One of the first things most people notice when they arrive in Vietnam is the absolutely ridiculous numbers on motorcycles on the streets, and the almost complete lack of cars and busses. There are now well over 20 million bikes on the road, with over 3 million in Saigon (HCMC) alone! Holy shit.
Bikes here are used to transport the whole family (there are 4 people on the bike in this photo), as well as whatever crap you need to carry. I’ve seen bikes holding way more than average honda back home. So if you’re traveling through Vietnam, why fight it. Buy a bike.
Step 1: Decide what type of bike you want.
Everyone in Vietnam rides relatively small bikes with engines ranging from 100 to 125cc. The reason is that for bikes over 175cc you need special papers to get them in, and a special license to ride. Also, everyone here drives super slow (even on the highway people usually go about 60 kph, and at 80kph you’re passing virtually everyone) so there is no need for a big bike. So now that you know you need a small, cheap bike, you have 4 solid options:
Russian made, 2-stroke 125cc engine, and it used to be the standard for an all-around bike in Vietnam. Now, not so much. Almost every time I see one of these now there is a white guy sitting on it, which means that parts are becoming more and more hard to find, as are mechanics who deal with them. They stink and smoke, and break down all the time. On the other hand, they look super cool, they get a good ride on rough roads, they can carry two people, and they’re cheap. You can pick a good one up for around $300. If you’re into working on the bike as much as riding, this could be your ride.
Honda name and reliability, plus a 125cc engine and one of the larger bikes on the road, and it looks cool. This bike is comfortable for two, has plenty of power, and it’s easy to find parts for and fix along the way. The downside is that they are on the heavy side (sucks in congested city streets), and they have a reputation for losing oil and ruining the top end. One mechanic is Saigon talked me out of buying one due to the necessity for increased maintenance. The Bonus is also a little pricy with a good one costing around $400.
The Honda Wave has to be the most popular bike on the road. I’ve seen more of these than anything else, literally millions of them here in Vietnam. Yes, they are a scooter, but even tough looking Vietnamese guys ride them, so no shame there. They come in several different engine sizes up to 110cc, which puts out more power than the 125cc Minsk, and gets better gas mileage. The 110cc engine is also the most popular and most reliable in Vietnam, so it doesn’t break down much, but if it does anyone can fix it super cheap and fast. Another plus is that you can get one with an auto transmission, which still lets you select the gear with your foot like a regular bike, but there is no clutch to worry about. This can be really nice for someone without much experience, and makes learning to ride a snap. The downside is that it’s really only good for one person, and the ride isn’t too great due to the light suspension and small tires. I’m also not a big fan of the riding posture and the feel of the balance on these things, but maybe that’s just a personal thing. The average price is in the middle at about $300 to $350 for a good used bike.
Probably the second most popular bike on the road next to the Wave. It also has the 110cc engine, with a standard 4 speed transmission. Plenty of power for the mountains, great reliability, and it gets about 25-30km per liter (or about 60mpg)! It’s good for two, but not as heavy as the Bonus, so it’s easy to ride in the cities. The price is similar to the Wave at $300 to $350 for a good one.
We went for a slightly modified Win that has upgraded rear shocks and a bigger seat meant for two. It also has a larger than normal tank (10L), so we never have to worry about gas. So far no problems, plenty of power, and pretty comfortable even on long rides. I love this bike even though it’s not the toughest thing on the road with it’s yellow and purple color scheme.
Step 2: Buy a Bike
Buying a bike in Vietnam is easy, but there are a few things to look out for. One of the easiest ways to get a bike is to but one off another backpacker. We bought our bike in Saigon, and there were new bikes showing up for sale at our guesthouse almost every day. In either Hanoi or Saigon you can easily walk down the street and find bikes other backpackers have used for sale. The only downside is that they are not mechanics and may not even know about problems that are coming. Luckily, a full tune up and regular repairs will only run about $40 on a bike that is running and driving pretty good. So if you see a good deal go for it, but have it checked out before you take off on a long trip. Most of the time you will get everything including a helmet, spare parts/tools, a map, and maybe rain gear. The most important thing you need to make sure you get is the blue registration card. This card doesn’t need to be in your name (no one changes it over), but you need to have it or the cops can confiscate your bike.
We bought our bike from a dealer named Kevin in Saigon. He checks out all the bikes and makes any repairs, so we knew what we were getting and didn’t have any surprises down the road. He also set us up with an oversized rack for our pack, a map, raingear, two full-face helmets (which are nice if you like your face), rain gear, and even insurance. He also said he would buy the bike back if we came back through Saigon. After shopping around for a week we found Kevin’s prices pretty competitive and it just seemed like the best/easiest deal for us.
Getting a bike allows you to go wherever, and whenever you want. It also allows you to play out some sort of mid-life crisis fantasy even though you’re only in your 20’s or 30’s, and it’s the best way to see Vietnam. Riding is also super fun, and that’s what you’re trip should be about.