Why did we choose Vietnam? Pure chance really – just a place we haven’t been to and considering that our dates were fixed we looked around South East Asia for suitable weather during March. After discovering Emirates added a direct flight to HCMC mid-2012 our minds were pretty much made up. (At the time Emirates was one of the few airlines to fly out of Cape Town). March is springtime in Vietnam and although it’s always warm in the South there’s less chance of rain and the North holds cooler weather. We had no desire to ride day in and day out in monsoon-like torrential downpours and figured this time of the year would give us the best possible chance to do it. A very nice resource for weather conditions and trip planning is available on the weather guide page of Selective Asia
November 2012 our research started and the decision to do it independently by bike wasn’t a clear choice from the start. Once you browse the mountain of info on the web and read others opinions on forums such as Thorntree and TripAdvisor you will notice there are mixed opinions on the idea of biking Vietnam.
Many will tell you about their amazing experience and will be encouraging - but even more, will tell you their horror stories... Huge language barriers; insane traffic; zero road rules; no respect or tolerance for bikes on the highways; no legal way of driving on a tourist visa; horrible accidents with poor medical care; hugely corrupt police and traffic officials. The list goes on.
However, whether you choose to bike there or not should depend on what you want from the experience as a whole and you should approach it well informed. Not only should you be comfortable with your ability to handle a motorcycle under difficult circumstances but understand (and make peace with it) that there are and will be risks. Yes, in all likelihood you will be riding there “illegally” and the implication of this should be understood. Make sure you have adequate medical cover for international travel as well as good liability insurance to boot if worse comes to worst.
Nevertheless - we pegged some destinations and compared travel options. Biking vs public transport (trains, busses) vs Flying to select destinations. All of which are feasible. What swayed us, in the end, was that a friend moved to Ho Chi Minh City for a contract and he offered assistance with the bike issue.
Having a friend there made all the difference as we knew we could pretty much arrive and find everything ready considering our limited time-frame of three-and-a-half weeks. Besides, biking sounded like a lot more fun and interesting way of seeing the country.
The only remaining question was whether to buy a bike or rent one. One way rentals are possible with a few motorcycle touring agencies but those offering rentals rarely have bikes suitable for 2-up. Depending on what bike you rent and for how long the cost could be anything from $20-35 per day. There is thus a point where it starts making sense to consider buying a bike. For a solo rider, the Honda Win (Chinese) is perfectly suited and good samples can be found to buy for under $300. They are cheap to run and very cheap to fix with parts available everywhere. Virtually all the foreign riders we encountered (not many BTW) was riding a Win.
Being held liable for damage to a rental bike also didn’t exactly appeal to me so we decided to take the plunge and buy something. Buying a motorcycle in Vietnam is pretty straightforward as the custom is not to transfer ownership but merely to pass on the original registration papers to the next owner. This proves ownership satisfactory to all including the police.
Our biggest challenge was finding a suitable bike at a reasonable price. From the info, I could gather on various forums and blogs the best way to go would be to buy a bike in HCMC. Plenty of 2nd hand options are available - something like a Suzuki GS 125 seemed to be well suited to carry a pillion. Craigslist Vietnam is a pretty popular source for travellers and after keeping an eye on it for a couple of weeks spotted a winner. (If you’re looking also keep an eye on http://www.travelswop.com/ for some options.)
With the help of our local friend, the very next day I was the semi-proud owner of a Suzuki GN125!