When you’re embarking on something as spectacular and adventurous as a motorbike tour in Vietnam, sharing the experience with a pillion passenger can double the enjoyment of the trip.
Riding with a pillion passenger opens up a whole range of possibilities and opportunities. Be aware, though, apart from the rules of the road. You can’t ignore the laws of physics either.
If you haven’t ridden on the back of a bike before, the experience may feel more like a fairground ride than a motorcycle ride. Unlike a car, where you merely sit back and relax, on a motorcycle, the pillion passenger plays an integral part of the journey.
Being a good motorcycle pillion is vital to the bike’s stability. Additionally, to make the most of any two-up trip, not only are there lessons to be learned for the pillion, but also the rider has to upgrade their skills too.
Without practical information and knowledge of what to expect when riding pillion, a passenger may well react adversely mid-bend, during acceleration or when braking.
Lessons for Both Pillion and Vietnam Single Rider
The same goes for a Vietnam single rider who must understand the additional forces at play. Without this knowledge, both may become a liability, which is why this guide to riding pillion on a motorbike tour in Vietnam is so important.
So why is the role of the motorcycle pillion passenger so crucial on a motorcycle tour in Vietnam? In a nutshell, because a good pillion acts in harmony with the rider. Furthermore, a competent pillion can look at the road ahead and predict a manoeuvre without overriding or pre-empting the decisions made by the rider.
From the Vietnam single rider viewpoint, having a greater understanding of how both bike and pillion will react on Vietnam’s terrain will also allow them to ride with more confidence.
Trust Comes from Knowledge
A prime example of this happened to me in my early biking days. I found myself the proud owner of a Honda XL250 and offered my father a lift to work.
He’d never been on a bike before, and I’d not carried a pillion passenger, so it didn’t occur to me to tell him what to expect. Entering the first bend, he had no idea we were going to lean into it. I felt him grab the back of my jacket and try to physically turn me like a steering wheel.
For both motorcycle pillion and Vietnam single rider to feel safe during the ride, there needs to be trust, and trust comes from knowledge
Somehow we managed to weave and wobble around the corner, but it taught me a valuable lesson. For both pillion and Vietnam single rider to feel safe during the ride, there needs to be trust, and trust comes from knowledge.
While confidence in the rider can be built up over the miles, knowledge needs to be shared from day one. Thankfully, there are a number of practical actions and habits to adopt. These will make riding both pleasurable and safe for both the single rider and pillion on their Vietnam motorbike tour so let’s look at them in more depth.
From a Riders Perspective
Adventure Rider’s Quick View Checklist:
- Check on your pillion’s experience and advise accordingly
- Work out a signaling system so the pillion can safely get your attention
- Leave more room for braking and adjust the percentage of brake
- Adjust suspension if needed
- Check luggage or clothing will not catch in moving or hot parts
- Ride Smoothly
From a practical point of view, a motorcycle pillion equals extra weight. That added weight increases the mass, and added mass times speed is what poses the problem. (Yes, we all know that mass relates to matter regardless of volume and weight is defined by the force of gravity, but go with it on this occasion).
Think of it like this; you’re on a motorcycle tour in Vietnam riding a Royal Enfield Himalayan. It weighs approximately 400lbs, and you weigh 160lbs. Add both weights together, and at 30mph, you’ve got over 550lbs moving at 44 feet per second.
At this kind of speed, stopping distance is approximately 75 feet. Add a passenger weighing 120 lbs. to the equation, and that’s 670 lbs., which means you need at least an additional 6 feet to stop while travelling at the same speed.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially if there’s nothing much in front, but it could also mean colliding with an obstacle or overshooting a bend. The lessons here are brake sooner and allow more distance in which to stop.
Also, bear in mind that the added weight of a motorcycle pillion passenger over the back wheel means the rear brake works more efficiently. Smooth braking will, therefore, require a 50/50 use of front and rear brake rather than the usual 75/25 formula for solo riding.
Incidentally, if you want to see some extreme brake control while carrying a pillion, check out Randy Mamola’s ‘ride of your life’ page.’ The former Moto GP racer gives pillions the race track experience all in aid of charity.
Handling is another evident and potential problem that it’s easy to overlook. Unless you’ve got $20,000 to blow on one of BMW’s dual-sport mega beasts with a Telelever front end and electronically adjustable suspension, read on, and discover why.
Softly sprung telescopic front forks tend to dive like an overpaid soccer player under heavy braking
Softly sprung telescopic front forks tend to dive like an overpaid soccer player under heavy braking. Imagine how far they’ll compress with added weight. Most basic or entry-level motorcycles won’t have adjustable forks, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t.
Depending on the region in Vietnam you’re exploring on your motorbike tour, you’ll encounter all kinds of spectacular terrain. Everything from high mountain passes to beautiful jungles and ocean vistas will open up before you during your ride through the Vietnam countryside.
The one thing they all have in common though is unpredictable road surfaces that join them. To be fair, I’ve ridden in countries with far worse road surfaces, but after it rains treat surface puddles as if they’re potholes and act accordingly.
With this in mind, you may need to adjust the compression damping.
This setting controls how much the forks compress over lumps and bumps. If this option is available to you, consult the owner’s manual for specific data on adjustment settings.
If they’re non-adjustable, then don’t panic, you can always increase the viscosity of the fork oil. Doing this will have roughly the same effect as adjusting the compression damping.
Doing some adjustments
A quick word of warning! Only a small increase in the weight of the oil can add considerably to the action of the forks, so seek advice from a repair shop. As part of a professional motorbike tour in Vietnam, though, this won’t be of concern as all the bikes will be prepped and good to go.
In the grand scheme of things, adjusting the rear suspension is even more critical. Once again, check out the owner’s manual for information on how to increase the pre-load.
Try upping it in small increments at a time, and if possible, go for a quick spin with your pillion to see how it feels. Don’t forget to make the same adjustments to both shocks. If you’re riding a Royal Enfield Himalayan, adjust the mono-shock, then use the extra time to make a cuppa.
Tyres work best when they’ve got the correct air pressure in them, so if you’re carrying a pillion, you’re going to have to increase the pressure. Once again, check the data for your specific motorcycle.
While you’re checking out the hoops, make sure the treads are all good, and the tyres are in overall sound condition. An important check, as riding with a motorcycle pillion adds to stresses on the sidewall and can accelerate tyre wear.
Some motorcycle tour companies, such as Onyabike Adventures in Vietnam, offer the option of stowing your luggage in a back-up vehicle. Should you need to pack your own, though, make sure you and your motorcycle pillion passenger are sitting on the bike. Get someone to do a walk around too.
The bike will be sitting lower than usual. A visual check will make sure no luggage is likely to interfere with the exhaust, wheel, or chain. Make sure nothing is obscuring the rear indicators or light too. But more on luggage later.
The key to successful motorcycle adventure rider/pillion dynamics in Vietnam and an enjoyable motorcycle tour is to stay smooth. Pulling a wheelie away from the lights, jerky gear changes, unnecessary braking, and dropping into corners will result in the pillion wood pecking the back of your helmet.
View From the Pillion Seat
Pillion Quick View Checklist
- Don’t panic; you’re going to love your back of the bike tour
- Remember agreed signals. No rider likes being tapped on the back of the helmet every five minutes
- On heavy braking, use the footrests to brace against
- Stay neutral in the bends. Avoid over or under leaning
- When on the bike, keep your feet up at all times
- Wait for rider’s signal to get on or off the bike
- Wear clothing with accessible pockets for gear on-the-go
- Lift your footrests up when you get off your bike
- Always give the luggage a once over in case it’s moved
- Check if you can get a Vietnam SIM card on arrival at the airport
Be the Co-pilot and Navigator
If you think that riding pillion on the back of the bike tours is going to be uneventful, you’re in for a surprise. You are the co-pilot and sometimes the navigator, so even if you think you’ll be sitting there doing nothing, you couldn’t be more wrong.
As mentioned in the rider section, operating the motorcycle smoothly is of great importance, and the pillion plays a big part in this process. Once you have a few kilometres under your belt, the motorbike rider will feel more confident in your ability, and the results will show in the enjoyment of your tour in Vietnam.
As a general rule, it’s best to remain neutral when taking corners. By neutral, I mean not over anticipating the bend and adding weight in the direction of the corner.
Leaning away from the bend or moving around is equally as bad. It can alter the dynamic of the suspension making cornering difficult
Hang on Safely as a Pillion Passenger
Under normal circumstances and on paved roads, it’s usual to sit with your hands resting on your thighs. If things are getting bumpy on tour, you have a few options of how to hang on safely.
Grabbing hold of the person in front is ok if the pillion passenger and the rider are comfortable with that option, work it out between the two of you before you set off. Holding on to the rider’s side of the jacket is usually the best way to go for both of you in that case.
On some bikes like the Royal Enfield Himalayan, there’s a stepped integral luggage rack with hand grip section. With the addition of the rack this can act as a grab handle and backrest just how our customer Monica Fink from USA Wisconsin did when she rode with us and as seen from the above picture.
On and Off
Getting on and off the bike can be tricky. It depends on a few factors like the height of the motorcycle, width of the luggage, and the length of the pillion’s legs.
One of the easiest ways to climb aboard is to approach from the left side, put your left foot on the footrest, and hoist yourself up onto the seat. You can do this by using the rider’s shoulders for balance.
Most motorcycle pillions mount from the left purely because this is the location of the bike’s side stand. If the rider prefers to have the bike upright when you get on, how and from which side you mount is up to you. Always make sure the rider is aware that you’re about to climb on or off the back of the bike.
I’ve seen overenthusiastic pillions topple a bikeover when the rider wasn’t ready, so two-way communication is the key
More often than not the rider will let you know when it’s safe to get off. I’ve seen over-enthusiastic pillions topple a bike over when the rider wasn’t ready, so two-way communication is the key here.
This subject brings me nicely on to the topic of motorcycle rider and pillion communication during your back of the bike tour. Don’t worry; you’re not going to need some complicated Morse Code-type system. All you need are some simple movements that can effectively indicate what you need to convey.
Put Your Feet Up and Relax
Once on the bike, put your feet up as from the moment you’re on-board, the rider is responsible for keeping the bike upright. You won’t need to put them down again until you’re ready to dismount.
Put your feet down even if you’ve come to a stop, and it may see you colliding with the rider’s legs, so wait for the signal.
At the end of the ride, it’s also a good idea to fold your pegs up. If the rider paddles the bike in or out of a gap, they don’t need a calf muscle full of pillion footrest!
Even silencers with guards get hot and a hand or leg coming into contact with one is definitely not cool
Last but not least, on the subject of getting on or off the bike, watch out for the exhaust. Even silencers with guards get hot, and a hand or leg coming into contact with one is not cool.
You should always dress with safety in mind when riding pillion on a motorbike tour in Vietnam. Decent boots and appropriate trousers and jackets make sense, but crash helmets became compulsory in Vietnam in 2007.
Don’t be tempted to ride pillion without a helmet. The fine may be modest by western standards, but do you really want to go face-first into the back of the rider’s head?
Apart from the obvious safety issues with wearing the correct clothing, it becomes more important for the pillion passenger to plan ahead. There are items you or the rider may need on the move, such as wipes, tissues, sunglasses, lip balm, and even water.
Pulling over all the time can be a real buzz kill so with this in mind wear trousers with cargo pockets. Alternatively, a jacket with plenty of carrying capacity and easily accessible and sealable pockets is an option.
At the end of the day, it’s important to have somewhere safe for your documents, wallet and cell phone. While on the subject of cells, a word to the wise, when travelling to Vietnam check if you can get a local Vietnam SIM card upon arrival at the airport. Don’t worry if you can’t buy a Vietnam SIM card on arrival. They are sold from all sorts of different locations including street carts, phone shops and kiosks.
Don’t forget, as pillion during the motorbike tour you’ll have time to take in Vietnam’s breath-taking scenery, so keep a camera handy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a compact digital or smartphone. Keep it either in the upper or inside pocket of your jacket for easy access and make sure you get lots of images of the Vietnam countryside.
Remember that if you don’t have touch screen gloves make sure to tuck them out of the wind. Stopping, turning back, and crawling along the road to retrieve your glove from a muddy puddle will not win you any points with the rider.
Finally, on the subject of clothing, we’ve covered how to get on and off the bike, but when wearing motorcycle-specific boots, extra caution is needed.
Boots with a good tread on them and especially off-road style boots with plenty of buckles can easily snag or rip the seat when you’re climbing on the pillion.
Adventure Riding in a Motorbike Tour Group in Vietnam
Adventure motorbike riders in Vietnam that are carrying a pillion and fortunate enough to take part of a tour will need to pay extra attention. In cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the sheer volume of traffic and jaywalkers will keep you on your toes.
Meandering animals in the countryside will also help sharpen your reaction times.
As previously mentioned, braking distances increase, and acceleration and handling can be affected. This consideration presents no real problem and when riding in a group, merely requires an extra distance of a bike length or two between you and the bike in front.
A knowledgeable guide leading a professional motorbike tour will hold a briefing before the journey to cover such points
Weather in Vietnam
Under normal conditions and bearing in mind, the topics previously discussed, controlling the bike on Vietnam’s open roads is perfectly easy when carrying a pillion. When on tour you may ride through rain or wind, and both rider and pillion need to exercise more caution when riding through Vietnam’s countryside.
Rain presents obvious problems relating to traction, braking, and handling. When riding in such conditions, the pillion needs to remain in a neutral position. And restrict movement as much as possible.
Motorcycles aren’t the most aerodynamic of shapes, to begin with, and a motorcycle pillion pretty much doubles a side profile, meaning crosswinds can be challenging.
Once again, as a pillion, you’ve got to follow the lead of the rider and mimic their actions when it comes to things like leaning into the wind.
Headwinds can be equally as tricky, so if possible, tuck in behind the rider to lessen the drag. Don’t peer over the top or around the side of the rider or, worse still, open your visor. These actions can cause instability at a time when you don’t need it, too.
Ask any seasoned adventure rider about packing, and they’ll tell you to lay all your kit out on the floor, half it, then half it again. A bit extreme, you may think, but it’s particularly relevant with a motorcycle pillion passenger on-board as your allowance is in effect reduced by 50 percent.
Please note, the halving of luggage does not apply when the pillion is your significant other. In this instance, tools and spares will form part of your luggage allowance. Meanwhile, your partner may want to commandeer panniers and rack bags for pillion “essentials.”
On a slightly more serious note, panniers and rack luggage are of particular importance to the pillion rider. Remember, the motorcycle pillion has to access the rear footrests. Throw-over luggage, therefore, should not interfere with the pillion’s legs when he or she is seated.
Make sure all side-mounted luggage is securely fastened and ensure any straps or belts joining the panniers don’t run across the top of the seat. Random straps can make for an uncomfortable pillion experience and can spoil you adventure.
What about rack-mounted luggage? Unless designed with the motorcycle pillion in mind, most fibreglass or aluminium boxes are too upright to lean back against comfortably. What’s more, they can also restrict movement.
If possible, go with the soft luggage option. This type of bag is easy to lash to the rack and creates a more comfortable support for the pillion. Remember, the rider has the handlebars for stability, while the pillion may have nothing to hang on to safely.
Embarking on a Vietnam motorbike tour is without a doubt one for the bucket list.
It’s one that every adventure rider dreams of, so it makes total sense to take someone along to share in the adventure.
According to Onyabike Adventures guest rider Judd Mcloughlin, one of the best things about the tour is the unpredictable nature of life on the road. One minute you may be rounding a corner to see a drop-dead view of the Hai Van Pass. The next, you are passing an ancient scooter defying the laws of physics with their enormous load along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A Vietnam motorbike tour is an exhilarating experience, but it does have its challenges, including the weather and ever-changing terrain. Riding with a pillion allows you to share such moments. It doubles the enjoyment, and don’t forget; nothing says adventure ride, like photos taken from the back of a moving motorcycle.
Approaching From a Different Direction
Regardless of whether you’ve ever been on the back of a bike before, you may be considering the grand tour by hiring or buying a bike or maybe even doing it on foot. Riding as a pillion in Vietnam on an organised motorbike tour though is by far the safest option, but let me explain why.
Backpacking around the country appears to have some romantic charm attached to it. The reality of being at the mercy of Vietnam’s public transport system and staying in backpacker-hostels, however, may leave you with the wrong kind of vacation memories.
Travelling as a motorcycle pillion with a Vietnam tour operator like Onyabike Adventures means experienced guides will show you parts of the country you would never normally get to see.
All pillions are seated behind experienced professional riders and you can relax knowing that your safety and enjoyment is their top concern.
Renting a motorbike
For those with adventure riding experience and all the relevant licenses and paperwork applied for before travelling, renting a motorcycle may seem like a better plan. There are however inherent problems attached to this option.
Motorcycle rental shops are littered across many of Vietnam’s cities but renting a bike from them can be a game of Russian roulette. The majority offer high mileage, poorly maintained Chinese bikes built to look exactly like the Japanese originals.
The unreliability of these knock-offs is infamous and the insurance and rental paperwork that goes with them may also be just as dodgy.
If you manage to find a reputable motorcycle rental outfit for your solo tour of Vietnam and have all the relevant paperwork, then you’re in luck. Yes, the bikes will be genuine examples and may even be in good working order, but for that privilege, you’re going to pay very heavily.
After all the additional costs and insurance upgrades it can often work out cheaper to be part of an organised motorbike tour.
What you should not do
There is, of course, another option and that’s simply to jump on a flight, head for the nearest backpacker hostel and check out the local ads for a bike for sale.
Then, just hand over your money, no questions asked and off you go on your grand adventure. After all, backpacker blogs are full of people who do this all the time so it must be ok, right?
WRONG, don’t do it, it’s as simple as that. You will undoubtedly be buying a death trap. If you’re really lucky the engine will blow in the first 5 minutes, worst case scenario one of its badly made ill-fitting parts will fail putting you in imminent danger in the middle of nowhere.
Either way, you’ll be totally illegal and a magnet for police whose constant fines will eat away your travelling money. If you crash however and injure a third party or damage their property, it’s game over.
All you can hope for in that scenario is that Mummy and Daddy will wire you a substantial amount of money because you won’t be going anywhere until they do.
A Final Thought from Onyabike Adventures
The last word has to go to the experts, and who can put it better than Onyabike Adventures professional tour guide, Hawk Moon? It’s far better in Vietnam to get yourself on an organised motorbike tour as a rider or pillion. We can provide you with real, bikes, comprehensive and legal insurance, full backup and tour routes from mild to wild.
And wouldn’t it be better to spend your time looking around at the fantastic Vietnam countryside rather than looking over your shoulder at every cop you pass? Hawk concludes.