|“||One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam, to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography.||”|
Epitomized in an episode of “Top Gear” riding a motorbike in Vietnam has become a goal for many people visiting the country. While riding in Vietnam is dangerous, it can also be a life-changing experience. You see things from the seat of a motorbike that you don't see while travelling in different type of vehicle. Some choose to traverse the entire country this way while most are satisfied with a few local day trips. If you are not an experienced motorcycle rider you should reconsider starting to ride here. While many visitors operate a motorbike without a proper licence this is not recommended.
In small towns and beach resorts where traffic is light, e.g. Phú Quốc, it's a delightful way to get around and see the sights, and much cheaper than taxis if you make several stops or travel any distance. Roads are usually decent, though it's advisable not to ride too fast and always keep an eye on the road for the occasional pothole.
Our article on Đà Nẵng has some recommendations on trips aroube that city.
Rent or purchase edit
Most places will want a deposit, which can be US$100-500, depending on the value of the motorbike, or in lieu of a cash deposit they will hold your passport. Some travelers have found it helpful to carry two passports for situations like this allowing them to retain identification and a current visa stamp.
Desk clerks at small hotels often run a side business renting motorbikes to guests, or have a friend or relative who does. Tour booths can usually do the same.
The 110 cc motorbike is the preferred mode of transport for the Vietnamese masses, and the large cities swarm with them. It's common to see whole families of four cruising along on a single motorbike. In most places where tourists go, you can easily rent your own, with prices ranging from 100,000 to 160,000 dong per day.
Two main categories of motorbike are available to rent: scooters (automatic transmission); and four-speed motorbikes, the gears of which you shift with your left foot. The ubiquitous Honda Super Cub is a common 4-speed bike that has a semi-automatic gearbox, i.e. no clutch so is relatively easy to ride. Other models may be fully manual and therefore you must also operate the clutch using your left hand - this takes a lot of skill and it's all too easy to over-rev and pull a wheelie or stall the engine - if you end up with such a bike then practise releasing the clutch gently before hitting the roads. Dirt bikes are becoming popular for rent in Hanoi; other cities are not yet ready for these beasts. Rental agents tend to steer foreigners toward scooters if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don't know how to ride motorbikes that require shifting gears. Motorcycles of 175 cc and above are only legal to ride if you have an A2 Vietnam license or an IDP with an A2 or M (motorcycle) stamp from member states that signed the 1968 convention on Traffic.
If you choose to ride the entirety of the country consider traveling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) instead of the other way around. Since most people travel south to north there is usually a surplus of low cost bikes in Hanoi. This means many times a bike purchased in Hanoi can be sold for the same price Saigon while buying in Saigon and selling in Hanoi will almost always lead to a loss.
It is illegal for foreigners to ride a motorbike in Vietnam unless they are in possession of a temporary Vietnamese motorcycle licence, or an International Driving Permit (IDP) with a valid home country motorcycle licence.
To convert your licence or IDP into a temporary Vietnamese licence you must hold a Vietnamese residence permit of at least three months' validity or a three-month tourist visa. In Hanoi you should apply to the Centre for Automotive Training and Mechanism, 83a Ly Thuong Kiet St; in Ho Chi Minh City to the Office of Transportation, 63 Ly Tu Trong St, District 1.
If you ride unlicensed and have an accident in which a third party is injured or killed you could be subject to a term of imprisonment of 10-20 years, and pay a large sum in compensation to the victim or the victim's family. Moreover, even if your travel insurance policy covers you for motorcycling (check the small print as many don't), if you are injured when riding illegally the insurance company will not recompense you for medical attention, hospitalisation, evacuation to another country for hospitalisation or repatriation, the cost of which can run into tens of thousands of dollars.
If you have traveler's insurance check with your insurance company to see if you are covered to ride. While most insurance policies will cover you if you have a valid motorcycle drivers licence from your home country and an International Driving permit, most will not cover you without them.
Helmets are required by law, so if you don't have one already ask your rental agent to provide you with one. Riding without a helmet greatly increases attention from the police.
Consider bringing some motorcycle gear with you like a low cost, full-face helmet, riding gloves, jacket and trousers if you plan on spending a lot of time riding. While helmets are easy to find in Vietnam and make a great souvenir their quality can be questionable whereas an inexpensive helmet from the West that carries a safety certification should be better. Unlike low-cost or generic helmets new, expensive helmets are more likely to be stolen. Also bring a cable lock with you to secure your helmet as opposed to securing with the strap which can be easily cut and replaced. When you're finished with your ride you can sell your gear.
Riding in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a very different matter, and not advisable unless you are an experienced rider with a very cool head. Traffic is intense and chaotic, with a long list of unwritten rules that don't resemble traffic laws anywhere else. "Right of way" is a nearly unknown concept. Riding in HCMC is like finding yourself in the middle of a 3-D video game where anything can come at you from any direction, and you only have one life. Expats who brave the traffic at all typically have an apprenticeship of a few weeks or months riding on the back of others' motorbikes to learn the ways of the traffic, before attempting to ride themselves. Extreme caution is advised for short-term visitors.
Riding long-distance in the countryside can also be harrowing depending on the route you take. Major roads between cities tend to be narrow despite being major, and full of tour buses hell-bent on speed, passing slow trucks where maybe they shouldn't have tried, and leaving not much room at the edge for motorbikes. That being said, there are many good roads and beautiful sights to be seen with the freedom of your own motorbike. As an alternative to the coastal highway (AH 1), the Ho Chi Minh Road (AH 17) is a quiet and scenic option for the adventurous. The road is in excellent condition, with upgrades from Buon Ma Thuat to Kon Tum. Shortly after Kon Tum the road enters the mountains close to the Lao border, with majestic scenery quiet and ethnic villages for 700 km, finally emerging back to the lowlands at the world heritage listed Phong Nha caves. This quiet alternative to the coastal chaos can be taken all the way to Ha Noi.
Most places you would want to stop at have parking attendants who will issue you a numbered tag and watch over your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are overseen by the establishment you are visiting, and sometimes they are freelance operations set up in places where a lot of people go. You will usually see rows of bikes lined up parked. Depending on circumstance, you might park the bike yourself, or just take out the key, put it in neutral, and let the staff position it. In all but rare cases you keep the key. Parking is sometimes free at restaurants and cafes (look for "giu xe mien phi"). Elsewhere, fees range from 2,000 to 10,000 dong.
Traffic police in the cities pull over lots of locals (often for reasons that are hard to discern), but conventional wisdom has it that they rarely bother foreigners due to the language barrier. Obeying the traffic laws is nevertheless advisable, especially if you have failed to obtain a Vietnamese license. Cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi have several one way streets, and it is too easy to just steer into them unknowingly as there are limited signs warning you. Be sure that if you break the law, the police who are sneaking just at the right spot, will ask you to pull over and will fine you. They will also threaten to confiscate your bike. The quoted price for the fine is negotiable, and being apologetic and friendly can get you back on road quickly, with a few dollars less in your pockets. It is less likely that they will bully or harass you.
If you are pulled over or have an accident edit
To reduce your chances of being detained try not to stand out which means dressing like the locals including wearing a dust mask. Only tourists ride a Honda Win with a gold or yellow star on the tank. Drive with the crowd and obey the driving laws even when others around you are not. If signaled to pull over, some people recommend smiling and nodding but not stopping as it's unlikely the police will chase you.
If you are pulled over be calm, smile, be respectful and apologetic. Take your motorbike's keys and put them in your pocket and don't hand the police anything of value to you such as your passport. Some people recommend to talk to them in any non-English non-Vietnamese language, while continuing to smile and be respectful so they'll tire from you and ask for bribes from someone else. The police in Vietnam are not confrontational like many police can be in the West and most likely they will not speak English well. Present IDP or local driver's licence and the motorbike registration card a.k.a "blue card." If you rented your motorbike it's quite likely the rental shop will have the registration card and they will need to be called. Most rentals have the shop's phone number on the key chain. When the officer is ready to make a decision on what to do with you it could be anything from letting you go or asking for a bribe a.k.a. "coffee money" and less likely seizing your bike or arresting you. Some have found it helpful to ride with no more 200,000 dong visible in their wallet as to limit the size of the bribe. Don't offer a bribe but be responsive to the request of one. If you do not have an IDP and/or driver's licence with a motorcycle endorsement from your home country you might be asked for a bribe which should be no more than 200,000 dong. Some clueless foreigners pay bribes up to a few millions which happens only due to unsubstantiated fear.
If you get into an accident you're most likely to be blamed for it, even if you were not at fault. If the other person is not trying to rip you off asking for too much money, it might be best to settle the amount on the spot and not involve the police. If the police gets involved, they should try to help all sides settle the issue. Be prepared means having access to the funds to resolve a problem like this. Having representation from a well connected attorney that speaks English is almost a requirement and good advice.