Looking for an adventure? Like a little risk with bags of reward? Then a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure may be just the ticket. This stunning country is exciting to explore independently, and offers its visitors everything from culture to adventure and mountains to beaches.
Riding a motorbike down the Ho Chi Minh Highway, that runs along the western border of Vietnam, was one of the best adventures of my life. But riding a motorbike through this country has a few risks, so read our 10 tips for a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure to help stay safe and have a great time.
Vietnam is a land where two wheeled transportation overruns the cities, and also acts as the single supportive liaison between rural farmers and the rest of civilization. So travelling by motorbike there’s an exciting opportunity for visitors to experience the best of what Vietnam has to offer.
It requires a little bit of negotiating, a little bit of guts and a little willingness to skirt the law. All you need to do is buy an underpowered, secondhand motorcycle from a complete stranger. Ride it a glorious 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) to sell it to another complete stranger…
Are you in? Good lets begin our Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure!
Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure
The Ho Chi Minh Highway runs along the western border of Vietnam, almost exactly from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. In my opinion, the highway runs through the most rural, beautiful and friendly parts of Vietnam.
Unlike the coastal route, as you may have seen on Top Gear, the H.C.M. Highway is mountainous and rather vacant of traffic. If you want, there are many opportunities to cross over to the coast near the middle of the country where the western border is only a few hours drive to the ocean to the east.
You will need to buy a motorcycle or a moped to take the journey. You can buy one from tons of motorbike shops, or from fellow travelers who just completed the journey in the opposite direction. You can also check out the craigslist for Vietnam where hundreds of bikes are listed.
And if you really, Really, REALLY, enjoy your Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure down the Ho Chi Minh Highway? Just take the coastal route back to where you began.
Tips for a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure
Having ridden the Ho Chi Minh Highway without any previous motorbike overlanding experience I made a few mistakes along the way. So read my 10 tips for a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure to avoid making the same errors.
1. Pick the best direction of travel
Most bikers ride from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) north to Hanoi, mostly because they’re original travel plans start in Ho Chi Minh City. If possible, however, it’s a better idea to ride from Hanoi south to Ho Chi Minh City.
This is for two reasons. First, you will be going in the opposite direction of most everyone else, so it’s possible you will have a little more space to yourself.
Second, the rule of supply and demand applies when it comes to buying and selling your motorcycle. It is much easier to buy a cheaper motorcycle in Hanoi, where there will be more bikes available and less demand. Plus at the end of your journey you’ll get a higher sale price in Ho Chi Minh.
I bought my motorcycle for $275 in Hanoi and then sold it for $300 two weeks later in Ho Chi Minh City!
2. Go with a buddy
Not only is it safer to ride with someone else in case of an emergency, but it’s more fun to share the experience with another rider. I ended up riding solo, because I decided to do the trip at the last minute and couldn’t quickly find someone else who agreed with my schedule.
It was a great experience solo, but in some spots I was quite nervous that if I got in trouble I wouldn’t see another soul for more than 24 hours.
3. Allow enough time for the journey and side trips
Unfortunately, due to some other obligations, I had to squeeze the trip into a very short 8-day timeframe. Most people allow at least two weeks for the journey.
With fourteen days of riding it means less hours on the bike each day. This also allows you to take some day-long breaks in a city or two, and to enjoy plenty of side trips.
They key is to allot enough time for your Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure, so you never feel rushed. Rushing the trip also promotes carelessness and fatigue when riding. If I was to do it again I would schedule a month or two to properly explore and give time to relax.
4. Buy the right bike for the trip (and your skill level)
First, your bike needs to be right for the trip. A moped is easier to ride, but the small wheels and low frame can mean disaster on rougher roads. A small motorcycle is great for the terrain, but it also needs to be in decent running condition. Compare each motorcycle and moped, ask the right questions, and get the best bike for you.
Secondly, if you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, learning in the organised chaos of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City is not a good idea. Try to learn before you go, or at least get a test run in an open area if possible. If you’re uncomfortable riding a motorcycle, ask around for a moped that can handle the journey.
When you buy your motorcycle it is highly important to get the “blue cards” that come with it. These are essentially the ownership or registration cards from whoever first bought the bike, proving that the bike itself is legal.
5. Law-breaking, breakdowns and injury: Understand the risks
Technically speaking, you need a Vietnamese license to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam. But most people on a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure do not bother getting one.
Most police who check documents on the highway will wave you on once they realise you’re a tourist, I am ‘reliably informed’ this is because they’ve been told not deal with the hassle. However, if you do speak with police for whatever reason make sure to have the aforementioned blue cards.
Old motorcycles nearly always have mechanical issues, ranging from ignorable problems or a blown engine. Not to worry, in Vietnam any 12-year-old with a stick is a MacGyver and knows how to fix your bike. Just be prepared to push your bike to a small shop or get a tow from a passerby.
Be aware that by embarking on a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure you are putting yourself in harms way. Vietnamese potholes and massive trucks that fly around mountain corners can spell disaster if you’re not careful. I visited a hospital on my ride, so you need to head into this knowing the risk of injury is real.
6. Know the rules of the road
Rule #1: There are no rules. (Almost.)
There are traffic lights, but who knows if anyone will follow them. Basically, what you need to know is that the bigger vehicle always has right-of-way. This means that if a big construction truck wants to pass a big bus coming the other way, they’ll pass by crossing into the opposite lane to do so. Probably forcing you off the road.
It’s your job to anticipate this and stay safe. Give yourself a bubble of space, ride defensively and always be prepared to pull off the road. Feel free to beep at all times to warn everyone where you are – there will be no peace from all the other horns anyway!
7. Don’t get lost but do explore….
Getting lost can be fun. Then again, it can be a living hell.
Either take a map with you or use GPS. A good idea is to get a Vietnamese SIM card to put in your phone as it can be a lifesaver. You can then make calls and texts when in trouble and use GPS on your phone to find your location when (not if) you get lost!
You don’t have to stick to the Ho Chi Minh Highway the whole time. This is an Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure, so explore side roads, hidden tracks and the really faint road lines on your map. Ask locals where to go, take a day off to check out a view and generally soak it all in.
8. Don’t run out of fuel
There are long stretches on the Ho Chi Minh Highway where no petrol stations exist. Make sure you fill up your tank in the last town before any such stretch. Secondly, always keep a litre of fuel in your backpack or strapped to your motorcycle as back-up.
9. Pack wisely and don’t overload
It is tempting to take a lot of gear with you, but the more you have the more you need to safely fix to your bike. Panniers are useful but if this is part of a longer backpacking tour they may not be an option. Be sure your load is evenly distributed and leave some space to fit in food and drink.
10. Safety gear
Last but certainly not least you should invest in appropriate safety gear. Although local’s often do not wear helmets it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. If you ride at home bring yours with you as the Vietnamese lids are not always up to the same standards
Also don’t ride in shorts, t-shirt and sandals – if you fall there will be nothing to protect you. If full leathers are not your thing, then at least wear jeans, a robust jacket and sturdy boots.
Guided Vietnam overland motorcycling adventure
If this all sounds like a lot of fun but a lot of trouble, you can hire a guide or go on an organised motorcycle tour. They are a bit pricier than buying and selling your own motorcycle, but they will handle the logistics, take you to rarely visited sights and be on hand in case something goes wrong.
Some tours are mainly off-road on trail bikes exploring mountainous regions that are hard to reach. Others even take you down the true Ho Chi Minh Trails that were used in the Vietnam War.
So if you’re looking for a little excitement and some stories to tell, definitely consider a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure. The countryside is magnificently beautiful, the people are friendly, the history is rich, the food is phenomenal and it truly feels a like an authentic experience.
Once you find a trusty, beat-up motorcycle. Learn how to avoid the law, potholes and trucks on the wrong side of the road. There will be nothing stopping you.
We hope these 10 tips for a Vietnam overland motorcycle adventure are helpful. If you are planning a visit then check out our Vietnam discounts as you could save a fortune.