Solo Backpacking Vietnam on a Motorbike for 3 Weeks

Matt Bilotti
19 min readMay 27, 2019

About 5 years ago, after reading a hell of a blog post from a friend (Thanks, Maroun!), I decided one day I was going to solo backpack Vietnam on a Motorbike. This past February, I did just that.

Now, had I ever been backpacking before? No. Had I solo traveled before? Yep! I figured that gave me enough of a running start to give this trip a go. And as an added bonus, I had once owned a moped in Boston (actually, I owned 3 of them and they were all stolen, but that’s a story for another day).

Drift offers a 1-month sabbatical if you’ve worked there for 3 years. Once I hit that mark, I started thinking about where I was going to go for it. All along, I kinda knew that a few months later I’d end up in Vietnam, on a bike, in the middle of the mountains, starving, with barely any cash on me, wondering what the hell is wrong with me for choosing that.

While the above is all true and joking aside, it was one of the most incredible adventures of my life. Vietnam is an absolutely stunning place, the people were so friendly, the food was delicious and fresh, and the experiences and stories I had were ones to remember.

I started in Ho Chi Minh City where I got a 1-way rental from Style Motorbikes. Over the next three weeks, I rode for hours almost every day, winding my way throughout the country; along the coasts, through the mountains, on dirt roads and beyond.

Google Maps only allows you to add 10 stops, so I drew some extras. I started in the south and headed North.

All-in-all I covered 1,500 miles (basically the distance from NYC to Miami) on a bike that went no faster than about 55 mph, cruising the whole way on my own, meeting some amazing people at each place I stayed.

There have been a lot of people asking me where they can see photos…how it went…and what some of my favorite stories were. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post recapping the whole trip…photos, videos, and all. I’ve been a bit slow to the punch on that and now I’m finally here to sit down and tell some of the stories of that journey.

So, here it is. A collection of random stories, photos, and videos from my time. Hope you enjoy! Even if I can convince one other person to take this trip from writing this post, the time was worth it. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading this 20 years from now.

The First Few days

When I first arrived in Vietnam, I started off on a great foot by getting scammed by the taxi driver taking me from the airport to my first hotel. The long story short is to make sure you always maintain full possession of your cash…don’t hand it to anyone else, even for a second, so they can point out which bills they need. They might be crafty enough to sleight some of your cash out of the bottom of the pile when you’re not looking even if you’re trying your hardest to keep an eye on it.

Not only was that first ride from the airport costly, it showed me in real life how insane the streets are (just watch this video about crossing a street to get a sense of it). The city roads are a sea of weaving motorbikes, all constantly coming within in inches of one another.

After reading up on it ahead of time, I decided to rent a bike rather than buy from another backpacker. I figured I had a better shot of not breaking down in the middle of nowhere with a rental since it’d be better maintained. So, I headed to a rental place first thing in the morning and got my hands on “Baby Blue,” which would eventually get me through my entire journey safety.

Baby Blue carrying my entire pack of things for the whole journey.

While signing out the bike, I asked the guy that owns the place for some basic tips about driving on these roads that seemed crazy. Ya know, looking for an “always stay in the right lane unless ____” His answer? “Common sense prevails.” After hearing that one, I knew I was in for quite a time. 😂

My trusty map. I stopped at basically all of the cities circled in blue.

The first few hours to get out of the city were a fear-filled, white-knuckled grind. I had to be on my game at all moments to avoid crashing into something and cutting my entire trip short after just a few minutes.

Anyway, I brought a helmet cam with me and took some selfie videos at the end of most days. Here’s a rundown of how those first few days went…

Alright, instead of doing a play-by-play (which, if you really wanted to get, you could watch my video series at the bottom of this post) I feel like it’s more fun to cover the highs and the lows.

The Highs

All the things that made the trip amazing.

The drive

Each day I’d wake up around the crack of dawn, pack up any of my things that I had removed from my bag, map out my upcoming ride with Google Maps, and head off on the bike for the next 4–8 hours. While they rides were quite long and exhausting, they were far from your typical road trip experience. Every twist and turn of the road revealed the beauty of the land.

The landscape of Vietnam is absolutely astounding. Before I arrived, I assumed it would be nice based on the photos — lots of green rolling hills and rice paddies. But it wound up being so much more than I had expected. Driving my way up the country showed me the vast diversity of the land. In the south, I could be driving through long dirt roads, scorched by heat in the mid-90s. In the north, I’d be curling up at night in 55 degree weather just to keep warm amongst the foggy, rocky, chilly, and densely lush mountainsides.

Some of the highlights included the beautiful roads along the coast, secluded parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the central-northern mountains (where you’d ride for an hour at a time and not see another soul), and the famed Hải Vân Pass, which many may know from the Top Gear Vietnam episode.

There’s no question that motorbike is the best way to see the country. While you could rent a car, it would be a simply unreasonable challenge to navigate the cities in one on your own. Your best bet (unless you want to hire a driver for the entire journey) is either a taking buses or a getting a bike. After talking to many travelers that ended up crammed into a bus with no bathroom for 4–7 hours at a time for weeks on end, I’m thrilled I went for the freedom and flexibility of the bike.

Homestays and Hospitality

The people in Vietnam were overwhelmingly friendly. Even though almost 95% of people over the age of 25 didn’t seem to speak any English, they would still be very welcoming and cordial (more on how we communicated later).

Before I left, I had no hotels or destinations planned for the entire trip except for night one. Each evening, before heading to sleep, I’d open up Booking.com and hunt for a place with an open bed to head towards in the morning, generally arriving around 1–3pm.

I’d say I split my time pretty evenly between hotels, hostels, and homestays. All of which covered basically every angle of a “place to stay” you can imagine. Everything from an incredibly comfy bed, to a pretty unkempt bathroom, to 8 beds on a floor in single-room stilted shack.

One of my favorite experiences was at Vietnam Phuot Homestay. A homestay is as it sounds…it’s basically somebody’s home that they open up for visitors. This place in particular was off the beaten path, and I happened to end up being the only person staying that night. Truly treating me as part of the family, I sat with them and chatted in their sunny garden, and ate a tasty homecooked meal alongside them. Late in the evening, we shared hot tea in their living room while the grandchildren played on the floor with Vietnamese news playing on the TV.

The older hosts spoke no English, while their son was able to hold a conversation. But that didn’t stop them from using Google Translate’s conversation feature to talk into their phone in Vietnamese and have me talk back in English, translating our words in real time. After this experience, I found myself using that app all the time (which conveniently also works offline).

At one point in the evening, just as the sun was going down, about fifteen 7–9 year old children congregated just outside the garden. I simply thought that this happened to be the place where they all met on their way home to school. However, right at 7pm, the grandmother came outside and herded them up into what seemed like a mini classroom building out back. After 45 minutes, all the kids came pouring out during what I presumed to be a break. They quickly swarmed me while I was sitting at a chair in the garden by myself.

One by one, they came up to me and introduced themselves…

“Hello. My name is Mara. I am nine years old. My family is four people. My mother. My father. Me. And my brother. I am from Vietnam. I like playing chess. Thank you for listening.”

It was one of the most adorable things I had ever experienced.

It was only afterwards during dinner that I’d learn that the grandmother (that doesn’t speak English) teaches math for free to the poor children in the town as their family has the means to give back. And those children simply just saw a really great opportunity to practice their english with the white guy in the chair by himself.

I had been in one of those chairs by myself until the kids showed up! They all grabbed chairs from inside the building and posted up around me, asking me as many questions as they could put together with their english skills.

A very simple set of things to care about

“Food. Hostel. Food. Hostel. Food. Hostel. First, I’m gonna get food. Then, I’m gonna go find the hostel. Food. Hostel.”

That was me at times for hours on end, alone on the bike, repeating the same things over and over again in my mind and sometimes aloud.

This trip was really special in that each and every day, I focused on a very select set of things:

  1. Making it to my next destination in one piece
  2. Finding food
  3. Planning where I’d go next

That’s really it. Of course there are other things like…what to do in each town and how I could make new friends along the way. But what was really special was there were so few, and such human things to think about. I didn’t have to stress about the meeting I have next or that dumb thing I said to my friend the other day. I just cared about food and shelter. And things were simple.

I had a huge knot in my upper back for the months leading up to that trip. Within about a week, it was melting away and not even a second thought by week two.

The people I met

While this trip was solo, I made dozens of “best friends for the day” across the places I stayed. Along the way, I befriended lots of Europeans that were doing similar trips (although not as many people were doing the trip on the bike as I had expected).

Anyway, these friendships would be forged in moments and last for hours. Conversations would go deep and some of the coolest experiences I had are shared with many folks who I’ll never meet again, especially considering I don’t know their names!

But, that’s part of the beauty of a solo backpacking trip that I learned once I was on the road. There are a lot of other people who are doing trips similar to you in most parts of the world. And everyone who is running these trips solo is looking for some social interaction after days alone on the roads.

While I didn’t get many photos of them, I’m super appreciative of all the people I met along the way that made the trip what it was, both the locals and other travelers.

The food

Without question, the food is a major highlight of a journey such as this one. Since the commercialized food industry is not quite as developed in Vietnam as it is in most parts of the world, this means that food is far less processed and far more local and fresh. It’s funny how “sourced locally” is part of the sales pitches of many food shops in US cities, when that’s simply a way of life for these folks.

Fresh fruits lined the city streets and most of the restaurants in the country towns were people’s humble homes that decided they’d buy some chairs and tables and cook food for a living. No matter where I was in the country, it was hard to come across food I didn’t absolutely love. And once I had a good sense of which things I could eat, I had no problems at all maintaining a complete vegan diet for the entire journey (which I was very stressed about before going there).

And the best part about it, aside from how good it is? How inexpensive it is! I could get a massive plate of food that could be more food than I could possibly eat for about $1.50 in some places. $3 and I’d have a feast fit for royalty.

Fresh orange juice on the side of the road. Cost about $0.15 for a cup.

A hike through the jungle

One of my favorite places along the journey was a place called Phong Nha, which is a national park. Nestled right around the middle of the country, it’s an absolutely stunning place with some of the world’s largest caves.

This was one of the times where I splurged a bit (which is hard to do in Vietnam) and spent some extra cash to go on a day-long guided jungle hike with a company called Jungle Boss.

We started off around 7am and packed into a perfectly beat up, forest-green treakking van filled with bench seats and headed off towards the mountains.

After about an hour of driving, we unloaded and set off for our 8 hour hike. We went went through overgrown paths and waddled through streams up to our thighs. In total, we’d ultimately walk about 12km. One km of which we spent going deep into a cave wearing headlamps while we free-climbed up and along rock formations along the walls.

The coolest part was right before we had lunch (which was cooked by two porters that carried all the food for 12 people along with all the helmets + equipment). We donned our helmet lamps yet again…this time with life jackets. From there, we waded into a very cold pool of water and swam almost a half a km into a cave, making turns and going under very low rock overhangs until the entrance was nowhere in sight. The guide had us all lock hands while floating in the water and turn off our lights, putting us in basically the equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank. After a few moments, he swam around and pulled our hands apart and we floated freely, which quickly caused some people semi-panicked about their impending death in the darkness.

After a long, 10 hour day of hiking. Look at that fashion sense!

The Lows

Alright, with any 3-week solo trip in an unfamiliar country, there are bound to be some lows. Here are a few of those…

Losing my ATM card

Vietnam, like many other places in Southeast Asia, runs mainly on cash. Credit card infrastructure has not reached most parts of the country, including a lot of the main cities. So, you need to have cash on you at all times, and enough to carry you over in case the one single ATM in two towns in a row doesn’t have any cash left in it (yes, that happened).

With that comes the nightmare situation where you lose your ATM card. So, I was 100% diligent to make sure I had it with me at all times and every moment. Until the one moment where I didn’t. I did the classic…use an ATM, take the money and forget the card situations only realize 30 minutes later when my myself and my card were both long gone.

What a sinking feeling. It doesn’t get much worse than realizing that the trip you’ve looked forward to and planned for the last 8 months might be coming to premature end because you did something stupid and careless.

This meant that I had to figure something out. Because I didn’t know the PIN numbers to any of my credit cards in order to do cash advances at an ATM.

So, I did what every traveler would do in 2019 when they lose their credit card. In the midst of a 2 hour call with my credit card company (who made things worse, by the way), I sat at my phone googling what to do in this situation.

And that’s when I learned all about those dumb yellow signs that I ignored for my entire life that would come to save my trip…Western Union! Wow is their infrastructure impressive. Granted they weren’t in all the 17 towns I stayed in, they were in just enough of them that I could wire myself a wad of cash (with a high fee) directly from my phone to hold me over for the coming days without issue.

Sick, driving in the rain for 4 hours

As I made my way north, the daily weather changed from nonstop sun starting at 10am to a cloudy, cold, windy, and rainy mess. As I entered week 3, I acquired myself a nasty cold that caused me to sneeze every few minutes and be miserable on the bike.

Of course, the timing of the cold coincided perfectly with the start of the rainy weather, which got extremely rough. It was cold, pouring, and foggy. A tough mix to sit in for hours. Let alone also having to navigate trucks passing one another on mountainous roads where all you can see is the faint glow of two red brake lights as far as about maybe 10–15 feet in front of you.

Anyway, a runny nose while sitting on a bike for 5 hours at a time is not exactly what you imagine when you’re thinking about your next big vacation. Would not recommend. I did know both the rainy weather and a cold were going to be unavoidable in this trip…just woulda been nice if they didn’t happen all at once.

Struggling to find food to eat at first

On that first morning, I basically showed up to the bike shop right at 9am when it opened with zero plan except to get on the bike and start heading northeast. Literally, that was it. I had no idea where I was going to go.

In addition to feeling overwhelmed in the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to skip over breakfast because I was feeling like I needed to escape towards a quieter place on the outskirts of the city. That was a big mistake.

For some reason it never totally registered in my brain that being in the middle of Vietnam means that there’s basically absolutely nothing in English beyond the city bounds.

By the time noon rolled around, I was in a frazzled haze due to needing to be at 100% of focus at all moments. Once realizing I was hungry, I started looking up from the road for the first time and realized that all of the signs look the same. They were all filled with tonal characters that I can’t even remotely guess what they mean since Vietnamese is not a latin based language. In that moment, I regretted every second I could have spent learning (and more importantly…actually remembering) some basic words like “FOOD” in Vietnamese before I arrived.

This posed quite a challenge for me considering that I couldn’t simply wander into any place that seemed to sell edible things because I stick to a strictly vegan diet and didn’t want to start things off with stomach issues.

Overwhelmingly stressed, profusely sweating, and already extremely exhausted, I decided at 1pm that I only had 3 more hours to go. So, I decided to just…push through. I wanted to just get through this craziness of driving and I promise we’ll get you food, stomach. Those final hours of the drive were quite the mental and physical challenge and probably one of most difficult things I put myself through in a long time.

Once I arrived at some random hotel that seemed to be decent enough, I opened up Google Maps and realized in that moment that I’m no longer in a place that tourists go. So things like Tripadvisor weren’t very useful. There’s no plethora of 5 star reviews and properly tagged keywords associated with the local places, if they’re listed at all. During a 10 minute period wondering if I’d ever eat again, I found out that cơm cháy means vegetarian food, which would have to do. That led me via Google Map listings to this wonderful place that, very surprisingly, had the word VEGAN in big letters on the sign in front. After arriving I proceeded to eat three full plates of delicious food. Looking, to to the family owners that didn’t speak a lick of english, like an American that has no idea how proper meal proportions work.

The overwhelming everything

Somewhere along the way during my first week, I made friends with a Dutch traveler who explained their experience in Vietnam in a way that, looking back, nailed how I also felt about my time there.

“Vietnam is a never-ending attack on the senses” — Unknown traveler

There is so much happening at any moment in every direction. Maybe you’re getting bombarded with the sounds of motorbike horns (people use them extremely liberally as a “Hey (beep). I’m here (beep). Behind you (beep). To your left now (beep).” Or your nose is being filled with the taste of fresh air mixed with burning trash on the side of the road. Possibly instead you’re feeling the cool air or unbearably hot sun on your skin. Or trying to take in every detail of the natural beauty around you.

Well, the reality is that it’s literally all of those things. At all times. Nonstop. It’s madness. By the time I was done with my daily driving, when I was walking around the towns in the evening, hearing the scooter horns would trigger a mini mental rage attack when I just wanted a moment of peace. Welcome to Vietnam!

Oh. And bugs everywhere. Had to get used to that.

All in all though, I want to make it clear that it was all worth it. And all of those things add to the splendor of the country, the people, and their culture. While I was overly stressed in some moments, I loved every minute of it.

Some other favorite photos

The path on the left behind the bike (yes, there’s a path but it’s VERY overgrown) led to an abandoned waterpark in the middle of nowhere.
Rivers, hills streams, jungles, forests, coasts. Vietnam has basically everything to offer in terms of natural beauty.
Some days I’d stop off on the side of the road every 15 minutes to take it all in. There was just so much to see.
This was one of my favorite moments while driving. I came up and over a hill to be greeted by this monolithic rock.
Rice paddies stretch for miles in the north and are a vibrant shade of green.
Lots of the untouched coastlines were flanked by crystal clear water.
This is a stereotypical “backroad” that winds through the towns.
One of my favorite coves along the coast.

Want to see more photos? I created 5 different themed public photo albums on Facebook of the pictures I took. Check them out…

To tie it all together…

Pulling into Ho Chi Minh City was such a bittersweet moment.

I had just finished a journey I had thought about doing for almost 5 years. Before I left, one of my coworkers was telling me that the roads are extremely dangerous and that he even saw a dead person on the side of the road. Ya know, the type of small talk people love before they go on vacation.

Covered in mud and exhausted, 3 weeks later I was back at a Style Motorbikes shop to drop off Baby Blue.

All joking aside, the roads were beyond your normal level of dangerous. There were a few moments where I was somewhere between 12-18 inches or one wrong move from disaster. Luckily, having some prior experience on a scooter really came in handy. Going in blind for the first time having never been on a bike might be a bit much if you’re thinking about it. It’s doable…you just need to be extra cautious.

There were a few travelers I met along the way that had really banged themselves up in a crash…one that still hadn’t walked for 7 days after a fall onto gravel (this is why you ALWAYS wear closed-toed shoes and rip-resistant pants on this kind of trip, no matter how hot it is).

The experience I had just had over the previous three weeks were collection of travel challenges I had never quite faced before, all while taking it on solo. It was unquestionably one of the most rewarding things I’d ever done in the way I felt embraced by the land and the people along the way.

At the end of it all, it was everything I could have hoped for and so much more. Having basically no plan going in allowed me to disconnect for the first time in a long time. I truly enjoyed being in the moment every step of the way.

Full Recap Videos

The following videos include selfie footage at the start and end of the days along with helmet-cam film. They cover a lot more of the play-by-play than the above post. If you really want to dive in, check them out!

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Matt Bilotti

Product Manager @Drift. Always learning. Sharing some of what I already have.