Before we start, let’s address the elephant in the room: Motorbiking in Vietnam, also referred to as motorcycling, is risky. And due to this, we can only recommend that experienced, fully kitted-out bikers attempt to ride here.
But, let’s also be realistic. Not everyone who wants to ride Vietnam has prior experience on a bike, and even fewer are dressed to the nines in the latest protective gear. The thing is, if you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say that you’ve already set your heart on a motorcycle adventure.
To make your travels a little easier and give you an idea of what you’ll need for your trip, we have created a checklist to provide you with a practical, real-world run-down of everything to consider taking along and why.
This checklist contains:
- Clothing & Safety Gear
- Bike Accessories
- Personal Kit & Gadgets
- Required Documents
Clothing & Safety Gear
Since motorbike accidents are much more common in Vietnam than in most other countries, it’s key to remember the importance of safety gear. Even after an accident, emergency services are likely to take time to reach you and may provide a low standard of care, so taking preventative measures beforehand can help ensure a painless vacation.
Wear a Helmet (duh!)
The only safety item you’re legally obliged to wear in Vietnam is a helmet. Unfortunately, you’ll see many Vietnamese riders sporting skullcap-style efforts that provide all the protection of a cardboard box. Likewise, battered hand-me-downs regularly pass from traveler to traveler and will almost certainly let you down when you need them most.
Make sure to find a real motorcycle shop and treat your brain to a proper helmet that is both comfortable and secure.
Motorcycle Gloves & Footwear
In the event of a crash, your hands are probably your first point of contact with the ground. And while many people don’t wear gloves, but they’re worth more than you’ll realize in an accident. Even a minor spill at low speeds can rip your hands to shreds.
Furthermore, if you’re typically seen rocking Havaianas, then, as an absolute minimum, switch them out for good trainers or ankle-high boots. Putting your foot out to steady yourself can be instinctive, but it will make quick work of your toes if they’re unprotected. Ditching the sandals will also help you to feel more confident on the bike, especially when whizzing at 50mph.
Jacket & Jeans
In most countries, jeans and a sturdy jacket would be considered the bare minimum when riding. Regardless of what most people do in Vietnam, they are both a good idea. A proper motorcycle jacket and pants are ideal, and the more serious (or sensible) riders do wear them here.
A cheaper alternative is to buy some knee and elbow pads to wear under your other gear. It’s not the real deal, but you’ll still be way ahead of the crowds.
Waterproofs & Layers
Regardless of the time of year, the weather in Vietnam is unpredictable, making waterproofs essential for any multi-day journey. Once your clothes are wet, your bike trip will quickly change from a fun adventure to a cold nuisance.
If you’re already traveling, but don’t have waterproofs, pick up one of the ponchos favored by the Vietnamese locals. They look ridiculous, but in a downpour, who cares!? It can go straight back in the bag once the rain stops.
Temperatures vary greatly, depending on the time of year and area, so check out the weather for the region you plan to ride in. Packing layers will help with the 60mph wind chill and colder temperatures, especially when you hit the hills.
Additionally, there are two other items to consider packing: Merino socks and something to protect your eyes. Merino wool socks dry easily, are very breathable, and can be worn all day without stinking to high heaven. Sunglasses and/or a helmet visor are useful for keeping rocks, dust, and bugs out of your eyes while driving.
The better you equip your motorbike for your future life on the road, the easier your time exploring Vietnam.
Bungee Cords or Luggage Rack
Riding for hours while wearing a heavy backpack is exhausting, so consider investing in a luggage rack and bungee cords. You will have a better more pleasant trip strapping your backpack to your bike than carrying it the entire time. Just make sure you take the time to figure out how to attach everything.
If it’s not securely fastened, it will cause you no end of grief. I’ve made this mistake before and spent the entire day nervously glancing around to make sure the bag wasn’t either gone or dangling dangerously into the back wheel.
Spares & Tools
Unless you know what you’re doing, you probably don’t want to be wrenching on your bike at the side of the road. But, in case you end up breaking down, having a couple of spares on-hand will provide a mechanic or passer-by the tools they need to assist you.
- Spare Inner Tube – Especially for the rear (more commonly punctured) tire
- Spark Plug – Ask a shop for an inner tube or a spark plug, there’s a chance they’ll give you whatever they happen to have in stock. Be sure the get the correct sizes for your machine.
- Zip Ties & Duct Tape
- Adjustable Wrench/Spanner
Personal Kit & Gadgets
These essentials will keep you connected and prepared for the likely situation ahead.
- Cash – If you’re heading into the sticks, there probably won’t be an ATM nearby for emergencies. In the event of an accident with another motorist, you’ll likely need cash to compensate them on the spot or face police involvement.
- Head Torch – Worth its weight in gold if you get stuck anywhere at night.
- Local Sim Card – For $10, including data, it’s a cheap lifeline.
- Offline Maps– Incredibly helpful in areas with no phone signal. Maps.me is a personal favorite. Once you have the app, just download the map for your region while you’re still on data or WiFi. Then, wherever you are, you’ll never have to worry.
- Power Bank – Using maps all day will chew through your phone’s battery. A power bank will extend its life.
- Phone Mount – Stopping every few miles to check maps is a pain and just gets in the way of enjoying the ride. A phone mount smooths all of that out.
- Ziplock Bags – Even if you’re drowning in monsoon rain, ziplock bags will keep the essentials dry.
Before jumping on your motorbike and whisking away into the sunset, you should be aware of what is required to drive in Vietnam.
- You are legally required to have a valid motorbike license to ride in Vietnam.
- Unless you have a Vietnamese license, the only option is a motorbike license from your home country in addition to an International Driving Permit (IDP).
- As of 2014, IDPs are valid in Vietnam and must be issued by a country that has signed the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. If your country is not on the list, your IDP is not valid in Vietnam.
- You need to carry your original license and your IDP with you whenever you’re on the road.
- Like anywhere else, your license must be valid for the size of the motorbike that you’re riding.
- A license is not required for bikes smaller than 50cc, but you will have a miserable time trying to tour the country on this bike. These shopping trolleys are seriously underpowered, especially with a foreigner-sized rider and their luggage.
The truth is that the vast majority of foreigners who ride in Vietnam do so illegally. And unless you have an accident, drive drunk, or drive exceptionally dangerously, the police are unlikely to pay much attention.
Tip for Handling Vietnamese Police: If the police pull you over for no reason and you get the impression that they’re just looking for a bribe, don’t speak English. The extortion relies on confidence, which usually disappears when they realize they can’t communicate. Be very polite, very helpful, and very respectful, but don’t speak a word of English, and they will probably lose interest.
However, local police forces have occasionally had brief crackdowns on unlicensed foreigners, even constructing checkpoints and confiscating offender’s bikes. Online forums generally have the most up-to-the-minute information about the level of police enthusiasm in any given area.
If you do ride without a license, just be aware that if anything goes wrong, you will be entirely at the mercy of local law enforcement. They can haul you over the coals with fines, compensation payments, or even jail time if the incident is severe enough. Your embassy is not going to step in and save you!
Third-party vehicle insurance is required by law, but few people ever use their coverage. In practice, if two parties have an accident, they will typically negotiate any damages payments between themselves, and cash will be paid. The general rule is that it’s the foreigner’s fault.
If you’re renting a bike, then the rental shop should already have insurance on its bikes. Travelers who buy their own bikes rarely bother to arrange insurance, and in doing so, they are technically riding illegally. Nevertheless, most people prefer to rely on a pocket full of dollars and some negotiation skills.
Without valid medical insurance, hospital bills can mount up frighteningly fast, and if you can’t pay upfront, don’t expect the hospitals to take pity on you.
The thing is, some policies exclude motorbike touring. I checked an old document of mine and, sure enough, it excluded “touring where the motorbike is the main mode of transport”. When does a journey become a “tour”? Only your insurer knows. But it’s worth checking out your situation, and preferably, taking out a policy that explicitly permits motorbike trips.
In any case, without a license valid in your home country and an IDP valid in Vietnam, it’s unlikely that your travel insurance policy will cover you.
The bike’s ownership document is called the Blue Card and you are required to carry it with you whenever you’re on the road. If you’re buying a bike, you need to have the original document or at least something that claims to be the original document.
Fakes are common, but the rule of thumb is that if your bike is worth less than $500, the authorities don’t really mind; it’s too cheap to care about. If you’re buying a bike worth more than $500, then do some thorough research on how to spot fakes and making sure you’re getting the real deal.
If you’re renting a bike, the rental company will typically provide you with a copy of the documents. This should satisfy anyone who cares to check.
Your Vietnamese Motorbike Adventure
Now that you know what you should bring, the next step is to learn how to ride your motorbike. While riding the bike is one thing, driving in a country that has drastically different road etiquette than you’re probably used to is another. Once you get used to it though, you’ll have no problem exploring the country on your own.
So pack your bags, make your plans, and head to one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. Your motorbike adventure awaits!