While teaching English in Japan, my friend Matt was finishing up working as an architect in Shanghai for a couple years. He planned on traveling through the region before he made his way back to our hometown of Orlando. So I told him he could come crash on my floor and check out the sights in Osaka.
Many nama birus later, he mentioned his plans of heading to Ho Chi Minh to meet his friends, buy motorbikes, and travel through Vietnam.
"How much can you get a motorcycle for?" I asked.
"Around $200-$300." He replied.
Fast forward 18 months...
My friend Scott, who taught with the same company as me in Japan, and our new friend Alvin, who we met at the Kounsavan guest house in Luang Prabang a week earlier, were in Hanoi excitingly making last minute preparations for our very first motorcycle journey.
This trip is actually very common nowadays with backpackers from all over the world constantly driving the length of this narrow country. Most people start in Ho Chi Minh and sell their bikes in Hanoi. Personally I don't think it matters where you start. Your experience will be relatively the same going south to north or vice versa.
Selecting which bike you purchase however, is the most important part of the trip. Since they are so heavily used, it is crucial to buy one that won't fall apart in the middle of the country. We met a group of Aussies in Phong Nha who had one of their Honda scooters catch on fire during a long 300km haul.
Other than basic intuition and your gut feeling there are a few things to look for when deciding which bike to buy.
Smoke coming from the exhaust.
Starter functioning correctly.
Working lights and signals.
Look for any rust in the gas tank.
Don't be fooled by a fresh coat of paint, even if that's the coolest looking bike!
Check the brakes.
Buy new tires. Scott got three flats in two days.
Don't rush your decision. There are hundreds of bikes to choose from.
Take your bike for a test drive at top speed if you can. Listen for any weird sounds in the engine. Don't be cheap when it comes to safety. Buy the best quality helmet you can find. We each bought a brand new Andes helmet for $25-$30. It is worth it to pay a little bit extra to get everything tuned up and looked over.
We went to a dealer in Hanoi that our hotel receptionist recommended. They even paid for our taxi to and from their shop for sending them potential business. We drove a few different bikes, played a tough sell and eventually found the ones we felt good about.
Minh, the owner, wanted $900 for all three. We had a quick huddle and told him since we're buying three bikes we'd pay $750. He agreed to our offer and we were the proud owners of three 100cc Honda Wins. Scott's was actually 110cc. Those extra 10cc would prove to be a huge difference maker once we hit the mountains. So try to get a bigger bike if you have the option.
That next morning we bungee wrapped our bags to our luggage racks and mentally prepared ourselves to navigate Hanoi's infamous traffic. The first rule of roundabouts in Vietnam is there are no rules. Swarming with a nonstop flow of motorbikes, scooters, cars and trucks, approaching one can be pretty intimidating.
Closing in on the first big intersection of our trip I gripped my handle bars tightly and said under my breath "Here we go". Keep moving and surprisingly everything just works. Kind of like crossing the road as a pedestrian in South East Asia. Just go.
Using Scott's unlocked iPhone we found a good route out of the city. We stopped for a quick breakfast bowl of noodles. Once we got out of Hanoi, we found the Ho Chi Minh Highway and cruised until the sun set on the horizon. We covered close to 270km and spent the night at a roadside guest house.
Here's a breakdown of our itinerary and the distance we covered. You could realistically ride across the country in less than two weeks. But that would mean driving all day everyday and not taking anytime to rest or explore. We were in Vietnam for 30 days, which is enough time for the motorcycle trip. But I would strongly recommend adding an extra week to see Sapa, Ha Giang, Ban Gioc, and Ha Long Bay.
Hanoi-Phong Nha 530km
Phong Nha-Khe Sanh 240km
Khe Sanh-Hue 180km
Hue-Hoi An 133km
Hoi An-Quang Ngai 120km
Quang Ngai- Kontum 200km
Kontum- Buon Ho 190km
Buon Ho- Nha Trang 160km
Nha Trang- Dalat 136km
Dalat-Mui Ne 155km
Mui Ne-Saigon Ho Chi Minh 220km
Total: Close to 2,600km including side excursions.
For the most part we used Google maps for navigation. Maps.me is useful too because you can download the map and use it without an internet connection or data. We were surprised by how long some of the days took. You see 200km and think "that should only take a few hours." But when you're driving in the mountains, or stopping to take pictures and rehydrating, time seems to slip away.
It's a good idea to start your drive early in the morning. That way if you have any problems with your bike, you'll have enough time to fix it and still make it to your destination. The only times we drove at night were because of repairs. And driving at night just increases the probability of getting into an accident. So avoid it at all costs.
Take care of your bike and yourself for that matter. We changed our oil every 500km. It costs between 70,000-90,000 VND ($4 USD). Inevitably your bike will need repairs. During our ride all three of us had our rear wheel bearings blow out at some point. Luckily it didn't happen at top speeds and we found helpful mechanics fairly easily. Everyone in Vietnam grows up on a motorbike or scooter. Therefore a knowledgeable mechanic is always close by.
From our experience, every one of them gave us an honest price. After taking off my wheel, replacing my rear bearings, and working on my bike for an hour, a mechanic in the middle of the country charged me less than $12. Or when my throttle got stuck and needed to be taken apart and oiled up, a mechanic charged me less than $3. They were very straightforward and didn't attempt to exploit extra cash from us.
The Ho Chi Minh Road is the scenic route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. Many days you don't even have to look at the map. Just stay course for 8 hours. Some directions will suggest taking Highway 1 near the coast because it is a more direct way. But it is also where all of the semi trucks travel and crazy bus drivers pass vehicles with reckless abandon. After sucking exhaust for a few miles and dodging head on collisions with bus drivers near Hoi An, we quickly rerouted back into the country.
At some point during the trip you MIGHT get pulled over by the police. Knowing this, our game plan was to only have $10 or $15 equivalent in VND max in our wallets at a time. That way we could show the officer that was all the money we had and they could take all of it. Because at the end of the day they don't want to write you a ticket, they just want to get a few extra bucks in their pocket. The police know foreigners with bags strapped to their bikes don't have a Vietnamese driver's license, so a little bribe understandably comes with the territory.
We made it all the way to Mui Ne until we got stopped, which was pretty impressive for how many uniformed officers we drove by the previous three weeks. They were prepared with their traffic violation handbook and pointed at the English translation for driving without a license. I showed one officer my Hawaii driver's license and blue ownership card for my bike and it seemed like they were going to let me go.
Then a different officer firmly said we had to pay $40 USD each. We told them that we didn't have that much money on us. After about 10-15 minutes of politely refusing to pay that much we offered to pay $25 for each bike. We probably could've waited longer and maybe paid less. But they could have caused more problems for us. So who knows. I think you should just factor in that money as a toll for riding through Vietnam.
Out of all the countries and places I've travelled to and spent time visiting, Vietnam is my absolute favorite. Perhaps it's the manner in which I experienced the country. On a motorcycle, you get to feel the distance you travel. You see the land on a much more intimate level.
Besides the natural beauty we saw, the Vietnamese people were overall very friendly, honest, and had a great sense of humor. Obviously there are outliers in every society, but we consistently interacted with genuine people who radiated a sense of cohesiveness and appreciation. All things considered I'm just lucky to have been able to create my own perspective of this country often misunderstood by my own.