behind someone’s house and we approached the home owner, we actually woke her up, go figure. She somehow only knew two words in English that I’ll never forget, she made a motion at me and said “you bleeding”, I said yes I am, please do something about this bleeding. She sprayed on a antibacterial substance, washed it all in alcohol, and wrapped me up like a mummy from shoulder to toe (this goes to show wear your helmets people!).
This treatment costed me a whopping $.50, seriously, what do I pay for in the US again for medical care? Even if this “doctor” didn’t speak English or really know much about medicine, I was still very fortunate to have had that man who picked me up and brought me there and the woman who took care of me, people are amazing I have a lot of gratitude for the both of those lovely people.
- Semi-Trucks: These truck drivers are insane on every level. They don’t have a real interstate system in Vietnam so they can be found driving these massive trucks everywhere even through tiny villages and side roads and they. do. not. slow. down. ever… I swear their idea of slowing down is just honking the horn and hoping that you move out of their way. You always have to watch your back driving a motorbike anywhere in Vietnam for truck drivers, you have to utilize defensive driving to the fullest.
- The Trains: Nothing wrong with the trains or the train system in Vietnam I actually thoroughly enjoyed the 2nd class sleeper that we ended up taking to Hanoi in the long run. BUT for the first train from Nha Trang we just thought it’d be fine to go with a ticket for the non sleeper 3rd class hard seats (cheapest option) for a 10 hour train ride, biggest mistake of our lives. If you’re going to take an overnight train ride in this country, MAKE SURE you get a bunk and not a hard seat. For the hard seats we were all packed in with sardines with our backpacks and sharing the seats with about 6 locals in way too close of proximity for my tastes.
It was just luck of the draw but one of my bench neighbors who did not speak English throughout the entire night just kept on slapping me to wake up, to this day I had no idea what he wanted but it was just such an odd occurrence it was like clockwork every couple hours he’d give me a slap and then just smile and say something to Vietnamese and I’d look super confused and try to go back to sleep.
The man did share some of his snacks with me so hey he wasn’t a bad guy at all just had some miscommunications, and I’ll give it to him the man loved slapping and had a solid forehand. To sum it up here; you can take your bike on the trains, don’t do overnight hard seats, and watch out for locals who like to slap you in the middle of the night got it? Got it.
- Rain Storms (monsoons): This one is absolutely seasonal, as Vietnam has a rainy season and REALLY rainy season and I don’t know what the time of year is for each. We found that down south got the worst of it when we were there in October, as it was like clockwork everyday we would go through the process of; “oh hey look it’s noon, or two, or four o’clock we should find cover because a storm is probably on its way.”
Forrest Gump was not kidding when he said that it rains a lot in Vietnam, I can confirm that it does indeed rain during the day, at night, sideways, and sometimes it’ll come up from underneath you (only people who have seen the movie will know what I’m talking about here). If you’re on the bikes then I absolutely advise you to barter for a decent rain poncho, these can be bought for like $2, much like anything around here, and when you’re trapped in the middle of nowhere but no structures for cover these are the best bet for not taking your clothes through an impromptu spin cycle washing.
Other Options Besides Motorbiking
The reality is that only a small percentage of people would want to attempt traveling a country as large and diverse as Vietnam on an old busted motorbike, so for those who want to take a little safer and more conventional route to travel Vietnam, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and either way you’re still traveling Vietnam come on that’s impressive no matter what!
Buses are the most reliable and popular option for getting from city to city or destination to destination around Vietnam. Busses in Vietnam are cheap (average $2-$10 based on the milage and type of bus), quick, reliable, and a comfortable option in Vietnam. The busses typically offer air-con, a good number have on-bus entertainment with a western movie.
The popular deluxe style busses are the primary option for getting between major destinations, the companies include Mai Linh Express and The Sinh Tourist. The Sinh Tourist company can be booked ahead of time online and will often have promotional prices so look into these if you can! Both options are reliable, offer overnight “sleeper” busses with reclined seats and all the amenities necessary for a decent night’s sleep on the bus before you reach your next destination.
Plane travel around Vietnam is another reliable option yet much more expensive than bus. For those just looking to go to the major cities and hit the popular sights without much time to spare this would be the best option if in your price range (but for everyone else bus and motorcycle gets my recommendation atleast).
Using Google Flights would be the most useful option for this, as they compare flights from all companies on every date and give you a comprehensive list of prices from lowest to highest for any date that you enter in. Some popular destination via Vietnam airlines would be Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Dong Hoi, Da Lat, etc. By doing a quick research on Google Flights at this very moment I was able to find a flight today from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (clear across the country) for only $26 usd, this is an average price to pay for a flight around SE Asia honestly, as I had flights as low as $20 and only as high as $150 (getting to Nepal was a bit more expensive), either way I’ll leave it as this, flights around SE Asia in general are CHEAP.