I absolutely loved Viet Nam! I had some of the best new experiences to date there, the food was delicious, people are very friendly (even more so if you’re off the tourist grid) and each place kept on impressing me. I stayed the whole month of my visa (3 month visas are also available!) and went from North to South. There was no one place that was better than another as all were great and they often were absolutely stunningly gorgeous. I first arrived to Ha Noi early July, then made my way around the country stopping in Cat Ba, Sapa, Ha Giang Province, Tuyen Quang City, Ninh Binh, Phong Nha, Hoi An, Tuy Hoa area and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon).
There are 2 experiences that really stand out the most for me in Viet Nam the first was rock climbing in Cat Ba (Including Deep Water Soloing) and the second was driving a motorbike. Both were first time experiences and soo enjoyable!
Motorbiking was a surprising favorite! I don’t know how I had not tried it before. I guess I never really needed it before on my travels until Viet Nam. I had heard about a must do loop in Northern Viet Nam called the Ha Giang Loop that was supposed to be amazing so I knew if I wanted to go I would have to drive a motorbike.
There was a lot of anxiety to drive one for the first time as the whole experience was so foreign to me. Add to the fact that I had heard so many stories of injury and seen plenty too that it too worried me. It is a mental game so I really focused on positive thoughts that could give me confidence, because it was all about that…attitude…and going slowly. I was hoping to rent one and try it before the loop but I never quite got timing/location right to practice before. Actually my first day in Ha Noi a friend rented one so I tried it but Ha Noi is such a busy place that I only managed a block and had enough…too many new things all at once in an intense environment wasn’t helping me gain confidence nor great for learning.
I planned to try in Cat Ba because the National Park is gorgeous, roads I heard were in good condition and there were way less cars on the road but in the end I had no time for it. So my first time would be in Ha Giang where the loop is since Sapa’s roads are not really great for beginners (not all are paved, lots of holes, wet, etc).
To prepare I started taking mental notes of how locals drive, react and the general flow of the motorbike world (nearly everyone uses them here, maybe most densely used country in world…) in Viet Nam every time I was on the back of one. I used Grab App (bike option) often to get around town (like Uber but on bikes, efficient, cheap and I felt safe).
— My notes/tips/suggestions to myself and others at the end. —
After talking to other travelers I learned that I didn’t have to drive a motorbike. Options available were: go with a group and guide; go as a passanger to a guide; or go alone on a motorbike. I debated going with a guide so that I wouldn’t be alone on my first ride and so he could help if I had any questions/issues. This was an easy way to gain confidence, you could just go with the flow. I really wanted to drive because it just seemed right to me but going alone didn’t so I wasn’t sure what to do. Luckily on the bus I met a girl who was also going to do it with a friend and said I could join them. This totally helped, now I wasn’t alone and they had driven bikes before too so knowledge was there….less anxiety, more confidence and with a plan!
The hostel where we stayed (Ha Giang 1) rented bikes but I had heard of another company (QT Bikes) so I went there instead. It ended up being more expensive (hostel had the cheapest…also cheapest I’ve ever paid for a room – breakfast was even included!!!) but I paid because I knew they took the time to walk new drivers of motorbikes through the buttons, gears, etc and help get rid of worries…Confidence…also their location was perfect to practice…road with lots of space, no traffic and no holes…and you could practice driving there before paying…just what I needed…10 minutes of practice to feel comfortable on it….CONFIDENCE! I went back with the bike, ready to roll 🙂
In case you are wondering, there are 3 options for bikes: automatic, semi-automatic and manual. I skipped over Auto and went to Semi-Auto…never going back lol! Quick breakdown, auto is literally automatic shifting easy peasy (like Vespa scooter), Semi- Auto is with gears and you change them with pedals but it doesn’t have a clutch like a Manual nor stall easily if you shift gears a bit late like me. I am definitely not ready for a Manual but then again I don’t drive Manual cars either… Also you should know…in Viet Nam you do not need to even show a drivers license to rent a motorbike…not even your license to drive a car…ha ha. I mean come on 10 year olds drive these babies…and kids grow up on them…it is just life here. Bummer though as I do finally have my international drivers license…
Going to mix this up and leave the details to my more personal journal entries about my days riding:
Day 1 – (18/7) – Hà Giang to Yen Minh
Rode motorbike for first time ever (85km), hair pin turns, beautiful and paved roads of N. Vietnam with Gina and Matthija :). Glad to have decided to try driving, really enjoy it, like a bike actually…fun changing gear but I am not smooth at it. Also the throttle sometimes I grip and it’s going when i really want to stop…must improve…or at least not point toward cliff when doing so (picking feet up helped). Paid more at QT motos but was able to learn easily and freely where located (giving me the confidence I was seeking)…happy to have gone to them. Many do guided tour (massive groups) or even on back of driver…many tourists doing loop but just enough for economy it seems, nothing like the past 3 cities with hordes of tourists checking lists off (sapa for 1 day – damn! Too quick). Locals very friendly. Ran tonight and kids ran with me awhile too 🙂 ha ha they also used me to play a prank on their neighbor – ahh poor guy cried and I had no clue what was going on oops! Today I was able to go 50-60kph in areas and coast at 40 downhill most of the day – didn’t expect I’d go that fast. Thought today was: “hey, I could get license for motos someday”…expanding mind and possibilities (like!).
Day 2 (19/7) – to Dong Van
Loving it! Got some not so perfect roads to practice on too…absolutely stunning scenery today. Loved all the curves…we all enjoyed it so much we ate lunch at 4 pm! The best curves were up to the China border…never ending, dreamy almost, through some clouds even…at border ha ha we snuck over…scull and cross bones marks the line….eek saw the illegal pig market there too…hum. Road to most N. Point was a massive (gorgeous) gorge…photos did no do it justice!
Day 3 (20/7) – to Du Gia
The most beautifully impressive day! Just wow! Some places were just unreal… Also coasting in Neutral down to Du Gia was greatness…silence, wind in hair, like riding a bike, taking in scenery and calm all at once. Loved passing through the valley of nomes…as i call it, the cutest peaks all around you. Kids giving high-five is awesome, cute, perfect until you do it..they slap hard…they even sometimes want you to fall…one threw a rope out in front of me…all good though. Bum totally sore and finishing day really tired…I think 100km today or more – days adding up and well the seat is wide…obviously. Du Gia is literally a village, not my favorite stop but coasting down was pretty.
Day 4 (21/7) – back to Hà Giang
Elated, whole ride was epic, maybe best experience in my life thus far. Last 100 km. Through SaPa village (not same place as touristy mountain one) was a trip… trippiest was when you passed women who just walked topless through town…unexpecting tourist (I am sure it is just local culture) Towering peaks surround you as you go through valley and slowly climb out…would be lovely place to stay. Last part into town was done too quickly for me, I let my friends go ahead since they were going speedy. Also ran this morning…very beautiful sunrise…worth the early wake up, heat and hills!
Since then I have rented bikes in a few other spots for a day, always out of the major cities, no experience in those but I will advise if you do please know it is an insane madhouse and I not advised you to learn there! Warning too…If you do go off the beaten tourist routes you will find there are No rental places and it is best to drive out from a tourist city and take your time getting there, scenery is insane, trucks/buses passing at times is also insane.
Besides this long ride I rented a motorbike 2 more times. I only rented when needed but learned quickly that it isn’t always available to rent…off tourist grid…bummer!
I rented once in Tuy Hoa to go along the coast and see some beaches…many probably do the Hue to Hoi An route instead to do the Hai Van Pass with views of the coast (I did not, gotta save some stuff for that second trip I will make). Then I rented in Ninh Binh…here also popular is to rent bicycles in Tam Coc and do the sites that way instead (you can cycle all but the pagoda is quite far away). Recently I even borrowed a bike in Malaysia driving this time on the left side of the road (comfy as can be now ha ha)!!
Now this experience has opened a whole new world for me. I want to get a license and my own bike ha ha!
My suggestions to myself and others prior to driving for first time:
Best to learn in place that is flat, not busy and with decent roads
Go 30-40km hr (20 or less if road horrible or a curve)… at least until comfortable
Confidence is key
Must be Non competitive or aggressive driver on motorbike (go with the flow is a MUST)
Just let others pass
To pass, remember: Confidence, honk and a bit of speed
It is ok to stop or pull over
Remember a motorbike is heavy
Roads can be slick when wet but also remember tires do have traction
Roads/paths might be tiny…cars are huge…beware (also everyone usually goes slowly unless a major road/straight away)
You can take lessons (anyone can teach you – it is not a class), they show you buttons/gears then you practice for about 10 minutes, that is all you really need – give it a try…in 10 minutes you will know if you can handle it or not (then decide if renting or not)
Driving anywhere on road is perfectly ok and normal (curves, be sure to stay on correct side of road!)
If a bus or truck honks at you from behind it means hey (fuck you) I am passing no matter what – you should move the fuck out the way!
There are 3 options: auto, semi auto and manual
Cost around 5-8$US day
ID isn’t required in Vietnam (and likely same in other SE Asian counties)
Remember to check gas daily (know #liters in the tank – quickly you will know how often you need to refuel…) – some gauges don’t work (just look in the tank)