I don’t talk about this trip with my parents because they probably wouldn’t like how we rented and rode a motorcycle through the northern Vietnamese mountains with just limited skills, a map and oh, insurance.
You’ve probably already read my post on our almost-disastrous 2015 Vietnam trip (Vietnam without a plan) and gathered that Manu and I were so caught up with our jobs that we didn’t make any bookings for the trip. However, what we did do a good deal of pre-trip research about the motorcycling trip that really pulled the entire trip together.
I’m going to share whatever I’d dug up from old emails and photos.
You don’t need an itinerary with bookings but you should have an idea what you’d like to see and do. Make a list.
For us, that list looked like:
- See Ba Be National Park
- Hike around Sapa
- Check out the tribal markets
- Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark
In the end, we didn’t cover all of these locations but that’s fine. What’s important is it made it a lot easier for us to discuss the rental period and route details with the vendor, which is critically important.
- 12 Aug: Collected the motorcycle in the late afternoon and caught an overnight sleeper train to Lào Cai.
- 13 Aug: Lào Cai to Bắc Hà town.
- 14 Aug: Bắc Hà town towards Hà Giang through the Lào Cai province.
- 15 Aug: Towards Mèo Vạc town.
- 16 Aug: Mèo Vạc town towards the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark.
- 17 Aug: Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark towards Ba Bể Lake.
- 18 Aug: Ba Bể Lake towards Hanoi to return the motorcycle.
Renting a bike
We got ours from Phung Motorbike for USD 10/day in 2015 because our tight timeline made buying/selling our own bike a huge risk. We definitely did not want to end up with a USD 230 sunk cost.
We grabbed a tiny Lifan (Honda knock off) that someone had just returned because we were too chicken to take the bigger 150cc we’d booked. It was so noisy, the whole village probably heard us arriving but well… loud pipes save lives. Trucks probably heard us coming too! Also, having something that light and small made it easier for us to manage the hairpin turns and mudslides. You really don’t need a dirt bike. We saw some other travellers on auto and semi-auto mopeds too!
Phung Motorbike arranged for our overnight train ticket (including the bike) to Lao Cai and because we pretty much sucked at riding in Hanoi’s hair-raising traffic at the start, he gave us a lift to the station and guided us through the process.
Before we settled on Phung, I had emailed other companies – Hanoi Motorcycles Rental, Vietnam Motorbike Tour Expert, Rent A Bike Hanoi and Offroad Vietnam Rentals – to pester them about rental rates, gear, bike accessories, insurance, availability and weather. As if to swat a fly silent, they responded in kind with a wall of words that hit me like a brick but really, really helped. See below.
Responses from vendors
- Availability – Generally, they have plenty of bikes available, which makes last minute bookings possible. However, do note that if you have a specific ride in mind, then you might want to give them 1 month’s notice.
- Advance payment – Some require this. I’d rather not part with my money over the internet to be honest.
- Cost – USD 10-35 daily rental, depending on the type of motorcycle. If you want to spoil yourself with a bit of fun, dirt bikes (HONDA XR125L or XR250) go for USD 25-35/day. However you will manage just fine with a semi-auto bike.
- Protective gear – Helmets may be rented at a top up or included in the rental fee. Bring your own touring jacket and gloves, if you want these.
- Security deposit – You may be asked for your passport or license as a security deposit. Passport is a strict no for me, but the driver’s license (not the International Driving Permit) is replaceable. Alternatively, you can offer to place a cash deposit of USD 500.
- Luggage storage – Some shops offer these. At your own risk, however.
- Guided tours – Available from some companies, e.g. Offroad Motorbike Tour.
- Insurance – Most companies recommend affiliate companies. No Vietnamese driving license required. However, I would recommend that you find out if your travel insurance covers you for risky activities, such as motorcycling. I wouldn’t want to go through the claims process with a foreign insurance company.
- Damage – You are liable. Rather than bring it back to rental company broken, however, I would suggest repairing it at any mechanic along the way so you wouldn’t have to suffer a broken mirror for the entire trip.
- Engine oil change – Yeah, this brings back crappy memories… Watch your bike and oil when they work on it. We naively gave them our entire bottle of oil and they used all of it (or stole whatever remained). However, oil changes and broken mirrors were so cheap, it’s petty to kick up a fuss.
The bike had a small rack. We had a Quechua backpack that we were willing to sacrifice. Phung Motorbike lent us bungee cords. This is what we did.
It made the bike a little heavy on the back but that’s fine because we weren’t going fast enough for fish-tailing to be a real problem anyway.
Don’t shoulder a 7kg backpack the entire way because it’s going to hurt so, so bad after 3 hours.
Pants – I do not advocate pantlessness of any kind. Not kidding: Wear a tough pair of pants (e.g. jeans) because they’d take the most of a scrape if you skid.
Sunglasses – We had none. This would have made our lives so much more comfortable amidst sand, debris and bright sun though.
Sweat-wicking clothes – I had a long-sleeved dri-fit tee. I know, I know… it’s such an Asian tourist thing to do. Well you know what? I’m from Southeast Asia. We weren’t always so dorky but after a couple sunburns (and moles), we covered up. Plus, it keeps the bugs and odd tan lines away. Manu ended up picking up some white cotton t-shirts from a provision store and using those the entire way. They were a pretty idea too, except that his arms and the back of his neck got pretty sunburnt.
Balaclava or buff – See that orange thing on my face? Bring two: Wash one, wear one. The practical applications are endless – over your face, covering the back of your neck (again, sunburn) or over your head so it doesn’t touch the smelly rental helmet.
Tough shoes – You may need to roll the bike over sand, mud, gravel and maybe oil, so shoes with a good grip are a must. Manu and I were in breathable hiking shoes the entire way – plus, they were very easy to brush off and air at the end of the day.
Waterproof layer – It rains in the mountains and there’s little shelter around, so a poncho or a rain jacket would be a lifesaver. Park the bike as soon as you’ve found a village and just crouch under someone’s roof.
Vietnam’s mountainous north seems prone to mudslides, as we encountered 5-10 along the way. Also, when we mentioned this later to our vendor, he jokingly remarked that that’s what made it a real adventure.
So I guess it’s a way of life there!
For major roads like this one, excavators would appear and after 30 minutes, a path will appear for the motorbikes – magic!
Once it’s ready, the queueing bikers would civilly proceed – laughing and joking – one at a time across the path. Let the locals go first because it flattens the path for you. And you really don’t want to be the tourist who drops your bike in front of an local audience!
When it’s your turn, here are your options:
- The Cautious Way: Side astride your bike. Walk it across if the path is wide enough. Use 1st gear for a little boost.
- The Vietnamese Way: Accelerate, maintain your speed and ride your bike across. This means kicking up to 2nd or having damn good clutch control in 1st.
- The Celeste-is-a-wuss Way: Ask a local for help.
Remove your luggage to lighten the weight either way.
Also, if you encounter a mud slides in the middle of nowhere, check out the path before you cross. Old paths may have loosened with rain.
There’s lots on some popular trunk roads. If you spot these, try not to change your speed/direction erratically to avoid slips. Do not pump the brakes. Do not speed. Do not tailgate.
Yeah, they’re there. Waiting.
Buffalo and goats wander the roads, especially in the late afternoon to evening when they’re being led back home.
You might encounter these around Ha Giang City. They’ve got lots of blind spots so stay clear and overtake at your own risk.
Required riding ability
Manu did all the riding. I was a freeloading piece of luggage. He’s got limited motorcycling experience but a good deal of cycling technique and me nagging in his ear – literally. Honestly, I couldn’t manage him as a pillion because he’s too heavy, so I’m glad he stepped up to the task.
Still, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first motorcycling trip, as the hairpin turns and hazards above do call for some riding experience. Plus, traffic in Hanoi takes getting use to.
This was my biggest worry at the start but there were plenty of clearly marked guesthouses along the way! You don’t have to fret about booking a homestay in advance although that could be a very, very rich experience.
Try not to arrive too late though. These family-run businesses may have closed.
Pho. Tasty and freely available the entire way.
When it comes to eating in questionable places, I’d prefer anything sterilised in boiling hot water. Might bore you to death but won’t get you sick.
Hope this answers some questions and more importantly, that it inspires you to do this crazy road trip too.
Happy travels, guys!
If you want to find out what else Manu and I did in Vietnam, here’s an overview of our entire haphazard trip – Vietnam without a plan.
Written and post-processed by Celeste Choo
Photographed by Celeste Choo and Manu HQ
Please refer to each photo’s metadata for details on Rights of Use