Whether you land in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City you’ll be painfully aware of the mass use of motorbikes. In major city mecca they literally will crowd every alleyway, every curb, and sometimes every sidewalk. This is because in Vietnam, not only are bikes relatively cheap, but they’re easy to fix, and they run for many hours on just a few litres of gas (which runs for about $1/L).
You basically have 2 options to traverse Vietnam. Your cheapest option is certainly to buy and open bus ticket, which allows you to pick your destinations and spend as many days as you want in each place, simply booking a day ahead to catch the next night bus. You can also choose to go by train, a little more expensive but a fun experience and an interesting way to explore Vietnam. Lastly, and obviously my most recommended option is to tour Vietnam on your very own motorcycle. There’s nothing quite like feeling the mountainous terrain on Ho Chi Minh Road, taking in the sights as you cruise along with the wind in your face, and finding yourself in small little villages that you’d never see otherwise.
There’s a ton of options in both Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). These are the facts; it’s a complete crapshoot what kind of bike you get. Whether you pay $200 or $400 for a bike, the truth is they’ve all travelled well past what they should, probably contain no original parts, and may or not make the trek without stopping at a garage. Fact is, you will need to do minor, or even major repairs to your bike, but stopping at a random mechanic shop and playing a fun game of charades is actually pretty fun, and all part of the experience.
You can either buy your bike from another backpacker at many of the hostels and on craigslist, or go to a dealer. A fellow traveller will definitely be cheaper, but you don’t get the extra perks and the maintenance that comes with a dealer, it’s completely your choice, and always buy the bike that feels best for you. Your choices for a bike will usually be between:
Usually about 110cc, these bikes are usually very reliable, come in decent working shape, and are great for beginners as they are semi-automatic (no clutching involved). They are more of a scooter shape and size, but still put out decent power. If this is your route you’re looking at $250-$300 in Hanoi. Consider adding a welded read rack for another $5, some make sure to carry 1-2 litres of extra gas as they only hold about 3 litres.
These are the backpacker’s classic. You’ll see more westerns on these bikes than anything else. Often times completely refurbished, repainted to hide their rust, and put together with mostly Chinese parts. These are less reliable than the Wave, but still a solid bike that you can find parts anywhere in the country. You down buy a Honda Win for the overall reliability, you buy it because it’s pretty badass to drive an old looking beater as cruise the mountains and coast in Vietnam on a beautiful piece of junk that you will definitely love. They generally are sold in either a 100cc or 110cc, have a classic motorbike look, and really make you feel like what you’d tour Vietnam with in the 80s. It’s a regular clutch and roll, and it’s all about the feel of the road.
There are a few other options but these are by far the most common, and likely what you’ll come in contact with riding solo or in a pair.
How to Know Which One is Right?
As someone who knew very little about motorbikes it was all about the feel of the bike, and how much I trusted the seller. I wanted one that I felt right for me and after trying a few it came down to how straight forward the bike shop was. I personally went for a 100cc Honda Win (as it was the only option at the shop), with nothing extra but a free rack and some bungee cords. It’s loud, it’s not too fast (70km/h MAX), and it’s everything I hoped it would be. I paid about $260 for this bike, and I’m sure it’ll end up costing me a bit more, but it’s the right bike for me. Phung’s Motorbikes on Ngo Nguyen Street in the Colonial District of downtown Hanoi was my choice. The owner, Phung, is friendly, speaks good English, and it helps that he employs a friendly guy from South California to not only teach you how to ride, but give you some information and talk candidly about the bike. I was told right from the start that it wouldn’t be perfect, that they can’t guarantee a smooth sail all the way to Saigon, BUT, they can guarantee that it’s in the best possible condition leaving the shop, and they’ve essentially done everything they can. They also provide a 24-hour hotline in both English and Vietnamese, gear rack, bungee cords, bike lock, and a buy-back guarantee – it was enough for me to trust them.
Hitting the Road
The last thing to do it load your bag on the back, buy a map, and pick a destination and go. Even if you feel shaky at first the traffic in Hanoi may be daunting but it’s got a smooth flow and the locals adapt amazingly. Stall out in the middle of an intersection? No problem, you may get a few honks but you’ll get the hang of it, and after your first couple of days you’ll be a pro.
In the end your bike is your choice. It’s a potluck what you get and what may go wrong – but the experience of travelling through Vietnam on your own means of transport is priceless, and I couldn’t imagine travelling it any other way.
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