Driving a motorbike in Vietnam (or how to attempt to make your travels as dangerous as possible)
Author: Harry The Vagabond
So Hugo (my dutch travel friend I met in Laos) and myself got up early to start searching for a motorbike to buy to drive down Vietnam.
We got to this motorbike shop and were instantly unimpressed as they quoted us $300 for a bike and they were just really unbothered and clearly trying to rip us off. We decided to go back to the man we had spoken to yesterday, Phung. Before we knew it, we’d arranged for him to get a bike from his workshop so we could go have a lesson to learn how to drive it!
Bike Lesson: Mr Phung drove the both of us out of the city on the back of a motorbike, a little Honda Win. We came to a quiet road and off he got and told us the basics. The basics are just: Clutch is on your left hand brake and this obviously needs to be pressed in anytime gears are being changed. Down for first gear, up for second, third and fourth and then down for third, second and 1st. Neutral is a little bitch and is pretty hard to find but you don’t need to be in neutral to start the engine. If you have your clutch pressed and are in gear then you can press the push start button as well as giving a little gas. The trick is to be able to release the clutch very slowly with a gentle mix of gas to get you going.
My first attempt was so smooth, I pulled away with no issues, but the harder part for me was getting to grips with the gears. Also turning in first gear can prove tricky for a beginner but I managed to do it. We did a few lengths of this road to get used to the gears and get into the motion of riding the bike. After we’d each had around 20 minutes, we felt confident! CRAZY.
My Phung drove us back to the city and said he needed around an hour to get things sorted; this was great as we were both super hungry and needed to get some food. We had a lot of waiting around and a lot of paperwork, so by the time we were ready to leave the city, it was already 4pm!
The side streets in Hanoi are nigh on impossible to drive down, as you have to weave in and out of people and parked bikes. So I really did not do well on this, I kept stalling the bike, mostly due to panicking, but once you stall once you just continue to do so. I managed to pull myself together and once I was on the edge of an actual road, I managed to gently release my clutch and pull away in first gear. WIN. I’m not going to lie, this was the hairiest bike ride I have ever seen, there are people on scooters EVERYWHERE and they come from ALL angles. You have to become a spider and develop 8 eyes, just to make sure you can see everything that is happening. I may have stalled 3 times in the middle of an intersection…I was just chilling there in the end, everyone just drives around you and nobody gets aggressive. That was my worst point…after this we weren’t far from the gas station so I managed to get there and pull myself together.
We filled up gas and I had lots of Vietnamese men laughing at me, most likely because my body was riddled with adrenaline and I really was shaken up with fright/excitement.
The roads after this were long and straight so this gave me some time to really get used to the gears and also teach me some vital lessons about Vietnamese motorcyclists. I can’t really explain the various amounts of emotions I was feeling; it was a very big risk to learn to drive a motorbike in 20 minutes and then choose to drive it out of one of the busiest cities in the world…but you know, WE DID IT. Once we got out of the city, it was less chaotic and less packed as at some points you were almost arm to arm with other people on the road.
People just pull out on you all the time but you soon get used to it, the amount of trucks/vans that commit to pulling out (they have to otherwise they will literally be sitting there for hours), but rather than stopping you literally just go around them. I found this was the safer bet; the Vietnamese really are erratic drivers, so many of them don’t use their mirrors, don’t look before they pull out and using indicators here, you’ll be lucky if you see it!
This all undoubtedly makes you a better driver and if you can survive the crazy city driving in Vietnam then I think you should give yourself a pat on the back. We’d only been on the road an hour and obviously minimal on the km’s because of the slow pace coming out of the city and it was starting to get dark. We had planned to drive to Ninh Binh as our first stop but this was never going to happen. I really was shitting my pants driving in the dark so we looked at the next possible town we could stop and this was Phu Ly; this was still an hour away.
The drive was DAMN SCARY as street lighting in Vietnam is minimal; we managed to get to Phu Ly in one piece though and found a hotel in this really deserted area.
As soon as we touched base and were settled, we hugged each other for our lives because it only then started to sink in, what we had achieved. I know lots of people do this without licenses and without any knowledge but I think driving out of a big city on your first day is a big step.
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