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.

It’s time to hit the road for a once-in-a-lifetime journey across the great country of Vietnam. If you read the first two parts of this series you should have your bike and with a little practice an idea of how to handle yourself on Vietnamese roadways. Before you hit the road, you should probably make sure that you have the right gear and that you know which roads to take and which to avoid.

Hai Van Pass in Vietnam

Get Your Gear On

Here’s a quick list of the extra gear (not including my typical backpacker stuff) that I took with me on my bike.

Helmet – Motorcycle helmets are a scary thing in Vietnam. They give you the sense that they’ll keep your melon from turning into squash when it hits the pavement, when really they’re not much more than a placebo. Most helmets sold in Vietnam are paper-thin. Bringing your own from home is best, but if that can’t be done then look around Saigon or Hanoi for a reputable motorcycle shop that sells good helmets with full face masks. This is not a place to try to save money.

Jeans – Keep the skin on your legs if you wipe out. Jeans are cheap at the markets in Vietnam so go find a pair.

Jacket – Cover yourself up and keep the cold wind away. Don’t be one of those backpackers who drives around in a tshirt, shorts and flip-flops on a motorbike. It’s a recipe for disaster and a skin transplant.

Boots and gloves – Same safety reasons as above.

Sunglasses and a face mask – Keep the sun, dirt, and dust out of your eyes, nose and mouth. Vietnamese people always wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth when they ride. They work really well.

Rain coat/poncho – You can find cheap ponchos pretty much everywhere in Vietnam. The rain comes on quickly and unexpectedly so you’re going to want to have one. No point in having to stop and wait out the rain.

Hammock or small tent – Optional, but very useful. A lot of the distances between major points take longer than a single day to cover. Camping overnight in a field could be your best option, and it’s also cheap!

Bungee cords and/or rope – Strap down your pack and any extra gear that you’ve brought along

Extra oil and gasoline – It’s a good idea to keep an extra bottle of oil on the bike in case it needs to be topped up far from civilization. Gasoline is less necessary, but there are a few roads (mentioned later) where you won’t see a gas station for miles and extra gasoline is a must-have.

Smart phone with maps and a paper map – The smart phone is optional, but I love having GPS-enabled maps on my phone. Sim cards with data plans are incredibly cheap in Vietnam. I also carry an external battery charger with my phone in case it runs out of juice. Paper maps are a must-have backup. Never rely entirely on technology.

Where to Go

Roadways in Vietnam range from beautiful, empty, winding mountain roads to terrible, construction-filled hell-holes where everybody and their dog is out to kill you. Here are the smoothest and most picturesque roads to drive in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Highway – Stretching through the center of the country from north to south, the Ho Chi Minh Highway provides a beautiful western alternative to the traffic-clogged Highway 1 which runs along the east coast. HCMH, also known as Highway 17, runs through some of the most picturesque countryside in Vietnam. You’ll see high mountains and lush, rich jungle along the way. Part of the roadway follows a rocky river through a valley for a few hundred kilometers south of Khe Sanh. As you drive the stretch from Khe Sanh to Phong Nha you’ll notice that the villages become farther and farther apart until there’s nothing left but green trees and endless landscapes. You’ll see a couple other bikes on the road if you’re lucky. This is the stretch of highway where you’ll need to bring extra gasoline as to not risk running out.

DT723 from Da Lat to Nha Trang – A winding mountain trail that gets some seriously high elevation. Coniferous trees line the side of the road. Bring a coat – it’s cold up there.

Hai Van Pass – Between Hoi An and Hue lies one of Vietnam’s most famous roadways – the Hai Van Pass. It’s famous for a reason. Don’t miss the stunning views that go on for miles on a clear day. You’ll be able to see some beautiful coastline from above as you come down the other side of the mountain.

If you’re getting onto a more major highway in Vietnam you’ll notice that most of them have toll gates at the entrance. Motorcycles are not required to pay the toll, so just head to the far right gate labeled “Xe May” and pass on through.

Where Not to Go

A lot of roadways in Vietnam make for terrible driving. These are the worst of them.

Highway 1 – Vietnam’s infamous highway 1 is not for the faint of heart. Heavy transport-truck traffic fills the highway 24/7, making it a very dangerous place to drive. Sometimes this road can’t be avoided, so if you end up there be sure to keep your eyes open and your reflexes quick.

Expressways – Google Maps rarely steers me wrong, unless it comes to expressways in Vietnam. The issue with expressways is that you can’t drive on them with a motorcycle. I ended up having to backtrack almost 100kms one day because there was no alternative route to the expressway that Google wanted me to take. Despite being a major pain, expressways are relatively rare in Vietnam. I only came across two on my whole south-to-north journey: from My Tho to HCMC and from Cau Gie to Ninh Binh. If you’re heading between these cities be sure to take the roads less traveled.

Highway 14 – When I drove highway 14 in March 2014 it was full of construction. Driving was slow and painful. This may have changed more recently but the road should probably be avoided until it’s confirmed to be construction-free.

There you have it – a complete guide to the roadways of Vietnam. You should be ready to hop on your bike and hit the road. The views are stunning and the people are wonderfully friendly. You’re about to do something that so many people only dream of. Enjoy the journey!