When trying to plan a motorbike ride in Vietnam, a quick Google search can sometimes lead you down a seemingly endless rabbit hole of further questions. We here at Onyabike Adventures have years of on the ground experience to help answer any and all questions that you have about motorbiking in Vietnam. When should you visit? Where should you go? What must you know before coming? It’s all here folks. And hey, on the off chance it’s not — just email or call us. We’re pretty friendly.
Below, we’ll start with the weather — because that’s how conversations often start.
When to Plan Your Vietnam Motorbike Ride?
Weather will play a big part in deciding when you choose to visit Vietnam for your motorbike ride, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that the weather here can be unpredictable.
There’s a huge upside to both the country’s length and the variability of weather. Namely, it allows for year-round adventure riding opportunities and multiple visits since one place’s prime riding time is low season in another. With good planning and foresight, you can experience different parts of the country at different times — all while avoiding nasty weather.
For most people, Vietnam conjures images of tropical rainforests and palm-lined beaches, and they wouldn’t be mistaken. For the vast majority of the time, the weather in Vietnam is hot and sunny with some afternoon rain showers causing minor inconveniences at most.
What may come as a surprise to some is the very real possibility of extreme weather at certain times of the year. From snow in the northern mountains in January and February to the 8 to 10 Tropical Storms that make landfall during the months of July through to October, Vietnam is no stranger to extreme weather. If it gives you any indication, floods are a fairly regular occurrence in many parts of the country.
Without proper planning, there is a chance that you may find yourself facing the challenges of riding in these extreme conditions. With that said, let’s discuss when and where you should start looking when planning a motorbike ride in Vietnam. Below is a rough guide to the average maximum and minimum temperatures. Now, of course, these are just estimates — as the saying goes, the climate is what you expect but weather is what you get.
Vietnam’s average weather by region
High / Low(°C)
High / Low(°C)
High / Low(°C)
|January||19/14 (dry)||26/20 (humid)||30/22 (dry)|
|February||20/15 (dry)||26/21 (less humid)||32/22 (dry)|
|March||22/18 (some rain)||30/22 (dry)||35/25 (dry)|
|April||27/21 (some rain)||33/25 (dry)||36/27 (dry)|
|May||31/24 (warm/rain)||35/25 (dry)||36/27 (dry)|
|June||33/26 (rainy season)||35/27 (chance of rain)||35/25 (thunderstorms)|
|July||33/26 (rainy season)||35/27 (chance of rain)||35/25 (thunderstorms)|
|August||31/25 (rainy season)||35/27 (chance of rain)||35/25 (thunderstorms)|
|September||31/25 (rainy season)||34/25 (start of rainy season)||33/25 (rainy season)|
|October||29/22 (less rainy, chance of typhoon)||30/23 (rainy season)||30/23 (rainy season)|
|November||25/19 (dry except for an occasional typhoon)||28/21 (rainy season)||30/23 (rainy season)|
|December||22/15 (dry)||25/20 (rainy season)||30/23 (end of rainy season)|
Editor’s Note: The above figures are averages. There may be considerable variation between temperatures and rainfall. We’re motorcycle experts, not meteorologists.
How to figure out the Vietnam weather enigma
A mistake that many people seem to make is to search online for “Vietnam Weather” and expect it to accurately cover the whole country. This is a long country, folks. Just like the weather in Seattle is very different than in Los Angeles, the weather in Hanoi is very different than in Saigon.
We suggest searching by region to see what the average temperature and rainfall is in the area where you choose to ride. If we divide Vietnam into three regions — North, Central and South — we can get a much more accurate picture of what the weather will be doing.
While the majority of Vietnam will have beautiful weather in November the Central region around Da Nang will likely be having one of its wettest months. When the Centre and South are having one of their nicest months — March — the Northern regions could be having one of its wettest months, with temperatures that rarely reach above 20C (71F) and, in higher altitudes, overnight temperatures may not be much above freezing. So searching for weather conditions for the area where you choose to enjoy your Vietnam motorbike ride is a much better option.
When it comes to the north, recall that the mountains make a huge difference in terms of temperature. The mountainous area in the north, including Sapa, Bac Ha, and Ha Giang, can still be darn chilly while Hanoi is warming up.
Tropical storms and Typhoons
The storm season in Vietnam generally occurs during the summer months — July to Oct — with the possibility of tropical storms or typhoons making landfall anywhere in the country. You’ll really want to keep track of these storms — they’re not child’s play, and you definitely don’t want to be riding in them. Websites such as Weather Underground offer storm tracker sites, as well as apps such as Windy that will allow you to track the expected path of incoming storms.
You may need to keep track of these storms to see when and where they are expected to make landfall so you can adjust your plans to avoid them. Avoiding active storms should be your main priority, but not be your only concern. When a large typhoon passes through an area it will often damage the local infrastructure leaving it without electricity or running water, and local roads may become impassable.
Taking the occasional peek at the storm activity before heading to Vietnam may be a good idea as well. Local information can also be a good resource, ask around at your guesthouse or a local coffee shop about any areas that are expecting storms or may have recently been affected by one, the locals may be aware of something that you have missed.
In all honesty, it’s a crap shoot when and where storms will hit and very few are accurately predicted more than 72 hours before landfall. A storm that looks like it’s about to slam into the central coast may suddenly veer north or south, or a storm that is set to pound a city can vanish due to wind shear. Some storms may give a city a mere brushing, while others can inundate nearly a whole province.
And it doesn’t just need to be tropical storms that give heavy rain. That can happen without a typhoon, too. Fun fact: In December of 2018 in Da Nang, it rained 63.5 cm (25 inches) in 24 hours. That wasn’t a tropical storm — just regular ol’ rain.
Flooding in Vietnam
Storms may cause the most damage to local infrastructure but are not the only cause of damage. Heavy rains, sometimes a great distance away, can cause flooding in low lying areas. This flooding can be compounded by the opening of floodgates on faraway dams. Though often announced to locals, this information rarely gets passed on to English-speaking travellers. Once again, a friendly chat with the locals around you can give a much-needed heads up.
Often you will see that, despite the flooding, the hardy local population will carry on with their daily lives. If you need to continue your Vietnam motorbike ride through flooded areas, closely following a local may help you navigate unseen dangers beneath the water, though keep in mind that those same locals will not be likely to be doing long-distance trips during the floods.
Keeping an eye on the local tide table during a flood can also help you to know when the water may be more passable. Many of the rivers that are subject to this flooding are tidal, sometimes even far from the coast, such as in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Any District 2 resident will tell you that the roads can flood on a sunny day.
Travelling slowly in groups and staying to more travelled routes while keeping an eye open for any sign of deeper water or difficult-to-see submerged obstacles may be your only option to move out of one of these flooded areas, though staying put and waiting it out would probably be safest.
Heavy rain in the Mountains
Those same mountain rains that can cause flooding in the low lying areas can sometimes cause problems in the mountains as well. Continuous heavy rainfall can lead to ground saturation, and in some steeper mountainous areas can cause landslides. Though the chance of you being swept up in a landslide is small, road closure due to these landslides can throw a serious monkey wrench into your plans.
If you are travelling through mountainous regions during the wet season, be advised to keep alternate routes in the back of your mind, You should also be aware that around that next corner the road may be completely blocked by several meters of mud and trees.
Look out for Vietnamese road flares — it may look like a random pile of greenery in the middle of the road for you, but the locals will often put green branches in the roadway to advise other riders of dangers around the next corner. It may be easy to ignore these, but if you see these do remember to slow down as people have put them out to help warn other drivers.
The same locals will usually be the first to know of any problems with their local roads, and will sometimes try to warn foreign travellers. These well-meaning locals often underestimate the riding abilities of more experienced riders; we have often been warned of continuing down a road or path only to discover — when we cautiously carried on — that it was not all that bad, and with a little extra effort very much passable.
This cavalier attitude can lead you astray as well. There is nothing worse than fighting through three stretches of deep mud only to find that a landslide you easily passed earlier is now impassable.
The mountains are not a place you want to be stuck at night. Keep a close watch on the time of day if you are headed out through unfamiliar mountains. A 4 pm turnaround after travelling all day may find you out after dark on dangerous and unfamiliar roads. There is also a very real possibility of finding an area that was fine when you passed but has now become impassable in a short amount of time. In short: When on a long-distance motorbike ride in Vietnam, do your best to end the ride before nightfall.
Sunny days riding in paradise
Storms and rain are of course only part of the weather in Vietnam. With proper planning, you should be able to avoid the worst of it. Short rain showers can, of course, catch you at any time — even if you’ll be travelling in the driest of months you should be prepared for a little rain here or there. A rain jacket/pants is an absolute necessity in any motorbike ride in Vietnam.
Beautiful sunny days abound in Vietnam, making it an ideal place for motorbike ride trips. These same sunny days, however, pack a powerful punch. Vietnam’s location close to the equator means that the UV from the sun is much stronger than most people realize. Bringing your own sunscreen from home is highly recommended as much of the stuff sold here is either a cheap and ineffective knock off or contains whitening agents. The cheap stuff can wash off or rub off quickly, and the high-quality stuff is, well, very pricey. It’s worth it if you burn easily, however
When in Vietnam, Do as the Vietnamese
Here at Onyabike Adventures we always wear all necessary protective equipment including jackets, gloves and full-face helmets, not only for protection in case of falls but also for protection from the sun.
It is not uncommon, even in the hottest months, to see the locals bundled up in hooded sweatshirts, long trousers and gloves, even-toed socks for their flip flops. You may think it’s silly at first, but recall they’ve been dealing with this weather their entire lives.
Take a tip from the locals and keep the burning sun off your skin while on a motorbike ride in Vietnam — nothing spoils a great day on the bike like realizing that you have a severe sunburn that you didn’t notice until it was too late.
Afterwards, you’ll have to crawl pitifully to the nearest massage parlor with a bottle of aloe vera and ask, hat in hand, for them to rub it on you. They will, of course, if you pay them.
Will it be too hot to ride?
During the hottest times of the year, it’s not uncommon for temperatures in Vietnam to get into the high 30’sC (>95F) even hitting 40C(105F) or more. Couple this with high humidity and it can become too much for most people to handle comfortably.
Locals concur that these temperatures are too hot, and generally nap through the hottest part of the day (~12-2 PM). At the very least, they’ll find a shady place to lay down and avoid moving too much. When you start sweating in that heat, you’ll never stop.
If you are sensitive to the heat or think that it would be unbearable to wear your protective gear during these times, it may be wise to plan your Vietnam motorbike ride during a cooler time of year. If you are like us, we’re sure you’d rather take your chances with cooler, possibly wetter weather and less beach time than sacrifice your safety or comfort.
Local holidays and festivals: Know What to Expect
Another thing to take into consideration for any trip to Vietnam is the timing of holidays and festivals. While visiting Da Nang during the International Fireworks Festival can be a blast (no pun intended), it also attracts a lot of tourists, both domestic and international.
This can sometimes mean that those who have not booked well in advance can be left with little choice for accommodation and the crowds at any tourist attraction may be overwhelming. Don’t let this put you off going to enjoy this type of festival, just be sure to take care of any bookings well in advance.
Vietnam has a booming domestic tourism trade and this is never more evident than during holiday weekends. Some of these holidays are based on the lunar calendar so the celebrations will be held at different times every year.
New year celebrations
The Lunar New Year, known as Tết in Vietnam, is celebrated in the early part of the year and is by far the biggest holiday in Vietnam. Imagine all the important western holidays combined and you’ll start to get the idea. It usually takes place in January or February, though it changes every year since the lunar calendar doesn’t sync up with the standard western calendar.
During Tet most families will get together, meaning that transportation options will be booked out long in advance. Even if you’re able to get transport, it’ll typically be much more expensive — especially air travel.
Tet is typically a week-long celebration, and many businesses may be closed during this time or open for only part of the day, especially in the more remote areas. So while a motorbike ride during a nearly-empty period in Vietnam may sound like a good idea, recall that you may struggle to find accommodation in the countryside.
However, Tet can really last nearly a month in some places, as many people just don’t want to give up the ghost of the party. Be prepared for karaoke, drunkenness, and an overall jolly spirit.
Other important holidays
Hùng Vương or Hung King’s day is the other major holiday according to the Lunar Calendar and generally falls around the same time as Easter, or springtime in Vietnam, meaning that many beach towns see a huge influx of domestic tourism during this time.
The holidays of National Day (September 2nd) Reunification Day (April 30th) and Labour Day (May 1st) are all celebrated according to the International Calendar. International New Years as Jan 1st is known in Vietnam is also a public holiday.
These holidays will not be celebrated to the same extent as Tet, but, as with anywhere in the world, the Vietnamese will take this opportunity to travel, including a motorbike ride in Vietnam. Notably, Christmas and Easter are not holidays here, but you may still see some kind of celebrations during these periods, especially among Vietnam’s large Catholic community.
|Holidays and Festivals||Dates|
|New Year’s Day||January 1|
|Tet (Lunar New Year)||Varies by year, usually in January or February|
|Tet Eve (Lunar New Year’s Eve)||Varies by year|
|Hung Kings Festival||April 2|
|Reunification Day||April 30|
|Labour Day||May 1|
|Vietnamese Independence Day||September 2|
Where to Go On Your Vietnam Motorbike Ride
As mentioned above, picking the right time of year to travel has a lot to do with what part of Vietnam you want to see. If you’re planning a longer ride, you may have to compromise a bit on the weather. The country can be pretty different from area to area, so we need to explore that. Below you’ll find an overview of what to expect in the different regions of the country.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Northern Vietnam
Let’s start in the North of Vietnam, home to the capital city of Ha Noi, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay and the mountain resort of Sa Pa. The lesser-known mountain regions of northern Vietnam offer some of the most impressive landscapes you could ever imagine riding a bike through.
Roads through steep mountain passes surrounded by terraced rice farming and goat-track-like trails for the more adventurous are on offer in these mountains. Many of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam call these northern mountains their homes so a motorbike ride here can offer not only magnificent scenery but also a different cultural experience from what you will find in the more populous lowland regions of Vietnam.
Must-see areas include the tourist mecca of Sa Pa; Ha Giang, arguably the motorbike riding capital of the Northern Mountains; Ban Gioc Waterfall in Cao Bang, which straddles the border with China; and Vietnam’s largest freshwater lake, Ba Be, where you may get the unique experience of loading your bike onto a sampan to ferry it and yourself across the lake.
Further south in these mountains you have the old French base of Dien Bien Phu where the invading French Paratroopers made their last stand against the victorious Vietnamese Forces in 1954 and Moc Chau, one of the closer mountain regions to Hanoi.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Hanoi and the Red River Delta
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is located in the Red River Delta, and as the name suggests the delta is a very flat region. With a population of nearly 8 million people, the city is generally not great for motorbiking due to the heavy traffic. It is a beautiful city full of history, culture and excellent food and definitely worth a visit, but can be unpleasant to ride a motorbike in Vietnam. We suggest parking up at a hostel or guest house and using other transport for your stay. Grab (like Uber), taxis or motorcycle taxis are readily available and extraordinarily cheap.
Outside of Hanoi, the delta is heavily populated. As with everywhere in Vietnam, if you ride your motorbike off the beaten track onto the smaller roads through the villages the scenery and culture can be fantastic, but along with most of the coastal areas, the delta regions won’t offer the thrilling rides of the twists and turns available in the mountains.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Other northern areas
South of Hanoi but still in the north of Vietnam you have the ancient capital of Ninh Binh with its beautiful waterways and ancient temples. The limestone karst mountains of the region make it one of the most beautiful areas in Northern Vietnam. Outside of the small karst area surrounding Ninh Binh, the riding is not spectacular but it is reasonably close to the more mountainous Cuc Phuong National Park.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is one of the most famous attractions in Northern Vietnam, and a breathtaking display of steep karst mountains rising dramatically out of the sea. Unfortunately, as this is located in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin you may have severe difficulties riding a motorbike there!
The roads from Hanoi to the port town of Ha Long City are also heavily plied by tourist buses, private cars and transport trucks going to and from the ports on the coast, meaning that it leaves a lot to be desired as a destination for a motorbike ride in Vietnam. You could take a trip through the mountainous areas of Lang Son then work your way south to Ha Long city, but this area is heavily travelled as a valuable overland trade route to China. You’d be competing for road space with trucks the whole way there, and Vietnamese truck drivers have a maniacal, seemingly homicidal streak to them.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Central Vietnam
Central Vietnam has outstanding motorbike riding opportunities, as well as some of Vietnam’s most visited tourist areas. They’re well visited for a reason, and Onyabike Adventures is pleased to call this area home.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Phong Nha/Ke Bang
The northern central region, specifically Quang Binh province, is home to Phong Nha /Ke Bang National Park where the world’s largest cave was discovered in 2009. The park also boasts several other lesser-known caves that are outstanding in their own right. This is another area that has been blessed with magnificent karst mountains. The Ho Chi Minh Highway West passes through the park and provides some of the best motorbike rides that you can get in Vietnam; it’s unquestionably one of the best stretches of road in Central Vietnam. But there’s stiff competition everywhere in the region.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Danang and the Hai Van Pass
The famous Hai Van Pass is also located in Central Vietnam on the road between Hue — the Capital prior to 1945 — and Da Nang — coastal city and home of Onyabike Adventures. As Jeremy Clarkson said of the Hai Van Pass in the 2007 Top Gear: Vietnam Special “…a deserted ribbon of perfection. One of the best coast roads in the world.” So is it right for a motorbike ride in Vietnam? “Absolutely” barely scratches the surface.
We’ve covered the Hai Van Pass in much greater detail in an article here. As far as bang for the buck goes, this is one of the best roads anywhere.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Trail through this part of Central Vietnam is, in our opinion, equally as spectacular as the Hai Van Pass. If we had to pick a motorbike ride in Vietnam, it would come down to the amount of time we had available.
The Annamite mountains make the spine that creates the border with Laos and Cambodia. It is through this nearly deserted, heavily forested, wild region that the Ho Chi Minh Highway runs. As with border regions throughout the world, sections of this area can sometimes be off-limits to tourists so check to make sure the route you plan to ride isn’t affected by any restrictions.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Central Highlands
Fortunately — we just can’t get enough of this road — the Ho Chi Minh Highway carries on for some distance before it plateaus out into the Central Highlands. These high mountain plains are the largest coffee producing area in Vietnam and though the motorbike ride is, for the most part, flat and straight, the people are fantastic and with careful planning, you can still find an interesting route through the region.
Fun fact: Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil. Much of it is grown here. If you’re a coffee aficionado, you may fall in love with this part of Vietnam.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Coastal Plains
If you don’t want to see the inland central highlands, you could travel along the coastal plains, stopping to enjoy beachside seafood lunches and hanging out at the beach. Nearly all of the most popular tourist destinations — such as the ancient city of Hoi An — are located in these coastal flatlands. A much more populous area with more traffic, we would recommend that you try to stay off the major highways and stick to smaller roads if you choose to ride in this region.
These coastal plains are dotted with minor mountain passes along the way, although nothing to compare to the Hai Van Pass or the riding that you will find in the mountains of the North or Center. There is, of course, the option to mix between the two and travel the mountain passes into and out of the higher altitudes allowing you to take in some of the best of both worlds.
Vietnam Motorbike Ride: Riding around Dalat
Not far from the southern end of the Central Highlands is the city of Da Lat Due to the more temperate climate of this region, Da Lat was a hilltop retreat during French colonial times. Known as the Honeymoon Capital of Vietnam due to the booming flower trade, the fresh fruit and vegetables grown in the area are considered by many to be the best in Vietnam.
Da Lat’s countryside features rolling hills crisscrossed with off-road tracks through the pine forests that skirt around farmers’ fields. Nestled high in the mountains of southern Vietnam, Da Lat can be a great place to visit if you are looking to escape the summer heat. Check out our article here with greater detail on Da Lat’s great routes and highlights. And yes, like anywhere else we’ve written about, it offers spectacular motorbike riding opportunities.
Southern Vietnam: Mekong Delta
The area south of Da Lat is firmly in Southern Vietnam, though it is not as well known to motorbike riders, it is still possible to enjoy riding in the south. Probably the most famous area of Southern Vietnam is the Mekong Delta, a vast network of waterways where the famous river branches out as it approach the sea.
Though it is known for boat travel and floating markets, it can be very enjoyable riding through the small lanes that wind along, following tributaries of the river, crossing on narrow bridges or smaller motorbike ferries. As with most places, we believe that if you are going to see the Mekong Delta you may as well see it from the back of a motorbike.
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
The traffic in the south can be a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated and challenging even for the experienced. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam with more than 8.6 million people calling it home, and it can seem at times that they are all on bikes trying to share the same road that you find yourself on. The true number of inhabitants in the city is anyone’s guess, with estimates upwards of 10 million probably true.
The population density of Southern Vietnam means that you may have a difficult time finding quieter roads, but as with anywhere, taking less direct routes can sometimes help to alleviate the traffic pressure.
Are there mountains in the south?
While the vast majority of Southern Vietnam is flat, there are a few exceptions. Heading up toward Da Lat will have you climbing through beautiful mountain passes and there are some areas along the coast where the highlands come to meet the sea, like near Mui Ne.
There are also some smaller mountains, or larger hills if you prefer near Vung Tau on the coast east of Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. The coastal road heading northeast from Vung Tau also offers some nice motorbike riding along the seashore if you’re keen for some beach time.
Planning your route
Maps and other resources
Once you have decided where and when you’ll be visiting on your motorbike ride through Vietnam, the next task is to plan a route for your ride.
Using online resources such as Google maps and Google Earth can give you a basic idea of where the roads go, and a keen eye for satellite information can sometimes offer you a lead
as to where there may be more exciting off-road tracks for the more adventurous. We should point out that there is no one solid choice for online maps that can be trusted to be 100% fully accurate all the time.
It’s not uncommon in more rural areas for the “roads” marked on maps to be little more than small tracks, and often you will find roads that exist on no maps at all. You can check the satellite view of more roads marked on maps to try to pick out anything suspicious looking, though sometimes the satellite photos may be out of date.
Online communities such as the Facebook group Vietnam Back Roads could also be a valuable resource for picking routes or getting recent information about routes and riding conditions.
How many Kilometres can I ride in a day?
One of the most important factors to take into account when planning a motorbike ride in Vietnam is how far you’ll be able to travel in a day. Circumstances like road conditions, your bike, weather, or a host of other factors can combine to influence your maximum distance.
As a rule, you’ll nearly always be able to ride less than you are comfortable riding in your own country due to the traffic and road conditions. When trying to plan your distances there is no substitute for local knowledge, and if you choose not to book with a tour company, you may need to rely heavily on online resources.
Don’t overdo it
A loose guideline you can use if you are riding a smaller motorbike would be to try to limit yourself to travelling less than 200 kilometres per day due to limitations of the bike. Even on a larger bike, you may not be able to comfortably cover much more than that some days. You may find that it is better to travel for less time some days so you can enjoy the scenery and not be too rushed.
If you get a bike that’s made more for city riding, you may find that your rear end is truly sore after just a few hours. That’s a major consideration — believe us.
If you plan on taking routes that are less well-travelled or truly off the beaten track, it’s probably best to try to get as early a start as you can on them, even if this means breaking up into two days what may seem possible to ride in one.
Of course, this is just a general guideline. If you plan to stop off for a swim, have a long lunch or love to stop often for photos you will need to take that into account as well. Even with the larger bikes that we use on tour we rarely push for more than 300 kilometres a day.
Expect the unexpected
Another good reason to try not to overestimate the distance you will be travelling is the unpredictable nature of a motorbike ride in Vietnam.
Leaving yourself time to deal with unexpected breakdowns, inclement weather, or roads that are not as well maintained as you would hope can save you from the stress of being too far behind schedule. As we all know, flat tires happen to even the best-maintained bikes and simple repairs sometimes take much longer than expected, especially on unfamiliar bikes and with language barriers.
It’s nice to have the time to sit in a coffee shop and wait out a rainstorm without feeling the pressure of time constraints or to slowly pick your way through a particularly bad section of road and not need to keep checking if you’re on schedule.
Consequently, budget more time than you think you’ll need for a trip. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll have more time to relax. That’s way better than stressing about needing to be somewhere, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam after the sun goes down
When planning your route, keep in mind the danger of going on a motorbike ride in the dark in Vietnam. After the sun goes down the possibility of accidents happening goes up dramatically, from animals on the road — not uncommon in Vietnam — to vehicles without lights or even unseen road hazards. Trucks and buses tend to drive faster at night as well due to the decreased traffic. You do not want to become a meat crayon on the road after being hit by one of those.
The dangers that you face when driving after sundown can rapidly multiply. The very real possibility that you may lose your way, miss an important turn or somehow get turned around also is much higher when trying to navigate in the dark. At Onyabike Adventures, we always do our absolute best to be sure that we are not still out riding after the sun sets and would highly recommend this practice to all motorbike riders in Vietnam, especially in the countryside.
Do note also that the sun goes down in Vietnam faster and earlier than in more northern latitudes. Usually, things get dark by 6 pm no matter the season. This is in stark contrast to summer in northern latitudes, when the sun can be shining long into the evening.
For some, a Vietnam motorbike ride will be just a means of transportation, from highlight to highlight, while others will consider the riding to be the only highlight they care about. Even for the most hardcore of riders though, planning a rest day — or more than one, depending on how long your trip will be — may be a welcome idea.
A chance to see local sites of interest or to catch up on the culture may not be high on your priority list, but even if that’s not your thing you’ll probably enjoy the riding all the more after a day off the bike.
And hey, when you do have a day off, you’ll need a place to sleep, which brings us to hotels.
There are plenty of accommodation options available in Vietnam from a cheap $10USD per night nhà nghỉ, which means guesthouse or motel, to world-class luxury resorts in the $1000USD per night range. As is often the case, you can count on getting what you pay for when it comes to hotels.
In more popular tourist areas, around $30USD per night will normally get you a decent to a very nice room, while in less travelled areas you can often find much better deals. It’s not unheard of to have a very pleasant room for $15USD.
A recent boom in mid-range boutique hotels — often labelled as homestays — means that you will most likely be spoiled for choice in popular areas. There are more traditional homestays available in Vietnam as well: places where you can stay in the home of a local family. Many people find these to be quite charming but we tend to try to avoid them as they can sometimes feel awkward and are often not very comfortable. Also, many locals go to bed and get up very early, which can throw off an established sleep schedule.
In more remote areas, your best available option may be below your standards, but we consider this a worthwhile trade-off to be able to ride some of the best roads in Vietnam. In many remote areas, booking ahead can be difficult. But in larger towns, it’s very doable.
Where to spend the night when travelling can sometimes be an easy matter of looking online. In Vietnam, this will normally work for the more popular areas, but may not be available when riding a motorbike off the beaten track.
We highly recommend booking directly with local hotels as popular booking websites are predatory and can destroy local businesses. They take a huge chunk of commission that may be the profit margin the business would earn. Whenever possible, contact the hotel directly. In major cities, most are available by email or social media. In small towns, it’s better to just walk in.
When travelling by motorbike it can be much more difficult than just picking the place you want to stay. As we mentioned above, distances travelled will often be dictated by the unique conditions of Vietnam and this can sometimes leave you at a loss when looking for suitable hotels. You may have to amend your travel plans to shorten distances travelled or to stretch them out so you can arrive somewhere suitable to spend the evening, as not every village or town will have a hotel.
Hotels off of the Tourist Trail
When looking for hotels in areas that are not covered by online booking sites we sometimes zoom in on Google maps to see what businesses are marked. Often these will include photos so you can get some kind of an idea of what the place looks like, as well as contact info, though not necessarily any that could be used by non-Vietnamese speakers.
The obvious flaws here are that the photos may be misleading and there is unlikely to be any way of pre-booking at many of smaller or more remote hotels. One way to get around this is to try to plan your night’s stay in a village or town with options for more than one hotel or guesthouse.
If you are unable to book ahead, staying somewhere with multiple options for accommodation will mean that you can be more confident in getting a room. You may even be able to choose among the available options for the one that suits you best. Checking online forums or route-specific travel sites for any information about the town where you plan on staying can give you a better understanding of what is available and what to expect.
Surprisingly, not every hotel in Vietnam offers secure motorbike parking. In more remote areas, where there is less tourism or pleasure riding it is more common to have parking as many of the businesses there are catering to those who are passing through. Conversely, in the more popular areas, many of the hotels will not be able to provide secure parking, though the threat of theft may be higher in these areas.
Luckily, many hotels in the more travelled areas will provide parking information to online booking sites, or may at least be able to answer emailed questions written in English. Many hotels have the practice of placing motorbikes indoors overnight. Motorbike theft is a real threat in Vietnam so being sure that your ride is secured for the night can really help to relax you at the end of a long day’s ride. Though that relaxation can be interrupted…
Too noisy to sleep
Whether booking online or rocking up to a hotel without a reservation, there are a few things to look out for. Karaoke is common in Vietnam and often hotels will have noisy karaoke rooms attached to serve guests who enjoy belting out their off-key rendition of the hits. This will often be advertised with online booking sites and will normally be obvious to anyone looking out for it on arrival.
The amount of comparisons one can make with the terrible singers is unlimited, but it usually sounds like a cross between a catfight and a war zone.
In larger and more upscale hotels it is normally possible to get a quiet room away from the karaoke, but it is something to be aware of when making plans for a quiet night at the end of a long day.
Also, be aware of karaoke or bars next door to the hotel as you arrive. Getting a room on the side of the building away from these establishments will often be the difference between lying awake until they shut — normally around midnight — or getting to sleep on your own schedule.
Another annoyance can be loud-speakers located on the street will start announcing morning news around 5:00 am. Keep an eye open for these speakers as they can often be quite loud if located near your hotel.
Massage parlour problems
The idea of having a Spa or massage shop attached to the hotel can be quite appealing: Nothing beats a good relaxing massage after a long day’s motorbike riding, especially in Vietnam where you know you can get a massage just about anywhere and most Hotels cater for this for guests.
Unfortunately, sometimes these are less about the massage and more about the massage girls. They are easily avoided by not partaking of a massage in a questionable place, but we feel we need to stress that many massage parlours will offer a very nice, above-board massage. Look out for how the staff are dressed as this can be an indication of the priorities of the establishment, and trust your instincts. If it seems dodgy, it may be better to give it a miss.
Hourly or 1giờ hotel or motels is another thing to be wary of, as they offer the same kind of service in Vietnam that they are known for around the world.
A clean place can make for a huge morale boost, whereas a dump can do the opposite. Checking the online ratings can give you an idea of what others have found with potential places to stay, and where that is not available try to get a preview of the room before checking in. A quick look through will give you an idea of the cleanliness of linens and bathrooms, as well as the security of the room.
It is also worthwhile to do a simple precursory check for bed bugs. Though they’re not a serious problem in Vietnam, checking is better than getting bed bugs. The condition of the hotel lobby can sometimes tell you a lot about the overall cleanliness and maintenance of the place.
Power plugs and adapters
Most hotels in popular areas will have plug adapters available, though they may be in short supply or only available as a rental. It is advisable to travel with your own adapter even if you are not planning to get away from the tourist trail.
City Pass Guide has an in-depth article dedicated to the types of plugs as well as the voltage used in Vietnam. If reading that article, keep in mind that many smaller or older hotels will not have the type G sockets, and there really is not one simple standard that could be used throughout Vietnam.
Some of the more recent higher-end hotels will also offer wall-mounted USB plugs, though this is still quite rare outside of these establishments. When travelling in more rural areas it is likely that the hotels and guesthouses will not have adapters to lend out to guests.
Is wifi available?
Wifi is, for the most part, free of charge in Vietnam. Whether you are in a hotel, a coffee shop or restaurant, you will only need to ask for the password. Some international hotel chains have overriding policies that mean they are not able to offer free wifi. If staying at a larger chain hotel it may be advisable to check on the wifi policy. Smaller or more remote hotels may not have any wifi connection at all, but this is becoming more of an exception than a rule.
Many travelers in Vietnam are surprised at the ubiquity and quality of the wifi here. It’s really surprisingly good. Additionally, a 3G package on your phone purchased for around $4 will last you a month and will cover a good portion of the country.
Many hotels in Vietnam will ask you to leave your passport at reception. This is standard practice, and you’ve just got to get used to it. Hotels are required to submit information to the local police and may face punishment if they don’t.
The law does not say that the hotels need to keep your passport — though many have a policy of keeping them — other hotels will quickly write down the information needed then hand back your passport or make a quick photocopy of the pages needed. If you are concerned about leaving your passport with the hotel you could carry copies of your passport for them, though it might be a struggle to get some hotels to accept this.
If you’re traveling long-distance in Vietnam and you don’t want to ride your motorbike all that way, there are other options, like those we’ll explore below.
Shipping your bike ahead
Get this: In Vietnam, you can send your motorbike by train or truck to your next destination. It’s cheap, too. Pretty nifty, right?
If you decide not to ride through an area for whatever reason — because it’s too far, the drive would be a bore, or you don’t have the time — you can send the bike ahead and find another means of travel— by bus, by train or flying — to meet the bike at its destination. This will only be possible if you have the registration for the bike, though it may not need to be registered in your name.
The simplest way to do this is to go to the local bus depot. These will be easy to find in major cities, and in smaller towns, you can ask reception at your lodging. Sending a bike by bus is an established practice in Vietnam and you shouldn’t be overly concerned about it. For reference, sending a motorbike from Saigon to Da Nang costs around $15, and then you don’t have to ride the 24 plus hours it may take. You go to the bus stop, tell them where you want it sent, take a ticket, and pick it up at your destination.
Shipping by truck
Though we know for certain that it is possible to send bikes by truck, it may be difficult for an individual to sort this out on his own at a reasonable price. Getting your bike into a truck that is already scheduled to go will make this much more affordable than renting an entire truck for one or two bikes.
If riding in a larger group you may be able to find a truck that will fit all of your bikes comfortably. Spreading the cost of one truck between several people will make it more budget-friendly. In either case, to do this you will most likely need the help of someone who is fluent in Vietnamese.
Shipping by train
The train is a much easier and more common option for sending motorbikes between riding destinations. This is normally quite simple: take your bike to the train station, find the freight office, hope someone speaks good enough English or that you’ll be able to pantomime your way through it, pay your fee then meet the bike when it arrives at the destination. It seems so simple—what could possibly go wrong?
Ok, so it sounds more simple than it really is, but still is not that difficult if you understand the process. Remember that for nearly all routes you will not be travelling on the same train as your bike, and the bike will likely take 3 to 5 days to reach the destination. If so, you may need to break up your Vietnam motorbike ride with a few leisurely days at the beach or a similarly attractive location. What a pity.
When booking you will need to provide your name passport details, bike registration — the blue card — a phone number and possibly an address. The fuel will be drained from your bike for safety reasons — so make sure the tank is close to empty — as well as the wing mirrors and sometimes handlebars removed to make it a smaller package for transportation.
Travelling in remote areas
Most of the best motorbike ride in Vietnam is through remote areas, making it likely that you will be travelling somewhere that is far from the madding crowd.
These remote areas are often home to some of Vietnam’s poorest communities. Don’t let that dissuade you — these communities are home to some of the happiest and friendliest people that we have ever seen. Sometimes shy at the arrival of foreigners to their communities and sometimes curious, these people live difficult lives and have learned to find the joy in the small day to day victories of their lives.
Often the residents of these remote villages will be exceedingly generous, sometimes even inviting travellers to join them for refreshments. Do understand that they rarely see outsiders, and they’re offering hospitality. Communication will likely be a challenge, but a smile goes a long way. It’s up to you whether you accept or not, but politely declining can be difficult because many will be adamant about sharing. Heck, maybe you could make some new friends.
Have a drink?
We see no harm in accepting a glass of trà as tea is known in Vietnam or trà đá which is iced tea, but beware — they may be offering you rượư gạo — powerful distilled alcohol made from rice which is known in English by the misnomer rice wine. Obviously drinking any amount of alcohol and then riding a motorbike on unknown mountain roads is a bad idea, and it can be compounded by locals that may be reluctant to let you get away with only trying one glass.
If the men (and it’s always men) are already drunk, they can be pushy with the drinks and may indeed challenge you to see how much you can drink. “How many beers can you drink?” is a common question from local men. Feel free to politely decline — indicating that you have to drive is usually accepted and understood. Vietnam now has a new zero-tolerance drink driving policy that locals are well aware of, and many are now avoiding riding their motorbikes when drinking (thank goodness).
How about some food?
Food may also be offered, especially if you have arrived during mealtime. This offer may be genuine and good-natured, done in the hope that you will join them, but there is a possibility that it may be done out of politeness, in the hopes that you have the good manners to reject the offer. Usually, declining once will show you how serious they are about the offer. If they continue to insist, they mean it.
If we suspected that there was even a chance that any food being offered to us would lead to a shortage for the friendly folk offering it, we would be sure to politely refuse.
Shoes off, please
If you’re invited into the home of any Vietnamese person it is normally customary to remove your footwear as you enter. Often there will be piles of shoes and flip-flops just outside the door.
As you will likely be in socks if you do enter it may be worthwhile to mention that most Vietnamese homes have what we’ll call wet toilets. By this, we mean that there is no barrier stopping shower water from splashing all around. If you need to use these facilities there will often be a small pair of communal sandals near the entrance for you to use, allowing you to do your business while keeping your feet dry.
Ethnic Minority communities
There are officially 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam with the Kinh — which we know as Vietnamese — being the largest. Nearly all of the minority groups live in remote areas in the mountainous regions. This means that when travelling through remote areas you will likely meet with people that are ethnically and culturally unique.
Most of these minority groups speak their own languages as well as Vietnamese. These unique groups have their own festivals, foods, music, belief systems and artworks. The beautiful weavings, carvings and sometimes paintings or other local specialities can often be found for sale in the larger towns in these areas and make a great souvenir of your travels.
Sometimes these cultural beliefs or practices can seem disagreeable to western travellers. Many of these tribal people still practice animal sacrifice, rituals that may seem inhumane to western sensibilities.
These rituals will often take place during a festival with dancing and traditional music; they will most likely also be accompanied by a feast and surely plenty of local rice wine and/or beer. These festivals can be a great cultural experience as long as you are forewarned that there may be aspects of it that you might find disagreeable. But hey, you’re traveling, so loosen up and enjoy the difference. If you wanted something entirely the same you’d have stayed at home, right?
Many of these tribal groups lived for generations taking what they could from the surrounding environment and farming by what seem to us to be primitive methods. Some of these traditions carry over to this day and you will often see people farming without the use of modern equipment or techniques.
One of the most picturesque examples of this in Vietnam is the terraced rice farming that is seen primarily in the steep northern mountains, though you can find smaller examples throughout the more mountainous areas of the country. A classic motorbike ride in Sapa, Vietnam would be a fine introduction to such practices.
Weird and wild menu items
Some of the food on offer in the more remote areas can be a bit of a problem as well. Long-held hunting practices that have been streamlined by modern equipment has led to the devastation of some species of wildlife in Vietnam.
It is still possible to find some of these species such as certain types of turtles, civet cats or certain species of deer — served as delicacies throughout the country. Sometimes you may see these animals available for sale in the local markets or even just on the side of the road in more remote areas.
Another thing to watch out for is foods — especially exotic meats — that are just unappealing to the western palate and that many of us would not consider eating. Porcupine is one example. We’ve tried it — it’s ok — but pork or chicken are superior choices.
Menu items could also include things like dog, rat or monkey as well as some of the endangered animals listed above. These are normally considered delicacies and usually cost more than other meats, so the danger of unknowingly eating any of these animals is very small.
Cute pets or endangered threats?
Another threat to wildlife in Vietnam is the practice of keeping wild animals — sometimes threatened or endangered species — as pets. If you see something that seems suspicious your best bet is to notify a local animal welfare group. The chances of you seeing someone engaged in the trafficking of wild animals in Vietnam is small, but if you see something suspicious it may be worth notifying the authorities or local animal protection group so they can work to stop this practice.
On the off chance, you get bitten by some creepy crawly or eat something that doesn’t sit well with you while you’re on your Vietnam motorbike ride, you may need to visit the medical facilities. In the cities, they’re fine. Out in the sticks is a different story.
Remote medical care
Medical facilities in remote areas can be sparse and often, in our experience, below western standards. Well-meaning staff sometimes lack the needed equipment or are not up to date with the latest diagnostic and treatment techniques.
This can mean that if an accident happens in these remote areas, it is usually up to the community to deal with it. This often means getting an injured person onto a bike or into a car when available and taking them to local medical centres. Transporting injured people like this can sometimes cause more injuries just to bring them to medical centres that may not be able to deal with them.
Extra caution should always be used when travelling through more remote areas to avoid seeing medical staff. Because if you do see them, something’s gone wrong.
You will stand out
Any non-Asian traveller in Vietnam will probably notice that they get a lot of attention for the way they look. This will be more noticeable away from the cities and tourist hotspots, in areas where there is a smaller diversity of people.
If you are blond you may have people stroking your hair; if you are tall, people will line up beside you to measure how they compare. People will not hesitate to comment on anything that makes you different from what they normally see in Vietnam. This is done out of curiosity and is almost never meant to be offensive. Commenting on a friend’s weight is not seen as a problem for most Vietnamese and they may not realize that it can be a sensitive subject for foreign travellers.
Travelling with children
If you are travelling with children they may get more attention from locals than they are used to, and it can be uncomfortable for them, or for you. The locals generally mean absolutely no harm — they are just trying to show a little love — but this does not mean that it will always be ok.
There are some major cultural differences and lines could be crossed with your children that you may not be comfortable with. An old practice, for example, is for people to grab the genitals of male children. This is usually done by older people in the countryside and they do not mean any harm by it. It doesn’t mean you should let them, however.
Keeping your children close can help them to feel more comfortable with unfamiliar situations as well as giving you a chance to keep an eye on interactions that happen between them and locals.
Do bear in mind that locals’ intentions vis a vis children are overwhelmingly wholesome. Locals are usually very familiar with children as families are often large, and Vietnam is, in general, a very kid-friendly place. Young women especially get very excited about young children, especially babies and toddlers, and may pick them up without asking. Don’t worry about it too much — they’re just being sweet. In some circumstances, you could wind up with free babysitting for a little while.
Feeling like a movie star?
Children in rural and remote Vietnam are not used to seeing obviously foreign travellers, especially those riding good looking motorbikes, and will often react with typical curiosity and joy. It is not uncommon for kids in Vietnam to be playing without adult supervision and you may find yourself surrounded by a curious mob during stops in remote areas.
These kids will usually know a few very basic phrases in English and it is not uncommon to have all of them trying to practice these snippets with a native speaker. Once one child works up the courage to say “Hello,” the rest of the group will often start as well, leading to a simple conversation of a few phrases repeated with many kids.
Some motorbike ride tour operators or tourism groups in Vietnam may recommend taking candies or gifts to give to under advantaged children in poorer areas. We strongly disagree with this action as it can lead to these impressionable children expecting hand-outs from every foreigner that passes through.
If you want to give something to these communities we would say that school supplies donated to the local school, easily found in small villages, would be a better idea. Better yet would be to find a reputable charity organization that works in the area and donate to them. These organizations will normally work with the local community to be sure to provide the resources needed most.
Whether looking for off-road trails or nicely paved roads, Vietnam has a lot to offer. Motorbike riders that enjoy a cruise on a nice hard surface will be glad to hear that you can travel almost anywhere in Vietnam on paved surfaces.
The majority of roads between population centres, big or small, have been sealed, though they are maintained to varying degrees. It is possible that a sealed road that you are on will deteriorate to a point where it seems more like an offroad track but the majority of roads will be in reasonable shape. This does not mean that all paved surfaces are going to be flawless — far from it — but they should be passable.
When on a motorbike ride on any road in Vietnam remember that heavy rains or flooding could have caused damage to the road surface, or sometimes even destroyed it. You could come around a corner to find that sections of the road ahead of you were washed away in recent floods, though it’s not common.
More common would be potholes, large and small, that have not been repaired. These can sometimes happen to newer roads, or on roads that have been obstacle-free for large distances so always be aware when riding. Damage is more common in remote areas and where there is heavy industrial traffic but potholes can happen even in the centres of most modern cities.
There are plenty of opportunities for off-road riding in Vietnam as well, even in some areas near cities. Rental companies that specialize in off-road motorbikes can often help you to plan your routes, or you can head out to see what kind of adventure you can find on your own.
Online communities can be another way to find out more information about the riding available in certain areas as well. Be prepared to spend some time on sealed roads getting to or between off-road riding areas.
How’s the traffic?
Local knowledge of current road conditions can be extremely helpful, and also misleading — as we mentioned in the “Routes” section. Online communities can sometimes help you determine if a road you plan on using is normally heavily trafficked.
Google Maps also offers the ability to see what traffic is doing with colour-coded lines marking various routes through cities. This feature can be helpful when trying to navigate through busier urban areas, showing the heaviest traffic congestion but is not much use when trying to determine if a rural road is heavily travelled or nearly empty.
Road conditions and traffic congestion mean that your average safe travelling speed will be quite low. The presence of animals on the road and the habit of locals to pull out into traffic without looking should give most riders pause when considering taking their bikes up to higher speeds. Potholes, brick or sand piles and other obstructions are more common than you may think so lower speeds are often necessary on Vietnamese roads. That’s why most locals ride bikes under 150cc — many people will never go above 60 km/hr on their bikes.
What to Ride
Now you know where and when you want to go and have an idea of the route you want to take on your Vietnam motorbike ride, you can focus on what you’ll ride. Your choices on where you plan to go and what type of riding — hardcore off-road or more casual — will play a big part in choosing what type of bike will be most suitable for your trip. The other big decision will be how to get your hands on that bike: renting, buying or booking a tour.
These days there are many models of motorbikes available in the country of varying sizes and quality. Larger bikes — such as the Royal Enfields Himalayans we ride on tour — over 175CC, are far less common due to specialized licensing and registration.
The most common motorbikes to be found will be small CC step-through scooters, semi-automatic or fully automatic, although there are a few models of step-through that are xe côn or tay côn — manual motorbikes.
These step-through scooters offer the easiest option to buy and sell, are easily maintained by almost any Vietnamese mechanic and will get you from point A to point B with relative ease. Smaller engines and small frames make these bikes unattractive to many people that are doing longer distances though.
Bikes on a budget
Budget bikes, both manual and semi-auto are widely advertised in Facebook groups and on bulletin boards in budget accommodation. These bikes are nearly always in need of some service — often major repairs to make them roadworthy.
They’re easily spotted by the oversized luggage racks badly tacked on and the offer of bungee cords included. We would always be very wary of these bikes. Advertised with the blue card available normally means that it will include non-transferrable or fake registration papers as well.
Larger bore bikes are available for purchase, and your International Drivers Permit should be sufficient if you choose to ride one of these. They’re far less common and much more expensive. Finding a larger bike for sale may be more difficult than buying something smaller, but for many riders, the extra effort will be worth it.
It is still difficult to find a reputable legal compliant big bike rental company in Vietnam, do your research this option is very limited and you risk riding with non-compliance to your Travel Insurance.
Booking a tour can help
As a tour company, we may seem biased in saying that the majority of your problems will be solved by simply booking a tour. But it really is true that it takes care of most of your big worries and allows you to just enjoy the trip with a minimal amount of pre-planning. Local knowledge of routes, restaurants and hotels can save you the hassle of planning, while all-inclusive trips mean your bike, riding gear, meals, hotels and entrance fees will be covered.
Of course, we are aware that some people enjoy planning and travelling without a tour company — hence this guide — so we will give you a basic rundown of your options here and not really focus too much on the advantages of booking with a tour company.
Let’s start with the legalities that you should concern yourself with when considering your options. Vietnam does recognize some International Driving Permits though you may need to check with your country of origins licence and IDP version.
Having a license that is valid is very important for insurance purposes—most insurance companies will not honour any claim if they can prove you were driving illegally.
We have a full article on licensing and registration: check it out here.
Motorbike registration is another concern to be addressed. Buyers beware: there is no legal way in Vietnam to register a bike in your name without a temporary residence card, work permit, work contract and several other documents you are not likely to have. You can still legally ride a bike with someone else’s name on the blue card, though.
This means that buying a new bike from a dealership will be nearly impossible without these papers, or a trusted local — wife or close friend — who can buy it in their name. It should go without saying that this needs to be an extremely trustworthy individual, but due to countless stories of people being ripped-off we feel the need to emphasize that this is not always the safest course of action.
So can I buy a bike?
That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to buy a motorbike in Vietnam — many people simply buy bikes and never transfer the registration. The problem with this is if your bike is impounded — due to traffic stops or parking violation — it would be nearly impossible to retrieve the bike.
It would also cause problems if you wanted to take the bike across any international border or if you need to make insurance claims. Larger CC motorbikes and more expensive motorbikes are more likely to be checked for registration than smaller, cheaper or more common motorbikes.
We have a full article on the choice of renting or buying a bike here.
Renting: A better option?
If you are not planning an extended stay in Vietnam, renting will probably be a better option than buying. Nearly everywhere you go in Vietnam there will be local rental shops renting out overused and under-serviced step-through scooters by the day, which backpackers everywhere can be seen riding. The vast majority of these motorbikes will need to be returned to the shop where they were rented.
There is a growing trend of shops that will rent bikes — including larger bore bikes — with the option of returning them in other cities. Finding one of these shops online and booking a bike for the duration of your trip can help to streamline things on your arrival, but be careful the majority are not fully compliant, do your research.
Best motorbikes to rent in Vietnam
The most practical bikes widely available for rental in Vietnam will be the Royal Enfield Himalayan, XR150, KLX150, and the CRF250 due to their versatility. Able to handle on and off-road conditions, many of these bikes will come ready for adventure riding, with panniers and luggage racks all ready to go.
The XR150, in particular, is becoming a lot more common in Vietnam, meaning that it may be easier to find mechanics able to service the bike. The drawback on the 150s is that they may be a bit underpowered for pillion riding, especially if you are carrying the extra weight of luggage. The suspension on these smaller motorbikes is also something to consider if you plan on riding with a pillion.
Are there legal problems with renting in Vietnam?
Something else to consider is that most of the small local operators and some of the larger countrywide rental companies struggle to keep things legal and above board. Some of the bikes available will not be properly imported, other companies may not be licensed and most will not be licensed to rent to foreigners. These can all lead to troubles with insurance companies or local police.
Some companies will want to hold your passport as a deposit against the bike that you are renting. For companies operating outside the law, this is an insurance that you will bring the bike back as they would be reluctant to go to the authorities to report bikes not returned. This is most commonly done by companies that only offer day rentals as larger operators know that you will need your passport with you when travelling.
Whether renting or buying it is a good idea to take a look for what bikes are most available and what seems rarer. A BMW 1200GS motorbike ride through Vietnam might be a great way to get around, but there are virtually none of them on the road here. Spare parts — and capable mechanics — will be extremely hard to source for many bikes here.
What to Bring on Your Vietnam Motorbike Ride
So your Vietnam motorbike ride is planned and it is time to pack… but what to bring? Obviously, you will need your toothbrush and clean underwear and all the regular items you would take for any trip so we will skip most of that stuff. Instead, we will try to focus on the items related directly to motorbike trips. With that said, let’s start with the basics.
Your clothes that you plan to bring can be broken down into two main groups: riding wear and off the motorbike wear. We won’t talk too much about what to wear when you are off the bike — we are not here to be your fashion consultants after all. Some Vietnamese temples that you may want to visit will have dress codes — knees and shoulders covered — so be sure to bring appropriate clothing for these visits.
The time of year and weather that you expect to encounter will play a large part in what clothes you bring. Being prepared for any climate can give you greater mobility when travelling between sun-soaked coastal areas and more temperate mountain regions. The ability to take a layer off or add another layer should keep you comfortable in whatever conditions you find yourself in.
You should plan to wear any protective gear that you would wear when riding at home, maybe even consider wearing a bit more. Scrapes and bruises that are easy convalesce in the comfort of your own home can really be a downer on what should be an enjoyable vacation.
Bringing a full leather Moto-GP suit is probably not necessary, but we would say that abrasion-resistant fabrics and some light armour would do the job nicely. There is limited motorbike riding gear available in Vietnam but when you weigh out the costs and availability you will probably find that it is easier to bring what you need.
Your most important piece of gear will be your helmet, and we would recommend bringing your helmet from home. The law in Vietnam states that it is mandatory to wear a helmet but seems to be vague about quality. Because of this, the majority of helmets available in Vietnam are generally well below the safety standards that most of us are accustomed to — often little more than a cheap piece of plastic.
There are a small number of shops in the larger cities that will sell imported helmets and a small amount of locally manufactured helmets that meet international standards. However, bringing your own helmet is the easiest way to ensure comfort while keeping your head safe.
When it comes to which type of helmet people wear there are vast differences in preference. We aren’t here to tell you you’re wrong for liking skull caps or that you’re not cool if you wear a Shoei racing helmet on your step-through. We will point out some reasons that we prefer dual-sport helmets for our adventure trips in Vietnam though, and proper protection is the most important reason.
Yes, it’s true that it can be hot wearing a dual-sport helmet while you try to slug your way through city traffic, but when that first drop of rain hits your cheek and you flip down your face-shield it will all seem worth it. The wider opening for your face and good vents, coupled with full coverage when the face-shield is down, gives the best compromise with maximum protection.
It’s been our experience that even the most strident opponents of helmets will often reconsider when confronted by Vietnamese traffic. If you are going to wear a helmet be sure that the one you choose is going to offer adequate protection. We can think of nothing worse than ending up in hospital on our vacation because we compromised on safety while knowing there were better options available.
Another advantage of the dual-sport helmet is that the wider facial opening usually gives you more room for glasses or goggles. Many of these helmets will come with removable sun-visors as well as a face-shield. Protecting your eyes from the sun, rain and insects while riding should be fairly high on your priority list.
It pays to be extremely cautious when purchasing sunglasses in Vietnam. There are far more fake sunglasses available here then there are real ones. This may not seem like a big deal but fakes usually don’t offer any kind of UV protection, while at the same time the shade provided will encourage you to open your eyes wider, meaning that more damage can be done.
Additionally, few if any of the sunglasses available in Vietnam will be shatter-resistant, and the same may be said for some of the cheaper helmet visors or face-shields that you may find in Vietnam. Some of the cheapest helmets available here are not even shatter-resistant plastic so it is a big ask to expect the face-shield to be.
Protecting your eyes from the sun is important, but not the only consideration. Dust and insects can also damage your eyes so if you only have heavily tinted eyewear you may have difficulties keeping your eyes safe in low light conditions. Bringing a pair of clear glasses or goggles can help to keep you safe on the road during low light riding conditions.
With the heat in the country, a riding jacket may seem like something that will be uncomfortable and this may be the case if your jacket is designed solely for cool weather. We wear our riding jackets on every motorbike ride in Vietnam over a couple of kilometers and find that as long as you are moving the movement of air helps to keep cool.
It also helps that we have jackets with removable liners and/or good vents designed for maximum air-flow. A suit of mesh motorbike riding armour may be a good alternative to a full jacket if you are looking for protection with maximum airflow. Knowing the dangers of riding in Vietnam we are happy to trade the occasional uncomfortable moment in exchange for the protection offered by an armoured riding jacket.
Many locals, tourists, and some foreign expats ride with nothing more than a pair of flip-flops on their feet, leaving them open to some horrific injuries.
Even a pair of tennis shoes would be a better idea but we like to know our feet are safe in our riding boots. Either knee-high off-road boots or above the ankle soft leather work; better protection for your feet can be the difference between an enjoyable holiday and an extended stay in hospital. As with all proper riding gear, the availability of boots in Vietnam is very limited so find room in your luggage for your favourite pair of boots.
A pair of water-resistant riding boots will often be the difference between an enjoyable experience and a miserable day on the bike. Almost none of the motorbike riding boots available on the Vietnamese market are 100% waterproof, so we have even gone so far at times as to wear rubber “wellington” boots on trips in the wet season.
Protect your lower body
Some protection for your knees and legs should also be something you consider bringing. Riding in shorts may help to keep you cool but between the risk of sunburn and the possibility of accidents, we recommend against it.
Several times we have seen low-speed wipe-outs that ended with nasty road-rash. A simple pair of long trousers would put at least a layer of cloth between the skin and the road — better than nothing — but we suggest considering kevlar reinforcement. Companies such as Draggin Jeans offer kevlar and other abrasion-resistant fabrics as well as pockets designed to take armoured inserts. Though they may seem expensive, we think the price is worth the peace of mind.
Gloves are maybe only second to helmets in terms of protection. Think of all the things that you do with your hands — yes, all of them — then imagine needing someone to do those things for you. Our most common reaction when falling — from a motorbike or barstool or even just while walking — is to get our hands out to break our fall. Whether you like fingerless mesh gloves or full leather armoured protection, you won’t regret throwing your gloves into your luggage.
Another option is bringing riding armour that you wear over your clothes, such as meshed vests and elbow or knee guards. Light-weight and removable you can choose to wear full armour or any combination of pieces that you think will suit the days riding.
Staying dry while riding in Vietnam
Another piece of outer-wear we would recommend bringing is your wet weather riding gear. With Vietnam experiencing monsoon conditions part of the year there is an abundance of rain ponchos and some two-piece rain suits available to buy here. This gear is often of low quality and sizes may not be suitable for even average-sized western travellers.
Bringing your own rain gear will assure that you have something of quality that fits comfortably if you get caught out in a bit of rain. We love to run tours without having to resort to the rain gear, but we are always thankful that we are carrying good quality gear if the skies decide to open up a bit.
First aid kit
An important item to carry with you will be some form of first aid kit. A full paramedic’s shoulder back might be nice to have but probably not worth the hassle involved in transporting. A small well-stocked first aid kit — easily stocked or replenished in Vietnamese pharmacies — is probably all that you will need on your trip.
The most common injuries will be small cuts, scrapes, and road rashes. Cleaning these small wounds and keeping them clean should be a priority, along with stopping any bleeding. A bottle of sterilized water, some kind of iodine cleaning solution, and sterilized gauze should be adequate. Consider carrying tensor bandages which will make it easier to keep pressure on any kind of wound, as well as helping to immobilize sprains and such.
For more severe injuries, consider some larger absorbent dressings and possibly a rigid splint. The likelihood of needing these is small but as clichéd as it sounds, it is far better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
A key element of a good first aid kit often overlooked is personal protection. At a minimum, a pair of gloves and goggles or glasses should be carried to protect yourself if you are treating an injured person. Another handy item is a pocket mask to protect yourself if administering emergency assisted breathing — mouth-to-mouth breathing.
It should go without saying that it is better to stock up on any prescription medication before travelling and carry a note from your doctor detailing what has been prescribed. Having a comprehensive list of generic drug names and dosages can be extremely helpful if you find yourself needing to restock in Vietnam.
It is unlikely that you will be asked by the authorities to produce relevant paperwork for your prescription medication but still may want to have it on hand in case such a thing does occur.
Other medications — over the counter medicines that you may want to bring are things like sunburn cream, upset stomach, cold and flu, and headache medicines. We have already covered the lack of sunscreen available in Vietnam so remember that as well. The convenience of carrying some of these over the counter medicines with you cannot be overstated.
Pharmacies in Vietnam
Pharmacies in Vietnam are called different names depending on the region, but nearly all of them will have the words thuốc tây — meaning western medicine — in the name. There is a problem in Vietnam with counterfeit medicine as well as outdated medicines being sold. We would recommend looking for the pharmacies that are adjacent to hospitals and keeping an eye on the expiration date of anything purchased.
Many medicines that are prescription-only in western countries are available over the counter in Vietnam, and pharmacists will also work to help provide medicines if you can describe your symptoms. This system can work very well but comes with risks. Googling the medicine provided from pharmacies can give you an understanding of what you have been given; sometimes the medicine provided may not be something you are willing to take.
Seeking the advice of a doctor for any kind of serious injury or sickness is going to be far better than trusting the limited knowledge of a pharmacist. Any unknown medicines can still be researched online if you are curious about what you have been given. Sending an email to your family doctor is another way to reassure yourself of any medical care given in Vietnam, while also making them aware of any treatments that may be needed when you return home.
Antibiotics are given by both doctors and pharmacists far more often than needed in Vietnam. If in doubt it may help to question whether the antibiotics are necessary. We have had doctors and pharmacists both change their minds about giving penicillin when asked if it was really a necessity.
Should I bring my tools?
Bringing some simple tools to help with maintenance is a good idea, but there is no need to get carried away. Most of what you will need is available in local markets in Vietnam so there is no need to weigh down your luggage with sets of spanners/wrenches and hammers.
What Luggage to Bring On Your Vietnam Motorbike Ride
The hardest part of packing for any trip is deciding how much to bring. Trying to keep your luggage to a minimum while ensuring you will have everything you need on the trip becomes much harder when you start to look at all the additional things that you should bring for a motorbike ride in Vietnam. We will share some helpful tips to hopefully make your life a little easier when deciding how much luggage is too much.
How much luggage is too much
Airlines will dictate the upper limit of how much luggage you can bring by limiting total weight along with the number and size of bags allowed. If your plan is to bring the maximum allowed it is important to check with all airlines that you will be using for domestic flights. These flights will often have a much smaller limit on baggage allowances.
The upper limit allowed by airlines—especially on international flights—is normally going to be more that is comfortable to travel with, particularly if you will ride by motorbike in Vietnam. So the real upper limit of how much luggage you can bring would seem to depend heavily on how much you can carry on your bike, right? Yes and no. We will try to cover all your luggage-related worries in the coming sections.
When you are doing a multi-day trip you are going to want to bring some of your stuff with you on the trip. If your Vietnam motorbike ride is only one or two nights you may be able to comfortably carry it in a backpack as you ride, but on longer trips, you will most likely want to carry it on the bike. How you carry this luggage can sometimes mean the difference between an enjoyable ride or a miserable fight with the bike.
Most of us remember the first time we rode with a heavy pillion passenger and the feeling of being off-balance that extra weight gave the bike. This same problem can arise if you don’t have a good system for carrying your luggage with you on your trip.
Luggage racks vs Panniers
The most common modification to bikes in Vietnam is the addition of racks for carrying various goods. This is true of motorbike tourism as well, with many of the bikes that are repeatedly bashed up and down the country having a luggage rack — often oversized — attached above the rear fender.
These rear luggage racks are not necessarily a bad idea. However, the majority of them seem to be designed to take far more weight than they should. It is a common sight in Vietnam to see a small motorbike carrying two people and behind the pillion, a rack as big as the seat overloaded with all their luggage. This will not only strain the rear suspension, but it also reduces weight transfer to the front tire — both of which will decrease handling on the ride.
A much better option — and the one we use on tour — is to have a set of panniers/saddlebags for the majority of the weight with a smaller rack for light luggage above the rear fender. Keeping the weight near the rear tire will substantially help to keep the handling of the bike closer to optimal. Panniers will give you the ability to balance the weight left to right as well as keeping that weight lower to the ground.
Whether you are looking to rent, buy, or book a tour, knowing in advance how much your bike will be able to carry and how it will be carried can help you make the decisions about how much you bring with you on your trip.
Keeping your luggage dry
Dry clothes at the end of a wet day riding should not be considered a luxury. How do we keep our luggage dry on the bike? The best way that we have found is to use dry bags carried in water-resistant panniers. This double protection will normally ensure that you can end a wet day with dry clothes. Plastic bags or raincoats wrapped around your luggage can help for a brief shower but really wet days will definitely soak right through.
One thing to watch out for when using dry bags is internal condensation. Damp clothes inside of these bags can steam up all your dry items if the bag is left out in the sun. Carrying a smaller bag for wet or dirty clothes inside the dry bag will normally keep the moisture and smell away from your clean dry clothes.
Leave some luggage behind
When you arrive in Vietnam and unpack all the motorbike riding gear you will be wearing as you ride you will most likely end up with an extra piece of luggage that is not necessary to bring. Most hotels will be happy to hold onto this for you while you are out on the road. It may be a good idea — if you are planning to leave it for an extended period of time — to check beforehand with the hotel that they will be able to hold it for you.
In many train stations and airports around the world, there are luggage lockers available for use. In Vietnam, this is not a reliable option. There are lockers in most airports that can be hired for a fee but the airports are not usually located in a convenient place for quick access. Luggage lockers in the train stations are far more hit and miss, with lockers available in Hanoi but not in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
If you do choose to leave behind any luggage be sure that you are not leaving valuables in the luggage. Nowhere that will store your luggage will accept responsibility for valuables that are left in the luggage. This should go without saying but every year thousands of tourists around the world make this mistake and lose valuable items.
Shipping your luggage ahead
When we run our tours from one destination to another we use our local contacts to send our customers’ luggage to their final destination, making it much easier to carry the essentials on the bike with us during the tour. Our local connections make this quite easy for us, but it may not be as easy for an independent traveller.
There are a few companies that specialize in shipping and storing goods for foreigners. This can be an expensive option but the convenience of dealing with an English speaker may be worth it. Another advantage of using a dedicated shipping company might be that they will have dedicated storage to hold your luggage until you catch up with it, be sure to ask about this when booking.
Another common way to send luggage ahead is by bus. Most bus ticketing agents will be able to speak some English, though this may only be enough to sell you a bus ticket. Shipping luggage to be held until your arrival may be beyond the understanding of some agents. That said, this is a common way for travellers to send luggage in Vietnam and will most likely be cheaper than a dedicated shipping company.
Sending your luggage by train may be your best bet. The shipping companies at the station will be very experienced in shipping, and will normally have storage space for any parcels that are sent. There may be some barriers with the language but as this is a straight forward transaction you will most likely be able to get by with relatively little fuss.
Don’t forget to pack the…
When it comes down to the last minute and you are locking your front door with your ride to the airport ready and waiting, most of us experience a moment of panic for all the things that we are sure that we have forgotten. There are plenty of general lists available all over the internet for the general things not to forget, we will focus more on the motorbike-trip-specific or Vietnam- specific items that are easily overlooked.
If you are not accustomed to international travel, forgetting power adapters can be an easy mistake to make. Remember to do your research and to check your devices as the power in Vietnam — 220V — may be different from your home country.
Another easily overlooked item not to forget is your medical/first aid kit. Many people don’t normally bring this with them on holiday so when packing it may be something that is overlooked.
Riding gear is probably not something that will be overlooked if your primary purpose is a motorbike ride in Vietnam. If you are just going to be riding for a few days it may not be at the top of your list. If you do remember to bring the bag full of gear it pays to double-check that everything you want to bring is where you think it is.
Gear Up for the Motorbike Ride of a Lifetime and Experience Vietnam
If we didn’t like living and riding in Vietnam, we wouldn’t be here. This country offers just about anything a rider could want: beautiful scenery, thrilling roads, untouched countryside, bustling cities, remote tribes, and much more. Every day is an adventure and even living here while not riding our motorbikes brings us quite a bit of joy.
We’re happy to be here and will remain here for quite a while. If you’re interested in riding with us or even just talking about a potential plan for the future, we’re all ears. After all, it’s hard not to be happy here.
Here’s to good riding and good living for all. May all your hairpin turns be nailed and your brakes stay tight.