Learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam is definitely one of the best travel skills I’ve gained since leaving home. There is no better feeling that being able transport yourself around a city, without having to rely on any public transport. Not only have I been able to explore more of my home city, Saigon, but I’ve even been able to explore the regions outside Ho Chi Minh City on motorbike road-trips. It’s so reassuring to know that I can now rent a bike wherever I visit in Asia and go adventuring without booking a tour.
I only started riding a motorbikes in March, despite having lived in one of the motorbike capitals of the world for 8 months. When I first moved I was terrified of riding a motorbike in Vietnam (as was my family at the prospect), driving through traffic and navigating the city. Hell, I was even terrified of crossing the street!
Hands up if you’ve been to Ho Chi Minh City and can relate to what I’m talking about – if you haven’t heard or seen, this video might give you some necessary insight.
The traffic in Vietnam is crazy, right? Okay, so now we are all on the same page regarding the fear of driving a motorbike in Vietnam, here is the fun bit! Through these simple steps I was able to transition from a “rabbit in headlights” to a “pro’ biker” without any issues. And the best bit, this is a step by step guide to help you conquer the roads of Asia too!
Learning to Ride a Motorbike in Vietnam
Step 1: Observe the road and master being a pedestrian
I hope that this comes as no surprise, but if you can’t figure out when its safe to cross the road, or in Vietnam simply how to cross the road, then you really shouldn’t be riding a powerful and dangerous machine around. So, it’s only logical that this is the first step to nail before learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam. Elsewhere in the world this is somewhat simpler but with Vietnam being a nation of unruly, motorbike packed roads, this is essential.
The roads in southern Vietnam are generally wider (thanks French colonisation) than they are in the north, but both should be tackled in the same way.
How to cross the street in Vietnam
Check the traffic before you step out onto the street (you don’t want to jump straight into the path of a zooming bike), then generally speaking, continue to cross the street regardless of on-coming motorbikes. This is where most people panic but it is okay, we promise. The safest way to cross the street is to walk slowly and at a steady pace. If you rush or walk at an inconsistent pace (read: panic) then oncoming motorists can’t accurately judge to avoid you.
Of course, always cross at traffic lights or zebra crossings when possible. Yes, despite the crazy roads there are actually designated crossing areas! But they aren’t without their challenges either – at traffic lights almost all but the right hand turning traffic will cease, so you still have to have your wits about you when crossing (oh Vietnam you are confusing, right?). Zebra crossings don’t mean that traffic will stop, but they are a designated area for pedestrians to cross which means that oncoming traffic will be more aware of the potential for people to be on the road. If you find yourself worried that you won’t be spotted by oncoming traffic, then do as the locals do and raise a hand up in the air like a beacon.
Just be consistent in your walking pace and you will become a stellar pedestrian in no time!
Step 2: Take motorbike taxis like Grab or Uber
Once you have figured out how to cross the road, it’s time to get on the back of a motorbike and experience being in the thick of it. Yikes I hear you say (and if you aren’t then its most likely because you haven’t seen rush hour in Vietnam first hand).
Motorbike taxis, in Vietnamese called “xe ôm”, can be found relatively easily. Look out for men lounging on bikes at junctions and street corners – more often than not they are drivers waiting for passengers.
Use Uber or Grab motorbike taxis
If you’re not comfortable with just hopping on a strangers bike (as a young female I definitely am not) then fear-not as there are other options for getting a motorbike taxi in Vietnam. It amazed all my friends back home to find out that Uber is uuuber popular in Vietnam (see what I did there) and of course they’ve adapted to their market. As a result, Uber offers both car and motorbike travel options! Upon opening the app, you can just swipe along to the motorbike options.
But Uber isn’t the only app offering motorbike taxis. Asia has its very own Uber equivalent called Grab. The app works in a similar way, but where Uber offers a price estimation and the final total is determined upon arrival (route dependent pricing), Grab offer a set fare for your journey based upon the time of day and current traffic. Grab is often cheaper for short distances, and Uber cheaper for longer distance. Download them both and try them out. Aside from giving you a chance to get used to being on the back of a motorbike, they’ll definitely be of use if a monsoon starts thundering down!
Whilst on the back of a motorbike you’ll feel yourself starting to get more comfortable and able to read the traffic. Imagine you were driving yourself and pay close attention, deciding when you would go and looking out for hazards. You’ll find that in no time you are itching to be in control of the bike yourself (especially if you find yourself riding with a driver who has no sense of direction).
Step 3: Rent a bike and practice on your own
Having been on the back of a bike, you’ll have picked up some of the rules of the road (of which there are few anyway). And now you are ready to try for yourself. This means that now you are only focusing on mastering how to drive, control and balance the bike, not when it is safe to drive and what hazards to look out for. This really makes learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam much easier to master.
I recommend contacting a bike rental agent (I found mine via a Facebook group) and having them deliver a bike to your accommodation. This means that you can practice around your area before having to drive in busy traffic. If you live somewhere busy, then see if they can meet you in a quieter district to give you a chance to practice. Some of the back streets in D2 or D7 are great for practicing to ride a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City.
How to Operate a Motorbike
So, this is what I was most worried about when our rental bikes arrived at the front door. Thankfully my flatmate was able to teach me the basics. I, as of yet, can only able to drive an automatic bike which is prefect for first timers. So the first thing you have to do it put the key in the ignition and turn it. To start the engine you will need to hold the breaks, push the “start button (it’ll be on the right hand side) and then rev the right-handle. Hurrah your bike turns on! Take it slowly and gently at first, and don’t forget to let your feet hover above the ground until you are comfortable with balancing on the bike.
Now you really are learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam! After a few times round the block you’ll start to feel like a dab-hand, it really is that easy to figure out. The most challenging part is figuring out how to be safe on the road, but the great news is you already mastered that by traveling on motorbike taxis!
Step 4: Practice with someone else on the back
The final step for learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, is mastering how to balancing with a passenger. It takes some practice to adjust to the extra weight, and you’ll also have to figure out how much more acceleration and breaking you’ll need taking the additional weight into consideration.
A tip is to try balancing with someone a similar size, before trying with someone bigger than you. I still struggle to balance taller people on the back, but its now a doddle with female friends on the back.
If you have followed all these steps, then you are ready to be let loose on Vietnam’s roads!
Quick tips: Riding a Motorbike in Vietnam
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is quite a feat, so if you are planning on doing it yourself, here are some tips to help you stay as safe as possible.
- Always wear a helmet – it is a legal requirement in Vietnam and all short term rental bikes should come with one! Of course, your travel insurance (if covering you for bike hire) will be completely nulled if you don’t wear a helmet. I got myself a good quality ones for less than 600,000VND from the brand Andes. You can find them in most bike helmet stores and they are more than worth splashing out on.
- For the average bike 50 to 60,000VND should fill your tank up.
- If you’re struggling for fuel, check alongside the motorways for vendors selling “xe máy”. They’ll be able to put some extra fuel into your bike to tide you over until you get to the next gas station.
- When driving a motorbike in Vietnam, have your hand hovering over the break and horn in case of emergency. It is a good idea to train your bodies automatic reaction to danger to be beeping and breaking. Trust me on this one.
- If renting a motorbike, try driving it by yourself before giving anyone a lift on the back. This gives you the opportunity to see how the bike controls before adding another persons weight into the mix.
- If you are sharing the bike between two people, then it is easiest to have the heavier/larger of the two drive and the smaller ride on the back.
- Legally you need to have a Vietnamese motorbike licence to drive in Vietnam – and no, a licence from your home country won’t cut it for every nationality.
- Hopefully it goes without saying, driving a motorbike is super dangerous (even if we’ve made light of it here). Make sure you have insurance and that you are meeting all the requirements to be covered by it (if they will cover you at all). I know my insurance requires me to have a local license and wear a helmet at all times. Check your insurance fine print.
Learning to ride a motorbike in Vietnam might seem scary at the outset, but I promise that if you work through these steps, then you will be taking on the unruly roads of Vietnam in no time! The best advice I can give is to take it slow and take each step a month at a time. And of course, enjoy the sweet release of being able to go wherever you please in the city.
My ultimate goal is to ride a motorbike across Vietnam! Have you ever driven a motorbike? Where did you learn?
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For more on motorbike driving in Vietnam:
- If I haven’t convinced you that you are capable of driving a motorbike in Vietnam, then check out Ride With Me in Saigon for some more hands on assistance.
- Lessons Learned on my First Vietnamese Motorbike Road Trip
- Escape from Ho Chi Minh City: Hiking Black Virgin Mountain