The Ultimate Guide To Buying A Motorcycle In Vietnam
WANDERLOVE / JANUARY 2016
Buying a motorcycle in Vietnam biking and driving across country for 5 weeks is everyone’s dream, right? Ok fine, you probably didn’t know you wanted to do this until of all a sudden you did, or it’s possible that you still don’t know that you want to do it. Wherever you are with it, just know that with all the crazy traffic, creaky mountain roads, and beautiful scenery around every corner, this trip will be one of the craziest, and most memorable things you have ever done.
If you’re with us on this one, which we think you are, then read on because we’re about to tell you exactly how to go about buying a motorcycle in Vietnam. If you’ve ever asked yourself, how to get around in Vietnam, look no further because the scenic route awaits. We did this trip over 5 weeks, and it was the best decisions we’ve ever made. Well one of them. So pack your bags, and grab your helmet because this is a great way to spend your month-long, extended visa in this historical, beautiful, and incredibly unique little country.
For the sake of this guide, we’re going to refer to the journey from the perspective of a south to north route: Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and then onwards to Sa Pa. That’s 2,200KM [1,367 miles] of open road, baby.
How To Even F*cking Start
The very first thing you have to do when buying a motorcycle in Vietnam, is you have to commit to every single inch of road. Every kilometer is different and comes with its own highs and lows, mentally and physically speaking. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing the route [except us], because it’s definitely meant to be an off the beaten path adventure. That being said…you better freakin’ get your heart into it because it’s worth all the ups and downs, and all arounds to complete this epic trip.
That begs the question: you in?
After you’ve decided you’re committed, the next step is to find your hot new whip. No pun intended, but Honda for the WIN. Most people who are doing the drive opt for this standard, classic motorcycle known as none other than the Honda Win. These manual bikes are old, shitty and perfect for what you wanna do with ‘em. If a manual bike is a tad bit intimidating for you, you can pick yourself up a nice automatic scooter instead. They are equally as powerful [sometimes even more so], and they still give you all the fun of seeing Vietnam up close and personal. You’re going to want to scope out your bike before you up and buy it, so we suggest taking a few hours and cruising the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in the main backpacker ghetto known as Pham Ngu Lao. It might feel weird, but you should just take some time to wander around, and check out all the different bikes to get a feel for what’s on the market. Ask around, talk to locals and you will surely find at least 20 people who want to sell you a bike.
Once you’ve spotted one that looks like a WINner [the puns won’t stop here], you pretty much have three options for how to purchase this puppy. You can buy from a local who is willing to sell theirs, you can buy from another backpacker who is at the end of their trip, or you can buy from someone like Simon. Simon is a smart-ass British man who makes his living by buying bikes back from tourists, cleaning them up [for the most part], and then re-selling them back to tourists at a higher price. There are plenty of stops like this in district 1. Whatever route you go, your Honda Win shouldn’t cost you more than $175, and your scooter should cost no more than $300. Crucial: You absolutely need to make sure it comes with the blue registration card. This is incredibly important, so we’ll touch more on that later. Biggest tip? Find a desperate looking backpacker who has a flight soon so they’ll be willing to sell it on the cheap-cheap. Or check out this Facebook group where people are now posting about their bikes for sale.
Oh and there is a fourth option but that’s for the moneybags: buying one brand new. But seriously, don’t buy your bike new because it’s expensive, and honestly half the fun of this trip is seeing if you can make it all the way on a bike that has a broken clutch. Ha, joking… kind of.
Whichever bike you decide to purchase, make sure to get the helmet included and try it before you buy it. Also understand that you are getting what you pay for and many times the speedometer, gas gauges or mileage counters don’t work. Forget trying to negotiate the price down for these things, because it won’t work. As long as you have all the electrical parts, you’re good to go. Everything else like the mirror, and lights are cheap and easy to fix.
Lastly, give your bike a name. You’ll be spending a LOT of time together over the next couple of weeks and you guys need to bond. We had a Yamaha Nuovo that would spontaneously backfire so loudly it would scare other people, so we lovingly named her Tooter Bean.
As you’re picking out your bike, you’re probably wondering what to do with all your stuff. Well, amigo, you’re going to bring everything with you. In Vietnam, people are used to carrying all kinds of shit on their motos because they’re the main form of transportation. As the saying goes, do as the locals do. You’ll strap everything you own on the back of your ride.
If your bike doesn’t already have one, go to a mechanic and get yourself a metal rack. They’ll fix you right up and weld everything together for you. Many times the bikes will already come equipped with these, so hopefully you won’t even have to worry about it. Once you’ve got your rack situated, you’re going to wanna make sure you have bungee cords for days. Stock up on these guys because they’re what you use to strap on your pack to the metal rack. Life hack: bungee cords also work as a pants belt if things get desperate.
Aside from the rack, bungees and backpack, make sure that you have a helmet that fits and some gloves for cruising.
Other than what you’ve been backpacking with, there are a few things you’ll want to make sure you pick up either in Saigon, or in Da Lat [there is a nice big market there]. The weather changes drastically as you move north, and while it might be 90 and sunny down south, it gets cold and pretty wet in the north. Make sure you grab yourself a jacket/fleece and a waterproof windbreaker. Along with the jacket, you’ll want to have a good pair of long pants because of the nice breeze and also the conservative areas you’ll be riding through. You’ll also want to make sure you have close toed shoes for riding so that if you have to stop or use your foot as a kickstand, you aren’t skinning your feet. Lastly, make sure you pick up a mask to protect yourself from pollution, dust and other debris coming up off the road. You might feel silly, but hey at least you’ll be able to breathe. Plus you’ll look like a local.
The Dirty Details
Once you’ve got your bike, you’ve gotta keep it running smoothly so you don’t break down on the side of the road [spoiler: it happens anyways]. It’s easy to forget about this part of the adventure, until you realize that you’re out of gas. Yes, you need to take care of your bike and yes you have to know what goes into the day to day maintenance.
Regarding gas, there are many places to fuel up along the highways with attendants at every station. Let us be clear: you will never have to operate a gas pump, so don’t worry about that. When you are not on the main highways or in the mountains, locals sell gasoline in old soda bottles. Gas will generally go for about $1 / liter and you’ll fill up your tank 1-2 times per day, depending. Our tanks were 5 liters, so it was about $7-8 a day for gas.
Because the bikes often have faulty gas gauges, you can’t rely on yours to tell you when to fill up. Luckily, on the Honda Win bikes you can literally just open your fuel tank and take a peek inside to see how you’re doing. You’ll also learn pretty quickly how long you can go before you need a refuel. After running out of gas a few too many times and having to walk door to door in the boonies looking for it, we started carrying an extra bottle of gas per bike at all times. You’ll especially want this as you’re going through the mountains.
Another part of bike maintenance is getting your oil changed. These bikes are old, and nothing keeps your baby happier than being all lubed up. Every 600 kilometers, you’ll want to make sure you take the time to do this. It costs about 70,000-100,000 Dong [yes, that’s the local currency and yes, that’s less than $5] and you can have it taken care of by any mechanic you find along the side of the road. The oil that comes out after even just a few days is usually disgustingly black, and solid evidence of how important this routine is.
Lastly, if anything happens to your bike like the mirror breaks, or the exhaust pipe falls off [yes that actually happened to good ol’ Tooter Bean], there are as many mechanics in Vietnam as there are motorbikes. Ok that’s not a proven stat, but there really are mechanics everywhere and the average person will know how to put on a bandaid if something happens to your moto. The other good thing about having so many mechanics around is that they’re cheap. It will cost only about $20 to replace a tire, $2 to replace a mirror and generally less than $10 to fix everything else. Unless it’s your electrical system, in which case…good luck.
The Legal Stuff
Ok so now you want to know how legal [or illegal] it really is to buy a motorcycle as a tourist in Vietnam. First, we’re gonna tell you to do your own research because we’re not lawyers and can’t be held responsible for any shit you get yourself into. Then, we’re gonna tell you what we know to be true.
The good news is that as long as you have the blue registration card that is tied to your vehicle, you’re mostly good to go. Without this card, you are actually super not legal and the bike is worth literally nothing. Word to the wise, do not lose this card for two reasons. First, you have to remember that the police are known for their corruption in Vietnam. If you’re caught without this card, you’ll have to pay lots of cheddar. Second, if you try to sell your bike without this card, you most likely won’t get any buyers because they know if they’re caught without it, they’ll be in big doo-doo. To clarify, your bike is worth zero dollars without this card. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. One more time? Your bike is worthless without the blue registration card.
The next tricky part is the international driver’s permit [IDP]. In the past, Vietnam was known for not really accepting these, but as of 2015, the country does accept these to be valid. It is up to you whether or not you want to get this permit, but you should be very careful about the fine print of your travel insurance. It seems like some travel insurance plans will cover you with an IDP, riding a motorbike or motorcycle up to 200cc. Call and check yours because many times, if you do not have the IDP and you get into an accident, your travel insurance will not cover you.
Now, if do you get stopped by the police and you don’t have a blue registration card or an IDP, you will just need to stay calm, be sweet and pay your way out of it. We suggest carrying a waist belt, or wearing something around your neck for easy cash access. Never carry a large amount in the accessible pockets, so that if you are pulled over, you can just offer what’s inside.
We were told to be very careful of police stops, but actually found that every time we were pulled over [about three times] the officers would see that we were tourists [and girls] and flag us forward without actually stopping us. Maybe this is a fluke? Maybe we got lucky? Just be aware, and make sure you’re prepared to handle the situation. You’re most likely to get pulled over are when you’re approaching cities after being in very rural areas. The speed limits change drastically and the police set up camp to catch people who miss the signs. We may or may not have accidently zipped right through one of these speed checks, but no one came after us. So we guess that’s fine, but as our parent’s say, “do as we say, not as we do.”
Guys, this trip is not a race. The roads are really, truly, genuinely dangerous and we’re not just saying that to scare you. But really, a healthy amount of fear is good in this case. There are many, many parts of the trip where you’ll experience enough potholes to make your body hurt, dirt roads turned to mud from rain, roads that go through the mountains with no guardrails, and trucks to no avail. At one point we saw a big rig truck literally turned over on it’s side in a ditch, so you have to be careful. In the case of tour bus vs. motorbike you can guess who would win. Water buffalo and dogs also have this nasty tendency to spontaneously appear in the middle of the road out of nowhere. The point is, making it out safe and sound is the most important thing ever, so you have to be on your toes. You are buying a motorcycle in Vietnam! Preach. preach. preach.
To reiterate what we said before, helmets are a non-negotiable and you are actually a dum-dum who clearly doesn’t care about your life if you choose not to invest in a good one.
The last thing we’ll harp on regarding safety is that you should try to avoid driving in the dark because there are few roads in Vietnam with street lights, and lots of roads in Vietnam that are loaded with obstacles. We know that shit happens during the day like changing weather conditions, mechanical problems, etc, so just make sure you are prepared if you do get stuck in the dark. I.e it would be smart to check those headlights before you need ‘em.
Now, for the fun part!
We took our time and below is the route, outlined by cities we stayed in overnight. Some places we stayed for a couple of days, like Hoi An where we renewed our visas, or even a week, like Hanoi because we loved it and needed a break. There are many ways you can do this trip, but we recommend taking the inland route along the Ho Chi Minh [HCM] Highway as opposed to taking the coast since it’s much more scenic. Don’t forget you bought these bikes to give yourself as much freedom as possible, so take it easy, go at your own pace and enjoy every freakin’ second of it. This is an experience you might never get to have again:
Ho Chi Minh → Da Lat [305 km]
This is one hell of a long day, and if you can swing it, you should go for it. We wound up doing this on accident, but glad we pushed through 12 hours because there isn’t much to see in between Saigon and Da Lat. You’ll spend your entire morning navigating your way out of the crazy sprawling city, getting lost way too many times, and will only start to reach some fun, winding foothills in late afternoon. The last part coming into Da Lat gets chilly as you gain elevation, but there is a large stretch of road with good lighting if you don’t make it before dark. Da Lat is kind of disorienting as you arrive, but there are a few guesthouses near the main market that you can aim for.
Da Lat → Buon Ma Thuot [201 km]
Pothole-filled and dusty roads lead you to Buon Ma Thuot. Almost every other kilometer is a construction site and there are one too many over sized tour buses honking and swerving around you. This is a difficult drive to say the least, and not to mention the random farm animals crossing at inopportune moments. Luckily the road transitions from a course out of Mario Kart and into a gorgeous mountain road full of extremely sharp turns with good views. There aren’t many westerners when you arrive into town and the pickings are slim for a place to stay. We splurged here for a $40 hotel room that we split 4 ways. Tip? When you find yourself in these rural areas, you will not be speaking much English. Use your best sign language and try to learn some basic Vietnamese phrases.
Buon Mi That → Pleiku [207 km]
This 9 hour drive north is through villages, rice fields and interesting scenery. It’s another long day on poorly maintained roads again, but worth every second of it. Stop for lunch in the middle of nowhere and order some pho and Vietnamese coffee. Pleiku is a much easier town to navigate than Buon Ma Thuot and you’ll have no problem finding a place to stay once you find yourself at the main traffic circle
Pleiku → Phuoc Xuan [237 km] HIGHLIGHT
Oh get ready for one of the most incredible days of your trip. As soon as you get going, you’ll continue to head north and work your way over a major mountain pass that creeps along the Laos border where the scenery is unreal and the roads are as smooth as a baby’s booty. With peaks in the distance that rival Lake Tahoe’s altitude, you’ll take every turn with ease and speed, only to come across the most gorgeous landscapes of rice fields and towering trees. Going up the pass is extremely dry and reminds us of sweet home California. Coming down, the landscape changes dramatically from dry climate to the jungle-y rainforest with dense forests of palms, lush plant life and a smell of the tropics that puts Jurassic Park to shame. This beautiful roller coaster ride will go on for hours and hours. If you’re lucky, you can make it all to Hoi An on this day, but we got setback with some mechanical issues. As the sun started to set, we found a tiny village with 3 guesthouses to shack up for the night.
Phuoc Xuan → Hoi An [115 km]
Given the incredible tropical jungle setting you’re in, you can use your imagination to picture how gorgeous the ride is when you start out from Phuoc Xuan. You’ll spend the first few hours gliding down the inclines as you make your your way down the mountains and towards the coast. You’re heading east now. Enjoy the rural villages you pass because you’ll quickly leave it behind for the hustle and bustle of the coastal Highway 1. You’ll have to spend about 30 minutes on this massive, dangerous, scary AF highway as your last stretch into Hoi An. The highway runs straight into this fashionable city, where you’ll get your first taste of everything touristy. From custom tailor shops to five star hotels, this town is crawling with cousins [code name for tourists]. You may feel a bit in culture shock after riding through such rural areas for the past week. We describe it as feeling like being a mountain [wo]man discovering civilization for the first time. #dramatic
Hoi An → Hue [124 km] HIGHLIGHT
The drive is over a famous coastal mountain pass called the Hai Van Pass on Highway 1 and many people from both Hoi An and Hue will do it as a day trip. It’s a pretty easy drive, so take your time and spend a few hours taking it all in. You’ll cruise over turns that are overlooking cliffs above the the ocean with views that are absolutely incredible. If you have ever taken the trip down Pacific Coast Highway in California, it’s something like that. Make sure your cameras are charged.
Hue → Khe Sanh [170 km]
There are two routes to get to Khe Sanh from Hue, and we opted for the road less traveled because it’s more beautiful and has way less traffic. This road is also known as HWY 49 and it heads west, back in towards the mountains vs. continuing up the coast on the main road. It hooks back up with the HCM Highway, and then connects with HWY 9 heading into Khe Sanh. Finding HWY 49 can be a bit tricky, but if you have a map and aren’t stubborn about asking for directions you’ll find it. It’s worth the extra effort for the narrow, windy roads through beautiful countryside. You’ll glide through rolling hills and make your way to Khe Sanh alongside a gorgeous river that hugs the road’s curves. Leave early on this day because the smaller, twisting roads and good scenery will slow you down.
Khe Sanh → Phong Nha [~230 km] HIGHLIGHT
There are three things to know about this section of the drive: it’s long, it’s rural and it’s the most beautiful part of the whole trip. Again you’re going to skip heading back to the main highway and continue on HCM Highway. You’re going to want to leave as early as possible because there is a 100km stretch of road at the end of the day where there aren’t any gas stations, food stops or signs of human life. It can get hairy at night without streetlights or anyone to help in case of emergency. The road to Phong Nhaweaves around waterfalls and hills covered with a lush greenery of trees and dense plant growths. Around every corner is a view that’s truly better than the last, and words can’t do it justice. Another thing about this stretch of road is that the weather conditions are known to turn drastically. It was sunny and hot when we left in the morning but after hours of turning and curving through the hillside, we experienced three hours through extremely dense fog that covered us in a cold mist. It’s definitely part of the adventure, and you’ll eventually reach the National Park’s toll gate after 8-9 hours driving/stopping. Once you’re here, you’re about 30 minutes from a hot shower, cheesy fries and a beer at our favorite stop in the park: Easy Tiger.
Phong Nha → Tan Ky [230 km]
After spending time in Phong Nha National Park, which looks like something out of Avatar with its limestone karsts set against a lime green countryside, the drive to Tan Ky is unmemorable. The road is wide, so you can go fast [fast on a 100cc bike is about 50 mph] and it’s not too winding, meaning you’ll make the mileage pretty quickly. Tan Ky itself is super small, with two cheap guesthouses, perfect for an overnight pit stop. Note to the hungry: keep your eye out for the best damn steak and egg skillet dinner you’ll ever have in this country. Pretty sure it’s the only option you have for dinner anyways.
Tan Ky → Ninh Binh / Tam Coc [220 km]
At this point in the journey, it seems like the major goal is to make it as close to Hanoi as possible. This was our goal after setting out from Tan Ky and you’ll probably also be feeling this sense of urgency to get there as well. Lucky for you, the drive from Tan Ky is full of smooth roads, and you can haul ass around easy turns. During our ride, we were convinced we would be in Hanoi by night fall… but of course something always goes wrong. Tooter Bean was tooting along when she started sputtering and making bubble noises. The exhaust pipe quickly proceeded to fly off, and needless to say Hanoi was no longer in the cards. However, as with any negative comes a silver lining and we discovered the magic that is Ninh Binh. The town is home to Tam Coc, which can only be described as an inland version of Ha Long Bay. You hire boats that locals power with their feet, and cruise through a water filled rice paddy up river to see the beautiful scenery. Our biggest tip? Don’t miss this! Also know that the last 30 km or so are on Hwy 1, and since you’re approaching the big city, there are tons of trucks and traffic so please, oh please drive very carefully here.
Ninh Binh / Tam Coc → Hanoi [95 km]
This short ride is on the main highway again, so be very careful about watching for big trucks and tour buses. The other thing to watch for on this section of the drive is a cars-only highway. We found ourselves on this road and essentially ran away from a police officer who was chasing us out, so just pay attention to the signage and make sure you don’t end up on the wrong expressway. The biggest time sucker for this part of the drive is navigating Hanoi because once you start to get into the suburbs, the streets are nutty and you’ll quickly realize you’re sitting at a stoplight with 500 of your closest motorbiking friends. Loco.
Hanoi → Lao Cai 
Many people stop their journey in Hanoi, but we were so in love with the way of the road that we continued on heading towards Sa Pa. Since Sa Pa is up in the mountains with to-die-for views, we chose not to the do the drive in the dark and opted to stay overnight in Lao Cai, a Chinese border town with good food and plenty of guesthouses. Once you get out of Hanoi, the drive is on a larger road for quite a while through relatively flat terrain. Don’t worry about feeling bored because after a couple of hours, you’ll start to notice the scenery transition to curvier roads through the hills with great views of rice terraces and streams cutting through the paddies. It’s turns into a beautiful drive that is reminiscent of some of those parts along the HCM hwy.
Lao Cai → Sa Pa [55 km]
The drive is short so you can get up early and make it the hour and half into Sa Pa early in the morning. Leaving from Lao Cai, the roads are steep with lots of switchbacks. You’ll get those views of the famous rice terraces as you make your way through different Hmong villages where you’ll see people going about their day in their traditional clothing. It’s nothing short of a fun drive, just plan to go pretty slow since it can be a bit dangerous on the roads. You’ll know you’ve made it into town when you get to the top of the hill and you cruise by a little lake with a fountain in the middle. Once you make it, find yourself a room in one of the many guesthouses and celebrate with a Bia Hoi, because you just drove 2,200 km across Vietnam, baby! You did it!!
Parting Ways With Your Sturdy Steed
Now for the truly emotional part of the whole journey: selling your baby. It will probably be a trip of epic proportions, with many highs, lows, accidents, changing weather, incredible people, strange food and generally crazy experiences along the way. This is what makes parting with the bike one of the hardest parts of the whole trip. When it comes to selling your bike, the biggest piece of advice we have is to just start asking around and talking to people a few days before you plan to leave. Tell your hotel manager, tell the person you order lunch from, talk to other travelers, put up a sign at your hotel, whatever it takes to just get the word on the street that you have a bike for sale. Remember you need to have your registration card, so don’t even bother trying to sell it without because that will be the first thing any smart person will ask for. Be fair with your price, and make sure to hit up a mechanic to ensure your bike is in good shape before shipping it off.
Final Words Of Wisdom
First of all, we are so freakin’ excited that you’re even thinking of buying a motorcycle in Vietnam. It’s one for the books, and something you’ll talk about for the rest of your life. The bond that you’ll make with your crew is something you’ll never be able to replicate, and leave you with lifelong friendships. For that, remember to take it slow, enjoy the journey and all that it brings. Appreciate the kind people you meet along the way, and never, ever spend more than $2 on a bowl of pho.