My daily journals didn’t really sum up my experience on the bike riding through Vietnam. In the moment it’s a lot easier to write and elaborate on the bad experiences than the good. Having finished the ride these are my thoughts on the whole.
I’m very glad I did it. I heard about riding a bike across Vietnam when I was travelling last year and I knew it was something I wanted to do. There were ups and down to the trip, but there would have been regret if I didn’t do it. Looking back on the trip there are a ton a great memories that I expect will be some of the longest lasting from this trip.
I got very lucky to find an awesome group to do it with. James, Beegan and Storey were on the same bus as me to Luang Prabang. We ended up sharing a tuk tuk to the hostel where we all happened to be staying. Danny ended up in the same room as them, and we were all thinking about motorbiking through Vietnam. I wouldn’t have done the trip on my own, so I got lucky to find them.
Off the beaten track can be overrated. Motorbiking through Vietnam you’re forced to stay in some places that very few foreigners will ever visit. This can be a great way to see authentic culture, but isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Our second night we stopped in Yen Cat after a long day of wet/cold riding. We were met with a lot of hostility and cold stares. Sure, we were in their village and couldn’t speak the language, but it was a struggle to even find somewhere willing to serve us food.
Bikes aren’t nearly as comfortable as I imagined. I spend quite a lot of time in a bike saddle, so I figured sitting on a motorbike seat would be no problem. I was wrong. It’s fine for an hour or two, but after that they can be extremely uncomfortable.
A good poncho is essential equipment. My bike came with a quality, full body poncho. It got a lot of use because we were forced to ride through some really heavy rain. I couldn’t imagine doing it without one.
The A1 isn’t nearly as bad as some people claim. A lot of people told us to avoid the A1 at all costs; ‘it’s full of crazy bus and truck drivers that will run you down if you’re in their way.’ Coming into Hue we were forced on to the A1 because of our route. We stopped for lunch just before this stretch to discuss how we were going to tackle the 10k A1 stretch in front of us. Once we got on the road it was nothing like we expected. Sure, there’s buses and truck, which you have to be aware of, but there’s also a motorbike lane on the side of the road. Certain sections even have barriers separating north and south bound so you don’t have cars on your side of the road to overtake. So long as you keep your wits about you I don’t think the A1 is any less safe than any of the other roads.
It’s not worth it paying a premium to buy a bike from a shop. We decided to but bikes from Hanoi Motorbikes. It was recommended by our hostel. We liked the idea of buying bikes from a shop where they spoke English and elected to buy from a shop as opposed to another traveller because we figured they would have checked over the bikes (none of us really knew anything about bikes or what we were looking for). The customer service at Hanoi Motorbikes was horrible. It took us an entire day to buy bikes from them because they would drag their feet with everything. One of the western sales people was more interested in talking about himself than selling us bikes, and then when we were ready to pay he decided he’d rather go for lunch. We put a lot of trust in them regarding the quality of the bikes. My rear brake felt squishy when I tested it. They promised they had installed new rear brakes and that they would be good. 100k into the trip the rear brakes began to squeak because they needed to be changed. Even worse, James was having problems with a rattling. He took his bike into a shop and discovered a section of his frame that the rear wheel had been mounted to had rusted completely through and was cracked. James is extremely lucky that his rear wheel didn’t break off when he was riding. From the rust it’s clear this wasn’t a new problem for the bike, it’s something that was preexisting. The fact they would sell a bike in that condition would make me never buy a bike from them again.
If I was to do it again I’d buy a bike from a traveller. It’s much cheaper to do this than buy from a shop. With the money I saved I’d take it to a mechanic and have new brakes installed and have the entire bike looked over. A mechanic and replacement parts aren’t expensive, and this way you know everything is in good working condition, as opposed to trusting the shop selling you the bike.
When it was raining and cold I just had to remind myself what it was I was doing. There were times I was wet and miserable on the trip. All I wanted to do was pull over and get on a warm, dry bus. But then I’d just remind myself how lucky I was to be able to ride a motorbike across Vietnam and soak it all in, and my mood would perk up.
You’ll see things on other motorbikes that you’ve never seen before. 4 people on 1 small motorbike? Sure. Dozens of ducks hanging from your bike? Why not. A 90lb woman balancing a bike with what looks to be 400lb of cargo? What’s wrong with that. Motorbikes are used as family vans, ATVs, and flat beds over here, and some of the things you’ll see will never cease to amaze you.
(I wish I had a photograph for this but I was always driving when a motorbike with something strapped to it that shouldn’t be strapped to it went by)
Driving in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is insane. Intersections are a free-for-all. Vehicles from every direction will pull into the intersection with no regard for right of way or traffic signals. This causes major gridlock and a lot of honking, and makes intersections a dangerous place to be. There are some people on moto’s that will fly by you on congested streets, often driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s like playing a video game, except you only have 1 life. There really wasn’t anything about driving in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh that I enjoyed.
Like I said at the start, I’m really glad I did it. There were a few things that in the moment really sucked, but that was all part of the experience. As I get older I think it’s an experience I’ll only appreciate more.