Motorbiking in Indochina is without a doubt one of the best things to do if you want to explore these countries properly. Buying and selling a motorbike in Vietnam is really easy, and a lot of backpackers are becoming a “motorpacker” when in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. This ultimate guide on motorbiking in Indochina will give you all the essential information, so you don’t jump on the bike unprepared. Hit the road, Jack!
WHERE TO BUY A MOTORBIKE?
If you want to buy a motorbike, Vietnam is definitely the place to be because of multiple reasons. It’s full of backpackers that want to sell their bike for a low price. Selling and buying motorbikes to backpackers has become big business in Hanoi & Saigon. So it’s easy to buy one from a mechanic too. Not to forget, the most important reason: getting through the borders of Laos & Cambodia is a lot easier with a Vietnamese registered license plate than any other country.
Check craigslist.com, travelswop.com or the Facebook page of Vietnam Backpackers before you’re in Vietnam to know what’s on the market at that moment. It’s recommended to make an appointment with a seller the day before you arrive. Once in Vietnam, walk around through Hanoi’s Old Quarter or Saigon’s District 1. It won’t take long until you find multiple bike shops that sell all sorts of bikes. Ask around at shop owners or restaurants and check the hostels for ads of backpackers that want to sell theirs.
Not keen on paying so much cash for a motorbike but still want to drive one? Renting one can be an option for $5/day. But we only recommend this if you want to explore the city and its surroundings, not for long distances or long trips.
HOW TO BUY A GOOD MOTORBIKE?
To be truthful, you’re never fully sure if a bike is reliable or not. Most of the time the mileage meter doesn’t work anymore, so it’s impossible to know how much the bike has suffered yet. It’s difficult to give a correct price because every bike is different, but pay between $280 and $400 for a decent, well-working bike. Sometimes it’s better to pay a bit more for a good one then less for a bad one that can break down every km or even can cost your life.
Most backpackers buy a manual Honda Win, which is most of the times a Chinese replica, build with bad Chinese parts. They are sold for around $200 – $350. You’ll notice the Chinese Honda Wins immediately if the bike is spray painted with a star on it or by the bad electrical wiring. It’s hard to find a real Honda Win, so we suggest to buy a Detech Win or Sufat Win. These are the best Honda replicas which are built with good parts and are also strong enough to carry two persons with backpacks. Engines are getting rebuild all the time. But beware that this is most of the time with cheap, Chinese parts.
Other options are automatic and semi-automatic bikes.
The best advice is to ask a lot of questions to the owner and to make a test drive yourself. Check if all the essentials like lights, horns, brakes, signals, starter, etcetera work. Does it shift without a problem? Aren’t there any oil leaks? Are the tires still in good shape? And most importantly: Does it come with the blue card? This card is the most important thing because this is your evidence that you haven’t just stolen the bike. Check if all the information is right, especially the number plate!
ESSENTIALS WHEN DRIVING A MOTORBIKE
- The blue card
- Luggage rack with bungee cords
- Good helmet that fits your head
- Bike lock
- Protection gear (gloves, knee, elbow and leg protectors)
- Rain poncho
- International Driving License (boring stuff, but essential)
IS IT SAFE TO DRIVE A MOTORBIKE IN INDOCHINA?
The traffic in these countries is mental and riding a motorbike is without a doubt at your own risk. Accidents happen often, and most of the time, you won’t be insured because driving a motorbike in these countries as a foreigner is actually illegal. In fact, you need to be in possession of a Vietnamese driving license to drive around legally. So you’re taking a risk. We’re not promoting to do anything stupid, just decide for yourself if you want to do this or not. It’s an amazing experience, but you need to drive safe!
CROSSING THE BORDERS HASSLE-FREE
Recently, it has become easier to get through all the borders hassle-free. Particularly with a Vietnamese registered bike, you can get through almost all borders into Laos and Cambodia. But sometimes it’s a matter of luck of the border officer’s mood. In some cases, there’s a fee you need to pay for the bike, and a lot of paperwork. At some borders, they just don’t care and let you through without asking any bribe money or extra fees. Laos & Cambodia provide a visa-on-arrival service for $30-$35. To get back into Vietnam through a border however, you’ll need a visa in your passport before arriving at the border. Getting into Thailand is possible but this is a lot more hassle, and you’ll need lots of paperwork. For more information about where the good borders are, click here.
HOW MUCH DO MOTORBIKE REPAIRS COST?
This is a question that a lot of bikepackers ask. Besides doing regular oil changes every 300-500km to keep the bike running properly, you’ll need to maintain it as well as possible. When you’re undertaking such a long trip with the extra weight of your backpack, it’s no wonder you’ll have to go to a mechanic at least once during your journey.
Mechanics in Vietnam know very well that a lot of travelers that come to their shop are inexperienced riders or unaware about the prices of certain repairs and parts. They’ll try to rip you off. Only when you exactly know how much it normally should cost you, then you can start negotiating for the standard or a better price.
Here’s a comprehensive list of more than 25 most frequent repairs along the way. Note that this is only for Honda Win’s and similar bikes because these are the easiest and cheapest to fix (but are often done with fake Chinese parts).
* All prices are in Vietnamese Dong. This list is made together with a mechanic from Hué.
12 TIPS ON MOTORBIKING IN INDOCHINA
- If you have time, go and buy the motorbike somewhere out of the city, preferably in the mountains (where they do ride Honda Wins). It will be A LOT cheaper over there because the mechanics in the cities take advantage of the whole thing and just want your hard earned cash.
- Having a good helmet is essential. Buy one that fits well, if possible one with a face shield. You’ll enjoy it much more if you have that! The roads in Vietnam are decent, but those in Cambodia and Laos can be dusty.
- Try to check your bike’s oil every day. Change the oil every 350km; your bike is going to love you!
- It is possible to ride with two people on one bike, backpacks included. Just make sure to get a side rack for the bags.
- Take some spare parts with you, especially when you’re heading into the mountains. You’ll need to do some repairs along the way, and there are mechanics in every village. But still, it’s good to have a spare tire or an extra spark plug if the bike can’t start anymore.
- Get a good online map like Maps.Me for your smartphone AND DON’T TRUST THE ESTIMATED TIME OF TRAVEL. At least double the amount of time. We counted on 50km/hour.
- When going into the mountains, wear layered clothing. The weather can change quickly, and it can get cold while riding a motorbike. Don’t forget your poncho; you’ll need it!
- Your horn is your best friend. Don’t be afraid of using it. Locals will make U-turns without looking in their mirror, be prepared and let people know that you are overtaking them, approaching that intersection, or that they’re standing in your way.
- Try to carry an extra bottle of petrol, especially when you’re heading to remote places. Sometimes you won’t see a petrol station for miles. You don’t want to end up without petrol in those situations. Carry an empty water bottle of 1.5L and fill it with petrol, just in case.
- Always be careful. Keep your hands close to the breaks because a situation on the road can change in a second. Keep your eyes on the road all the time. Trucks and buses are not your friend, and they won’t stop for you.
- If the police stops you, don’t ever give them your blue card or International Driving License. This will give them leverage to get bribes from you. Playing the dumb tourist who doesn’t understand English works sometimes! We also carried an extra wallet with just $5 in it, just in case. Luckily, they never stopped us.
- Live in the moment and be flexible in your plans. There are so many cool things to see and do. Maybe you want to spend more time in a certain area than you’d expect. Take the time to enjoy and don’t rush yourself through the country.
Driving in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos isn’t without danger but is surely one of the best ways to explore a country. Doing this will give you great insights on how the locals live. You’ll encounter people and places that you’d never see if you’d have taken a bus from city to city. The traffic can be overwhelming at first, but you’ll be amazed how quickly you adjust to it and go with the flow. Enjoy your time in Indochina. They are amazing countries and doing it with a motorbike will give you wonderful memories.