Want to really cut loose and see Vietnam? Learning to drive a motorbike and heading out on the open road can make for a memorable trip
I always recommend to travellers I meet that if they really want to see Vietnam, they need to travel by motorbike. Unless they are cyclists, of course – this is an excellent way to see the country, but the trade off is, of course, you won’t be able to see nearly as much of it. Motorbiking combines the best of both worlds.
The first good reason is that some of the scenery here is amazing, and the vantage point from a motorbike gives an unobstructed 180 degree view wherever you go. The view through the window of a bus or train just doesn’t compare.
The second reason is flexibility. You are locked into no ones schedule but your own. You can go down that interesting side road, stop at that cafe on the lake you’d otherwise whip right past, or just stop along the road when you see something interesting and think, “What the hell is that?” Eat when you want to eat, pee when you want to pee. And when you arrive at your destination, and drop your stuff off in your room for the night, you can explore the town on your own and find that funky little down-home joint where the locals spend the evening.
Which brings us to a third good reason: community. If you’re on a motorbike, the Vietnamese start to see you as ‘belonging’ here. You’re not just a tourist any’more – you’re one of the people, slogging through mud and dodging trucks same as anyone else. The Vietnamese have a lot of respect for westerners who tackle their roads by motorbike.
And there’s a final reason, of course: the adventure of it all. You’ll have to sort out a lot more problems on your own, but then you’ll have many more colourful tales to tell when you’re done.
Despite all these good reasons to ride by motorbike, there is one good reason not to. Danger. That’s usually the first thing that pops into people’s minds.
This is, of course, a serious issue. I’d never touched a motorbike before I became a travel writer, exactly because I considered them dangerous. But it became an absolute necessity in order to do my job, and in the past two years I’ve put in over 10,000 kilometres in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam combined. And I’ve never had more than a fender bender at low speed.
To me, the reward/risk ration seems to balance out. You’ll have to make that calculation for yourself. No one else can do it for you.
Try It, You’ll Like It
One thing I would encourage people to do, though, is to not make a decision one way or the other until they have tried it. I never thought I would be riding a motorbike, and now it’s second nature. I’ve seen many people go from being against the idea to loving every minute of it. Rent a motorbike, find a sleepy section of town, and see what you think.
In truth, it’s not for everybody. If you’ve never ridden before, you’ll need to be able to learn quickly, and have some natural ability. I was an experienced cyclist before I started, and I was surprised at how much that helped. I have broken in quite a few beginners, and most take to it like a fish in water. But, the fact is, some people just can’t get the hang of it quickly enough. I always put someone a bike, explain the breaks and gears, and send them off. You’ll know within 20 minutes if you’re one of those people who should, or one of those people who shouldn’t. If you still feel like the bike is taking you for a ride, rather than vice versa, don’t fool yourself. Let someone else drive or find other means of transport.
But in my experience, it’s no just the newbies that need to be careful. Those of you who are experienced bikers, listen up. You think you know how to ride a motorbike, but you’re wrong. Because you don’t know how to ride a motorbike in Vietnam. Many of your old instincts will get you into trouble, and there are many new tricks to learn before you can really drive safely. Hold back as much as possible for as long as possible before you work up to the kind of driving you might have done back home.