Last year, after 8 months of living in Vietnam I FINALLY learned how to ride a motorbike! Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t learn to ride a motorbikes sooner. There is nothing so liberating as be able to scoot around the sprawling metropolis that is Saigon, without having to rely on poorly trained Uber and grab drivers showing up (or not as more often happens). So, while I was still in the honeymoon phase of learning to ride I decided to lose my motorbike road trip virginity and head out of the city in search of some nature.
My first day trip was mostly a success, though I quickly realised there were so many ways I could have improved the motorbike road trip experience and have a more comfortable journey. Well, lessons learned, I came back to Ho Chi Minh City, made changes to my kit and set off on another road trip shortly after, which was much smoother!
Related Post: Learning to Ride a Motorbike in Vietnam
Lessons I Learned on my First Vietnamese Motorbike Trip
Get a high quality helmet
Like, this should be a given. Getting a helmet which covers your ears and neck, fits properly and is good quality is a must for taking any motorbike road trip. Especially in Vietnam with the erratic reputation of Vietnamese drivers.
I had been using a cheapy helmets I bought for taking motorbike taxis around town (stage two of my process for learning to ride a motorbike). It was cheap and flimsy, didn’t fit properly, and definitely was not protective enough. So, immediately after I got back to the city I went shopping for good quality motorbike helmets.
Note: It is illegal to drive a motorbike without wearing a helmet in Vietnam
I opted for an Andes helmet. Andes are a Vietnamese brand, but are approved and made to the European safety standards. They’re widely used among the expat community here in Vietnam, and are deemed the safest affordable option. You can feel the quality difference in the weight. The padding inside is well made and prevents the helmet from slipping back on your head.
There are a few different models but I went for one which offered more protection by covering my ears and neck. On my first trip we could hardly converse, let alone fully focus on the road for the wind-rush in my ears. Eliminating this rush allows much improved concentration and awareness of the other traffic. Which need I remind you, can be a bit wild!
Get a pollution mask with filters
On my first trip I took a cheap cotton masks that I used for scooting about town thinking it would do the job. But the pollution when you get out onto some of the main highways and country roads is a completely different ball game to the city center. Travelling anywhere along a highway has awful pollution. The majority of the traffic on big roads are cargo trucks, buses and vans, which are by far the worst polluters. But it isn’t only pollution a mask will protect your from, there is also a lot of dust and debris on the country roads which gets kicked up into your face by the wheels.
Get a mask with a proper pollution filter. You can thank me later.
I recommend ordering some masks from AQblue which have filters in them to safe guard you against the pollutants that fabric masks don’t. I have found they make such a difference to the air quality! If you are living in Vietnam, then they are easy to order online. If you are flying in and planning to do a road trip, then do some prep and order them in advance so you can pick them up on arrival. Each one can be used for a few weeks at a time, unlike surgical masks or the cheap fabric ones which get dirty very quickly.
Use goggles for driving at night-time
Following on from the need for a pollution mask, you may have realized that pollution and dust are a big issue when taking a motorbike road trip in Vietnam. During the day, sunglasses are great for protecting your eyes from the sun and also preventing any roadside debris, dust, wind or pollution from getting into them. But, when driving at night, it is super dangerous to wear tinted sunglasses. I drove home from our first motorbike road trip in the dark, and as I didn’t have goggles to wear I ended up with a lot of dust and pollution in my eyes. It was so bad there was a build up of black gunk in my tear drops. Really nasty stuff, so I highly recommend goggles.
When driving at speed on the motorways, you also have to deal with the wind rushing past at 70km/hr and upwards. For those who haven’t ever driven in the open air at this speed, this means tears. A lot of tears. Another reason to get either a helmet with a visor or goggles. My Andes helmets came with a visor attached so it was a great two-birds-one-stone fix.
Wear sun lotion (even if the weather is overcast)
Despite living in a perpetually hot and sunny climate, I never actually wear sun-cream for daily life (I know, my skin is going to hate me in 10 years time). On my first motorbike road trip I embarked from a overcast Saigon, fully expecting the weather to remain like that. However, once I got out of the city the clouds passed and clear blue skies emerged.
The resulting sunburn was awful, peeling and blistering included. Lotion up folks! Better yet, bring a sleeved shirt and cover at least your shoulders. Thankfully I remembered sun-cream on the next road trip I took and applied it regularly. The tan lines resulting from motorbike driving are really quite hilarious though so be prepared!
Get a cushion to sit on
Or just anything soft to sit on, because ladies and gents, you really don’t know pain until you’ve sat on a motorbike for 6 hours in one day. Bruising your butt cheeks suddenly becomes a real possibility. I managed most of the way to Vung Tau without any complaints but on the return my little bootie was struggling big time. I was able to fashion a make-shift cushion out of towel which helped get me home still able to walk and sit down.
On the second motorbike road trip I used a scarf to cushion my little bootie and it made such a big difference! I seriously recommend getting a cushion – I certainly will be before doing my big motorbike trip this year!
Avoid driving in the dark
Driving definitely felt more dangerous out on the country roads. Not because there was any increased speed (it was actually the same as the highway I drive into town) but because locals were much more reckless. They were flying out of side streets without so much as a glance. At night time, this danger is doubled by limited visibility.
On both motorbike road trips there were people flying out of nowhere onto the main road, coming up the wrong side of road without lights on, cycling in the middle of the motorway…without lights…wearing all black. It was mental. Save yourself the stress and danger and stick to driving during daylight when you have full visibility.
Pack hand-sanitizer and wipes
As mentioned, the major highways have serious pollution and dust issues thanks to the cargo being transported along them (this isn’t to put you off, as once you get past them you’re in beautiful nature). But eating and feeling alive when you have dust ingrained into you face and hands is just miserable. Packing some wet wipes (you can find packs easily in mini-marts like CircleK and FamilyMart) will enable you to freshen up whenever you need to. Hand sanitizer will be an extra bonus as you will need to eat some-point along your Vietnam road trip, and eating with grimy fingers is not appealing.
There you have it, all the mistakes I made on my first motorbike road trip and how to prevent them. My more recent motorbike trips have been much more successful thanks to making these amendments to my kit!