You’ve thought about, talked about it, studied it and trawled the web. Finally, you’ve made a decision, hit the button and that motorbike tour of Vietnam of a lifetime is a done deal. While the quality and quantity of information on a tour company’s website are important, the success of your Vietnam motorbike adventure comes down to one person, the tour guide.
Your tour will sink or swim based on the ability of the tour guide. Before you even clock-up your first kilometer though, if you imagine the tour guide standing on top of a pyramid, there’s a whole team of people beavering away beneath him.
The tip of the Pyramid
Hotel reservations, back-up vehicles, tour plans, motorcycle servicing, along with the other 101 logistical challenges, are all taken care of before you come face to face with your motorcycle.
A good motorbike tour guide will help out in each of these departments and knows exactly how it all fits together. They’re not heading up your tour of Vietnam due to their filing ability, though!
When you’re riding an unknown bike in a foreign country through Vietnam’s dense forests and mountain trails, you’re pretty much putting your life in your tour guide’s hands.
On a quest to see what makes a good tour guide tick, we joined the crew of Onyabike Adventures in Vietnam to find out more.
Onyabike Adventures have been running motorbike tours in Vietnam for a number of years. Due to the diversity of the Vietnam countryside, their tours are split into regions and duration.
As Onyabike Adventures also offer pillion tours, two of the four-person tour guide team consist of two-up specialists. These riders know not only their bikes but also Vietnam’s terrain. Anyone with or without riding experience can hop on the back and feel at home.
Adventure is the Name of the Game
Heading up the motorbike tour team is the aptly named Head of Adventure, Hawkmoon. Having clocked up tens of thousands of kilometers touring Vietnam for the last 7 years, this ex-pat and bike-mad Brit knows the country inside and out.
Hawk’s job starts well before guests arrive, making sure the chosen routes are clear, checking on the Vietnam weather and making sure the fleet of bikes has a full service and are ready to rock.
As much as an experienced tour guide can make or break a trip, the choice of bike offered for any tour is of equal importance.
Hawk clocked up significant mileage road-testing the Royal Enfield Himalayan on every type of terrain Vietnam could throw at it, before giving the Himalayan the thumbs up.
Onyabike Adventures now run a fleet of Himalayan’s, which Hawk says is one of the best, ‘jump on and ride through anything,’ bikes he’s ever ridden.
Hawk goes on to explain that although it may seem like there’s plenty of companies offering Vietnam motorbike tours, he advises caution.
Make sure the company you choose is Legit!
‘It may look all laid back and no big deal, but there are stringent rules and regulations concerning Vietnam motorbike tour guides. Everything is licensed, registered and regulated by the government,’ he says, ‘so its got to be right.’
‘They even have different grades of license which cover domestic tours for Vietnamese people and those guiding foreign visitors. It doesn’t end there either,’ he explains.
Only a Vietnamese national can hold a license. A Vietnam tour guide will also need a university degree and go on a course with a test at the end before they get a certificate and badge.
‘On top of all that, our guides have to have gone through their advanced motorcycle license (pretty rare in Vietnam) too, allowing them to ride bikes over 175cc.’
Even the tour company has to have a specific license for Vietnam motorbike tours. They also need a licensed tour manager on the team before they can legally employ a tour guide.
Proud of their Country
All these rules and regulations are because the Vietnam government is very proud of their country. They need to be sure that anyone showing guests around knows what they’re doing.
This fact results in a lot of red tapes. Now, there are a lot of dodgy motorbike tour companies out there not wanting to put in the effort, time and expense of doing it legally,’ says Hawk.
A top tour guide needs a big character and is able to wear several different hats. Apart from being a comedian, first aider, sidewalk mechanic and historian, they also need a mind like a topographic map.
You can have the whole tour planned out, but the beauty of something like this is that the unexpected can and does happen regularly.
Let’s not forget that everyone who takes a motorbike tour of Vietnam is bringing with them a different skill set, not to mention mind-set.
The Importance of a Local Expert
Top tour guide at Onyabike Adventures is Nguyen Viet. Born and bred in the beautiful mountainous, central region of Vietnam, he’s worked his way up the ranks.
The journey has taken him from domestic to international tours then finally as an international motorcycle-specific tour guide. Hawk and Viet both agree that in Vietnam, a good tour guide needs to bring plenty to the table.
Being patient is top of the list, as customers will always find ways to delay things. These delays range from getting up late in the morning and stopping to take frequent toilet breaks or photos, to riding too slow. Some may ask a thousand questions a day or take up to half an hour to put on their helmet and gloves.
While other people in the group may get grumpy about these delays, the tour guide needs to stay relaxed and keep the atmosphere going. ‘The pace is never too fast,’ adds Viet. ‘We take regular breaks and we always know the best places to stop for photos.’
Flexibility is the Key
A good motorbike tour guide can never forget that for some of the guests, this will be a first. If this is the case, then until they get into the flow of things, touring Vietnam can take them out of their comfort zone.
This consideration is why although every day’s ride is planned; Onyabike Vietnam tour guides always build-in a good degree of flexibility.
‘Customers will take on the mood of the guide,’ says Hawk. This factor is important when the weather isn’t perfect. For instance, if it rains and the tour guide gets grumpy, then for sure, the group will also get grumpy.
When the tour guide stays happy and positive, then the group usually will, too. When there are breakdowns or minor accidents, this is important because you don’t want it to spoil the whole day.
The idea that a guide on a motorbike tour of Vietnam needs to memorize a big bag of dates, numbers and facts is also a misnomer. In their experience, very few people care if ruins date from the year 1020 or 2010.
What they do care about, though, is the interesting things that took place there and the tour guide’s ability to make Vietnam’s history and stories come to life. You need to do your homework and learn everything you can. A tour guide’s job is being able to make the stories sound interesting, says Hawk.
It’s all about Me
A good Vietnam tour guide must also be good at talking a lot about himself. ‘People are most interested in people.’ says Hawk.
‘They want to know how you live, what you eat, all about your history, and how you ended up in Vietnam as a motorbike tour guide. If you get a group of bikers who already know one another, the attention turns to the guide. The questions can be endless and there is no point in being a shrinking wall flower.’
Most people who go on holiday abroad toy with the idea of what it would be like living there and the tour guide has to spill the beans. ‘It’s not possible to know the answer to everything and it’s ok to say, ‘to be honest, I don’t know.’
The last thing you want to do though is make stuff up. If you do, people will Google later and the only thing they’ll remember about their tour is that the guide talked rubbish,’ laughs Hawk.
Vietnam Tour Guides on the Spotlight
According to tour guide Viet, it’s a delicate balance to maintain. Although the spotlight is always on you, it’s not necessary to be the coolest cat in the room or even the guy who’s always the center of attention.
‘I’ve known good tour guides who are fairly quiet and reserved,’ adds Hawk. ‘It is crucial to be able to fit in with all types of people, though, and making them feel like they’re out with a mate instead of being herded around by someone with an inflexible itinerary.’
Hawk recalls a couple of back-to-back motorbike tours of Vietnam that challenged the boundaries of flexibility. ‘One week we had a large gaggle of raucous Australian outback farmers who wanted to tell jokes all day and drink lager all night.
After the farmers came a group of Silicon Valley, tech entrepreneur, eco-warriors, while both groups had their moments,’ he laughs. ‘I would have loved to have seen them all on the same tour, though.’
As previously mentioned, flexibility is high on the agenda when it comes to the smooth running of the tour.
No two motorbike tours of Vietnam will ever be the same and every group will move at a slightly different pace.
Flexibility means allowing for accidents, breakdowns, people getting stuck in some traffic, extended breaks, bad weather and road closures. A tour guide may, for instance, need to decide whether to head the long way up the mountain or take the shorter route.
When things do go wrong, the guide will have to think on his feet and adapt the day to fit. He may need to make dramatic changes to deal with a big problem, or best case scenario, chop five minutes off a lunch break.
The whole point of a motorbike tour is to immerse yourself in Vietnam’s countryside, people and culture of this fantastic country. Doing so by motorcycle helps to give a first-hand view you would never get with any other type of transport or tour.
It’s Not an Endurance Race
People want to pack in as much as possible, but from a guide point of view, it’s also important to remember that a motorbike tour of Vietnam is still a vacation and not an endurance event.
‘No-one wants to be riding really long days and it’s never a good idea to be out after dark. The last thing you want is for them to get off their bike at the end of the day and hobble to the hotel. This concern is why our tour guides give plenty of team briefings,’ explains Hawk.
While not wanting to overwhelm our clients with information, there are things they do need to know. Depending on the size of the tour determines when the initial brief takes place.
A short daily briefing happens before the day’s ride begins. It gives information on coffee stops, landmarks on the route, the type of terrain they’ll experience and how far they have to ride to their hotel.
‘Everyone forgets,’ say Viet, ‘so a Vietnam tour guide needs to prepare to answer the same questions every day. Whenever we stop, though, I always tell clients how far along the day’s ride we are and details of the next stop.’
Getting Comfortable with your Bike
A group may consist of people with different levels of riding skills or experience. For this reason, it’s also the job of the tour guide to make sure everyone is familiar and comfortable with the bike that will carry them over Vietnam’s mountains, through its river beds and along the winding jungle paths.
“As I mentioned before, this is the exact reason why we chose the Royal Enfield Himalayan. The bike is a docile workhorse with no bad traits.’
Onyabike Adventures offer motorbike tours of Vietnam that cover every kind of terrain imaginable. From historic and chaotic cities to sweeping country roads and hidden jungle trails, Vietnam has it all.
There is one aspect of being a good tour guide that is pretty much cast in stone, though, and that is being a skilled motorbike rider.
Good Enough to Lead
‘The tour guide does not need to be the best rider in the group,’ says Hawk pragmatically. ‘They must, however, be good enough to lead the group at an enjoyable pace though and over whatever terrain Vietnam throws at it .’
It’s also essential that the tour guide remembers that they have nothing to prove. Also, they must not get competitive with customers, which can be all too easy to do.
‘I’ve seen many occasions where a rider or group of riders will sit right on the tail of the tour guide trying to push them to go faster. I do get it, I’ve been a biker all my life,’ says Hawk. ‘We all love speed, risk and excitement, it’s why we ride, but the number one priority for any tour guide and especially one in Vietnam is safety.’
Getting the balance right can be tricky. The pace needs to be fast enough to be fun but has to be at a speed that the tour guide feels is right, not the customer.
Affecting the Group Dynamic
‘As Head of Adventures, I make sure our tour guides know the route and the area like the back of their hands. This knowledge of Vietnam is invaluable should there be a need for a detour.
Hawk says he’s seen other tours of Vietnam where the guide rigidly follows a handlebar-mounted Sat Nav. He believes it gives the wrong impression.
‘These motorbike tours should be fun and give off a great sense of adventure,’ he adds. ‘While I’m sure Sat Navs are being used to good effect on other tours of Vietnam somewhere, I’m not a fan.
‘Besides.’ he adds with a smirk, ‘we’ve never had one of our tour guides stop working unexpectedly or lose signal.’
Not Quite the Ending this Lady had in mind
Well, it wouldn’t be right to end without at least one tale from the trail. So, here it as told by an Onyabike Adventure tour guide.
‘Recently we had two customers book a three-day pillion motorbike tour through the beautiful East Coast Mountains of Central Vietnam.
We were 15 minutes away from the final hotel stop at the end of the motorbike tour when we crossed a picturesque stone bridge surrounded by stunning mountains. It provided the perfect photo opportunity to end another successful motorbike tour of Vietnam.
I set up the photo to include all of the bikes, the scenery and guests, took the pics and got ready to leave. Moments before they were about to mount-up, one of the guests decided she had to have one last selfie and leaned back against the bike.
Before I could shout, “that’s not a great idea,” she leant her weight in the wrong place. The bike toppled over against the wall of the bridge, snapping off the handlebar mirror and breaking the screen.
It took a moment to realise that her crash helmet resting on the mirror had also gone over the wall. It was now happily bobbing down the fast-flowing river and into the jungle.
The bike was picked up, and I dusted the guest off. Meanwhile, the other riders gesticulated towards the river at the disappearing helmet. At which point, a passing cop car pulled over to check out the commotion.
As the lead Vietnam tour guide, I explained the situation to the cops and assured them that one of us was going to ride ahead and pick-up a spare helmet so we could all continue on with our journey’.
The moral of this story? Sometimes one last selfie is one too many!