Buying and then riding a motorcycle in throughout Vietnam is a very interesting process that can be a good-to-great experience. It can also go sideways very rapidly. If you are careful, have some basic knowledge of motorcycles and how they work, take your time, and think beyond the purchase price to the overall cost of ownership over the three or four weeks you will own the bike, your trip will be one of the most rewarding of your life. Too many people come here looking for the lowest cost motorcycle they can find and then waste days they could be riding trying instead to get the POS repaired. Don't be one of them.
While researching my first trip to Vietnam/Southeast Asia, almost everything I read said that the best or only way to truly experience it is on two wheels. I took a motorcycle training course, got my license, bought a bike, and less than 20 miles later, broke my left clavicle in a low-speed one-vehicle crash. Most of my friends said that this was the universe's way of telling me that I should not ride. I took it as a warning to f*cking pay attention. That December (2013), I arrived in Vietnam for the first time. As detailed in my very early (see December 2013 in the column to the right) posts on this blog, I bought a motorcycle in Saigon and then spent three of my 10 weeks here riding to Hanoi, mostly solo.
Hiking the Inca Trail in my mid-50's was a major "get" and one that I enjoy more in my memories than I did at the time.
|How 'bout that hat?|
Please, please, PLEASE learn to ride BEFORE you get here!!! The great majority of the dozens of moto-backpackers I've met here NEVER even rode pillion (passenger) on a motorcycle before arriving, see literally everyone over the age of 15 riding a motorbike, and think, "Hell, if they can do it, it can't be that hard/so can I." (see Part 2)
NO, you can't!!!
If you don't ride already, there are a LOT of things you don't know that can seriously injure or kill you. For example, above about 20 kph, the physics are TOTALLY DIFFERENT than those of riding a bicycle. One of them is that if you push the right handgrip away from you, you will lean over and turn to the right.
Some of the things that it will help you to know if you ride in Vietnam:
1) 99+% of the people who turn right onto a roadway NEVER look to see if it's safe; they just go.
2) Though at first it will not seem like it, there are "rules of the road".
3) Those rules here are DIFFERENT than those of your home country.
3) Paved surfaces outside (and sometimes in) the cities can be much closer to what Westerners would call "off-road".
4) Some of the buses and many of the minivans you encounter will actively try to run you off the road.
5) If you assume that EVERYONE else on the road is trying to kill you, you will fare much better. They're not, though it will often seem they are.
6) As my friend Glen said just yesterday, the biggest waste of money in Vietnam is that spent painting the lines in the middle of roads.
7) Also always assume you are invisible...
Please note that I am NOT trying to discourage the adventurous you; I am simply telling you that you need more preparation than you think you do.
Before you leave your home country, make sure you have emergency evacuation insurance like that provided by MedJet or Global Rescue. I have Global Rescue and am very happy with their customer service. If you are more than 60 miles from your home address and need emergency transport, they will take care of it for you—including a medical jet, if necessary. They also have medical professionals (nurses, PAs, etc.) with whom you can consult over the phone for less serious medical issues. Like any insurance, you're probably not going to need it, but if you do, you're gonna be glad you have it. If I go down hard, motorcycle or not, ViLa and friends here know to call Global Rescue to evacuate me to the US for medical care.
I guarantee that you do NOT want to spend even one hour of your vacation in a Vietnamese hospital. If you are unfortunate enough to be their guest, you will have to pay cash up-front for everything—even if you have insurance. You pay a deposit when you arrive, then you pay again before you see each doctor or have an x-ray or do anything other than sitting and waiting. The medical system here is not set up to bill insurance companies, so you pay up-front and wait for the insurance company to reimburse you. Individual items and services aren't expensive, but they do add up... and if you don't have the cash, you'll either have to find it or suffer elsewhere. There is no "charity" at Vietnamese hospitals.
If you're in the hospital overnight, you'd better have some friends or family to bring you food and protect your valuables or you won't eat and your things may wander off while you sleep. The locals usually have a family member or friend rent a cot and sleep when the patient isn't. You'll also need cash to entice the doctors and nurses to pay attention to you during your stay. Worst case, send me an email and I'll see if I can contact someone in the same city who can help you out.
There are a number of good web sites out there with tips and/or routes and/or trip blogs (trogs?). My favorite for trip blogs is Vietnam Coracle. It's written by a Brit who rides all over Vietnam on a 125cc scooter and manages to find all kinds of seemingly-hidden-to-most-Westerners gems; restaurants, hotels, roads, and more. I recommend it every chance I get. AdvRider, Horizons Unlimited, RideAsia are also good sources of information. Nomadasaurus is a good one for fairly up-to-date travel information, though it is one on which you need to be selective as to which posts you believe. My feeling is that, on most sites, if you go with the majority opinion, you'll most likely be alright. The link to Nomadasaurus will take you to a page dedicated to the topic of buying a motorbike in SE Asia. If you go to their home page, you will find a lot of other information/opinions. My biggest gripe with the site is the repetition caused by people who post questions without bothering to read the previous questions and responses where their question is very often already answered.
If you would like more information, send an email to "pdf at ridingseasia dot com". I will reply with a couple of PDFs of things I wrote for my friend who owns Flamingo Travel to give to customers and prospective customers. One is about riding here and the other is full of tips on how to buy a second-hand motorbike. I think you'll find them both interesting and useful.
Print them out and read them a few times before you get on the plane and then again on the plane. You'll have time; it's a 15+ hour trip from the North American west coast and longer from other places on the continent. If you're in Europe or Australia, it's a bit less time on the plane, though still plenty of time to review them again.
While looking for something else, I found these videos that you might find useful:
Buying a bike
Why you do NOT want a Chinese bike
Come to Vietnam for the riding trip of a lifetime. Just remember to stay safe while you're enjoying all there is to offer here.