How to Ride in Vietnam Safely and Legally

Motorbiking in Vietnam is a popular way for travelers to see this diverse and beautiful country, but the process isn't always simple. Jessica Hayward gives us the lowdown on how to do this legally and safely.

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Photo © Jessica Hayward

Australian Jessica Hayward covered 7000km through Vietnam and Cambodia by motorbike including through the traffic chaos of Ho Chi Minh City and the entire length of Vietnam. But how do you do this legally and safely? Here's what you need to know.

Motorbikes up to 50 cc can be ridden without a license in Vietnam, but this size of motorcycle is not suitable for extended travel throughout the country.

International Drivers Permits are currently legal IF your home country has signed under the 1968 convention (countries coloured green on this map). But you must hold a motorcycle license at home and have it registered on the IDP. Australia, UK, USA, and Canada have signed only the 1949 convention on IDPs, so they are not valid and you will be riding illegally.

A Vietnamese license is otherwise required. Whilst many travellers ride without one, and successfully bribe their way out of police stops, if you cause damage to yourself or others you will be held fully responsible and be at the mercy of Vietnamese justice.

You can have a valid license from home transferred to a Vietnamese license in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh with a bit of time and paperwork. Here’s how to do that.

Be aware that without a valid IDP or Vietnamese license, your travel insurance will not be valid, even if you have a motorbike license in your home country. You are riding illegally.

Also note that some insurers may exclude “motorbike touring” for policyholders from particular countries of residence. This means you cannot travel where motorcycle is the primary means of transport, however you are covered for incidental use of a motorcycle. World Nomads policyholders from the UK are subject to this exclusion at this time. Always check the wording of your policy regardless of your country of residence.

Renting or Buying in Vietnam

Try to rent from reputable companies that provide proper vehicles (Honda, Yamaha etc) rather than Chinese knock offs. One of the most popular is Tigit Motorbikes. Many travelers choose to buy cheap $200 bikes from fellow backpackers to keep their travel costs down. I cannot stress enough the value in renting or buying a proper, well maintained bike; the hassle of repairing your constantly breaking bike and cost will soon match or exceed the price of renting a newer motorbike. Vietnamese roads are dangerous enough without making life harder with a faulty motorbike.

Renting a Motorbike Outside of Vietnam

Vietnam generally only allows Vietnamese bikes into the country. You will be facing difficulties crossing borders from Laos, Cambodian and China on a non-Vietnamese bike. Expect to pay some hefty bribes, or not cross at all, depending on how frequented your border is and how much the border security cares about letting you in.

What Bike to Rent

110 cc to 125 cc will be completely sufficient for touring the country, unless you intend to head through rougher country in the north and west. In those cases, it is best to hire a more powerful bike. Speed limits are low within Vietnam – 40 km/h for cities, 60 km/h for highways – so having a very powerful motorbike can often be a detriment in congested areas. You can navigate the country on an automatic, semi automatic or manual, so choose what will work best for your experience.

Try to keep to known brands like Honda or Yamaha. Whilst most Vietnamese know how to repair motorbikes, if you do not know what they are doing it will be hard to judge if you are being scammed or sold faulty repairs. With a Honda bike, or similar, you can take it to one of the many Honda stores for service and be assured of legitimate mechanics who will charge you a flat rate. These stores are in almost every town and city.

Riding in Vietnam

Expect average to poor roads the majority of the time, along with heavy traffic. Vietnam has built good highways but only cars and trucks are allowed to use them, and as they come with a toll, most vehicles will still use the rougher and narrow roads that motorbikes must use.

Roadsides will often be filled with stalls, markets and livestock, so please pay attention at all times.

Traffic is chaotic, but drivers in Vietnam are politer and more aware than other South East Asian countries. Most trucks will beep to warn you out of the way before overtaking, so pay attention to your fellow motorists. In kind, warn everyone if you are not sure if they see you by using your horn. This especially applies on the twisting mountain roads in the west and north, as there are multiple blind corners with no space and the only way to know you can pass safely is to ensure any oncoming traffic can hear you coming!

Riding in Saigon and Hanoi may seem intimidating, but traffic speed is so low it is generally safe. The trick is to look directly where you are going so motorists know where you are headed. If you need to cross oncoming traffic, do so slowly and steadily; everyone will get out of your way if you do not make erratic movements. Follow the flow!

Be aware of the weather. Rain can and will come at any time, so be prepared with waterproofs. In a downpour a good road can rapidly become slippery and dangerous, so please consider this and your visibility when deciding to travel in bad weather.

Scams to Look Out For

Police are known to target foreigners, because most do not have licenses. You can avoid this by not advertising your nationality. Wear long pants and long sleeved shirts, with gloves, and you will be no different to every other local on the road.

If you have valid licenses or IDP, the police will leave you alone. Without them, you will likely need to pay a fine/bribe to continue on your way.

Dodgy mechanics – while it may be unavoidable to use local repair places at times, try to service at reputable stores to ensure you are not being scammed.

Fuel – this is not common, but always check your attendant resets the fuel gauge before filling your bike.

Dangers While Riding in Vietnam

Vietnam is an extremely safe country, but the roads are some of the most dangerous in the world. For this reason, wear appropriate safety gear, drive defensively and always be aware.

Thieving is a problem – make sure your motorbikes are in secure, safe parking each night, and do not leave them unlocked/unattended for long (if at all). Gear left with your bike can and will be stolen, including your helmet, even if it is locked to your bike. Thieves will simply cut through the strap and take it anyway.

Best Biking Routes in Vietnam

Main Route: Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and vice versa, following the east coast. Mostly good roads, if busy, and access to all main cities like Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang. Most travellers choose this route. 1-3 weeks travel time depending on speed.

Ho Chi Minh Road: Starts outside of Ho Chi Minh and winds all the way to Hanoi on the western border of the country. Incredibly quiet road with spectacular scenery; highly recommended for nature lovers who want to experience untouched Vietnam.

Ha Giang Loop: Heading from Ha Giang to the very north of Vietnam and circling back, this is widely known as the best of Vietnam’s scenery. 3-6 days to complete. The road alternates between great and terrible, so expect the unexpected.

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2 Comments

  • John Seccombe said

    I organised a August 2017, 8 day, 1500klms motorbike tour over the mountains, up to 2000 meters height.
    90% off road.
    Riding Honda XL250cc, with a very professional guide and support Van with spare bike. US$1500 plus flights, every thing supplied except beer.
    We all had International drivers licenses. I was 68 years of age last year when I did it absolute adventure, youngest of group was 58 years of age. Just watch out for buffalo around the corners.
    With full knobby tires very careful on sealed roads, but off road no problem.
    Check out https://www.facebook.com/sapahomestaysasia/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel
    Company name http://motorbiketourexpert.com/

    John Seccombe

  • mikes said

    Good article. However, two things:
    1) I am confused by: "...USA, and Canada have signed only the 1949 convention on IDPs, so they are not valid and you will be riding illegally. "
    This says to me that my Int'l Driving Permit (IDP) I get from AAA every year here in California is irrelevant in Vietnam. Is this correct?
    2) re: You can have a valid license from home transferred to a Vietnamese license in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh with a bit of time and paperwork. Here’s how to do that....
    -- I do not see where you describe how to do the "time and paperwork" part. Did I misinterpret something?

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