I’ve visited Vietnam for the first time in February 2014. It was a brief one (less than 10 days), just enough to see Hanoi, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh City and continue through Mekong River Delta to Cambodia. But even such a small taste of Vietnam was enough to know that I will someday return and ride through the country on the back of a motorbike.
Little did I know that I’ll get a chance so soon, only one and a half years later. I knew that I won’t have time (and energy) to drive through the whole country, so I’ve decided to fly right to the middle, to Danang and start moving North towards Hanoi from there.
The plan was to start the 10 day motorbike trip around Northern Vietnam from Hanoi and figure a few things out on the way there. First, do I rent or buy a motorbike? And second, I had to decide if I do the loop of Northwest or Northeast Vietnam and make a detailed route plan.
I did three shorter trips around Central Vietnam before my big motorbike trip from Hanoi:
- the not so impressive My Son ruins from Hoi An,
- the awesome (whole day) ride from Hoi An to Hue through the Hai Van Pass,
- and the Paradise cave and Dark cave of Phong Nha Ke Bang national park.
But all of them were nothing compared to this journey, which is one of the most memorable and fulfilling travel experiences of my life until now and one that I will never forget.
Renting vs Buying a motorbike in Vietnam
One thing that probably everyone that plans to do a multi day motorbike trip in Vietnam asks himself is – is it better to rent a motorbike or buy one? … and well, it depends.
I took a day to go around Hanoi and check the places that sell and/or rent motorbikes and here’s what I’ve found out.
If buying a motorbike in Vietnam:
- Used Honda Win’s (100 ccm) go for 200 to 300 USD.
- For this price you get a 100 ccm motorbike, 125 ccm are more expensive.
- If anything (serious) breaks, you cover the costs.
- I’ve checked four places that sell them and most of them had 50000 – 80000 km.
- Some had a “small problem” (e.g. leaking oil, bad tires …) and the cheaper (200 USD) ones were really in poor shape.
One of the big deciding factors for me was that I would want to get rid of the motorbike in Lao Cai, before crossing the border to China. Finding somebody that would buy it would probably take at least a day … or I could sell it to a shop immediately, but would lose around 100 USD (they buy them back for 150 USD or less).
One of the shops I stumbled upon was Phung Motorbike Rental and Sale. The feeling felt right immediately and Mr. Phung’s opinion was that it’s far better to rent in my case. Some of the reasons:
- I would get an almost new motorbike (only ~7000 km) – less chance it would break down.
- It was a 125 ccm, not a 100 ccm motorbike – this does make a difference on the steep mountain roads.
- The shop covers the costs if anything breaks (and is not my fault).
- It was possible to leave it in Lao Cai where they’d put it on a bus to get it back to Hanoi (and I wouldn’t lose time selling it).
- And the cost? 90 USD for 10 days of rental, plus 20 USD for the bus ticket to get it back to Hanoi, so 110 USD altogether.
The vibe was good and I felt confident with Mr. Phung, so I’ve decided to rent it at the end … and don’t regret it.
I think that 10 days is the breakpoint after which it becomes better and cheaper to buy. So if you’ll be doing a longer motorbike trip, take your time to find a good motorbike and buy it. If doing a short trip, just rent one and save the time for making a few more stops on the way.
Mr. Phung Motorbike Rental and Sale have also provided me with racks and rain covers for my big backpack, a helmet, a map and some oil for the chain.
What I would recommend (and do differently if I’d do it again) is that I would buy my own helmet. The visors on rental helmets are usually in bad shape and so was mine (and I’ve checked all the helmets in the shop). Good at daytime, but unusable at night.
Northwest and Northeast Vietnam loop – my route
Most of the people do the trip from Hanoi to Mai Chau, then through Son La to Dien Bien Phu and continue through Lai Chau to Sapa. After a few days and a trek in Sapa they put the bike on the (night) train and head back to Hanoi. This trip is around 700 km and should take around a week.
Mine was a bit different … and longer.
Route: Hanoi – Mai Chau – Moc Chau – Tu Le – Sapa – Lao Cai – Phong Hoi – Bac Ha – Lung Phin – Coc Pai – tt. Vinh Quang – Tan Quang – Ha Giang – Dong Van – Meo Vac – Ha Giang – Viet Quang – Pho Rang – Lao Cai
Mr. Phung helped me a lot with the planning and I’m very thankful for his suggestions. He recommended an alternative route to Sapa – “Don’t go through Son La, only main road, nothing to see.” he said. “Skip Dien Bien Phu, this road to Sapa much better!” – and I did – I drove from Hanoi to Mai Chau and then to Sapa, but on a more direct and remote path through numerous minority villages and stunning scenery.
I stayed in Sapa for three nights and did the two day trekking around the minority villages there. After Sapa I continued my way to Ha Giang and from there did the Northeast loop, to Dong Van and Meo Vac, after which I drove back through Ha Giang to Viet Vang. From there I continued my way back to Lao Cai, where I left the motorbike and crossed the border to China.
I really wasn’t planning on doing the Northeast loop at all, but Mr. Phung’s “You really must go there.”, “Please don’t skip this road …”, “This part here is … whuh!”, “If you do only one, pick Northeast.” … and again, I’m not sorry that I listened, because the road towards Dong Van and from there to Meo Vac was by far the best ride of the whole trip.
And well .. the whole journey was hard, but very rewarding. It’s possible to do it in 10 days, but it’s probably a bit more realistic to plan at least 14 days, so you don’t have to spend each (whole) day on the motorbike and have some buffer for bad weather or unexpected hiccups on the way.
It took me 11 days in the end and I covered 1495 km. It maybe doesn’t seem much, but the mountain roads are sometimes really really bad and you cover around 35 km per hour on average.
And like Mr. Phung said … if you go, please do the Northeast! If I would have to choose, I would change this for Sapa anytime.
A stupid thing to do?
You’re probably wondering, right … ?
Do I ride a motorbike at home?
Do I have a driving licence?
Aren’t the roads in Vietnam dangerous and isn’t this too risky and stupid?
And well … I don’t ride a motorbike at home and don’t have a driving licence. The roads in Vietnam are exceedingly bad in places and some of the drivers in Vietnam want to kill you I guess. But to my defense … I’ve ridden mopeds when I was younger and also already have some experience riding in Southeast Asia from my previous travels in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
I was aware of the risk and I won’t say I wasn’t lucky a few times on this trip … I also knew that your insurance is not valid if you drive a motorbike without a licence … and it’s easy to be wise after everything is OK, but I took my chance and it was totally worth it. And you probably know the saying: Fortune favours the bold.
If there’s one advice I can give, it’s – go slow and keep your eyes on the road at all times. Stop for the scenery, don’t admire it too much while driving. You’ll notice the majority of the locals (on motorbikes) drive very slow. There’s probably a good reason for that.