“I suddenly found myself looking straight into the headlights of a semi truck barreling down the mountain pass directly at me. The driver decided to pass a bus around a blind turn on a two lane road and I had seconds to react. Jerking my motorbike off the road and onto the dirt shoulder, we were unable to speak we’d come so close to inevitable peril. It was in that moment that I realized there was only one rule of the road in Vietnam, if you’re smaller than another vehicle get out of the way!”
There’s an estimated 45 million motorbikes in Vietnam. With a population of around 93 million people, that’s nearly one motorbike for every other person. Include children in the mix and you get the point, there’s a lot of motorbikes in Vietnam! Now combine that with virtually no enforcement of traffic laws and you’ve got a very wild place to drive.
Why Did I Decide To Do This?
“This wasn’t planned. In all honesty, I randomly thought of the idea a week before heading to Vietnam and just decided, why not?”
Simply put, I love Vietnam. The people, the smells, the food, the organized chaos of it all. It’s got everything you want for a real adventure. I’d visited Vietnam on a previous journey and opted to take the train across the country, but this time I yearned for something more. Renting a motorbike to explore a new place has always been one of my favorite activities, but I’d never dabbled in a long term adventure with my gear before. I’d long had a romanticized notion of a long adventure with only a bike and a backpack, and the events in my life transpired to the perfect storm for this to happen. I also know that many travelers motorbike across Vietnam, so it could be done, and while there was undoubtedly a lot of risk, it was something that I needed to do.
“I was on the fence about doing this trip as I knew it was not the safest thing in the world, but my desire for adventure outweighed my concerns.”
My girlfriend and I had just finished a month traveling/working remotely in Indonesia and we decided that Vietnam would be our next stop. After a week eating our way through Saigon, we finally made the somewhat crazy, but awesome idea that we were going to do this adventure. The first decision was where and what type of motorbike to buy. I’d read that many travelers opt to buy a really cheap bike from one of the vendors off the Bui Vien road. These older bikes you could get for a couple hundred bucks, but they are notoriously unreliable, and often fake Chinese rip offs which pretend to be real brands. As we were going to be traveling two people on one bike and with a month of travel ahead, we opted to visit Jon over at Tigit Motorbikes who’s built a business around buying and selling motorbikes to travelers, for the specific purpose of going across the country. He provided us with recommendations on routes and a great motorbike which if we made it back in one piece he would buyback from us for about 70% of it’s value. I paid $1,000 for my 125cc Honda Blade with an agreement that they’d purchase it back for us at around $700 when we reached Hanoi in the north.
“We’d been recommended a few different routes and knew some places we wanted to see, but in general our path was very unplanned and random, which is how I tend to live my life anyways.”
The idea was to travel from Saigon to Hanoi over the course of one month. The trip lasted for 28 days and we travelled over 1,500 miles. We could have completed the journey in far less time, but we like to move slow and I was working remotely throughout the journey so we’d stay a few nights in different places with work days in between travel days.
“We seriously underestimated the intensity of Vietnamese jungles. We were attacked by leaches, had close encounters with venomous snakes, and were repeatedly told that there were numerous creatures all around us that were very dangerous. I can’t even fathom the idea of fighting a war in there…”
- Type: Honda Blade 125cc
- Name: El Tigre Blanco (White Tiger)
Besides my pack which has been with me through 70+ countries, I don’t think I’ve ever had an attachment to a material possession like I did this motorbike. She wasn’t the most beautiful bike, she wasn’t the fastest bike, and she unquestionably had some problems along the way. But she got us through some fun times and scary times with very little harm done and if I could, I would have shipped her back to my home in the USA to keep forever.
“The real highlights of a journey like this are all the little random things that happen in between destinations. A street-side meal, a random conversation with a stranger, a curve in the road that takes you to a different world.”
I could write an entire book about the adventures and misadventures that we experienced on this journey. If I had to rate this journey on a scale of 1 – 10 we truly experienced a 1 as well as a 10 and everything in between. Riding a motorbike across a country like Vietnam takes patience and nerves of absolute steel if you want to survive in one piece. Here are some of my favorite places.
We decided to take an inland route at first heading to the city of Da Lat after a couple days exploring the jungles of southern Vietnam. At one point, Da Lat was the capital of French Indochina so it seemed like a good place to spend some time. This smaller city feels like a different world than the rest of Vietnam. It’s up high in the mountains, so even in summer the weather is cool, which is probably the primary reason the French wanted to stay there. It’s got an old colonial feel, amazing mountains and waterfalls to explore, and one of the most unique bars I’ve ever come across, and I’ve spent a lot of time in bars. (It’s called the 100 Roof Bar, go there).
“The drive from Da Lat to Phang Rang is one of the most spectacular parts of the journey across Vietnam. You ride through gorgeous mountains and eventually out to the ocean. Whatever you do, don’t skip this!”
Cam Lap Peninsula
The only sad thing about this place is you will find trash in the ocean. I watched a local women literally dump a trash bag into the ocean, like that was her normal procedure. Besides that, you’ve got a beach and landscape that absolutely rivals anything I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. There are only very basic, grassroots accommodations and the only tourists we saw here were Vietnamese. It’s basically just fisherman, gorgeous clear blue ocean and jungle.
Life’s a Beach Hostel
A British guy started an amazing little hostel near a fishing village near the town of Bai Xep which is just south of the city of Qui Nhon. The Life’s a Beach Hostel is paradise, simply put. You’ve got a gorgeous strip of beach with clear warm water, a fun hostel that attracts travelers of all shapes and colors, cheap cold draft beer flowing all day, and comfortable air conditioned rooms. I planned on staying a night and ended up staying for three. After many nights in random guesthouses off the beaten track, this was a great place to relax and meet other travelers/riders who are partaking in the journey across Vietnam.
“We decided to take the long way to Hoi An, heading through the central highlands of Vietnam where the war was at its worst. Battle scars, indigenous tribes, and gorgeous stretches of jungle roads, this felt like the most adventurous part of the journey. These were the places where we would buy a water bottle of gasoline off an old lady selling snacks and strap it to our motorbike because there was nothing around…”
I’m typically not fond of the super touristy parts of a country, and Hoi An is definitely this. That being said, there’s absolutely a reason. Take stunning old french colonial architecture and combine it with some of the best food you can find in Asia, and that’s Hoi An. You could spend a month in this place and not run out of things to do. Find a restaurant called Morning Glory and order the eggplant dish. Drink beers along the river at a little plastic table and take in the lanterns. Pay a farmer to ride his water buffalo through the rice fields. If you are a remote worker, this is the place to spend your time. We were unlucky enough to experience a typhoon during our time there, but sitting on a little balcony in the old town and working with the rain pouring down beside me is the best office I’ve ever had…
“The ocean feels like a hot tub in Da Nang. Seriously…”
This place was so unexpectedly awesome, I can’t recommend it enough. While Hanoi and Saigon have their own distinct vibes, with a lot of French influence and old world charm, Da Nang feels like a world away. It’s a much more modern city, with a dragon bridge that spits fire, limestone mountains with buddhist temples, and a massive stretch of fabulous beach. The ocean water is so warm and the summer days are so hot that the beach is empty during the day. However as soon as the sun sets, everyone flocks to the beach to hangout. While so many tourists that come to Vietnam hit Saigon, Hoi An, and Hanoi as their main spots, Da Nang is often overlooked.
Hai Van Pass
Anyone who talks about motorbiking across Vietnam mentions this mountain pass. In fact, even when the dudes from Top Gear motorbiked across part of this beautiful country they mentioned the beauty of this pass. You’re basically cruising along the side of a mountain that looks over the ocean. Regardless of how popular this route is, don’t miss it…
“Cruising full speed through gorgeous jungle mountains, admittedly going a bit too fast, I ran over the biggest snake I’ve seen in real life. I was coming around a corner, the road was wet and this big, black snake was stretched across the entire road from shoulder to shoulder. I was so scared that when I made contact it would jump up and bite me that I held my legs up to my handlebars.”
Caves so big they served as hospitals and ammunition depots during the war. That sums up Phong Nha. You’ve got these spectacular limestone mountains that are hollow at the center. There’s a restaurant where you have to kill your own chicken before you eat it, a huge river, and a very backpacker friendly atmosphere of bars and restaurants. Apparently there are still active landmines in the area left over from the war, so watch your step, but this national park is one of the most beautiful parts of Vietnam.
This place is magical. Green/yellow fields with sharp rivers and limestone mountains all around you. The latest King Kong movie was shot here and you can see why. Old women hustle boat trips, rowing you under an intense sun, through caves, and winding little rivers. Find the lying dragon mountain and take the stairs to the top for a spectacular view or just get lost driving your motorbike trying to avoid chickens, cows, and children along the dirt roads and villages. It’s a very slow paced and peaceful place, with a plethora of amazing guesthouses. You could spend days here doing nothing, but sitting in a hammock and staring at the amazing world before you.
Motorbike Across Vietnam
“Besides one small crash going over some gravel, our journey was free from major problems. Try and bring as little with you as possible, you can easily ship extra clothes or things you don’t need on the train from Saigon to Hanoi. Our biggest pain was the luggage rack snapping every couple days and having to get it welded over and over again.”
The cliche statement that the journey is more important than the destination cant hold true more than an adventure like this. While some of the above destinations are a good start if you’re planning to motorbike across Vietnam, there are so many incredible adventures to be had along the way. I have five pieces of advice for anyone partaking in this amazing journey:
- Invest in a solid rain jacket and pants
- Make sure you get a helmet with a visor
- Avoid gravel like the plague
- Watch your speed, animals and debris pop out regularly
- ‘Day‘ means full, as in your gas tank and ‘Han‘ means welder – you will need those two things