One of the first things you’ll notice when you exit the airport terminal into Vietnam is the number of motorbikes and mopeds flooding the roads. This sight multiplied, if you’ve never set foot in another densely populated Asian country before.
It’s mental. But riding a motorbike in Vietnam is all but essential for most people. Both expats and locals alike.
Whilst you may think “absolutely not” as soon as you see the chaos at a junction at rush hour, it’s not as bad as it first might seem. Honest.
Largely, how successful you are (success deemed by limb retention and blood loss) depends on how cautious you are willing to be and how calm you can keep.
Basic Rules of the Road
The rules of riding a motorbike in Vietnam? There are no rules. More like guidelines. But guidelines that are blurred, and not actually written anywhere.
So there are no guidelines to be honest. In fact if you were to try and write ‘Rules of the Road in Vietnam’ on a piece of paper, it’d probably end up blowing down the wrong side of a dual carriageway bursting into flames.
That said, there are ways to be safe and things that people do that you absolutely should. And, on the flip side, things that they do that you absolutely shouldn’t.
- Drive on the right side
- Slow down for every junction
- Stick to the right side until you get a little more confidence
- Stick in a group of bikes going the same direction if you can
- Keep your back brake covered in traffic or at junctions
Do’s and Dont’s:
Do: Use your horn for anything and everything you feel
If someone is indicating in any direction you know which way they are going to turn, right? Wrong. The amount of indicators left on whilst the driver of a bike or lorry texts is absurd. You just can’t guarantee what they are going to do.
If you are overtaking, and try do it on the left hand side, then beep as you pull out, and beep as you pull in.
Don’t reserve this just for cars that are indicating though, anytime you might feel a little close to a car or even pedestrian, beep.
You can’t really overuse your horn. It’s a good tool at keeping you safe and making sure people know you’re coming past.
Don’t: Overtake Unless You are 100% Certain You Won’t Die
Simple. But lots of people crash because they under or overtake and completely misjudge it. Remember, chill out and slow down. Can you afford to wait 2 minutes until you get a better window to do it? Probably.
If you’re rushing to overtake and suddenly the truck or car decides they are pulling in (or another bike comes out of nowhere) then you’re in a bit of shit.
Cockiness and rushing will get you nowhere.
Do: Check Mirrors and Check Behind You, Then Do it Again
Remember when you learnt to drive a car, you had to check mirrors all the time?
Yeah, do that here. And, if you need, glance back quickly on both sides. You basically need to be like Regan in the Exorcist. Just with faster head spinning and less vomit.
Don’t: Forget it’s THE RIGHT Side of the Road
This got us a couple of times on arrival, and it feels stupid having to write it. But it’s an easy mistake to make if you get a little comfortable.
How do you know when you’ve pulled the wrong way down a busy road? Easy, you’ll feel your pants fill up, and then the lights of the oncoming traffic starts to flash.
Focus on sticking to the right side of the road. And THINK every time you pull up to a junction.
Having to quickly do a U turn with 15 trucks speeding at you isn’t very fun.
Do: Wear Your Helmet
Seriously, don’t be an idiot. Or actually, maybe leave it off. You probably deserve what’s coming. And that’s either the Grim Reaper or a Police Officer that needs a bit of extra cash this month.
Once you get over the initial fear and get used to your bike, you’ll still want to keep a lid on those urges to speed on busy roads or nip through traffic.
It can feel frustrating and slow, but it does stop you becoming another statistic or news report in your local paper at home.
Equipment for Riding
AGAIN absolutely remember to always ride with your helmet. A pollution mask can help for those busy city rides and get rid of that furry pollution feeling you can get from spending 30 minutes with your face in someones exhaust. Your lungs will thank you too.
Hanoi especially is BADLY polluted, which means we never leave without a mask.
The other benefit is they hide your face…more on why shorty…
Also don’t forget to get a helmet. Try and get a reasonable one too, as often the ones that are sold alongside cigarettes, Red Bull and Bun Cha aren’t going to do the trick if you end up taking flight over your handlebars.
A poncho is always a good idea too, and if you are going to be living in Vietnam for some time, then it’s worth getting one from one of the bigger commercial stores that also offers a see through square in the front to allow your headlights to shine through.
- Pollution Mask
Motorbike Licence in Vietnam
You don’t need a license to get a motorbike in Vietnam. But if you can get an international drivers license at home, then it’s worth looking into.
Although when you see your first 8 year old riding a semi automatic bike you’ll wonder why you bothered.
They can maybe help if you get pulled over, but this isn’t a guarantee as it’s generally going to be your wallet and not your driving that is of interest.
Dealing with Traffic Officers / Getting Pulled Over
Generally, chances are you’ll get pulled over at some point whilst riding a motorbike on the roads in Vietnam.
Don’t freak out and be prepared to pay a bribe for whatever reason the traffic cop cooks up. Also, remember, smiles, politeness and and effort to speak Vietnamese to the office CAN go a long way. But, not always. Do it regardless though.
Getting pulled over is nothing personal, although it can feel it. It’s kind of ingrained that because you’re a westerner you’ll have some money. So the particular cop probably just needs a little bit of cash for Christmas or Tet.
One good way to ensure you don’t get absolutely fleeced is to have a smaller wallet with around 500,000 VND in change in it that’s easily accessible.
When you get pulled and the money thing comes up, pull this out and open it up so the officer can see inside. This will keep them from jacking up the bribe into the millions.
Avoiding Being Pulled Over
To avoid being pulled over on a motorbike in Vietnam you can always cover up. Buy yourself a cheap mask (one of the pollution ones) and wear a pair of sunglasses.
Also keep your arms covered, this just draws less attention to you and offers a slight bit of protection.
This won’t guarantee you won’t get pulled up, but can reduce the chances.
Bottom line: Drive sensible. Don’t speed, wear your helmet and if you get pulled over, be smiley, polite and respectful.
Hierarchy on the Roads
The roads come with a pretty strict hierarchy in Vietnam. Like a food chain. If it’s big, get out of it’s way.
Keep your head on a swivel and remember that big lorry you might ‘just nip out in front of’, probably can’t, and won’t, really slow down for you. Leaving you with a chance it’ll just leave you as a smudge on the bumpy road surface and your bike reduced to parts.
In short, don’t chance it. Buses also have a hard time seeing you and so just pull in and out when they want.
Cars might be a little more forgiving, but again, unless you are certain you know what they’re going to do, is probably not worth the risk of overtaking or pulling out in front of.
Here’s the unspoken pecking order on the roads:
- Transfer Trucks
It’s best to presume that every vehicle on the road is going to try and knock you off. Then at least you’ll be over cautious, which in a country of around 14,000 road deaths a year (half motorbikes) is no bad thing.
Just go slow, keep your head on a swivel and don’t drive like a dick. No matter how confident you feel or frustrated you get.
Where to Rent a Bike in Vietnam
Every man and his dog would rent you a motorbike in Vietnam. A Google search can return a dizzying amount of results. And often hotels and places you stay can offer up a bike for a little bit of an extra payment.
Cheaper bikes can come in as low as $5-10 for a week. And if you’re looking for something bigger that can clock up more milage, then you’ll end up paying more.
Both of our bikes for 2 days when we did Hai Van Pass came in at $40 for 2 nights with free bag transfer between Hue and Hoi An.
We got a fully automatic Yamaha Nouvo (135cc). An amazing bike and crucially very well maintained by MotorVina. We had absolutely no issues and would strongly recommend them for people looking for a temporary bike rental in Vietnam.
Their customer service was perfect and everything seamless. Our bags were waiting patiently in Hoi An when we arrived too.
The bikes are safe, checked out and the helmets are sturdy. It’s always better to go with someone reputable like MotorVina.
These idiots approve of MotorVina!
In Hanoi we rent from RentABike in Tay Ho.
As we are still getting used to riding a bike we rent a fully automatic for $75 a month. This is a little on the pricey side, but our bike is of good quality and the service they provide is excellent.
You can rent a semi-automatic for only $45 a month.
Ellie had a minor bump with the floor in a carpark and the staff at RentABike were extremely forgiving. They replaced the broken wing mirror and light fitting for a very small fee.
And when told about the accident they only asked whether Ellie was ok and said that was all that mattered.
What a service!
Alternatives Transport to Bikes in Vietnam
Of course, if this rambling post about driving a motorbike in Vietnam has completely put you off then there are always Taxi’s or Grab.
Taxis and Grab
Grab is basically Uber, and can even be used to get a motorbike instead of a car if you want. The risk though, is that these guys might do the opposite of everything mentioned in this blog post.
In fact we personally know another teacher who has a cracked pelvis from a Grab Bike making a ridiculous error and pulling around a car.
You can easily download Grab when you get here, and even the cars aren’t that pricey.
Buses are reliable and frequent. Once you understand the timetable then they can provide a great and safe alternative to the roads.
However they can be slow and often late, so plan well in advance.
If you’re reading this because you’re considering learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, then our advice is that you absolutely should.
It’s terrifying at first, and you’ll probably have a few little bumps along the way. But once you’re confident you’ll appreciate the freedom and will even begin to load up your bike with various items like the locals.
We’ve mastered two people and 3 x 18 litre bottles of drinking water!
We’d say a motorbike is an essential if you’re staying in Vietnam for an extended period.
Be sensible, be wary of hazards, don’t go too fast and don’t catch your leg on the exhaust.