All of these hints are from personal experience of a recent (August 2009) round trip from Ho Chi Minh City through Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Da Lat and back again. We used one bike between two of us, a small-ish automatic, and covered around 1100km in six days.
- Don’t take too much luggage. It increases fuel consumption and reduces manoeuvrability. Just because your average Vietnamese can somehow carry three family members, a dog, a month’s groceries and a shop display (complete with stock) on the back of their bike does not mean you can.
- Along the main highways there are loads of fuel stops so you shouldn’t have a problem filling up as and when you need to. Sod’s Law dictates that if there’s a median then the next five stations will all be on the left, however, so you can’t get to them. Plan ahead on your fuel use and figure out how far you can travel between refills. Our little beast did a shade over 100km on a tank. And watch out for the newer roads, such as the one from Nha Trang to Dalat where there hasn’t been time for many fuel stations to be planted and grown as yet.
- Fuel prices are set by the government so you should pay the same price everywhere. However, if you’re off the beaten track you may find a higher price even at the “proper” fuel stations. The little one-man manually-operated pumps you find on country roads are noticeably more expensive. Also, it’s worth checking the pump to ensure the price quoted is the price charged.
- Watch the roads carefully, not just the traffic. Generally, they’re pretty good but you can suddenly hit a potholed area. Trust me when I say that you can’t bunny hop a motorcycle the way you used to be able to do with your old Raleigh pushbike if you haven’t got time to swerve round the worst holes. Hitting one at speed will hurt and could throw you off the bike. This will probably ruin your day if not your whole trip.
- If you’re travelling alone, carry a spare inner tube, repair kit and pump. On the main roads there is usually a tyre repair place every couple of miles (or less), and when you’re away from the cities the locals you may meet are every helpful. However they can only be helpful if they’re actually there to be helpful and you may not see many passers-by on the more remote stretches.
- Learn the “rules” before hitting the highway. Get a feel for the bike and the locals’ driving habits by heading somewhere quiet and safe first. It’s not as scary as it first seems when you arrive in Hanoi or HCM, but you do need to drive well and with confidence.
- Get a decent map. The road signs are not too helpful and very few, if any, have lights on for night-time navigation. They will often only point to the next town along the road, or to the one at the end of the stretch, not detailing the two or three you pass through to get there. Unless you know the other towns along the road, you can be sat at a junction not knowing where to go.
- Plan for and take breaks. Unless you have a very comfy Easy Rider or a backside padded significantly more than my skinny effort, you will quickly find out what “saddle sore” means. I found being a passenger was far harder on the bum than being up front.
- Eye protection is more important than you may think. Large sunglasses are passable, but a liability at night and dust still flies about after dusk. A pair of goggles will cost you next to nothing and it’s easy to find a shop selling them (and helmets if the one you’ve got is rubbish).
- Think those Vietnamese people look a little silly with their faces all wrapped up in surgical masks and hats? Wait until you’ve driven behind a lorry spewing diesel fumes, dust and mucky water for 3km before you can overtake it. One look at the cloth you use to wipe your face with afterwards gives you an idea of the muck the road can kick up – and you’re breathing that in. There’s a whole hardware store worth of pots calling an entire kettle manufacturing plant black here, as I didn’t use one, but I would next time.
- Weather can be changeable. Carry some kind of waterproof clothing in case the heavens open, because when they do they usually don’t mess about.
- Check your choke. It’s very easy to nudge the thing when you’re lugging bags on and off the bike and it can play havoc with performance and fuel use. We thought we had a major problem for over a day until I spotted we’d knocked the choke half on and were partially flooding the engine. D’oh.
- Unless you want to turn a lovely bright red colour, slap on long sleeves or a decent amount of sun tan lotion. This stuff is still hard to find and expensive in Vietnam so pack it before you leave, or pick some up in Thailand.Don’t forget your face otherwise you’ll end up looking like a very irate panda courtesy of the sunglasses or goggles. Trust me when I say you will burn very quickly as you won’t feel the damage being done due to the wind.
- Drive within your limits. Don’t think that just because one person went past you at 80km/h that you have to do the same speed. There’s every chance he knows every pothole on the road and has been driving a bike through insane traffic since he was 12. You don’t and you haven’t.
- Be polite if you’re stopped by the police. It’s very unlikely they’ll have flagged you over because you’re foreign. In fact, in my experience, you’re far more likely to be treated leniently as a foreigner. Make sure you have the vehicle registration document – it should be supplied with a rental bike. Having your passport or a copy is also useful, but I wasn’t asked for mine. As far as I’m aware, the only driving license they care about is a Vietnamese one, and it’s unlikely you’ll have that as a foreigner so they won’t ask. However, obtaining a license is very cheap and very simple if you want to freak them out by handing them one.
- Have fun. Stop and take pictures once in a while. Enjoy the looks from the locals as you pass by them on country roads. Gawp at the scenery. Chat to the people. Blog about it afterwards. Just take care and revel in the sense of freedom of making your own way through one of the most amazing countries on earth.
As ever, any further hints will be more than welcome. Please just add them to the comments below.