No, I’m not joking, on two motorbikes and with kids. And yes, in Vietnam. The country with 95 million people, and notorious driving habits.
So how came the idea? Well, first of all, we are probably not what people would describe as the usual, conformist little family. We sold up back home in Hungary and headed to Sri Lanka with four one-way tickets and an unnecessary amount of luggage. That was almost two years ago. If you are new here - and not one of to the five regular readers I have - welcome! Please feel free to check out this post about how and why we started this adventure.
OK, back to the road trip idea. Did you know that quite a few visitors come to Vietnam each year, just to explore the country on a motorbike? I didn’t. So, our first motive was the landscape. We saw some unbelievable, exciting places. It was really worth it.
The other, significant reason (for me) was the road itself. I would describe some parts of Vietnam as one massive serpentine, and I’m not compatible with that. I’m terribly seasick or travel sick or whatever you call it. In Da Lat, walking around the bus stops and finding fresh puddles every day, that I could identify with high possibility as stomach contents did convince me quickly, that if I’m not the one who’s driving, I’m lost.
Somehow I had the feeling that the bus drivers wouldn’t want to let me drive, so we decided to rent two bikes instead.
In Bali, we drove bikes for ten months. Here are some of our favourite child-friendly restaurants, accommodation and programs in and around Ubud. If you’ve been to the island of the gods, you know that the traffic there is not the easiest one. But that’s only true in the beginning. Then you start to observe the traffic and figure out how to adapt to it. Then you realize that it’s not that complicated at all. Probably a million miles away from what you were used to, but not complicated. The same goes for Vietnam, except that it might take longer than expected to adapt to this type of traffic and you will never be able to say: “OK, now I’ve seen everything!”.
After driving for ten months in Bali, we needed three whole weeks to convince ourselves to drive in Vietnam too.
What exactly do we know about Vietnam?
Let’s just sum up what we know about Vietnam. Not everyone travels, and the world is big, so let’s start from square one. Vietnam War, jungle. It’s somewhere in the tropics. The television series Magnum, P.I. (millennials, please google “original Magnum, P.I. series” and yes, all the series you watch today will look this funny 20-30 years later). Travellers say the food is good. That’s probably it. Maybe you heard the terms Vietnamese coffee or Banh Mi before. So it shouldn’t be surprising that after spending three weeks in the country, we still had quite a few surprises along the way.
As I mentioned before, people come to Vietnam just for the riding experience. Others come to Vietnam for Vietnam itself. But then they read blogs about how cheap and amazing it can be to discover the country on a bike, so they buy a used one after arrival and sell it before leaving. There’s a whole infrastructure for this. You can buy, sell or rent a bike in all major cities.
In case you don’t want to drive yourself (and I can totally understand that), you can choose the Easy Rider service. It can be booked in many cities, either at motorbike rental companies or tour operators. They have fixed routes and tours, and you can explore the country as the passenger of an experienced rider. Not a budget option but it comes with advantages.
Now let’s go into details about riding a motorbike in Vietnam
You have more choices here. First, you can rent a motorbike at almost any accommodation, for local use. At least we were asked where we want to go and since we wanted to go for a short excursion from Da Lat to Cat Tien National Park, some 170 km away, the price went up. Surprise! By the way, I have a post about our family birding trip to Cat Tien here.
Then there’s the infrastructure for bikers. You can book an Easy Rider tour at a local tour operator, or choose one of the bike rental companies specialized for this. These companies offer bikes even for long-term (3, or even six months) rental. The Easy Rider tours might have a fixed route, but you can’t compare the experience to that of racing through the country in a bus. They can take you to off-the-beaten-path places, for a coffee or to visit a real, authentic market, and so on.
You can even rent gear at these companies, like protectors, professional biker clothes, GoPro camera, etc. Some even have an online booking system. Don’t be surprised though if you try to book a bike online and the price doubles instantly. That’s what happened when I tried to book with one of the rental companies.
Here’s my example. A few companies are offering a so-called one-way service. You pick your bike up in one city and drop it off in another. How cool is that? They even transport your big bags to your destination for almost nothing. I think that’s great. What wasn’t so great, is that when I tried to book online, the prices started to increase magically. Extra charge for picking the bike up at the city I chose, additional charge for dropping it off at my select city (these cities are all advertised as pick-up and drop-off locations, by the way). In a matter of a few seconds, the price of luggage transportation also doubled. In the end, the rental price with luggage transport totalled exactly double the amount we paid at the end at a lesser-known company, for the same service. It adds up nicely if you rent two bikes as we did. Not to mention that I’m not a big fan of misleading advertisement.
There’s a reason I don’t name the companies here. I don’t believe in public shaming whatsoever. Of course, I could name the company we rented from at the end, and advertise them, but they didn’t want to. Contact me in private, and I will give you the company details.
This is what the five days cost us on this specific route. Be aware that the prices can fluctuate like crazy, depending on what type of company you choose, how good or bad day your agent has, or how scammable (is that a word?) you look like. Sorry if that sounded harsh and at the same time, welcome to reality.
the two bikes: 12 USD /day / motorbike, had to pay the full amount in advance (helmets are included in the price, but not all places can provide a kid’s helmet)
cost of delivering the bikes back to Da Lat: 25 USD / motorbike, also in advance
luggage transport to destination city: 2 USD / bag, again, paid in advance
deposit for the bikes (had to pay in advance, got the full amount back when we dropped the bikes off): 100 USD / motorbike
the excitement if your bags that contain your present household will arrive at the destination or not: invaluable
food on the road: as cheap as you want. Banh Mi (small French baguette stuffed with a lot of things) is available almost everywhere on this route, starts at 15.000 Vietnamese dong which is less than a dollar (USD) at the moment. You get a yummy local fruit salad (not exactly diabetes-friendly) with sweetened condensed milk, coconut jelly and a little bit of extra sugar to make sure, for the same price, less than a dollar.
travel insurance: 40 EUR / 4 people, at our favourite insurance company (2 EUR from this is optional, a donation for a nature conservation or a humanitarian project of your choice)
In one word, chaos. See above. There's a traffic code, I mean there has to be one. I guess all countries have a traffic code (well, I can imagine one or two countries that don't have). If you know a place that doesn't have, please put it in the comments, I'd love to know.
OK, so you have to know the local traffic code. Once in the traffic, the fact that no one ever uses it apart from you might be a slight surprise, but you have to follow the traffic code. Just be aware of what everyone is doing around you, following the traffic code almost killed us a few times.
So, what you'll need is traffic code knowledge and the nervous system of a superhero.
The main rules: don't drive through on red, a helmet is compulsory, speeding, drinking alcohol while driving will be fined. The last one doesn't seem to bother a massive number of people. We haven't been to a country before with so many guys pissing along the roads. And the fact that the traffic lights are red might give you a feeling of security, but be prepared for someone speeding through from the most unexpected direction at any time.
To sum up the traffic rules in practice: everything everywhere can happen.
According to the Vietnamese authorities, between January and July 2019, there have been 9820 traffic accidents in the country, killing 4467 people and injuring another 4676.
You'll find an amazing array of different information about this online. And the actual experiences of foreign visitors diving here are also very different.
You'll read things like "you are allowed to drive in Vietnam with an international driving permit". Other sources will tell you that only those international permits are valid that have "valid in Vietnam" or something similar stated on them.
Other sources tell you that international driving licence and international driving permit are two different things. Honestly, that was the point where I didn't want to dive deeper and stopped reading.
My international permit, for example, shows the year and date of the convention my country signed. So you'll probably have to google first if your country signed the same convention that Vietnam signed, otherwise your international driving permit or licence or whatever is useless here. You can try this link or even better if you can find some kind of info on your own government's website.
You are only allowed to drive a motorbike over 50cc if your original (your home country's) diving licence allows it and you have an international driving permit valid in Vietnam to accompany it. The practice differs greatly. Many visitors and many locals drive without any kind of licence.
In Vietnam, you don't need any licence for a scooter under 50cc and these types are also available for rent, although most bikes for rent are 110-135cc.
I've read a few sources stating that traffic police in Vietnam will stop foreign drivers very rarely. Most of them think it's mainly because Vietnamese police officers rarely speak English and they have enough to do with local drivers.
Might be the case in some parts - or even the majority - of the country, but some parts can be different. Police checks seem to be regular in Mui Ne. In Da Nang there was a big project recently (in August, but it's still going on here and there at the time of writing), police officers speaking fluent English stopping foreigners on a bike, confiscating the bikes in many cases. It is not the easiest thing to get those motorbikes back. If you have all the required documents and did not break the rules, you should be fine.
Once in the country, it's possible to get a Vietnamese driving licence, but in my opinion, it's something to consider only if you stay six months or longer.
Responsibility and travel insurance
There are two significant points to consider when driving in a foreign country.
First, let's imagine you are driving a vehicle that requires a driving licence in the given country, and your permit doesn't cover that vehicle category or is not accepted in that country. In such cases, in Vietnam for example, you can be held fully responsible if you end up in an accident, no matter if it was your fault or not.
And second, if you drive without the correct licence/permit, and end up in an accident, it doesn't matter if you have travel insurance, your insurance company will not cover you, for example, will not cover your hospital expenses.
Our trip: Da Lat - Hoi An. 5 days, 900 kilometres.
That's not the full route. Google Maps seems to allow only a given number of modifications to a specific route. Or I just couldn't figure out how to do it…
We chose to drive closest to the sea, wherever it was possible and drove a total of 907 kilometres. Including an extra 20 kilometres to a non-existent hotel address at 9:30 pm, after a dinner spent at a landfill disguised as a restaurant. If you could only read my mind…
I found a post, where the author writes about riders choosing the mountain route between these two cities much more often than the road that leads mostly on the coast. In his opinion the coastal one is much more interesting, we gave it a try, and I have to tell you, I totally agree with the author of that post. It is beautiful and even where it's not so beautiful, it's still interesting.
A 5-day-trip is too short for this route especially if you travel with kids who can sleep without an effort until 9 in the morning. OK, 10 in the morning.
We made it in 5 days because our main goal was to drive from point A to point B. This is the reason why you won't find any detailed description about historical and other sights along this route in my post. If you want to visit some villages or towns for sightseeing or spend some time on the beach, five days might not be enough.
We are not experienced riders. The fact that we rode every day in Bali, for ten months, doesn't necessarily mean we became serious riders. Like the fact that someone drives the kids to school every morning doesn't necessarily mean that he/she can do the Paris-Dakar Rally. We had no idea what it's like to sit 7 hours a day on the bike, in 36-38 degrees Celsius, without any shade most of the time and in winds blowing at 30 km/hour. Now we know what it's like. It was a massive experience, but also pretty exhausting.
The kids made the trip without much effort. We all suffered from the heat now and then, but Karsa loves trucks and traffic, the landscape is inspiring for him as well, so he's not bored easily while on the road. Hanga didn't enjoy the heat much, but she slept a lot on the way and is still small, I could give shade for her.
We found that driving a bike in 38 ℃ while covered in clothes from head to toe is a genius thing. In fact, it seemed to be the only wise thing to do. A lot of people drive like this in SEA, and in many cases, professional bikers too. We had to stop to buy winter gloves (yep, sounds ridiculous, but that's the only glove you get in some parts) for the kids so that their hands don't get sunburnt. Mine was basically toasted in a day, so I had to buy one for myself too. I didn't have many choices, so I went with the only piece that fitted. I can only hope that I didn't ruin the kids' sense for sophisticated fashion forever.
Winter gloves, wellingtons for one kid, sandals with socks for the other, long trousers that were ripped in different places, but were the only long enough trousers. Hats under the helmets to give some extra shade. In the end, we looked like someone who is on the way for a Mad Max remake rehearsal.
The most beautiful part
The most beautiful and unique part of the trip was the first, southern coastal part of our route. The article I found states that the coast between Mui Ne and Nha Trang is one of the most beautiful in the country. They might be right. We didn't go as far as Mui Ne but still were amazed on the way again and again.
There's an interesting, semi-arid area here that not a lot of visitors know about. The vegetation, the buildings, goats along the road, hot and dry wind, a lot of sand and spectacular limestone formations give a surreal setting. If someone would've just dropped me here, I would never guess we are in Vietnam.
Having a more relaxed itinerary comes with extra benefits, like being able to make loads of photos in good lights, or take pictures at all.
The funny part
One night we arrived at our hotel, in a remote area. When we met the owner, he asked about our nationality. We told him we are Hungarian. His response: "Hungarian?! Good, we'll drink (alcohol) later… It always makes me so proud to know how famous Hungarian people are worldwide… OK, maybe not this one, but I'm still laughing.
We had to upset him about the drinking and believe me, he was really upset. Next morning he invited us again for a beer before we head to the highway. I know, this is already a level of rudeness, but we had to say no.
To sum up
It was worth to choose the coastal route for the landscape itself. Our luggage arrived safely (probably with a bus) and was ready to pick up at the office in Hoi An where we had to drop off the bikes.
The kids were playing at every stop we made. They just picked up some sticks and rocks and pretended that they are explorers. They had a great time, and we could hardly continue with the ride after these stops. My older child was talking about bringing his children to Vietnam when he grows up and planning what to show them.
The bikes were comfortable, and we had no technical problems on the way. Mine even had a working speedometer. Road quality was good most of the time. Some minor parts were dirt tracks, and we found many parts to have excellent quality roads. We spent a lot of time on the roads leading closest to the shore. On these parts, goats and cattle were everywhere, even in the middle of the road, but motorized traffic was low, fortunately.
We met lovely people, like some friendly street food vendors along the way. In a bigger city a young woman pulled up next to me at the traffic lights, asked what we were looking for, we told her we'd like to find a bakery, and she lead us to a good one. That's a sweet memory. In fact, she rescued us from having to search for a suitable place for at least 15 minutes in the crazy traffic and have at least one nervous breakdown.
Would we do it again?
Definitely. It was an exhausting trip, but it was so worth it. Now we know how to schedule to have enough time for everything we want to do and see on the way. Now we know how to dress on a trip like this. Driving through the countryside on a motorbike is one of the best ways to discover the marvels of the landscape, and Vietnam has many marvels. To be continued…