Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
My first day on a bike...

So you want to see the real Vietnam - live with the people, learn the language, mosey on down rural roads. The problem is, foreign travel is highly restricted -- Westerners can only spend the night in a government-certified hotel, and they only exist in larger towns. What to do?

photo Go out and buy the rattiest motorbike you can find. Throw a handful of dirt in the gas tank and head for the countryside. Eventually you'll break down. Take the bike to the village mechanic. Sooner or later (probably sooner) the police will come to see you. Point at the bike and shrug (try to convey hope, sorrow, helplessness, and resignation in a single, four-inch drop of your shoulders). Since there will almost certainly be no bus to take you to the nearest provincial capital, you will have no choice but to stay in the village (probably at the home of the mechanic) until the bike is fixed.

If it's less than 100 cc, it's a moped. If it's 100 cc or larger, it's a motorbike. If its larger than 125 cc, it's illegal (the ones you see will probably be owned by the rich sons of party officials and those connected to a government law-enforcement agency).

  1. Here's what I was told were the requirements for a local drivers' license:
  2. Fluency in Vietnamese
  3. One year's residency in Vietnam
  4. Ownership papers for the bike (these are impossible to get since it is illegal for foreigners to own a motorbike)
  5. Renewal of your license every time you extend your visa (every 2 - 30 days)
  6. And finally -- If you own a bike larger than 125 cc you are required to do public service and join a motorcycle association -- and have plenty of spare cash to pay off the men in blue.

You can try offering an international driver's license (with the motorcycle stamp) when you get stopped but it never saved me from getting fined (although the $5 bill inside of it did). If you don't have an international license (or don't have the motorcycle stamp in yours) then you can:

  • Find a westerner who has one and borrow his
  • Photocopy it
  • white out the driver's name and put in your own
  • photocopy it
  • insert your photo
  • laminate it
  • Presto! In Vietnam if it's laminated it must be genuine.
  • Now slide a five dollar bill inside of it and keep it handy (with a photocopy of your visa and passport).

The wind in your hair, the sun at your back, the freedom to stop whenever you please...

It is probably the cheapest way to get around (at speed) under your own power.

It puts you into contact with locals, particularly if you break down.

Unless you brought your own bike, breakdowns will probably become a regular part of your life.

Monsoon rain. You'll think you've inherited the Flood from Noah.

Sun. Your blisters will have blisters.

Traffic. It's like one of those space invader video games only when you lose, you die.

The roads (particularly in rural areas) are about as smooth as a newly plowed field.

Potholes you can live in.

To a Vietnamese truck driver, there is no such thing as the wrong side of the road.

There are no ambulances in Vietnam.

Nineteen miles in eight hours is good progress...

In the city the exhaust fumes can be dense enough to cut with a karate-chop.

The first day is always the worst...

Do not buy a bike larger than 125 cc. Technically it's illegal. I had a Honda 450 and it caused me endless problems. Not only did the police pounce on it whenever possible, but it was a magnet for local Vietnamese men. Within five minutes of parking the bike it would be swamped by young men playing with the clutch and accelerator, sitting on it and bouncing and blowing the horn. Which, of course, attracted the police. The clutch cable broke every other day from all the attention - I got into the habit of carrying a spare cable in my back pocket.

You can put two people and packs on one bike (even a 125 cc Minsk) but don't expect to be comfortable.

Do not ride at night - many Vietnamese cars/motorbikes don't use their headlights. Bicyclists usually don't have headlights.

Helmets. They're hot, they're heavy, they get stolen, and they protect your most important body part... buy one and use it.

If you get into an accident, assume it's your fault. Everyone else (including the police) will. Pay off the other driver quickly and get away before a crowd gathers and the police get involved.

Be careful where you park your bike, even if it looks like an official parking place and costs money. I went to see some Cham temples and left the bike in the care of the ferryman at the river crossing - and returned to find the tires deflated and the horn stolen. The fellow who was "watching" the bike (for a fee) just shrugged and grinned.

If you park in established parking lots you'll be given a receipt for your bike. Don't lose it.

If you come across a Honda 450 with a "500" label on the gas tank (and a weld mark at the base of the left muffler) for sale, don't buy it.

If you need to make repairs, buy the best parts available. Otherwise as I discovered you'll shortly be repairing your repairs...

Hondas are the most reliable and the most expensive.

Minsks are considerably less reliable but legal (125cc) to ride and ubiquitous, which means they won't be targets for theft and tinkering and will be easier to have repaired.

Everyone I met who had a Jawa or other Eastern European make bike was frothing at the mouth in frustration.

That said, my Honda broke down 52 times in four months (sometimes were worse than others). A good friend of mine rode his hideously reliable Minsk from Hanoi to Saigon with nothing more than an occasionally fouled spark plug.

BUYING: If you are not returning to your point of origin (i.e., Saigon to Hanoi) then you need to buy a bike. Check the backpacker cafe bulletin boards to see what's for sale.

Look the bike over very carefully before you buy it. It's easy to take a bike to a shop and have it spiffed up so that it runs well for a few days.

Give yourself time to sell your bike when you reach your destination before you have to leave the country - or else you may be swallowing a considerable financial loss.

Be aware that foreign tourists are not allowed to own motorbikes - you will not be able to register the bike in your own name. If you buy it new then you may be able to leave it under the ownership of the shop (a risk). If you buy it from another foreigner then they will probably already have gotten some sort of usable paperwork - my bike was registered in the name of a Vietnamese man who owned it way back in 1979. I suspect it had since gone through at least fifty owners since then - it spent its time cruising back and forth between Saigon and Hanoi. I was twice fined for having an "old" registration.

   RENTING: If you plan to return to your point of origin (or just putter around a city) then by all means rent. It's relatively inexpensive and will save you lots of headaches. Make sure the agreement you sign is in English and that you rent from a solid-looking shop (or backpacker cafe). Vietnam is not a great place to learn how to ride a motorbike.

The Law of Tonnage. You are somewhat better off than a bicycle.

If you have no choice but to run over an animal (chicken, dog, even a pig) hit it straight on and try to get over it. Better them than you. There are no ambulances in Vietnam.

People often leave unhusked sheaves of rice lying across the road so that trucks and buses will separate the rice from the husks. Drive right over them. They also leave sheets of corrugated metal to be flattened by successive vehicles. You want to be a little more careful of those.

The edge of the road is often obstructed by long carpets of drying rice, coffee, peanuts, etc. The shoulder is also the depository for broken-down bicycles, water-buffalo carts, trucks, and buses. Don't always assume it's a safe bail-out zone.

Virtually every Vietnamese man over 12 is a mechanic (or thinks he is). The better ones can do magic with motorcycle repairs. They charge a trivial amount of money. If you do break down, ask at the nearest hut for the local mechanic or just pull up to the house that has the soda bottle of gasoline sitting on a small stool on the side of the road. If you have an unusual brand bike, carry your own spare parts.

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