Buying and riding a motorcycle the length of Vietnam has become a bit of a backpacker tradition. I designed the following step-by-step guide to help you plan your own ride through Vietnam. I will talk about the route, buying a bike, safety, costs, and more. I’ll wrap up by talking about my experience making this journey.
The popularity of the motorcycle ride from Ho-Chi-Minh City to Hanoi began when the Top Gear guys made the ride for their Vietnam Special in 2008. You can watch the episode on youtube here.
This guide is divided into the following sections. This article is pretty long. Use the links below to help navigate.
- Common Questions about the Ride- Costs, licensing, experience, and travel time.
- Is it Safe?- Common dangers associated with the trip and how to reduce the risks.
- The Route- There are two routes you can take. This section talks about the pros and cons of each.
- Buying your Motorcycle- Which bike to buy and what to look for when making your purchase. Pros and cons of the most popular bikes used for this trip.
- Day to Day- Info on the daily routine including average mileage, accommodation, and food while on tour.
- After the Tour- Info on selling the bike or continuing on to Cambodia or Laos.
- My Experience- A brief summary of my ride through Vietnam. (This links to another page)
Common Questions About the Ride
Do you need to know how to ride a motorcycle to ride through Vietnam?
No, but it certainly helps. I met loads of people making this journey who had never ridden a motorcycle before arriving in Vietnam. IYou should know that most people end up laying their bike down at least once. I had been riding for 5 years before I made this trip and I still crashed due to a mechanical failure.
I met one pair of girls who made the ride 2 up with both of their giant backpacks strapped to the back of the bike. They had never ridden before arriving in Vietnam. I was impressed.
If you want to learn how to ride consider taking an MSF motorcycle safety course before the trip.
Do you need a drivers license to ride a motorcycle through Vietnam?
Yes. You are supposed to have an international drivers license to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam. With that being said, most people make this ride without one. Just know that if you get pulled over driving without a license, you will probably be asked for a bribe. $10-$50 should solve the problem depending on the mood of the officer who pulled you over.
How Long Does it take to ride a motorcycle the length of Vietnam?
It really depends. Ideally, allow 3-4 weeks for this trip. You could probably make the ride in as little as a week if you had to. The best way to make the trip would be to travel slow and make the journey over the course of a few months. It’s really up to you.
How Much Does it cost to buy and ride a motorcycle through Vietnam?
Even the most broke backpacker can afford this trip. In the end, I spent about the same amount of money as if I had taken buses and trains through the country. I left with a much more memorable experience. The cost brakes down like this:
- The Motorcycle- $150-$500. Used bikes start at around $150 at the low end. The Average cost for a decent used bike is around $250. At the $500 price point, you can find something new or almost new. These prices will be for Chinese models. A Japanese bike will cost much more.
- Accommodation- $10-$20 per night on average. In the cities, you can find budget hostels for around $5. I like to use Booking.com for my hotel reservations.
- Food- $5-$10 per day. You could get by on less if you’re frugal or cook for yourself.
- Gas- $50-$100 depending on your route and riding style. The country is about 1000 miles long. If you make some detours, you’ll spend a bit more on gas.
- Repairs- $100? This really depends on the condition of your bike. For an old beater like mine, I needed to spend money repairing it nearly every day. For a newer bike, you would spend significantly less. I’ll talk more in-depth about repairs later in this article.
Is it Safe to Ride a Motorcycle Through Vietnam?
No, not really. There are a number of factors that make this trip dangerous. It’s up to you to weigh the risks and reward to decide if it’s worth it. With that being said, I believe this trip is totally worth the risk. Buying a motorcycle and riding through Vietnam is still one of the most memorable trips I have made in my travels. There are also some precautions you can take to lower the risk to an acceptable level.
- Traffic- The road is pretty lawless in Vietnam. Vehicles are everywhere going in all directions. No one signals or seems to even look where they are going. The road is a sea of motorcycles at times. It feels like organized chaos.
- Bikes that are in poor mechanical condition- Most travelers cheap out and buy bikes with old parts that are prone to failure. Having your brakes fail at the wrong time, for example, could cost you.
- No experience- If you haven’t ridden before, you are more likely to crash. Most travelers I met had very limited experience riding motorcycles. It was common to see people riding with bandaged up knees and elbows. I did, however, not meet anyone with any life-threatening or trip ending injuries. Mostly just scrapes and cuts.
- Lack of quality safety gear- The only piece of safety equipment most travelers seem to use is a cheap helmet. It is difficult to find quality gear in Vietnam. Especially in sizes that will fit Westerners. It will be nearly impossible to find a riding jacket and boots in the proper size. Being ill-prepared will make the trip more dangerous.
- Poor healthcare infrastructure- If you do have a major accident in the middle of nowhere, your access to healthcare will be limited. If you fall and break a bone, you live. For something more serious, like if you hit your head for example, who knows. It’s a risk. Many parts of Vietnam don’t have cutting-edge hospitals to treat a catastrophic accident.
- Corrupt police- Sometimes foreigners are targeted for bribes. Police can spot us by the way we dress and the gear we carry. If they pull you over, they will try to find some law you are breaking and solicit a bribe.
A Note About Getting Pulled Over By the Police while riding in Vietnam
Many travelers end up getting pulled over by the police at some point during the trip. Usually for riding without a helmet or driving without an international drivers license. If you are signaled to pull over by the police, you should stop. They will most likely ask you for a bribe. You can negotiate it down, pay and be on your way. If you’re brave, consider using the following tip.
Tip: If a police officer signals for you to pull over from the side of the road, just keep riding. 9 times out of 10 they are just soliciting for a bribe and they won’t bother chasing you down. They can spot a foreigner from a mile away. If they get in their car and pull you over, then you should stop. When they ask why you didn’t stop initially, just explain that you didn’t see them or thought they were just waving hello.
Know that this could piss them off and cause them to ask for more money but it’s up to you whether or not you want to take the risk. Luckily, I was never pulled over during my trip but I was given this tip by multiple travelers I met along the way.
How to Reduce the Safety Risks
Bring safety gear from home
This is the biggest thing you can do to make the trip safer. Follow the ATGATT rule of motorcycling to protect yourself in the event of a crash. ATGATT stands for All The Gear All The Time. I recommend you at the very least bring a quality motorcycle helmet and gloves with you. If you are serious about your safety, also bring some decent boots and a riding jacket. The gear you find in Vietnam is of low quality. For example, The helmets being sold on every street corner are just cheap plastic shells with a bit of foam. No way they would pass the DOT or Snell safety test. For some more info on choosing a helmet, check out this article from Revzilla.
Make sure your bike is always in top condition
It can be annoying to have to pull over to air up a tire or tighten your chain, but it could literally save your life. I learned this the hard way when my brakes failed going down the Hai Van pass. I thought I could make it to the next town to have them serviced but I was wrong. Luckily I wasn’t injured worse than I was.
Have travel insurance
Because this is kind of a dangerous trip, you want to make sure that you are covered in case you are injured. Some hospitals may not treat you if they don’t think you can pay. I use World Nomads for my travel insurance. For more info and a free quote, check out my travel insurance page.
Learn how to ride a motorcycle before you arrive in Vietnam
Beginner classes are available to help you learn to ride. You can develop a decent amount of skill in just a weekend. I had my motorcycle license and was riding for 5 years before making this trip.
Get an international drivers license
This gives police one less thing to bother you about if you are pulled over. It also gives peace of mind knowing that you’re riding legally.
Know that most travelers who make this trip end up laying down their bikes somewhere along the way. Myself included.
The Route: Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi by Motorcycle
The distance from Ho-Chi-Minh City to Hanoi is about 1000 miles. There are two main routes that most backpackers follow.
- The easiest route is to simply follows highway 1A (the main coastal highway) all the way up the coast. This one road will take you the whole length of the country
- The more scenic route is to follow the Ho-Chi-Minh Highway (also known as the Ho-Chi-Minh trail). This road lies inland to the west of highway 1A.
You can also do a combination of the two roads. Many travelers will ride highway 1A in the south then connect with the Ho-Chi-Minh Highway when they get further North. There are pros and cons for each road:
Pros of Traveling on Highway 1A
- The highway is in good condition- It’s paved and well marked the whole way. You won’t get lost.
- Services are everywhere- No matter where you are, you will be close to a hotel, restaurant, repair shop, gas station, etc. Anything you need you can find.
- The road travels along the coast most of the way- If you like being near the sea and being able to pull off to relax on the beach, this is a plus.
Cons of Traveling on Highway 1A
- Traffic is heavy- This is especially true when you are near a city. Highway 1A is the main road between the two biggest cities in the country so it gets a lot of traffic including big trucks and buses.
- It’s not as adventurous- Again, this is a major highway. You won’t see anything off the beaten track here.
Pros of the Ho-Chi-Minh Highway
- Traffic is much lighter- You won’t have to worry about large vehicles barreling past you and your underpowered motorcycle.
- The road is much more scenic- You will travel through the mountains and valleys and experience many different types of terrain. The road is quite hilly.
- It’s more adventurous- Services are rarer so you have to be self-sufficient. This adds to the adventure in my opinion.
Cons of the Ho-Chi-Minh Highway
- The road condition is mixed- Some parts aren’t paved. I have read that there are plans to pave the entire highway in the near future. Maybe it’s already been done.
- There aren’t as many services- If you have a mechanical failure, you could be stuck. Luckily, Vietnamese people are very friendly and helpful to tourists. Someone will stop to assist you.
The Most Popular Cities to Visit
Because the country is long and skinny, most travelers follow the same route, more or less.
From South to North:
- Ho Chi Minh City
- Da Lat
- Nha Trang
- Hoi An
- Ha Long
Which Direction Should You Travel?
Most likely you will start your travels in Vietnam in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. You should start your ride wherever you are in the country. There are pros and cons for each direction.
Traveling Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi (South to North)
- More tourists seem to travel in this direction- Because of this, it will be easier to find fellow travelers to ride with.
- You will be riding along the sea- Vietnam drives on the right side of the road. Because of this, you’ll be riding next to the sea. This makes it easier to just pull off the side of the road and enjoy a deserted beach all to yourself. The view is also pretty spectacular.
- The bike will cost slightly more in Ho Chi Minh City- In general, the south is slightly more expensive. Also, because most backpackers are traveling in this direction, more people will be trying to buy bikes in the south. Demand is higher which drives up the price a bit.
- When you are ready to sell the bike, it will be slightly harder to sell and you will get a bit less money for it in Hanoi- Again, fewer travelers start in the north so it may be harder to find a backpacker to sell the bike to once you complete your trip. You can always sell it to a local though.
Traveling from Hanoi to Ho-Chi-Minh City (North to South)
- The bike will cost less- There is a greater supply of bikes in the North. You may be able to get a good deal from a backpacker who is desperate to get rid of their bike.
- If you choose to travel on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, you will tackle the more difficult part of the trip first- While traveling, I like to tackle more difficult parts first while I’m fresh and full of energy.
- Slightly fewer backpackers ride in this direction so you may have more difficulty finding someone to ride with- Chances are this won’t be a problem. Plenty of travelers ride in this direction.
- You will be riding on the side of the road opposite the beach while riding south- Because they drive on the right in Vietnam, you won’t be on the coast side of the road. This means that if you want to visit the beach, you’ll have to cross the highway.
After you decide on your route, it’s time to buy your motorcycle. You have a lot of options. New or used? Automatic or manual? Scooter or Motorcycle? What features do you want? The following section will walk you through all of your choices.
Used Vs New
- Buying used- Most backpackers choose to buy a cheap used bike for this trip. A decent used bike can be found for between $150 and $300. This is the most economical option because you can usually sell the bike for around what you paid for it.
- Buying new- A new bike can be had starting at around $600 for a cheap Chinese model. The sky is the limit from there. Imported Japanese bikes can be found starting for a few thousand dollars. Import taxes are high in Vietnam so it’s best to get something manufactured locally. The main benefit of buying new is that you know what you’re getting. Reliability should also be much better.
Buying Vs. Renting a Motorcycle in Vietnam
If you don’t want to ride the whole way, you can just rent a bike for a few days and explore a smaller area. Some companies offer one-way rentals where you can pick the bike up in one city and drop it off in another. This is a great option if you don’t have the time or desire to travel across the whole country.
Renting a bike is generally more expensive but there are benefits. For example, if you have a problem with the bike, the rental company will take care of it. They will either bring you a replacement or repair the bike at their expense. They may also offer roadside assistance if you have a problem like a flat tire for example. This all depends on the rental company.
Buying a bike gives you a little more freedom. You don’t have to worry about dealing with a rental company. If something breaks, you don’t have to wait for someone to come fix it. You just get it repaired yourself and you’re on your way. It is also a nice feeling knowing that you own your motorcycle, in my opinion. It makes for a better story as well.
A Note on Motorcycle Repairs
Over the course of the trip, you will have mechanical problems somewhere along the way. It is impossible to avoid. With used bikes and cheap Chinese parts, something is bound to break. My bike had the following problems during my trip:
- My Mirrors were stolen- After they were gone, I just did without. I probably could have bought new ones for a few dollars but I knew they’d just get stolen again.
- The Motor needed some serious work- It was running rough and would die randomly. I’m not sure exactly what the guy did but he fixed it. The repair took a few hours but only cost about $10
- The Electric start died- The bike had a kick starter so I just used that after.
- I had 3 flat tires- These are annoying but any shop can patch them for just a dollar or two.
- Repaired brakes and levers after crash- To read about my accident, check out my trip report.
- The horn stopped working- This was a problem but it happened after I arrived in Hanoi so I never got it fixed.
- The headlight stopped working- I tried a new bulb but there was something wrong with the electrical. I just didn’t ride at night after it went out.
- My rear tire wore out- I replaced it in Hue.
- The chain needed to be tightened several times- It probably was worn out but I never bothered to replace it.
As you can see, I ran into quite a few problems. With a $150 motorcycle, I expected this.
Types of Motorcycles For Sale in Vietnam
The two most common bikes you will see are:
- Honda Win: This is the most common bike that you see backpackers riding. Most are cheap Chinese knockoffs of an old Honda model. It is a 100cc motorcycle with a manual transmission. The bike is simple and easy to maintain. It also comes in a 110cc variety. I believe these were just bored out when the motor was rebuilt. I made this ride on a 100cc Honda Win.
- Chinese Scooter: I don’t remember the model name of this bike but you see them everywhere. They are very popular among locals as well. It is a 125cc automatic scooter. These cost a bit more than the Honda Win but seemed to be slightly more reliable.
Almost everyone making this trip ends up with one of these two bikes. Even though the scooter is a bit more powerful and less problematic, I would choose the Honda Win. It is a real motorcycle with a manual transmission. Something about shifting through the gears really adds to the riding experience.
Warning: Make sure to get the blue registration card when you buy the bike. This proves that you are the owner. You’ll need this if you get pulled over by the police. You’ll also need this to sell the bike to transfer ownership. It will have someone else name on it but it doesn’t matter.
If you lose the card, I don’t know what the process is to get it replaced. It may be impossible for a foreigner to do. I do know that losing the registration card will drastically lower the value of the bike if you try to sell it without.
Where to Buy and Sell a Motorcycle in Vietnam
- Hostels- Many hostels have bulletin boards where travelers will advertise their bike when they’re done with it. You could get a steal of a deal from a desperate backpacker. This is also a good way to sell your bike when you’re done with it. Selling to another tourist is much easier because you don’t have to deal with the language barrier of selling to a Vietnamese speaking person.
- Craigslist- There is a decent selection of used bikes here. It’s a good option for buying and selling.
- Facebook Marketplace- Another good place to look.
- Walking around town- Keep an eye out for bikes for sale. Also ask around when you’re out and about. There are so many motorcycles in Vietnam, someone is always looking to sell or buy. When you’re ready to sell, consider putting a for sale sign on your bike with your contact info. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get a call.
- Used Motorcycle Shops- Lots of places buy and sell bikes. Also, check out rental agencies. Sometimes they sell off their old models. You can also approach these places to sell your bike if you’re desperate. They won’t pay top dollar but it’s a good way to unload your bike if you’re in a hurry to leave the country.
What to Look For when buying a Motorcycle in Vietnam
When buying a used motorcycle, you never really know what you’re getting into. I guarantee that you will be spending some time and money maintaining the bike along the way. Cheap Chinese motorcycles are not known for their reliability.
The good news about used Chinese bikes is that pretty much any problem can be repaired for next to nothing. Cheap parts are imported from China or manufactured in Vietnam and can be found everywhere. Finding a mechanic is easy as well. Labor is very low cost.
With that being said, you should give the bike a thorough lookover before you make a purchase. The more reliable your bike is, the less time you’ll have to spend at repair shops along the way.
Things you should look at before purchasing include:
- Brakes- This is the most important part of the bike. When you go on your test ride, pay close attention to the feel of the brakes. Are they firm? Do they stop the bike quickly? If not, it’s something that you’ll have to fix before you hit the road. My brakes failed when descending down a pass and I had a nasty accident.
- Transmission- Shift through the gears a few times to make sure that they are all working. If it shifts smoothly when you buy it, chances are it will make it through the trip.
- Throttle- Twist the throttle to check that it is smooth and not snagging. If it is, you’ll have to oil it or get a new cable.
- Clutch- Pull the lever to make sure that it disengages the gears when it’s pulled. Make sure the lever operates smoothly and doesn’t catch on anything. If it does, oil it or have a new cable installed.
- Tires- Check to make sure that there is enough tread left on the tires. If not, replace them before you begin your trip.
A few additional features that you’ll want to have include:
- Electric start- Not a necessity, but nice to have. Electric start allows you to start the bike with the push of a button rather than having to kick start it every time. Mine broke about halfway through the trip and kick-starting every time got old really fast.
- Horn- You’ll use this a lot. People are constantly honking just to notify you that they are there. You’ll want to do this too. A horn is a safety feature that you’ll definitely want to have.
- Mirrors- I was told that when a Vietnamese person is riding, they don’t use their mirrors. They just keep looking forward and don’t worry about what’s going on behind them. I recommend you look for a bike with mirrors anyway. It’s nice to know when a bus or semi is about to pass you on the highway. Someone stole my mirrors while my bike was parked outside a hotel one night. Evidently, someone uses mirrors.
- Lights- Working lights is another thing that most Vietnamese riders don’t seem to care about. They don’t use them anyway. With that being said, you’ll want all of your lights to be functional anyway. Especially a headlight in case you end up riding at night. It’s also nice to be able to signal once in a while even if nobody else does it.
- Rear rack- Look for a bike that allows you to strap your luggage to the back. Most come with a rear rack and straps. If a rack isn’t included, you can purchase one at a motorcycle shop later.
Motorcycle Safety Gear
As I said earlier, this is a fairly dangerous trip. Particularly if you aren’t wearing proper safety gear. You’ll see locals riding around in t-shirts and flip-flops with a baby in their lap and a pig tied to the back of their bike. It’s not safe for them either. Before you set off, you should have the following safety gear:
- Helmet- It’s required by law for all motorcycle riders and passengers in Vietnam to wear a helmet. If you are caught not wearing a helmet, you’ll be fined. Especially as a tourist.
- Gloves- Find some thick gloves to protect your hands if you come off the bike.
Gear that you should have:
- Riding jacket and pants- A thick leather or Kevlar jacket can protect you from road rash if you lay your bike down. I know it’s hot in Vietnam, but you’ll be happy you were wearing a jacket if you end up sliding across the pavement.
- Boots- A sturdy pair of boots will protect your feet if you get into an accident.
For more info on motorcycle safety gear, check out this awesome article from Motorcycle Legal Foundation.
Day to Day Life While Riding a Motorcycle through Vietnam
After you decide on your route and buy your bike, it’s time to hit the road. The best thing about traveling with your own transportation is absolute freedom. You can spend your day however you want. If you see an interesting road, you can turn off and explore. If you see a deserted beach, you can stop and relax. No need to plan around bus or train schedules. That, in my opinion, is the best part of this trip.
Daily Riding Distance
The slower you go, the better. If you take your time, you’ll enjoy the trip much more. It’s also a lot less stressful. Aim to cover about 100-200 km per day (about 60-120 miles) maximum. That is a comfortable pace.
The furthest I rode in one day was 300km (186 miles). I was completely exhausted and covered in dust after. It took me about 10 hours to make it that far and that was without any mechanical failures.
Because you never know where you’ll end up at night, it’s best not to book accommodation ahead on this trip. You could find an interesting village where you want to explore and stay the night. You could run into mechanical problems and only make it a few miles down the road. Options for accommodation include:
- Budget hotels or guesthouses- Pretty much every town has these. A room goes for $10-$20 per night. I like to use Booking.com to make hotel reservations.
- Hostels- Cities on the main tourist trail all have hostels. A bed in a dorm goes for $5-$15.
- Camping- If you travel with a tent, you can camp occasionally. This is a good way to save some money. Vietnam is fairly densely populated so it may be a challenge to find a suitable spot but you can always ask around. In less populated places, wild camping is possible.
The only problem you may run into is the language barrier. Outside of the main cities, most people don’t speak any English. You may want to carry a pen and paper to write prices down when negotiating.
One of the greatest parts of this trip is the foods. Vietnamese cuisine is excellent and affordable. Even in tiny villages, you can find someone serving up some tasty pho or bánh mì on a roadside stand. These make for a nice, quick meal for just a couple of dollars. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also available everywhere. Juices and smoothies give a nice energy boost after a long day in the saddle. You could probably get by on a less than $5 per day food budget if you’re thrifty.
After the Tour
After you cross Vietnam by motorcycle, you have a couple of options.
Selling the Motorcycle
It’s pretty easy to sell a motorcycle in Vietnam. Allow yourself a few days at the end just to make sure you have enough time to advertise and make a sale. If you price the bike fairly, it should sell quickly. Don’t be afraid to take a small loss on the bike. You just put a lot of wear and tear on it over the past 1000+ miles, after all. I sold mine for about 20 bucks less than I paid for it.
If after riding for a few days, you decide that motorcycle travel just isn’t for you, you can always sell the bike wherever you are. I had a couple offers on my bike mid-tour. It wouldn’t have been a problem to sell it in any decent sized town in Vietnam.
Continuing on to Cambodia or Laos
All you need to cross to either country is your little blue registration card proving that you own the motorcycle.
- Laos- If you end your trip in the North of Vietnam, you can continue on to Laos with your bike. Destinations in Laos include Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, and 4000 Islands. From Laos, you can continue South to Cambodia.
- Cambodia- If you end your trip in the South of Vietnam, you can continue on to Cambodia with your bike. Destinations in Cambodia include Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kampot, and Siem Reap. From Cambodia, you can continue north to Laos.
Bringing the Motorcycle to Thailand
It may or may not be possible to continue on to Thailand with your motorcycle. They have much more strict requirements for crossing the border with a vehicle. They may also require that you have an international drivers license. I have heard of people successfully crossing into Thailand with their Vietnam bought bike. I also heard of people being turned away. Maybe some borders are more lenient than others.
My Experience Riding a Motorcycle Through Vientam
This trip was pure adventure. I experienced highs and lows. From viewing what was maybe the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever experienced to having my brakes go out while descending a pass. I experienced absolute freedom.
If you’re interested in reading the whole report of my ride, check out my article: My Experience Buying a $150 Motorcycle and Riding Through Vietnam
Would I do it Again?
Absolutely, yes! Next time, I may go by bicycle as I recently got into bicycle touring.
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