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 Vietnam and purchased a (not-so) brand new motorcycle with the lofty goal of driving it across the entire country. If you followed our how to guide for buying a motorcycle then you may have even got something in decent condition at a good price. Now, with your bike ready to go, you’re ready to hit the road…or are you? There’s a certain way of the road in Vietnam that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Make sure to know the rules if you want to keep your head.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

Road Rules

If you’ve spent your whole life driving in western countries you’ll probably be in for a bit of a shock when you first drive in Vietnam. The roads are insanely busy and you’ll see more close calls in 5 minutes than you have your whole life back home. Don’t worry though, there is actually a system in place, mostly implied, which will allow you to get from A to B without losing your skin.

You’ve never used your horn as much as you will in Vietnam. Locals use their horn as a way of shouting “hey, here I am, don’t crash into me!” This is pretty important when you have other vehicles on the road pulling out into traffic and changing lanes without looking. It’s extremely stressful to see local children at the side of village roadways who won’t look before darting out onto the road. If anybody looks like they may be thinking of pulling out in front of you make sure to go hard on the horn. In Vietnam you are the one responsible for making sure that your presence is known.

Even if other vehicles know that you’re there, don’t always expect that they’ll move out of the way for you. In fact, Vietnam has a system of implied priority, where the larger vehicle is known to always have the right of way. See that bus passing a truck and coming toward you in the oncoming lane while leaning on his horn? He’s bigger than you are, so you’re expected to get out of his way before bus meets motorbike and motorbike meets pavement. Usually this means quickly pulling onto the shoulder along with everyone else on the road. Keep your eyes open and your head up when you’re on busy roadways as larger vehicles take the lane often.

Vietnamese people will obey red lights at busy intersections in major cities, but when you get out to the countryside and into smaller towns it’s completely different. If a local approaching a red light doesn’t see any immediate danger he will fly right through it. Keep your eyes open when going through intersections. If you feel comfortable running lights at quiet intersections it’s probably ok, but this would not be a good idea in the big cities. When in doubt do what the locals are doing or wait for the light to turn green.

Watch out for locals who don’t use their turn signals. Instead they will point or wave a hand in the direction in which they want to turn. It’s probably best to stick to your western driver training and not get into the habit of ignoring your turn signal.

Maintenance

It’s inevitable that you’re going to run into unexpected mechanical issues at the most inopportune times. Luckily there are roadside mechanics everywhere in Vietnam. Look for signs on the side of the road which say “Xe Máy” and shops that have air compressor tubes or motorbike tires hanging out front. Unless you’re driving on a really remote roadway you probably won’t go more than 1km before coming across a bike shop. Mechanics don’t usually speak English, but for most maintenance and mechanical issues it’s easy enough to use hand gestures to indicate what needs to be done.

Here are some basic maintenance tasks that you’re going to want to keep in mind for your journey. You’ll probably come across more expensive and complicated repairs, like issues with the clutch, gears, or headlights, but these are the ones that everyone driving long distance in Vietnam will have to deal with at one point or another.

Keep the oil topped up. Carry a bottle of oil with you on the bike for this.

Get the oil changed every 500-1000kms to keep the bike running smoothly and prevent overheating.

Heavy use of the bike means that the chain will probably come loose. Get the chain tightened occasionally. If you get this done while seeing a mechanic for other maintenance it will likely be free.

Lubricate the chain. Again, this can be done in a few seconds for free if you’re stopped for something else already.

Flat tires are inevitable, but any decent mechanic will be able to find and fix the flat in only a few minutes.

Get the tire pressure topped up every few hundred kilometers.

The Law of the Land

It is illegal to drive a motorcycle on a foreign drivers license in Vietnam and international driving permits are not recognized. Plain and simple, if you choose to drive a motorcycle across Vietnam you are choosing to break the law. Like many South East Asian countries, however, how the law is written and how it is enforced are two completely different matters.

Foreigners driving motorcycles in Vietnam are generally left alone by the police. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t bother you if they wanted to. If they want to pull you over they will find a reason to and there’s not much that you can do about it. The most likely case is that they will ask you for a fine without issuing an official ticket, which we in the western know as a bribe. Then you’ll be on your way, a few dollars short of where you were a few minutes ago. If they’re having a very bad day the police could choose to confiscate your bike for driving illegally, but this is a very rare occurrence. Driving thousands of kilometers across the country most foreign motorcyclists will never have an encounter with the police, but even still you should be aware that there is a risk involved.

You’ll see police officers in their beige uniforms running checkpoints at the side of the road. Most of them don’t speak English, so you’ll probably be waved through and if you aren’t you can probably ignore the checkpoint without any repercussions.

If you’re driving dangerously or at very high speeds then you deserve to get pulled over and you probably will. You’ll be ticketed or have your bike confiscated. Don’t drive like a maniac and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and a potential accident. Slowing down allows you to enjoy the scenery better anyway.

Now that you’re comfortable with driving those crazy Vietnamese streets, you need to make a plan of where you’re going. Coming up in Part 3 we’ll talk about where to go and how to get there.