Motorbiking Vietnam: The Greatest Adventure

Hands-down one of the best things I did in South East Asia was motorbiking Vietnam from north to south. There are many ways to explore the country — the convenient hop-on-hop-off bus system and cheap flights within the country are popular among budget travelers. But if you’re looking for a unique experience that veers well off the beaten tourist track, the only way to truly experience Vietnam is on the back of a motorbike.

Just outside Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in northern Vietnam.

I actually didn’t even know motorbiking the country was a “thing” until I got to Vietnam and met my two soon-to-be partners who invited me to join their journey (thank you Jac and Caillin!) It’s definitely not how the majority of travelers see the country, which is why I immediately said “yes.”

What’s better than the complete freedom of the open road, leaving all the other backpackers behind, and seeing the real side of Vietnam?

My journey started in the northern capital of Hanoi and ended in Ho Chi Minh in the south. The most common starting/finishing points are these two cities because many of the country’s highlights lie in between. It doesn’t matter which way you go (north to south or south to north).

If you’re headed to Vietnam, I highly recommend a motorbike adventure! Here’s how to get started:

Step 1 — Finding a crew

I was lucky enough to meet two adventurous guys in Hanoi who invited me to come along with them.

Step 2 — Finding a bike

The most common one is to buy a very second-hand bike from another traveler who’s just completed the journey. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are the easiest places to find someone selling their bike since these are the most common starting/finishing points. Look for sale fliers around the hostels or people standing outside popular bars or guesthouses with their bikes.

Test ride the bike before you buy it and make sure it’s not a complete piece of junk. I test drove one and nearly crashed it a few seconds later because the brakes were completely shot! There are no guarantees you won’t break down, but it’s the risk you have to take when buying from a stranger on the street. Hand over the cash and the bike is yours. It’s very unofficial. The best part about buying a bike is you can sell it when you’re finished and make your money back.

Jac and Caillin both bought Hondas from other travelers for around $600-$800 USD and only had one break-down each.

At the start of the journey in Hanoi.

The other option is to rent which is what I did because I couldn’t find a bike to buy in time. I walked into a motorbike rental shop in Hanoi and explained what I planned to do. They didn’t seem too comfortable with me borrowing a motorbike for 3 weeks, but they eventually allowed it. All I needed to provide was a copy of my passport (they tried to keep my original passport and said they’d mail it to me in Ho Chi Minh — no way). I paid cash up front and promised to return the bike to an address they provided in Ho Chi Minh. That was it — a photocopy and my word that I wouldn’t steal their bike.

Step 3 — Hitting the road

Shortcut through a muddy construction site.

Step 4 — Completing the journey

We were caked with dust and dirt literally every day after being on the road. There was black stuff coming out of my nose and ears for days. We ate Pho for pretty much every meal because that was the only thing available in the tiny towns we were passing through. I remember getting caught in a mega-rain storm that was so heavy we couldn’t even see the road in front of us. We had to stop and take shelter in an abandoned school in the middle of nowhere until it passed.

Some days, the driving was pretty scary. There were a lot of big transportation trucks on the highways and they drove at top speed and changed lanes without any indication. During the first few days, we were too excited to think much about safety. That changed on day 3 when we witnessed the scene of an accident with a motorbike jammed under the front tires of a massive 18-wheeler. After that, we all decided we should be a little more cautious.

We stopped in all the “must-see” cities and town along the way, but the best part was of the whole trip was being on the bike and exploring the rural side of Vietnam that most people don’t see.

I know we were pretty exhausted by the time we reached Ho Chi Minh, but the feeling of having successfully motorbiked the length of the country was awesome!

Highlights

The road through Phong Na Ke Bang National Park was breathtaking. The winding roads were completely deserted and the rolling green hills and mountainous scenery were endless.

Somewhere in beautiful northern Vietnam.

Another highlight was driving the Hai Van Pass. This is a popular section of road between Hue and Hoi An that’s known for the steep climb, hairpin turns, and sprawling ocean views.

Hai Van Pass
At the top of the Hai Van Pass.

The main thing I experienced that I’ll never forget was the kindness of the locals we encountered in the more remote parts. Away from the touristy cities and party towns, we got to see the authentic side of Vietnam. It will always stick with me how welcoming, friendly, and hospitable they were to us.

One example is when I fell off my motorbike on a muddy backroad when I was trying to avoid a man walking his cow down the center of the road. The situation was pretty hilarious and the guys couldn’t stop laughing, but I was completely covered in mud and bleeding down my leg from a bunch of scraps. A little old man saw the “accident” and came running out of his house, took me by the hand, and dragged me into his house (completely dripping mud and blood). He led me through his kitchen, past his wife and kids, and out into the backyard where he handed me a hose and helped me clean myself up. We couldn’t communicate with each other, but it was seriously the sweetest thing ever. What a nice guy! I’ll always remember that.

The Route

  • Total duration: 21 days
  • Destinations: 10

Our 3-week itinerary:

  • Starting point: Hanoi
  • First stop: Ninh Binh, 105km
  • Second stop: Vinh, 201km
  • Third stop: Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, 195km
  • Fourth stop: Hue, 210km
  • Fifth stop: Hoi An via Hai Van Pass, 131km

(It’s a long haul between Hoi An and Nha Trang — plan the sixth stop somewhere in between. I can’t remember where we stopped but it was some non-descript town for one night only).

  • Seventh stop: Nha Trang, 500km
  • Eighth stop: Dalat, 134km
  • Ninth stop: Mui Ne, 154km
  • Tenth stop: Ho Chi Minh, 215km
Loving life on the road.

Driving Tips & Advice

  • The motorbike maneuvering skills of the locals are beyond impressive. Take your cues from them. Driving more slowly than the others or hesitating is actually more dangerous.
  • The road conditions vary in Vietnam. Sometimes it’s well-paved roads, dusty 6-lane highways, or muddy backroads.
  • Watch out for animals on the road. I remember all of us jamming on the brakes and nearly hitting a herd of cattle crossing the highway.
  • Watch out for police and if you see them, don’t make eye contact! They’re known to pull over foreigners on motorbikes and force them to pay “fines” (bribes) for driving without an International License or riding a bike that’s not registered to them. We drove through one checkpoint without being stopped by avoiding eye contact and literally pretending we didn’t see them. I don’t know if that’s good advice or not, but it worked for us.
  • Most people don’t speak English outside of the touristy areas, yet we found most were friendly and tried their best to communicate.
  • Ask for help if you need it, especially during a breakdown. On two separate occasions, locals helped both Jac and Caillin fix their bikes in the middle of nowhere and totally saved the day for like $5.

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Traveler, writer, Divemaster, animal lover, adventure seeker, and creator of http://www.fabfifisworld.com/

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