Getting around Vietnam
Trains and planes
Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
By far, the best way to experience Vietnam is by motorbike. As with elsewhere in southeast Asia, here, the motorbike is king. They are cheap to buy, easy to repair, and they can take you places the tour bus would never dare to go. What's more, there are no restrictions on foreigners buying motorbikes. All you need is a passport and valid visa, and you'll receive a title of ownership and a deed of transfer. Rentals will suffice for most, but if you plan on serious bike time, buying is more economical -- you can even sell the bike before you leave and recoup most of the expense.
We know the traffic seems crazy. But once you get the hang of it, you'll learn there is a method to the madness. Travel by motorbike has its dangers, to be sure, and should be undertaken conscientiously. But the vast majority of foreigners come away from their motorbike trek with nothing but great experiences to talk about back home (and maybe a few tail-pipe burns to remember them by).
You can buy a bike almost anywhere, but bigger cities will have a better selection and be more comfortable selling to foreigners. Naturally, it's best to shop around. When you settle on a bike, insist on taking it for a spin -- and to a mechanic for a once over.
Your two main considerations are whether to buy new or used, and how powerful a bike you need. New Japanese and Chinese models can be purchased for as little as US$400. They should be more reliable, but then again, you may be the one stuck working out all the kinks. And you'll take a bath on the resale value.
We recommend a used bike. This may seem a bit daunting, and it's a good idea to make friends with a trustworthy mechanic if you can swing it. When you buy a bike, all you're really looking at is the engine, the shocks, the wheels, and the frame. If nothing's leaking or broken, and it kicks up a throaty hum when it runs, you're off to a good start. Everything else on a bike can be fixed cheaply and easily -- though be sure to factor such repairs into the price you plan to pay.
In terms of power, a 100 cc bike is fine throughout most of the country, depending on the weight you intend to carry. By the time you stack two people and two full packs on it, you'll struggle up the hills even in Da Lat. Northern Vietnam is notoriously hilly and requires at least a 115 cc bike. Check out the bikes used by the guys who do the Easy Rider tours, and look for something similar. If you've never driven a clutch, consider learning -- it quickly becomes second nature.
Even if you buy a bike that's been restored, be sure to take it to a mechanic anyway and put some more money into it. New tires, break drums, batteries, starters and the like are all cheap and will give you that much more peace of mind. Finally, think about where you're going to put your stuff. We got a custom-made back-rack for US$6.25.
When it comes to plotting a route, we suggest planning to see more of the country by seeing less of it. You can't see everything from Sapa to Vung Tau by motorbike in a month. Pick a region -— north, central, or south, and focus on that. Alternately, many buses and trains will take on a motorbike as freight for the price of an extra ticket, so you can split a trip between two regions. Don't plan an overly-aggressive route. The whole point is to take in the scenery, to stop and explore along the way. We find more than 120 kilometres in any given day starts to feel rushed. Fortunately, in thin, compact Vietnam, there is always a good option for your next stop within that distance.
It's also worth mention that, while the 'open road' in Vietnam can be breathtakingly beautiful and provide an utterly authentic experience of the country, this is Vietnam, and not all roads are open. Ask around if you plan to go into remote regions of the country, especially near the borders, but there's really no harm in just trying your luck. The worst that can happen is that the police will ask you to turn around.
Final note: wear a helmet, bring rain gear, and memorize the lyrics to Born to be Wild before you leave. You'll be needing them.
Story by Don Morgan
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