Home » How To Survive A Road Trip in Vietnam

How To Survive A Road Trip in Vietnam

Road Trip Survival Guide Ts
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You’re in Vietnam. You’ve just purchased a motorbike, and you’ve bought yourself a helmet as much for safety as good luck. You’re now faced with the self-appointed task of riding it across the country.

The traffic is daunting, as is the unknown that awaits you. You can’t read the signs or speak the language. What an adventure you’re about to have!

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Think of this article as your cheat sheet for how it’s all going to go down. 

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The beach is great, but to get there, you gotta get out of town first.

Navigating The Inner-City Malestrom

Unless you’ve reached Vietnam by parachute or boat, you’re probably kicking off your journey in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. On the one hand, this makes it easy to find a bike with which to begin your journey. On the other, it leaves you stuck in the middle of a sprawling metropolis with traffic more chaotic than the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange on October 19, 1987. If you’re new to riding a motorbike, let alone in traffic, escaping the city will be a trial you won’t soon forget.

One primary rule supersedes all on Vietnamese roads. It’s your responsibility not to hit anyone. Everyone else will do their best effort not to hit you, in turn. Everything else falls secondary to this general idea. It’s what creates the flowing chaos so characteristic of Vietnamese roads. You have scooters going every which way, while cars crawl along unable to break 20 mph. As you travel in the correct direction, there’ll be a handful of people coming the wrong way in the gutter because it’s the only convenient way to get where they’re going. Trucks will barrel along in the throng, their drivers fearing little given they will surely be uninjured if they were to roll over a motorbike or eight. Then you’ve got bicycles freely weeble-wobbling around in the general milieu. At peak hour, city footpaths become temporary roads as a flood of rat-running scooters simply dominates the pedestrians that would otherwise be there.

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It sounds mad, and looks terrifying as a spectator. Mere minutes before I had to leave Saigon, I exasperatedly stated that there was no way I could possibly deal with the chaos. Hold your mettle, though, and jump on a bike, and you’ll realize it’s survivable. Tens of millions of Vietnamese people do this every day, after all. 

The trick is to move cleanly and with intention. You must flow like water, holding your space while giving ample room to those around you. Everyone else will be doing this as well. Darting and weaving and moving unpredictably will only cause you harm. You must trust everyone else to miss you, as they’re trusting you to miss them. Be as visible as possible to everyone else to make this easy. Stay ready on the brakes; you’ll be using them regularly. 

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Things get crowded at rush hour, but you can usually trust the cars not to crush you.

If you’re approaching a situation or intersection and you’re unclear on the intentions of others, do not rely on some vague concept of right of way. It means nothing here. Instead, simply slow down and do your best to crawl through. You’ll notice your fellow motorists are doing the same. Coming to a dead stop in traffic is not uncommon in Vietnam, and much preferable to hitting someone. Nobody minds, as the traffic doesn’t move that quickly anyway. If you slowly roll to a stop as someone blocks you at a roundabout, you won’t get blasted with a horn. You’ll just find yourself motionless as a sea of bikes continues to weave its way around you. Pull away calmly in a predictable manner and you’ll be back on your way. 

For safety’s sake, don’t go sneaking up in the blind spots of cars or trucks. You’re better off out in front where they can see you, and thus dodge you. Nor should you accelerate to try and make tight gaps or slip past others. Patience is key to getting to your destinations safely. You don’t want to get squeezed between a bus and a wall because you thought you had the power to zoom through a rapidly vanishing opening.

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The cities of Vietnam are the hardest place to ride. For that reason, many choose to rent or buy a bike on the outskirts of town, or have one delivered there. It can make your journey much easier by letting you learn to ride the bike in quieter conditions. This is particularly helpful if you’re a new rider, still uneasy in the saddle.

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The trucks are big. Stay out of their way.

Vietnam has a completely alien concept of motoring compared to more regulated Western roads. You can become attuned to it very quickly as long as you go with the flow and don’t panic. When you’re new, do yourself a favor, as well. Don’t drive at night and avoid the local peak hours wherever possible. 

The beautiful moment when you learn to be the traffic is truly something. It feels like you’re a part of a motoring culture where people actually care about others. Take that live-and-let-live ethos with you as you traverse the roads of Vietnam.

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If a truck starts pulling in front of you, assume they’re about to cut you off or make a turn. They’re expecting you not to hit them, more than anything. 

Beyond the City Limits

You might expect that outside of the city, Vietnamese traffic is more normal. It’s true that lanes do begin to have some meaning once you get on the “highways.” Trucks and cars take the fast lane, while scooters and bikes are expected to stick to the right. 

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Regardless, the lane lines are still very much ignored. Few motorists pay them any heed. You’ll almost never see two lanes of smoothly flowing traffic on a Vietnamese highway. Instead, you’ll see the fast lane with a slow truck in it, with a car straddling both lanes approaching rapidly from behind. The scooters will be doing their best to make room for the quicker vehicles coming by, as they flitter between the slower lane and the gutter.

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Livestock is pretty common on rural roads.

The lack of lane discipline means that travel times on Vietnamese “highways” are nothing like those in the Western world. Forget flying by the countryside at over 100 km/h (60 mph). 60 km/h (37 mph) is the signposted top speed in most areas. On a scooter, you’d be lucky to average 35 km/h (22 mph) on a day’s riding. 30 km/h (15 mph) would be more typical, particularly if you’re a new rider with less confidence. 

On Vietnam’s intercity roads, you’re often too busy dodging other scooters, trucks, and rough patches of road to maintain a constant 60 km/h. You’ll also find that the road is rarely just road. Most of the highways have a continual stream of sheds, shops, and small businesses. All of these have people and bikes parking up or pulling out at all times. Plus, in many areas, the official speed limit is as low as 40 or 30 km/h. You probably won’t notice it, though, because you’ll already be going slower thanks to the traffic.

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Most small towns have a few streetside restaurants that serve good food; the popular ones are best. They may chuckle if you nearly fall off your bike when you pull up to eat.

The slow pace of travel shapes the Vietnamese road trip. By road, it’s just 1,600 km (1000 miles) from Saigon to Hanoi. In Europe or the US, this would be an easy two-day road trip. In Vietnam, though, many find themselves only completing 200 km a day, or less. It’s typical to take two weeks or more to make the journey by bike. If you want to do anything other than ride all day, you’ll want to add a further two weeks so you can actually spend some time seeing the sites and doing tourist stuff. 

It’s certainly possible to go farther and faster. But know this: 250 km is a long day’s ride in Vietnam. You’ll be both physically and mentally exhausted. Keeping a cheap, second-hand, and heavily loaded scooter on the road takes effort, more so in the wind and rain. Meanwhile, your brain will be working overtime on object recognition and tracking tasks to ensure you don’t wind up running over an auntie or getting sideswiped by a taxi.

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There are plenty of places to stop for refreshments along Vietnam’s roads. Take the coastal routes for the best views; it’s well worth stopping for a break now and then.

The roads of Vietnam are so wildly different from those in the Western world that you can’t readily estimate your endurance here until you’re out on the road. The key is to ignore bravado and know your limits. Give your brain and body time to rest, and don’t pressure yourself into completing more miles than you can handle. Take regular breaks, and keep your blood sugar up. Don’t be afraid to call off a day’s ride early if you’re struggling to keep your focus sharp. When you get tired, you get sloppy, and that’s how you end up under a truck.

If you’re new to riding, you need to remember that it’s nothing like driving a car. You’re a soft, fleshy ragdoll, and even small mistakes can have serious consequences. Heck, even just slipping off your bike at 20 mph can remove enough skin to land you in hospital, ending your trip. 

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Ride the coast and you’ll never be short of a pretty tasty view

As an aside, there are a small handful of high-speed motorways in Vietnam. However, these are restricted to cars, trucks, and buses only. I traveled on a motorway just once during my stay in Vietnam. It was the only time in the trip I crested 80 km/h, in a taxi on the way to Nội Bài International Airport. In any case, for motorbike roadtrippers, these are unusable. But you didn’t come to Vietnam for a quiet ride on well-sealed roads, anyway.

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Vietnamese ambulances are pretty rad, but you don’t wanna end up in one.

Bribing Your Way Out Of Trouble (Wait, Isn’t This Illegal?)

It’s actually illegal to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam without a license. Any bike above 50 cc officially requires a license to ride, and if you don’t have a license, you can get in trouble. But all the tourists do anyway! Let me give you the reality on the ground.

Members of countries that have signed the 1968 International Driving Permit Convention can get their home country license converted to a permit for use in Vietnam. This counts as a legal license, whether its for cars or bikes, and you’ll be all good to go. However, if you come from a country that signed the 1949 IDP Convention, you’re out of luck.

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Long story short, if you’re from the US, UK, Australia or Canada, you can’t legally ride a motorcycle in Vietnam. Does this mean you can’t go and ride a motorbike in Vietnam? Of course not! The law in Vietnam, as in many countries, is malleable. As covered by rental company Tigit Motorbikes, many tourists and locals freely ride without any license whatsoever. The general vibe is for motorcycles below 150 cc, minor bribes in the realm of a few USD will placate any police that do pull you over. 

In my personal experience, you’ll often be fine riding without a license. I know several foreigners living in Vietnam who have ridden bikes there for years without incurring a fine or any negative attention.

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Vietnam has plenty of roads with nicely landscaped planters.

With that said, I did run afoul of the law during my time in Vietnam. We had blitzed through a small village near Hòn Rơm, not really realizing we should have slowed somewhat through the tiny village. Shortly thereafter, we were flagged down on the road by two police who chased us down on a single motorbike. We expected to hand over a minor bribe but were instead instructed to follow them back to the local police station. I contemplated fleeing when they pulled far ahead, but on balance we weren’t confident of making a clean getaway. We probably should have just played too dumb to understand them, and waved a few hundred thousand dong at the problem. Regardless, we followed them back. 

We ended up sitting in front of the local police chief, who demanded our documents. He then ran through a series of scary threats delivered via Google Translate that we would each owe 3 million Dong ($128 USD) in fines and have our bikes confiscated for speeding and driving without a license. He then switched to being the “good cop,” explaining that we could be forgiven as we were unaware of Vietnamese law. He taught us the Vietnamese road rules via flash cards and demanded 1.5 million Dong ($63 USD) from each of us instead. We paid up and were on our way. 

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You can customize your bike, but it will make you stand out as an obvious tourist—with all the drawbacks that brings.

Make no mistake, we weren’t really fined for speeding or riding without a license. What actually happened is that the cops in this area have a very well-rehearsed standover racket going to extract money out of tourists. It’s well-known enough to show up in local travel guides, which note that even fully licensed riders are regularly subject to such harassment. The “fines” we paid were about ten times what you’d expect to pay as a typical bribe. In the grand scheme of things, though, $63 isn’t that big a deal. We could have done without the theatrics, though. 

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Just keep in mind that your travel insurance may not cover you for a bike accident if it counts as “illegal” activity. It’s worth checking with your insurer exactly what they do and do not cover. Some companies like Tigit Motorbikes offer specific guidance over which insurers will work with this difficult situation. Also, don’t waste your money buying any insurance in Vietnam – it’s worthless to overseas travelers.

Other Considerations

If you’re riding with a friend, it’s well worth investing in a set of helmet-mounted intercoms. I used a set of Lexin B4FMs, but there is a wide variety of affordable options on the market. When you’re riding separate bikes, they’re an absolute game changer. Instead of hours of silence on the road, you can have long. winding conversations all day long. Some models even work for packs of four riders or more. Just be wary: you will end up singing On The Road Again to each other endlessly, hundreds of times each day. You’ll love it.

As per our article on buying a bike, you’re going to want one that’s well-maintained to keep breakdowns to a minimum. However, you’re still likely to get caught short at one point or another. As it’s a cash-based country, keep some paper money on hand at all times. You’ll need it if you run out of fuel, have a breakdown, or get a puncture out on the road.

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A good intercom makes riding with friends ten times more fun.

Mechanics workshops can be difficult to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for. There’s no use looking for a building with lots of scooters out front, as that could be just about any business in Vietnam. Look for places with “xe máy” on the sign – the Vietnamese word for motorbike. Signage on workshops will often feature logos from Castrol, Shell, Honda, or other recognizable brands, too. If you just need a tire fixed, just look for a place with lots of round shiny foil-wrapped tires stacked up out the front. 

If you can, it’s best to get your bike repaired at a proper manufacturer-supported dealership. They’ll use the proper OEM parts which will keep your bike in tip-top condition. Of course, when you’re broken down in the countryside, you’ll just have to go to whichever little shed fixes bikes in the local area. In these situations, having a popular bike is of huge benefit. Every workshop in Vietnam has parts for a Honda Wave. A Sym Atila? Not so much.

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You’ll always want to have a liter or two of water on hand at all times. If you break down far from help, you don’t want to get dehydrated. If you’ve got water, you can survive for a long time without too many problems. 

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Chairs in a lot of Vietnamese restaurants are very small.

It’s a controversial topic, but it’s also worth considering carrying some extra gasoline on hand. Scooters and motorbikes have terrible fuel gauges and it’s easy to run out and get stranded. Normally, in the West, we’d never advise carrying gasoline in anything but a properly rated steel or plastic container. In Vietnam, though, people just fill up water bottles with gas like it ain’t no thing. You might find it worthwhile to throw a spare liter of gas on your bike’s luggage rack to help get you out of trouble. Just don’t store it anywhere near the exhaust.

Oh, and remember when we said traveling in Vietnam was slow? It’s a common trap that catches out roadtrippers. Many will get a week or two into their journey, and realize they don’t have time to ride to their destination city in time for their flight home. In this case, you might want to put your bike on a train to ship it to your final destination. The trains are slow, but can get you halfway across the country in a night or so. Bikes can be shipped from most train stations at the freight terminal. You’ll have to catch a separate passenger train yourself, and then pick up your bike from the freight terminal once it arrives. This normally takes a few days. It’s a common tool used by travelers that get caught out on a tight timeline, just like in the Top Gear Vietnam Special. 

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Cars are becoming more popular in Vietnam. For some reason, there’s a trend towards putting on fake Discovery badges, and I have absolutely no explanation as to why.

Riding a motorbike across Vietnam is a motoring experience worth having. You’ll get to see all kinds of beautiful terrain, and sample both the city and rural cultures of a country you’ve never seen before. You’ll probably get a good few stories out of the journey, too. Hopefully, this guide has left you better educated and more confident about your adventure to come. Happy riding.

Image credits: Lewin Day

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Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
18 days ago

Excellent article, can’t wait for more installments!

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
19 days ago

This sounds so great. I just could not imagine having my wife on the back of 150ccs and navigating that traffic while keeping her sane. Maybe it would work, though, as she fell asleep on the back of the KTM I rented to explore the Alps outside of Zurich.

Jakob Johansen
Jakob Johansen
19 days ago

Why not wear:

  1. A real helmet.
  2. Proper protective clothing.
No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
19 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

But are you stuck bringing your own gear if you do that? How many folks in Vietnam are suiting up cordura to sit in 96 degrees at 100% humidity? I struggle (but always wear my gear) with it in the US Mountain South. I’d rather just drive than gear up on the hot days, and I bet they seem cool relative to Vietnam.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
19 days ago

The beginning of the video kinda gave me some anxiety, then I started to see what you were saying about being predictable. Be seen, and take your available holes: that’s what’s expected.

Then Canopysaurus commented about fish on a reef and that makes perfect sense. Almost looks fun in a ‘this is pretty zen but I could die any second’ sort of way. Doesn’t help that I used to watch a lot of dashcam yt videos, though

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago

My order for comfort of riding after all my time in Vietnam went:

1) City
2) Back roads/QL15/16
3) Intercity highways
256) Highway 1

Other important rules of the road included the biggest moving object is the winner, unless there is a guy on a motorbike who can’t stop or he will fall over. That guy gets immediate priority.

If you really need to turn, throwing your arm out (AKA the Power Arm) will get you over a lot faster as it shows you need to change directions faster.

As I mentioned before, my longest distance was 400km in 12 hours, the shortest was 35km in 8 hours. I appreciate you for continuously reiterating that things take time and that you can’t rush it.

You forgot to mention to get an iced coffee as your first riding break every time. You can never get anything that truly matches it outside of Vietnam.

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

We only did it once and it was a very, very long day with little stopping. We needed to catch up on some lost time to be able to spend more time in the places we wanted to further south.

I taught myself how to ride a motorbike in Hanoi (had never been on one before) and also started by journey into coffee there.

This was the bike I had when we were living there, not just travelling. I went to all the work of finding out the cost of exporting it before I was told I needed my name on the blue card to do it. I still wish I had looked into ways to circumvent that

https://imgur.com/a/7F3evEv

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
18 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

Plus, a postie bike is near enough to the same thing.

B3n
B3n
19 days ago

Love this series, I’ve been wanting to do this for years.

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago
Reply to  B3n

If you can do it sooner rather than later, do it. The expansion of the car in the country will make this harder and more difficult into the future.

Thomas Nguyen
Thomas Nguyen
19 days ago

Just wanted to add the vietnamese term for motorbike is “Xe Honda” which translates to Honda car. A vast majority of motorcycles sold there are 125cc Hondas.

10001010
10001010
19 days ago

Some how my MiL manages to navigate those chaotic streets on a scooter when she visits back home but struggles to get her Toyota through the more orderly traffic in the US. It’s all what you’re used to I suppose.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
19 days ago

This is a great article, thank you.

As for this quote, “Take that live-and-let-live ethos with you as you traverse the roads of Vietnam.”

This is a great mindset for riding ANYWHERE. Life is short, and it can get a lot shorter a lot easier on a bike. Ride predictable, and ride happy. We all just want to go home at the end of the day.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
18 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

You’re welcome!

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
19 days ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

‘live and let live’ seems optimistic as motorcyclist in the US. I’ve round ‘ride like they’re trying to kill you’ has kept me a lot safer than hoping everyone has my best interests.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
18 days ago

See, you’re missing the point of live and let live. Which can, and does in my head, fully co-exist with everybody is trying to kill you mentality. IMO, live and let live in a riding mentality means don’t get competitive. If a 4-wheeler is aggressive towards you, just back off. If they’re moving into your space, just go to another space. Stay calm, and don’t road rage. Just keep it moving and be cool. Don’t be a rev-bombing mirror-punching douche (not saying you are either of those).

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
18 days ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

Fair. But when on a two-lane and a truck slides off into the gravel right behind me as he didn’t see me or the person in front of me waiting to turn left I run right out of grace.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
18 days ago

Also fair.

Sklooner
Sklooner
19 days ago

So if the cops pull me over, hand them my dong, got it

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
19 days ago
Reply to  Sklooner

Tried that in the US once, ended up with even more trouble. What went wrong?

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
19 days ago

Really nice writeup Lewin, I’m enjoying your Vietnam posts.

Spot on with the traffic description, this is something you simply have to experience to believe, yet it totally works.

I remember from my trip there, as we were scooting through the jungle on a moped with my then girlfriend and now wife, we got a flat tire. Miraculously, we found a tire repair shop in the next village.

They quoted us 1,000,000 Dong for a patch. As the situation was sour (we still were in the middle of nowhere and far from our next place), we got ready to pay. Then the guys there bursted out laughing and started to apologize profusely. Turned out they put one too many 0s on the piece of paper.

All ended well and we went our merry way. Very nice and friendly people too. I remember this trip very fondly.

Also, pro tip: don’t go swimming with your moped keys in your pocket, or else you’ll have to look for them in the South East China Sea. Don’t ask me how I know.

Keep them coming!

Last edited 19 days ago by AlfaWhiz
Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago
Reply to  AlfaWhiz

Also, never go anywhere where there are monkeys. I have met too many people who had a travel companion have to cut their trip short because they got bitten by a monkey and had to go home/somewhere else for the rabies treatment.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
19 days ago
Reply to  Rod Millington

I have a homie that hit a monkey on a scooter trip. Wrecked and broke his wrist and ended his trip.

Thi
Thi
19 days ago

The DISCOVERY thing is very much like slapping a Type R or GT-R logo on a car, but with less pretending?

A lot of locals just think it looks cool, so they do it, they are not trying to convince anyone it’s actually a Land Rover. It’s the same for a lot of the counterfeit goods in Vietnam, all the locals know it’s fake, but the locals use it if they like how it looks.

It leads to some funny moments as a Westerner visiting family there and seeing an aunt using tattered “Burberry” rags to clean up spills in the kitchen.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
19 days ago

Another good read with vital survival tips. When considering bike travel in many Asian countries I found it helpful to imagine a great reef teeming with every known variety of aquatic life. That gave me a good picture of what to expect in traffic Join a “school” and swim through.

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I always compared it to a river that flows around objects, so you and I are on the same wavelength with our analogies.

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