Buying a $US450 motorcycle to ride across a communist country devastated by war with your own sounds like a great idea, right? I thought so. Here's how you can do it too.
I've been travelling the world for the last seven months or so. It's been amazing. But one thing that I've missed most about life back in LA was riding my motorcycle. Every. Single. Day.
Riding in the States isn't terribly popular. You can only lane-split legally in California. Insurance companies treat riding as a hobby and charge out-the-arse for motorcycle policies. Car drivers are often prejudiced against us. Overall, it's barely accepted. Which is a shame, because motorcycles make way more sense for personal transportation than a giant, heavy, inefficient car ever will.
$US450 = cross-country transport for two.
That's not case in Vietnam, however - where the 37 million registered motorcycles (or "motorbikes", as they're called in much of Asia) zipping around have already exceeded 2020 planning. Riding motorbikes is a part of daily life. Nearly everyone has one. Entire families of four will ride on one scooter. Local people transport truckloads of goods strapped to the back of their bikes. It's amazing.
Riding here is is an elegant, yet frantic dance as thousands of bikes weave in-and-out of each lane with little regard for those around. Bumps are frequent; seldom acknowledged. Horns are used liberally as can be imagined. Put simply: it's insane.
A woman removes dead clusters of rice from the paddy fields in the Central Highlands.
Besides revelling in the moto madness, there are a lot of other reasons to travel to Vietnam. The landscapes are beautiful as they are diverse. River deltas define the south. Pine forests blanket the central highlands. The easternmost extremities of the Himalayas carve through the north. Lush jungles line the coast. The people are warm and welcoming. The food is delicious. And everything is cheap. Like fifteen cents-a-beer cheap.
Vietnam is an adventurer's haven too. There's world-class rock climbing. Diving. Kiteboarding. Kayaking. Trekking. Son Doong — the world's largest discovered cave is here too. (I'll be exploring Son Doong's smaller sister, Hang En in a few weeks!)
Since I was already in the region, there was no way I could not explore Vietnam — so after a three week stint in Cambodia, I jumped on a night bus to Saigon
My mission: Explore Vietnam from the south to the north, travelling through how the locals do. And that meant getting a bike.
Meet Winnie. She's my 2014 made-in-Vietnam 110cc Sufat Win.
If you want to buy a manual motorcycle with a clutch, there aren't a lot of options around. The market is mostly saturated with scooters; to own or ride any bike greater than 125cc, you've gotta be a member of a motorcycle club. That leaves you with a few options:
Win: The Win. Most of these 100cc or 110cc bikes are badged as Hondas. In reality, the majority of them are Chinese knockoffs (genuine Honda Wins haven't been manufactured since the early 2000s); they have been yo-yo'd up and down the coast and abused by backpackers for tens of thousands of kilometers.
Oftentimes you'll see claims that the "engines have just been rebuilt!" Those claims are bullshit. If the engine has been rebuilt, it was likely with shitty used parts, which won't actually increase the bike's performance or reliability.
Don't pay more than $US250 for one; expect to spend a decent amount of time in garages for repairs along the way.
The exception is the Sufat Win. Sufat Wins are made in Vietnam using the Honda designs. If you can find one, chances are it will be relatively new; a lot more dependable than the Chinese versions. I pickede up a 2014 model in Ho Chi Minh City for $US450 from a company called Flamingo Travel. It had less than 9000km on it; it runs great. The speedometer even works!
Expect to get about 40km from a litre of gasoline.
Minsk: The Minsks are old, two-stroke, 125cc Russian bikes. They are more powerful, but significantly less fuel efficient and notoriously less dependable than the Wins. They're harder to find too.
While I haven't personally ridden one, I've heard that they're fun, if you don't mind giving them the extra love. Expect to pay around $US400 for one.
Suzuki GN: The GN 125 is one of the more rare backpacker bikes roaming around Vietnam; they're also one of the most expensive. While the ride would undoubtedly be nicer than that of the Win, expect to pay between $US600-$US700, if you can find one.
The easiest way to find a bike is simply by walking around the backpacking districts in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi — "bike for sale" fliers are everywhere. You can also try your luck on Craigslist.
Once you find a bike that you're interested in, take it for a test drive and check everything over: Starter (electric and kick), throttle, brakes, lights, turn signals, horn (you'll need it!) Make sure that the engine runs smoothly and that it shifts well too. If anything seems off, or if your gut's against it, don't buy it! Bikes are everywhere; it shouldn't be hard to find one that is to your liking.
The opposite holds true as well. If you come across a bike that you do like, grab it. Chances are that if you don't, someone else will by the following day.
Before you purchase the bike, be sure that the seller has a "blue card," which is the registration card, in the event that you need to flash it to an official; when it's time for you to sell the bike after you're done, potential buyers will want the blue card too.
Lock: Pick up a chain and padlock from a hardware store. Anytime you have to park your bike where there's not an attendant present, you'll want to lock it up.
Bungee Cords: Most bikes will come with a large rack on the back for hauling your backpack. Many of these will also come with bungee cords. If your bike doesn't, you can pick a couple up for less than a dollar.
Poncho/Trash Bag: When the rains come, you'll want to keep your stuff dry, so wrap your pack in a poncho or large trash bag before strapping it down.
Riding in Vietnam is absolutely insane; just because the locals ride in flip flops doesn't mean that you should to. Protect yourself from road rash and worse. If you're travelling to Vietnam directly from home and already own riding gear, bring it. Stuff that will properly protect you in the event of a crash is hard to come by once you're here.
I had a jacket, pants, gloves, and boots brought over from the states; picked my helmet up locally.
The Alpinestars Scion 2L is lightweight, breathable and, best of all, waterproof.
Helmet: One thing that Vietnam gets right is a mandatory helmet law - for riders and passengers. Get one and wear it. Where they miss the mark is for any sort of helmet safety standards and regulations. Bicycle helmets are for bicycles.
Most helmets sold in Vietnam merely present the illusion of safety. If you got into a crash, I doubt they'd offer much of anything in the way of protection.
Short of bringing an ECE 22.05 certified helmet from home, your best bet is to pickup an Andes helmet from a showroom. Andes helmets are a step in the right direction towards offering a decent level of protection, but they won't break the bank. You should be able to find one for about $US100.
If you really care about the well-being of your brains (and you should!), you can pick up an American or European safety certified helmet from a motorcycle dealership, but these are far and few between. I got an open-face Italian Project for Safety helmet from Saigon Scooters. It was expensive ($US225) but I value my cognitive function.
Gloves: If you're buying a nice helmet from a shop, chances are you can find some decent riding gloves there too. Look for a pair that's lightweight but protective. Or bring some from home.
Boots: Thongs are not boots. Thongs will not protect your feet from anything. So don't wear them while riding. A pair of low-cut dedicated riding boots like the Alpinestars CR-4 Gore-Tex XCR's ($US200) will offer enough protection for riding, but are dexterous enough for hiking.
If you don't opt for dedicated riding shoes, at the very least, wear a pair of sturdy, high-top boots.
Jacket: Vietnam's climate varies drastically from south to north. Even during winter, it can get very hot in the south. The north is generally cooler and wetter, so a lightweight, waterproof/breathable riding jacket with a removable insulating layer is ideal. I'm using the Alpinestars Scion 2L ($US219).
Pants: Given the weather conditions, lightweight, breathable riding pants are ideal too. Look for something with padded hips and knee protection. I'm using the Alpinestars Switch Drystar Pants ($US209).
I don't think he got the riding gear memo. Oh, that look of shame!
If you'd rather just wear shorts, a tank top and thongs while riding "cuz it's hot and it's 'Nam, bro!" don't complain when you end up looking like this guy.
Other Important Stuff
Passport: This one's obvious. If you don't have it, get it. It's really not that hard.
Vietnam Visa: You won't be getting in without one of these!
If you're flying directly into 'Nam, you can apply for a visa-on-arrival online.
If entering overland from Cambodia or Laos, you can work with a local travel agent to get hooked up. The process should take about a day; a one-month visa will set you back $US60.
Travel Insurance: Oftentimes your health care plan won't cover incidents abroad, so it's a good idea to get a travel insurance policy, especially if you're going to be adventuring. My go-to provider is World Nomads. They have two different levels of coverage; the more extreme policy covers anything from mountaineering to motorcycling to base jumping — they literally have all your bases covered.
International Driver's Licence: At the time of writing, Vietnam doesn't recognise international drivers' licenses, so getting one isn't necessary for this part of your trip. Your bike licence from home will work just fine.
When To Go
The best time to do a motorcycle tour of Vietnam is during the dry season (our winter and spring) between the months of November and April. Any other time, it will likely be raining like crazy, streets will flood, and roads will wash out. You don't want that, do you?
The floating market in Can Tho is one of Southeast Asia's largest.
Choose A Direction
Vietnam is a very tall, skinny country. As such, you'll either travel from South to North (Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi) or vice versa. Or, if you're short on time, just pick up a section in-between.
Though the south of Vietnam is interesting and has some cool stuff (like the Mekong Delta; one of the largest floating markets in Southeast Asia) the north is arguably more beautiful with its rice-covered, stepped mountains.
Many choose to start out in the north; then head south, but I've opted for the opposite. Figure as I travel upward, it will get more and more beautiful. Seemed like a better progression to me.
How Much Time Do You Need?
A month (or more) would be ideal, in order to buy a bike, ride it everywhere; really immerse yourself in the culture and the land. If you're short on time, you could either a) move fast or b) divide and conquer. That is, choose one section of the country to focus on.
When Trouble Comes Knocking
You'll likely run into some problems on the road. Here's how to avoid them as best as possible.
A motorcycle mechanic does a quickie on my bike. Oil change in five-minutes-flat for five dollars.
During the course of your ride, you'll need to make numerous stops at various motorcycle shops along the way. Look for signs that say "Xe May," or have the Honda Motorcycles logo on the sign.
The shop mechanics are very adept; should be able to fix just about anything that could go wrong with your bike, on the spot. And best of all, the shops are everywhere.
You'll want to change your bike's oil every 1000km (takes five minutes; costs about 100,000 VN Dong - or $US5) and oil the chain every 300km or so (this will often be free.) It's also a good idea to check your tire pressure whenever you get oil changes too.
Vietnam traffic cops dress in tan and look like Super Troopers. You'll often find them manning checkpoints while passing through towns or cities. Wear your helmet, don't speed, stay to the right in the motorcycle lane (on big highways, center and left lanes are reserved for cars, trucks, and busses); they should leave you alone.
If you do happen to get pulled over, don't sweat it, they will just ask you for a bribe. Here's a little trick: only keep a 100,000 Dong ($US4.65) bill in your wallet at a time (and some smaller 1000 and 2000 Dong bills as well, to make it believable.) When they ask for more, you can pull out your wallet, pretend to count, and then look surprised when you come short. The cop will likely grab your wallet, search through it, see that it's empty, take the 100,000 bill, leave you the rest, and send you on your way! Trust me, it works.
It ain't over yet, I'm just getting started!
When It's Over
So, you just had the ride of your lifetime. What to do next? Sell your bike in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and recoup that hard-earned cash.
How you gonna do that? Make flyers; stick them up around the backpacking districts. List your bike on Craigslist. Walk around with a sign on your shirt saying, "motorcycle for sell." Whatever you do, don't be like, "Yeah I gotta sell my bike before I leave tomorrow" because people will force you to accept a lowball offer. Play it cool.
And that's how you do it!
I just kicked off my own journey, so follow along for my weekly updates on the "Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries." Keep the rubber side down!
Pictures: Chris Brinlee Jr