If you’re here; I get it. You watched the Top Gear episode and fancy giving it a whirl yourself now. Join the team! My boyfriend Ollie and I spent 30 days trawling up the country and loved (almost) every minute of it. Let me tell you, the trip is even more incredible than it seems – smooth, sweeping mountain roads; water buffaloes crossing the paddy field framed roads; celebratory beers with fellow backpackers every night; developing ridiculous short/t-shirt tan lines. So, if you are thinking of hopping on a bike and exploring Vietnam in what I would argue is the way it should be seen properly, have a little read of this guide I’ve so kindly put together for you.
– As a quick foreword, I genuinely wouldn’t recommend the trip unless you’ve had a bit of practice, or are with someone who knows their stuff on bikes. It’s undoubtedly a ridiculously dangerous trip to pull off so keep that in mind – it’s no walk in the park! On a similar note I would definitely recommend finding a travel buddy for some extra safety.
– Secondly, I know it’s common sense, but just don’t drive like a tit. We would see so many travellers riding crazily fast, topless and showing off the guns they’d sculpted for so long to the girl they had picked up who was clinging to the back of them. Not only would you skin your arms if you made one wrong move, but you could cause a huge accident. She wouldn’t be so keen then, would she. Within minutes on the road you see women riding with 3 toddlers clinging to them, and you think about what would go wrong if you were stupid – not forgetting how much it would cost you afterwards!
– Don’t do the trip on a bike unless you’ve got enough get-up-and-go and motivation to get on the bike every single day, despite the monsoon rain and regardless of the pain your booty is in. Trust me, that bad boy will be crying out for a comfy seat.
BUYING AND SELLING YOUR BIKE
Buying a bike was the really easy part! The first step is to decide which bike is right for you. Personally, my only previous experience on a bike was wobbling around a little town in India on an automatic moped, so, despite me wanting the brilliant look of a Honda Win or another automatic bike, it would just have been too difficult for me. I would suggest only getting either a manual or semi-automatic bike because you will have to make it up many a hill (not really the right word for a mountain) on the trip, and trust me, you don’t want to be getting off and pushing it up. The likelihood of you finding a genuine Honda motorbike is very low – Chinese copies are all the range in Vietnam. Ollie got a “Honda” Focal manual which was actually a very reliable steed, and was perfect for him as he’s had years of biking practice. I got a legit Honda Neo which was less reliable but was easy to learn on!
The crucial tip is that you should never buy a bike without a “Blue Card” with matching registration, as, although it won’t be in your name, this is essentially proof that you own the bike. A bike without one of these boys won’t even be worth $100 so just don’t bother taking a chance. After a little research we found that Craigslist is much bigger than Gumtree here, and there were hundreds of bikes listed there. My advice would just to be to join Facebook pages such as “Backpacking and Motorbiking in Vietnam” – an absolute gold mine of people in your situation buying and selling.
After a scroll online we found a bike shop called Saigon Minsk who advertised themselves as selling bikes to backpackers in HCMC and then buying them back in Hanoi – they also do this in reverse if you’re planning to make the trip in the opposite direction to us. You’re not obliged to sell them back to the same company which appealed to us as, whilst you have a safety net of always being able to make some money back at the end, you can try to make a profit by selling privately. They also gave us a free service at the halfway point, Hue, which was a lifesaver (probably literally with the state of my bike at that point).
After lots of test runs and practices we bought the bikes the following morning for a total of $500, complete with all the essentials such as helmets, locks and bungee cords for your bikes. Everywhere we went, people complimented us on the sweet deal we got, so never be afraid to haggle because people will always set the original price with room to move. Poker face all the way and talk like you know your stuff, even if you don’t. And believe me, I don’t.
When it came to selling, I popped the bikes on various Facebook pages a few days before we arrived in Hanoi and got a lot of interest immediately. We put them on for more than we bought them and ended up selling them both within days, making enough profit to cover all mechanic pit stops along with the police fine. Don’t ask and you won’t get!
HO CHI MINH HIGHWAY VS HIGHWAY ONE
In my next blog, I’ll give a little overview of all of the worthwhile places to visit on the trip. We planned on following the HCM Highway as it is much more scenic and pretty, but we discovered that certain areas really lacked in accommodation options so we decided to take Highway One – a notoriously horrible road which is used by all the lorries. It was sometimes 3 lanes of being overtaken by maniac lorry drivers, which can send you a bit stir crazy (I only realised this when I found myself riding through torrential rain and belting “Build Me Up Buttercup Baby” at the top of my lungs), and is sometimes stunning single roads along the coast. It was also the handiest option for us as it links up all of the “must-see” destinations. The choice is entirely up to you. I recommend checking out http://vietnamcoracle.com – the writer has toured Vietnam using multiple routes so his website is helpful when it comes to weighing up the options.
THE LAW AND RUN INS WITH THE POLICE
If you’re going to do this trip, you need to be aware that you legally need a Vietnamese Driving Licence. Your travel insurance won’t cover you without this so go carefully as the roads are mental and you’ll be bankrupt and at huge amounts of risk if you have an accident. I thought getting one of these licenses would be a laugh, until I realised that you need to pass an oral exam in Vietnamese!
Personally, I don’t even have a UK license so I just took the risk. Technically, if you’re pulled over and can’t show these things, the police should confiscate your bikes from you. The reality is either one of two things; 1) they don’t bother pulling over foreigners as they know you’re breaking the law but the language barrier makes it too difficult and/or too much hassle 2) corrupt police pull you over and force you to pay huge sums of cash straight into their pockets. I suppose both luckily and unluckily, the latter was the reality for us. In a touristy area leaving Mui Ne we got a heads up about police checks up ahead, and were warned to drive around 40km/hour for a bit to avoid being pulled over.
As we spotted them, we watched them pull over every white person and ask for all their licenses. I went with the ‘play dumb’ approach. As a 12 year old, I dreamt of being an actor, but trying to believably say “I don’t understand” was impossible in response to an officer asking for a license in perfect English. They try to be intimidating and threaten to take your bikes away for a week before payment of 1,000,000VND (around $50) per bike, before offering the alternative of you paying up now. We didn’t have the money, as well as acknowledging how ridiculous it was. Eventually we paid a total of 800,000VND ($40), which they covered up, holding up bits of paper and folders to hide it from passing cars – their fine was clearly illegal. Pushing the idea of the Bridget Jones prison out of my mind, we argued with them about how it wasn’t the law. We were thoroughly agrivated but you have to be aware from the start that it is just the risk you take by breaking the law. For us, it was definitely worth it, although frustrating. Just know when you start that this will almost definitely happen in this area. They’re completely corrupt so you can haggle with them as you would with market traders!
Being pulled over on the second day was enough to make us quake in our boots every time we saw anyone dressed in a remotely similar shade to the creamy coloured uniforms the traffic police wear. When we were pulled over, I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt (and was livid that I was pulled over immediately as it was a realisation that I wasn’t as tanned as I thought I was). My biggest tip to avoid being pulled over, besides going the speed limit and generally not riding like a idiot, is trying to blend in a bit. I recommend wearing long sleeves and trousers a) to make yourself less noticeable and b) because if you fall off, it hurts less. I talk about masks down here * and these work wonders to stop you sticking out like a sore thumb. On the big highways, traffic police pull over lots of big lorries and we always rode on if we thought they were pointing their batons in our direction, and it all went smoothly.
CRASHES AND FALLS
I’m one of the clumsiest people alive, so it was completely expected that I would fall off at some point. It just so happened that when I did, it was at the top of a mountain! The roads were hugely pot-holey and had poor visibility as well as being very busy. Unbelievably when I fell off the traffic seemed to stop for a minute, otherwise I would have been a pancake! It was very undramatic and just involved a pot hole that I didn’t spot until too late, leading to (very painful!) cuts and bruises so luckily nothing serious. Needless to say, I tell the story as if it was a 10 car pile-up which left me clinging to my life. In the minutes I was at the side of the road, many other bikers pulled in offering water and other medical supplies which was lovely.
We carried a first aid kit at all times which is a must have. My bike’s gears also got damaged in the fall meaning I had to roll down the mountain for 10km, which I can assure you was not what I wanted to be doing when I was dreaming of nursing my wounds and snuggling up in bed. A group of bikers stopped and rushed over with fuel and oil asking how they could help, before they fixed it in seconds and rode off again. The speed at which you receive help in times of need makes you realise how absolutely lovely Vietnamese people are.
THINGS YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY GET:
– A fully stocked first aid kit – for obvious reasons.
– A mask. The majority of Vietnamese people you see riding are wearing masks over their mouths and noses. They sell these in little shops everywhere and we managed to get them for less than a dollar each. The main reason for this is explained here (*) but they’re also a lifesaver when you’re stuck in horrific traffic (ours was in Hoi An over the Lunar New Year when a 5 minute ride took an hour and a half) and all you can taste is fumes. I also cannot tell you how much joy a bit of fabric catching your warm breath brings you when you’re freezing cold with daggers of rain stabbing into your face.
– On a similar note, you’ll be needing a rain poncho (or thirty, as they seem to end each day in tatters). All sense of style and self respect goes out the window when you’re riding for 6 hours in monsoon rain, and a 25 cent plastic bag over your body will be your saving grace.
– Waterproofs. We only took anoraks as we didn’t plan this road trip before we left, so we packed lightly. However let me tell you, when you’re stepping into the same soaking pair of trousers that you’ve been wearing for three days straight because you’ve run out of time to go to the laundrette, you’ll be in dire need of a pair of waterproof trousers to complete the look.
I hope this little guide has been of help and that you’re now feeling prepared to leap onto a bike and explore. My last pearl of wisdom is to be confident yet never try to copy the riding style of the country, where traffic lights may as well not exist in the majority of motorcyclist’s eyes! Keep your wits about you yet throw yourself into it, and you’re in for the time of your life.