Motorcycle touring in Vietnam is a beguiling experience, from the strong aroma of mountain coffee and fresh herbs piled high on bowls of steaming noodle soup at road side shacks to empty tropical beaches and rugged single tracks that’ll leave your forearms vibrating for days; it is a fascinating cultural patchwork. The potential for itineraries is as varied as the 63 distinct provinces that each contribute a chapter to the country’s rich history of war, colonialism and ancient trade routes.
Routes/Destinations for Motorcycle Touring in Vietnam
The northern provinces are the Promised Land for motorcyclists travelling in Vietnam. The Chinese influence drifts through misty border towns and mingles with indigenous Vietnamese tribes who inhabit a landscape of towering limestone peaks, lush valleys and vertigo-inducing mountain passes. Hairpins and crude tracks abound but the modest pace gives you a chance to absorb every detail.
Explore this sparsely populated region from September – October, under a warm sun when the region is in full harvest. Prep yourself and your bike in Hanoi and blast north-east to experience rugged karsts, remote riverside settlements and unpredictable backroads close to the Chinese border.
This iconic south-to-north Vietnam odyssey can be tailored to your timeframe, riding style, type of bike and cultural compass. Avoid the sprawling highways and chaotic cities in favour of nail-biting mountain passes, giant limestone karsts, cruisy coastal roads, beach towns, sparsely populated valleys and fascinating heritage sites. Plan to be on the road anywhere from 3-6 weeks.
Perfect for January-March. In HCM you’ll be able to buy a bike, withdraw money and kit yourself out for sleeping under the stars. The route covers some of the finest coastal scenery in Vietnam and by camping under swaying palms and eucalyptus trees right on the beach you’ll really immerse yourself in the surroundings, not mention save money. Head to Vietnam’s easternmost point, Hon Gom sandbar, for wild empty beaches and charming fishing villages.
From hectic HCM through the fertile Mekong Delta in the far south west of the country and onto Phu Quoc island in the Gulf of Thailand. This route takes you through the heart of Vietnam’s agricultural landscape to some of the country’s best beaches and lines you up for an entrance into southern Cambodia- dirtbike heaven!
Paperwork, Passports and Visas
Note: immigration policies throughout Southeast Asia are ever-changing, so double check with the official Vietnamese immigration website before embarking on a trip:
The Vietnam visa-on-arrival should be called ‘kind-of-visa-on-arrival’ because you have to do most of the work pre-arrival. Here are some points to remember:
- Passport with minimum 6 months validity.
- Proof of onward travel highly recommended.
- At present, UK citizens get a free 15-day visa-exempt stamp.
- For stays longer than 15 days, and for US and Australian passports, use an online visa service to apply for visa on arrival.
- You’ll have to fill out your personal and passport details then make a payment using credit/debit card. After 2 working days you’ll get a visa approval letter via email, along with entry and exit form. Print and fill out the letter and attachments.
- Prepare 2 passport photos and fee in USD.
- At the international airport in Vietnam head to the ‘Vietnam Landing Visa Office’. You’ll be issued a visa sticker in your passport, after which you can get stamped in.
- If entering overland from neighbouring, use a travel agent with a visa service in the country that you are currently in. The process should take about a day.
Google ‘can I ride a motorcycle in Vietnam?’ and you will be presented with all manner of conflicting and often outdated information. As of 1st October 2015, foreigners are allowed to drive 170cc or below on an International Driver’s’ Permit (IDP) if combined with a motorbike licence from home. Get your IDP from home before leaving. For those without any legitimate paperwork, the bribe-a-cop scenario is a longstanding loophole that shows no signs of closing. Only ever keep 100,000 Dong (approx USD$5) in your wallet, plus some other smaller notes. If, or rather when, you get pulled over and asked the usual questions, let the policeman see that you’ve only got limited cash but that he’s welcome to it. Don’t overact the part, be apologetic and then move on when he has his lunch money. Important: Driving illegally will void your travel insurance, more on this below.
Bike Permits & Carnets
Again, conflicting opinions and experiences abound. To own or ride a bike bigger than 125cc, you need to belong to a member of a motorcycle club. In short, buying or renting is the go for motorcycle touring in Vietnam unless you are living there and settling into the motorcycle life.
Before buying anything make sure the seller has the ‘blue card’ – the registration document that you will need to pass on when you sell too. Check the chassis number matches that in the book. It’s normal for people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to leave a bike registered in the name of the initial owner, in case you’re wondering why the name on the I.D of the person you are buying from doesn’t match that on the bike’s blue card. It’s easy to see how these things cause suspicion and confusion amongst travellers!
For rental bikes the owners should have insurance, another reason to choose the above recommended companies.
World Nomads are an adventure traveller’s best friend. They understand that hooning on ratty bikes across remote mountains in a strange and foreign land make certain of us very happy. That said, read the small print and email them in person with your itinerary to get a fully personalised quote for motorcycle touring in Vietnam. Remember: insurance plus valid motorcycle licence from home or you’re not covered. Ticking the “motorcycle“ box on you IDP even though you don‘t have a valid bike licence from home will fool/satisfy a policeman but your insurance company won’t swallow it!
Liability Insurance for Motorcycle Touring in Vietnam
Absolutely yes. You’re in a land of corrupt police where you are most likely perceived to have a lot more money than the average villager that you just collided with. Even if it was not your fault, in most cases the finger will point to the foolish tourist and you will be liable. Having the correct paperwork and being respectful to the police will help but don’t rely on apologising your way out of it. If you happen to have the wrong paperwork or no paperwork, you’ll be in boiling hot water and not even your insurance company will be able to help you out.
Access To Money & Budgeting
If money’s no object then you needn’t stop to read this section! If however, like most travellers to Vietnam you have a modest budget you can get by on USD$25 a day. This figure is based on buying your bike, eating local and staying in simple guesthouses, or camping to really cut costs and embrace the adventure! On USD$35 – $40 a day you can easily enjoy a couple of sundowners, cover expenses to national parks and historic sites and worry less about potential bike maintenance.
Renting a motorcycle in Vietnam
Renting a bike is one of the best options for exploring Vietnam buy motorcycle. Bikes are relatively cheap to rent and some agents can arrange bike pick-up/drop-off in certain parts of Vietnam.
Browse through motorcycle rental businesses in Vietnam >>
Buying a motorcycle in Vietnam
The 100/110cc Honda Win is the go-to for most travellers. You can easily pick one up for USD$200-$300 at guesthouses or one of the many mechanic shacks. Be aware that most are in dubious condition and certainly don’t believe the “new engine rebuild” signs! A genuine pre year 2000 Honda Win is a good choice if you can find one but expect post 2000 models to be Chinese knock-offs.
Keep your eyes out for a Sufat Win. They’re made in Vietnam and based on the Honda Win design but usually newer and more reliable. The rough and ready 125cc Belarusian Minsk, aka the ‘old buffalo, is a little harder to come by, will cost about $400, is less fuel efficient and generally requires more attention. That said, they’re timeless and look excellent against a backdrop of Ha Long bay or loaded up outside a rustic bar brimming with Vietnam War memorabilia!
If someone is desperately selling their bike because they’re on the next flight home, well, lucky you! If however you do opt for a secondhand bike at a dirt cheap price you’ll want to suss out a reputable mechanic and pay out for a pre-departure fix-up. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll also need to make multiple pit stops along your adventure. Parts are available on every street corner but the constant stop-start and uncertainty of the bikes history can put a downer on things. In other words, you get what you pay for!
Tigit Motorbikes is also an option for around USD$1,000. They’ll buy it back after your trip for $750+/-, depending on the model and how long you’ve had it. It’s in their interests to sell, buy and resell bikes in good condition so you’re in good hands from the get go. In the end it’s a lot cheaper than renting or buying a lemon.
Roads & Fuel
The roads in Vietnam vary from smooth multi-lane highways to nigh impossible single tracks. Try to stock up jerrycans from actual gas stations. Roadside fuel can be dirty and diluted.
Best Time of Year for Motorcycle Touring in Vietnam
Weather should be a fundamental consideration when planning a trip motorcycle touring in Vietnam. The idyllic images of endless, verdant rice paddies and palm-fringes beaches basking under a tropical sun are spot on, for certain of the country’s 63 provinces! Vietnam is a long, narrow country with a backbone of rugged mountains along its western flank, flat river deltas and a coastline that faces the Gulf of Tonkin, the Pacific and the Gulf of Thailand: it’s climate is as varied as its geography, so be prepared.
January – March
Summer in the south with clear skies, bright sunshine and low humidity. Ideal weather for Ho Chi Minh, the southern beaches and islands and even he Central Highlands.
April – June
The heat and humidity in the south become unbearable but it’s the perfect time to explore the mountains and valleys of the north and northeast.
July – September
A tricky period with feverish heat in the north and wild rains in the south. If this is your only window, stick to the central coastline, central HCM Road and central highlands. Still, expect a lashing of heat and rain the further north or south you venture.
October – December
Northern Vietnam in October is temperate and bright after the intense summer, a good time to visit Hanoi and rural pockets of the north east. November to December in the south is fertile after the heavy rains, a good time to explore the Mekong Delta.
Other Tips for Motorcycle Touring in Vietnam
- Unlock your smartphone before leaving home and get a local SIM card. Install Google Maps or any other good GPS apps but always have a good old fashioned road map and compass too.
- The words “nha nghi” mean guesthouse. These are usually more personal and homely than hostels and far more affordable than hotels.
- Pick up a heavy duty chain and padlock from a hardware store and lock up your bike, even in busy towns and cities.
- Bungee Cords. Most bikes will come with a crude but functional rear rack to which you can strap your rucksack, tent, fuel cans, fishing rods, ukulele, etc!
- Waterproofs. Cheap plastic ponchos are available from most convenience shops but they’re usually poor quality. Find a tarp from a hardware store to swaddle your gear and protect it from the elements. As for yourself, if you’re likely to encounter rain I recommend a solid lightweight waterproof and a poncho over the top for extra protection. A pair of sturdy waxed denim work overalls/dungarees are really good for riding in too and you won’t stand out like a neon dollar sign.
- Helmets are mandatory.
- Do Not Ride In Sandals: there are some local customs that you shouldn’t adopt!
- Signs that read “Xe May” are mechanics. Change your oil every 1,000 kilometers or so. It’ll just take five minutes and cost about 100,000 Dong (USD$5). Oil the chain every 300 kilometers or so, usually a free service.