Hello war boys, may you survive your journey through Vietnam all shiny and chrome!
First of all, my credentials: I drove from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city, both under rain and sun.
Second, why I am writing this: there are a lot of people doing the motorbike thing these days, and a lot of them don’t complete it because well, they get in an accident. I’ve seen cuts, bruises, casts, surgeries.
So without further delay, here are 10 tips to survive your trip through this beautiful country.
1- Cover up!
Okay, I get it, it’s hot and you want to have a good time and ride in shorts and tanktop. I’ve done it too.
And I ended up red as a lobster.
This is a tropical country. The sun is powerful. Don’t underestimate it.
After my first roast, I decided to do the remaining of my journey in shoes, jeans, long-sleeve shirt, bandanna to cover my neck and get a helmet with a tainted visor (previously I was riding with a face mask, sunglasses and a cap to cover my face). Except when you stop for breaks, you don’t actually get that hot since you’ll have enough wind to keep fresh while riding. The visor is also actually pretty cool since there’s good air circulation coming from underneath it.
Another thing about being fully clothed is if and when you bail, you’ll have a lot fewer scratches and your bruises should be cleaner.
If anything, at least wear shoes. If you’ve never motorbiked before, your early reflexes when catching your balance will be to use your feet – which can prove disastrous if you’re only wearing flip-flops (like me, in Thailand when I almost hit a chicken going 30 km/h. Scratched my toes good and destroyed my flip-flops).
2- Don’t cheap out on bike maintenance
Your bike is your lifeline. Fixing them is pretty cheap here if you know the price. Generally, if you’re far from a popular tourist place the mechanics are pretty honest about prices. To give you an example, while in the countryside I paid 50k VND to have a change of oil, but in Ho Chi Minh city one mechanic asked for 300k. That’s a huge price hike and totally ridiculous. I refused to pay this much and ended up throwing 150k at him and hitting “Escape”. I only paid this much because he was about to fight me and I was in a pretty sketchy area and wanted to avoid trouble.
I can give you another example of cheaping out. I was riding with a partner at one point, and he noticed that his front brake wasn’t working anymore. He didn’t think most of it, we expected the back brake to be enough. Well, about 20 minutes later as we’re riding on the highway, a cow decided to cross the street (they don’t have the habit of looking left and right) and his back break was not enough. He almost hit that cow full-on. In the end, he was able to brake hard enough and control his slide (there was sand on the road) in a way that he barely avoided her.
Hours from a decent hospital, this could have been pretty disastrous. And he’d probably have to pay the farmer for his cow. We stopped at a tiny shop where the guys seemed heavily amused by our appearance, and for $4 they put a new brake line for him.
3- Don’t give in to anger
Okay. I sound preachy. I thought this was a Yoda quote but when I googled it I got a bunch of bible references. Hey, sometimes there’s good advice in there.
No matter how frustrating Vietnamese driving culture can be (it’s pretty much completely the opposite of US and Canadian culture in terms of logic and reflexes), always try to stay cool. When you get angry, you drive faster and take harsh decisions, that could ultimately prove to be your demise.
So when someone cuts you off for absolutely no reason or drives like a maniac while carrying 2 children with no helmets, or when that truck doesn’t do his red light and almost kills you, stay strong. If your heart’s beating through your chest, stop on the side of the road and take a minute to collect yourself. If you’re just angry, shake your head, laugh it off. You’ll live to see another day.
4- Avoid long drives
First of all, your butt and back will hurt. Second, you’ll be tired, dulling your reflexes and making you anti-social in the hostels. Third, it’s bad for your bike. Fourth, you’re missing out on a lot! I’ve done a few 9-hour rides during my journey and besides the west segment of the Ho Chi Minh trail, south of Phong Nga, that has only a few villages and no gas stations for 300 kilometers, there’s really no reason to drive so fast and for so long.
My suggestion would be to plan short trips but through countryside roads instead of blasting it down the ultra-dangerous AH1 highway. You’ll see beautiful landscapes, be safer, meet a few funny strangers on the way, and will thank me later for it.
5- Taxis, trucks, and buses don’t slow down
They don’t. At all. They’ll drive across a busy intersection on a red light, they’ll swerve violently if they see a pothole, they’ll brake abruptly when they see a cow (I don’t think they believe in a gradual change of pace) and they drive dangerously close to you. Don’t expect for a second that any of them will slow down for you or try to avoid you. I’M SERIOUS. Most accidents I’ve seen were of a bike that was hit by a bigger thing. And they looked brutal.
I was crossing a bridge in Danang and suddenly there was a traffic jam. When I got to the spot of the accident, all I saw was a stopped truck, pieces of a motorbike, a huge puddle of blood, and a single flip-flop a meter away.
Drive slow, die another day.
6- Don’t cheap out on a helmet
Following this cheerful point, I would like to strongly recommend that you do not cheap out on a helmet. You might be buying a bike from a previous backpacker, or from a Vietnamese person or even a whole seller. Sometimes they give you a free helmet. Sometimes that helmet is nothing more than a tiny layer of plastic designed only to make sure the cops leave you alone. They’re thinner than bicycle helmets and in the eventuality that you will get in an accident, I don’t see those helmets do much more than crack along with your skull.
I know it’s hard on the logic to spend $100 on a helmet when you’ve spent $200 on a bike, but if you look around you can easily find solid stuff for about $30. Another free tip: avoid anything built in India, Malaysia, China, or Vietnam. Thailand seems to be doing more solid stuff.
I’m not saying that you should buy a full-face mask, but at least invest in something that will actually keep your brains where they should be. Anyways you can always sell it later.
I got mine at Arrow Shop VN, a pretty cool store here in Ho Chi Minh city. No, they don’t know I just plugged them.
7- Careful around delivery drivers
After the giants of the road (see #5), these are the next biggest assholes on the road. They drive around with over-packed bikes that seriously make their driving a lot more difficult. I’ve seen guys completely leaning on their handlebars because their seat was entirely used for carrying merchandise. They also take a lot more space than usual and since the Vietnamese love to drive an inch away from each other – sometimes they’ll even hit your mirrors they drive so close – these guys can ruin your day pretty quickly.
Exhibit A: I’m standing at a red light, waiting for it to turn to go. All of a sudden, my handlebars are jeered violently. I almost lose my footing. A water-fountain delivery man has just hit me, driving at something like 20 km/h, to go through a red light. On the back of his bike is built a huge, square metal box that can hold several of these giant and heavy bottles (that’s what he hit me with). Empty ones are dangling from his sides, and more are jammed between his legs and crotch and arms all the way to his chin. I almost took off after him to express my feelings on his life decisions but then a giant truck blundered through the intersection, missing him by a little.
Exhibit B: I had a housemate who for weeks was planning a beautiful, week-long motorbike ride through the mountains around Dalat. First day of the ride, he didn’t even get to leave Ho Chi Minh city. The same thing happened to him – his handlebars were clipped by a water-fountain delivery man – only he was going much faster. He crashed and his bike, loaded with his bags, fell on his leg, breaking it in two places. The delivery man looked back quickly and never tried to help. My housemate was taken by ambulance to a giant private hospital (read, giant scam) where he spent the worst days of his life. In the end, the doctors that did the surgery botched it completely and he had to fly home to get rebuilt. He’s got months of rehabilitation.
So again, watch out on the road, and don’t go too fast.
8- Take many breaks, stay hydrated
Self-explanatory. Even if you’re going for short rides, you should never hesitate when you feel tired or that you’re getting in a trance and you’re paying less and less attention. Remind yourself about why you are doing this: so you can stop whenever you want, go wherever you please. Take all the pictures!
I always had a filled water bottle with me and I would drink a lot at every break I would take. You’re sitting under a tropical sun for several hours, it does take its toll on your body.
9- Don’t leave your bike unattended at night – or ever.
Apparently, Vietnamese motorbike theft is pretty common. Never, EVER leave your keys in the ignition. Lock it up as soon as it’s dark if you can’t park it somewhere where there is a security guard and/or a gate. I’ve heard that most thieves won’t bother with Honda Wins because they can’t sell them to locals, but I still never left mine unguarded – after heavy warnings from locals.
10- Don’t drive close to the side of the road (the edge)
Texting. Smoking. Talking on the phone. Drunk. Chicken. Cows. Goats. Dogs. Children. Students. These are just a few things that happen to hug the sides of the road. Also, Vietnamese people don’t look when they merge from a side street and they seem to think they’re safe if they just take a corner really tight and then slowly get away from the edge. It’s a little bit tricky to master because buses and trucks and assholes don’t exactly give you a lot of room to drive, but you shouldn’t drive too close to the side of the street, be it in the countryside or in the city.
+1: Worry about what’s ahead – not behind you
The Vietnamese’s main outlook on life seems to be “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist”. This can apply to tomorrow, to things they just threw away, to things 5 meters ahead of them, and to everything else in the world outside of their point of view. And do they look at their blind spots? Rarely. I like to think that the ones that do, are the ones that got in an accident before.
So what that means is that you should kind of do the same. Don’t stress too much about your mirrors and your blind spots. That’s how they drive, and they’re really good at it. The only time I was hit by something that came from behind was that douchebag with the water bottles. Their first reflex is to swerve, not break, and they grow up driving with the mentality that anyone can do anything at any point in time so they are good at dodging you. But since you’re behind them and they can’t see you, they won’t think you’re there for a minute, and they might do anything at any point in time.
There’s so much stuff to watch out for in front of you already, so keep your eyes peeled on the horizon. Many new drivers have the tendency to look just a few feet in front of them. Try to look as far as possible at all times – this will also widen your range of vision and you’ll be able to see that suddenly overjoyed, 1-tonne water buffalo running across the rice fields straight into a collision course with your face.
This is probably the most important tip I can give you. Eyes on what’s in front of you, unless you’re about to change lanes or take a turn.
I hope this will save people a few injuries.