Over 10 years ago Top Gear broadcast their travels across Vietnam and the amazing beauty and thrill of doing this by motorbike. Watching their journey along with millions around the world a dream formed in me to experience this myself one day. Like most, though, I never actually imaged I would achieve that dream.
First impressions of Vietnamese traffic are fear and confusion. You see tourists standing for several minutes at the roadside, hoping that a break in the constant stream of two wheeled vehicles will occur to let them cross. A symphony of horns join with the whine of hundreds of 50cc mopeds as riders criss-cross through junctions ignoring red lights, one way signs and any other impediment to their intended direction of travel.
It doesn’t help when you learn that road crashes in Vietnam are responsible for nearly 1 death per hour, with over 8,200 deaths in 2018. For comparison in Great Britain in 2018 there were only 1,782 fatalities, despite faster roads and only a third less population.
It is funny though how quickly you adjust to local conditions. After only a couple of days of dodging beeping bikes and the sirens of buses and trucks (they have siren like warnings when indicators are on to help avoid collisions with the swarms of motorcyclists that scramble around them) I began to feel at home on the streets of Hanoi.
Appreciating the fact that traffic laws in Vietnam are like the Pirate’s Code I felt confident enough that I considered again living the Top Gear dream.
I spent some time researching various companies and finally settled on Style Motorbikes. I liked the fact that they had shops across the country so if you got into difficulty en route assistance would be a little bit closer, as well as the fact they have a 24 hour WhatsApp helpline. Thanks to Vietnam’s awesome mobile phone coverage this meant assistance was always a phone call away. They also had some brilliant reviews which reassured me.
Unlike the Top Gear guys who had an entire support crew of 30+ people I would be on my own and this connection to a helpline that could offer assistance in Vietnamese and English was really appreciated.
I went to the Style Bikes shop in Hanoi intending to just look around and without even taking my name I was being given the opportunity to test drive my bike of choice. A beautiful red Honda CB 150.
It had been a few years since I last rode a bike and it showed when I stalled twice going round the block! Never one to be put off by minor set backs though I felt happy with the bike itself and before I could stop and properly think about the risk I was taking I found myself putting down a deposit for the next day.
The staff were incredibly helpful, providing a map and guidance on which routes to take, where to sleep and where to avoid. In particular I was warned about the police I may meet on the trip, as there is a small issue when renting a bike in Vietnam, especially for those from the UK and other European countries…
Licences and Insurance in Vietnam
The issue with riding legally in Vietnam is that what is acceptable is still up for debate. You can certainly ride with a Vietnamese Driving Licence but being unlikely to pass any test in Vietnamese I discounted this option immediately.
You could use an International Driving Permit however historically the UK was under a different treaty to Vietnam and for a long time was not accepted. I also did not have an IDP and you cannot apply once in the country.
The ability to use an IDP from the UK may have changed in recent years but it is still a regulatory minefield. Advice from local bike suppliers is despite what official guidance may say there are likely to be local police who have different lists of acceptable documents to central government and they sum it up simply;
The situation is a such a mind blowing mess that no official in Vietnam, be it a government official or a policeman, has any idea what they are doing.https://www.tigitmotorbikes.com/international-drivers-license/
This is the reason the vast majority of tourists in Vietnam end up riding without a valid licence. Unlike the UK and Western countries the penalties for doing so are fairly trivial, providing nothing else goes wrong.
A donation to the coffee fund of the officer who stopped you should normally be sufficient to keep you on the road. There are sometimes more stringent enforcement of the rules in some places, and it could end up costing a bit more, but the backpacker grapevine can help you avoid these places. Mui Ne is a prime example where large bribes or confiscation occur;
The starting point of the negotiation often being around 5 million VND (about £180) [in Mui Ne, whilst] the standard police bribe in Vietnam is 200,000vnd (about £7)https://www.tigitmotorbikes.com/mui-ne-police-sand-dune-trap
The problem occurs if there is an accident. Your travel insurance is unlikely to cover you as you are riding illegally and you can be on the hook for enormous medical costs for yourself and anyone else involved.
Rental places simply check your passport before sending you out onto the streets and the discussion of licences is simply avoided but it is worth knowing you have no legal backing.
The Decision to Ride
You may be wondering why, given the fatality statistics and legal risks, anyone would still decide to rent a bike instead of using the buses and trains.
It is something I can only truly answer now having completed the trip.
There is so much more to Vietnam than the backpacker cities can show you, and getting to these more remote rural areas is nigh on impossible without your own two wheels. You can hire a driver and sit on the back of a bike as they take you around but there is nothing that matches the experience of your hands on the handlebars, the wind in your face and the open road winding through mountains and valleys of natural beauty.
Travelling through tiny villages where you’re instantly recognised as a visitor and children run in groups to shout “HELLO” and wave as you pass. Locals who don’t speak any English but smile and welcome you to their towns and homes. Random rest stops for lunches in places where there is no menu and you have to mime eating and receive a surprise dish which is usually delicious.
I’ve never been a fan of being on the back of a bike and the difference of being in control of your own destiny and plans is impossible to overstate.
The good news is that once you get out of the cities the roads become, somewhat, safer and the Vietnamese pace of life is such that going above 30mph will see you in the fastest group of vehicles on the road in the majority of places.
So invest in a good helmet, not the free tin can provided with the bike, take sensible precautions such as avoiding riding in the rain or at night, remember it is about the journey and travel slow to appreciate what you see along the way and be prepared to stop at any point when the unexpected happens!
Then get a bike you feel comfortable with and head out on that open road, because there is an entire country to experience.