Throughout Vietnam, daily life revolves around one central, ubiquitous concept – motorbikes. In a country where there seems to be more motorbikes than citizens, these two-wheeled motor vehicles serve virtually every purpose, from commuting families of up to five people, to transporting anything and everything that comes to mind (even when it seems to defy the laws of physics – click here to see a few examples)…and when they aren’t moving, they take the form of bench, chair and even bed for chain smoking, middle-aged Vietnamese men. However, regardless of the task they are being used for, the swarms of motorbikes that whiz by in a blurred kaleidoscope of colors collectively serve as the portrait of the local culture, their honks and revving engines the soundtrack of the cities, each steel frame on wheels a piece of the collage, presenting a unique, split-second story in passing.
Collectively, it also happens to paint a separate yet equally vivid picture of pure insanity. When I describe them as ubiquitous, I use that term loosely. From streams of motorbike traffic relentlessly carving their way through the wrong side of the road and, occasionally, the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk, to single riders shooting out of alleys, driveways, shops, parks and any other opening that can squeeze a bike through, there is a non-stop, chaotic flow. Honks are used more than brakes, mirrors are merely decorative accessories, bumps echo through the cacophony yet are shrugged off without the slightest acknowledgement, and accidents claim the lives of approximately 14,000 each year.
And despite this evident risk, there seems to be a widespread lack of safety precautions. Almost every local rides with flip-flops or slippers, young children are rarely given helmets, traffic laws, if they even exist, are ignored. But at least most of the Vietnamese are health conscious enough to cover up from the sun and strap on a fashionable face mask.
Ever since I arrived in Southeast Asia, I have been struggling with an internal debate of whether or not to purchase a motorcycle upon getting to Vietnam. Every personal account I read online and listened to firsthand made it seem like the experience of a lifetime, and the only way to properly travel through a country with such a diverse range of topographies, climates, and cultures. Of course, the more I read, the more I unraveled bits of information that completely turned me off from the idea. The leading defense against was the simple and straightforward fact that without a valid Vietnamese driver’s license, it would be illegal to own or operate any motorbike over 49cc (so essentially, anything with enough power to climb a respectable hill). Which means that, as a foreigner, getting into any accident puts you directly at fault, and also at the risk of a significant amount of jail time if anyone is injured or killed. And if you yourself are injured, no insurance plan will cover medical expenses or evacuation.
Under normal circumstances, that would be enough to dissuade me. And if it wasn’t, seeing the wild Saigon rush hour traffic, or merely trying to cross any relatively busy street on foot, would surely seal the deal. But after two weeks of working at the Hideout Hostel in Saigon, speaking with dozens of backpackers who had driven down from Hanoi and were in the process of selling their bikes, and taking a few rides in the city, I became more and more comfortable with the idea and eventually realized this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
So, with no prior experience in driving a manual motorcycle, I extended my visa by one month, purchased a fully manual, 110cc Honda Win, and prepared for a 5 week, 2,500+ kilometer road trip from Saigon to Hanoi.
How to prepare for a motorcycle trip in Vietnam
There are definitely better bikes that can be bought for such a trip. Most of the motorbikes on the road are semiautomatic, 125cc scooters which have larger engines and are generally more reliable than the Wins. And the Wins aren’t even original Honda Wins, but rather Chinese knockoffs that are notoriously unreliable, have been driven up and down the length of the country by a handful of backpackers, and have probably had most parts replaced several times with some other used, rusty parts. But these Wins are popular bikes to get, because they are cheap, fully manual motorcycles, and, most importantly, they’ve got character. And in a country where mechanics shops are more prevalent than Banh Mi stands and everyone has at least minimal knowledge of how to repair bikes, half of the fun lies in breaking down in some village in the middle of nowhere.
And a Honda Win it was! For the reasonable price of 5,500,000 Vietnamese Dong, or approximately $250 USD, I became the proud owner of one of those immaculately constructed machines, specially equipped with a working speedometer, something that is virtually nonexistent among Wins. Included in that price was also a somewhat decent helmet, a few tools, ropes for securing my pack, a lock, a spare inner tube and clutch handle, and the notorious blue card.
Although fitted with a whole slew of replaced parts, including tires, the front inner tube, both wheel bearings, headlights, blinkers, grips, chain, sprockets, rear brakes, gasket and exhaust pipe (I wasn’t kidding about having most parts replaced), I did what I probably should have done prior to buying the bike and took it to a mechanic. Luckily, all seemed in order, and I even managed to get one mirror secured on, albeit onto the less useful side, purely for ornamental purposes.
With the bike in tip-top shape, all that was left to do was mentally prepare. I found that the best way to do so was by chatting with fellow travelers who had just finished their journey, and this turned out to be very useful. I picked up a few valuable rules of thumb, such as changing the oil every 300-400 kilometers, watching out for the wild bus and truck drivers on the highways that don’t use their brakes and mercilessly drive bikers off the roads, and cruising past police checkpoints. Apparently most cops will just wave foreigners by, but in the case that they do try to stop you, the best thing to do is to ignore them and drive along, as they probably won’t chase after you. But in the event that you do have to stop, speaking in a foreign language other than English will quickly irritate the cops to the point of leaving you alone. And in the very worst case, a small bribe will solve all of your problems.
With the mental preparation down, a week of riding in the streets of Saigon before taking off was the perfect trial. After becoming comfortable with the clutch, shifting, and most importantly, the use of the horn, throwing myself into that mess presented a surprising thrill. Yes, it’s utter chaos, but somehow once you are a part of it and see how the gears mesh, you realize that it actually works. There is an almost graceful flow. Everyone is responsible for the space in front of their bikes, and no one worries about the rear (hence the decorative mirrors), and as long as each driver remembers this, and no one panics, everything turns out fine (for the most part). Soon enough, I got the hang of this and found myself turning corners and diving into traffic without a look or a worry (as the people in that lane would be responsible for not hitting me once I darted in front of them), and entering roundabouts became my new favorite activity.
Alas, on my last day of work, I met Ben from Cornwall and Scott from Scotland, and within minutes of conversation we had formed a biker group for at least the first leg of the trip. And within two days, we were off for our first stop – Mui Ne!
Stay tuned for more stories from the road!