Vietnam on Two Wheels is a series of blog posts detailing the grand adventure of making your way across the beautiful country of Vietnam on the back of a motorbike. Part how-to guide, part personal journal, I hope to give you everything that you need to know to make the ride from Hanoi to Saigon and everywhere in between.

You’ve landed in Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon and the capital of South Vietnam. The city is alive. Motorbikes, cars and trucks pack the streets like nowhere you’ve ever been before. Exhaust fumes fill the air. This makes Bangkok look like child’s play, and it never seems to stop. Lesson 1 is crossing the street while keeping your body intact. Making your way to your hotel was the easy part. Take a deep breath and consider for a second the goal that you set out for yourself. If you still haven’t collapsed at the thought of driving a motorbike in this kind of traffic then you may be ready to tackle it head-on. Maybe. First you’ll have to find your bike.

Both Saigon and Hanoi are full of travelers just like you. They set out to see Vietnam by motorcycle. The romantic idea of riding a bike across the country really took off a few years ago when Top Gear did a special in Vietnam. Now you can find dozens of backpackers and bike dealers ready to sell you a motorcycle as quickly as you can cough up the cash. You just need to know where to look.Honda Win motorcycle in the Vietnamese countryside

Craigslist is a good place to start. Most of the motorcycles that you’ll find on there are from other backpackers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re more reliable, in fact, it probably means that they’ve been across the country at least a couple of times. Backpackers do tend to be a trustworthy bunch, but make sure that you’re asking all the right questions before you buy – what problems has it had in the past, what work needs to be done on it, and how much money has been sunk into repairs so far? Bike sales on Craigslist are made almost exclusively in US Dollars. Phạm Ngũ Lão Street in District 1, the main backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, will sometimes have bikes for sale sitting out on street corners. It can be worth a look, but you’ll be able to view more bikes per minute on Craigslist.

Most of the motorbikes that you’ll see the locals driving in Vietnam are the scooter type – with space in front for your knees or for luggage and often having a semi- or fully-automatic engine. Foreigners instead prefer the more traditional looking motorcycles with the gas tank in the front and a proper manual clutch and gears. By far the most popular in Vietnam is the Honda Win. You’ll find Wins from 100cc to 150cc all over Craigslist. 150cc might not seem like much but on the low-speed Vietnamese roads it’s all you’ll really need. It’s very likely that the Honda Win that you find on Craigslist isn’t actually a Win, but some sort of clone manufacturer. There really is no difference, as the engine and parts are all identical to the Win. You should expect to pay between $200-300 US for a Honda Win in descent condition from Craigslist.

You’ll also see a few Suzuki GN125 and 250 bikes out there, but they tend to be more expensive ($300 and up) and side of the road repairs can be a bit more difficult because mechanics don’t always carry the parts.
If you prefer to go the scooter route, you’ll find many of those on Craigslist as well. The Honda Dream, Wave and Yamaha Nuovo start around $200, or more for an automatic.

Alright, so you have a bike in mind. The sales guy is only a little bit pushy (a rarity in Vietnam) and the bike looks a little rough around the edges, but you don’t care. It could be your way out of here and on to the beautiful Vietnamese countryside and that’s all that matters. You couldn’t possibly buy something like this without inspecting it first. The problem is, you’re not much of a mechanic. So what do you look for in a bike?

Lights – Make sure that the headlight turns on, high and low beams. Make sure turn signals work on the front and back. Test the brake lights.

Tires – Check the wear. The treads should be deep. People in Vietnam often drive on dangerously worn out tires.

Clutch and gears – The gears should shift smoothly and not stick.

Brakes – They should stop the bike from moving, ideally quickly.

Horn – Makes a loud, beeping noise which could save your life.

Kick stand and center stand – Keeps the bike from falling over.

Electric start and kick start – At least one of these should work. Electric start fails on a lot of bikes.

Speedometer and odometer – These often don’t work on motorcycles in Vietnam. The locals don’t use them, so even when they’re replaced mechanics usually won’t even bother to hook them up. On my motorbike I had an odometer that was brand new and read all zeroes but the mechanic who installed it never bothered to hook it up. It’s likely that the one on your bike won’t work. An odometer can be useful for navigation, so if this is really a concern to you then take it to a mechanic and insist that they fix it.

Rear Luggage Rack – Any motorbike that’s been driven across Vietnam once before and many that haven’t will have a rear rack installed to carry luggage. Most of them aren’t much – a few pieces of rebar welded together and held down by bungee cords should be good enough.

Don’t even think about buying a bike before taking it out for a test drive first, even if it is just around the block. If you’re not used to driving in Vietnamese traffic yet then now is the time to learn. Test driving is the only way to really test the clutch, the gears, and the brakes. Make sure to shift through all of the gears and get the bike up to a reasonable speed to see that there are no issues.

When you buy a motorcycle you should receive the registration card. Motorcycle registration cards are small, blue and usually laminated pieces of paper that are about the size of a credit card. It’s not likely that your own name, or even the name of the previous owner, will end up on one of these cards. It’s technically illegal for foreigners to own motorcycles in Vietnam, although the law is rarely enforced. Instead you’ll see the name of the last Vietnamese person to own the bike on the registration. That’s ok though, you just need to be in possession of the card in the case that a police officer asks for it. When buying the motorcycle make sure that the license plate on the bike matches the number on the card. Never buy a bike without the blue registration card.

Patience is key when looking to buy a motorbike in Vietnam. For every bike that you look at there are three more being posted for sale on Craigslist, so there’s no need to jump on the first shiny thing to come along. Try to avoid buying a bike that needs a lot of work and if you do make sure that you know how much it’s going to cost to bring it up to acceptable condition. Negotiate hard – often foreigners ask high prices for bikes that would be laughed at by local Vietnamese bike shops.

Ready to hit the road? Coming up in Part 2 of Vietnam on Two Wheels we’ll be talking about driving on those insane Vietnamese roads. Until then, be sure to leave your comments below!