Dr. Frazier Vietnam Adventure Riding

September 16, 2008
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Vietnam is no place to learn how to ride a motorcycle.  Traffic  like here in Hanoi  can be wild.
Vietnam is no place to learn how to ride a motorcycle.  Traffic, like here in Hanoi, can be wild.

Vietnam adventure riding was a multiple problem solving test. The biggest problem was getting rid of the ego associated with riding a large displacement motorcycle, learning that riding big was not the best way to go.

In Vietnam there are an estimated 85,000,000 people, and nearly half that many motorcycles, 99.9% of which are 125cc or smaller. Vietnam has long had an import limitation on the displacement size of motorcycles allowed in the country, 125cc or smaller, so what is available to rent or purchase is generally limited to 125 or 110cc. This import policy also keeps foreigners from riding their larger displacement motorcycles into and through the country.

There are exceptions to the rule. I did see a new Gold Wing and a Harley-Davidson, several larger BMWs and numerous Hondas and Urals. How they got into Vietnam were interesting stories. Some came into the country through diplomatic channels, as in the diplomatic pouches. Others were left by visiting bureaucrats and politicians that managed exemptions to the rule. Some were former police motorcycles, while others were smuggled across the border. In 2007 Harley-Davidson announced it had signed an import agreement with the Vietnamese government, but as of the spring of 2008 none had been imported.

Streets in Hanoi are narrow and parking tight.
With narrow streets and no parking, you can see why there’s no place for big cruisers in Vietnam.

When I was researching the sources of some of these large displacement motorcycles I discovered a smuggling operation that started in Singapore where large displacement motorcycles are allowed, but as they age taxes on them make it expensive to keep them on the road in Singapore. A businessman in Singapore buys these older, larger motorcycles from the private owners, and then sells them to a Cambodian who takes them to Cambodia. From there they are smuggled across the Vietnamese border into Vietnam.

One enterprising American went to great lengths and expense to get the proper government approval to allow him to ride his large BMW across the border from Laos into Vietnam with a letter from the Vietnam government. At the border the customs officials read the letter and let him enter. He happily rode his big motorcycle south and attempted to exit Vietnam into Cambodia. There he was told by Vietnam customs that while he had a letter authorizing his importation of the big motorcycle, the letter did not authorize him to export it. They seized his motorcycle and he spent the next several months and considerable money getting the necessary approval to get it out.

Other riders have changed the numbers on the side panels of the motorcycles to read 125cc instead of 250 or bigger, and a few have managed to get in and out. But those are rare happenings.

One tour group has paid big “tea money” (known as bribes) to various Vietnamese handlers and officials to be allowed to ride their big BMWs from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi then out to Laos. Of course they also had to agree to pay for Vietnamese government guides who they rode behind that were on 125cc motorcycles so likely never got their BMWs out of second gear.

My  5.00 USD per day Chinese knock-off copy of a Japanese motorcycle.
My $5.00 USD per day Chinese knock-off copy of a Japanese motorcycle.

My solution to the problem was a simple one: ride what the locals ride, a 125cc displacement Minsk, and on a second trip to Vietnam a 110cc Chinese copy of a Honda.

The daily rentals were between $5 and $10 and I was able to easily keep up with the traffic and ride many places where my personal 600cc motorcycle would not have been happy, like through deep, slippery jungle mud. In the city traffic of Hanoi my big motorcycle with wide aluminum panniers would have been a hindrance in the congested traffic and parking an even more daunting problem because it would have been too big to fit in the narrow slots allowed for the small motorcycles.

The rental motorcycles were in varied conditions, from bad to nearly new. The positive side of using a motorcycle like the locals ride was everywhere there were small motorcycle repair shops that knew how to work on them and many carried the spare parts and tires needed. One Minsk I rented had no instruments and no key, but never broke down or needed repairs during the two weeks I used it. The Chinese knock-off of the Honda did have problems with the transmission, but $2 and an hour of labor by a local mechanic had that problem solved while I ate lunch.

Some signs were in English  or close enough to figure out what they meant.
Away from the major cities, very little English is spoken, but some of the signs were in English or were close enough to figure out what they meant.

The second major problem was language. I spoke no Vietnamese and away from the major cities very little English was spoken. French was the second language most often spoken to me when the locals realized I was a “westerner.” The proprietors of restaurants and hotels were friendly and helpful to the point I was always able to rent a room or buy a meal. However, once or twice I think the meat in the meal I was served was dog and not beef or pork. Several times I saw wagons loaded with cages that were filled with dogs headed to markets so knew Fido was ending up in stew pots somewhere. Suspect was white meat which may have been snake and not chicken in two or three instances where the meal served was the “house special,” meaning the only item on the menu.

Sleeping in small, inexpensive hotels was a mixed bag. The highest price I paid was $40 USD but that was in the big city of Hanoi. Once away from the populated areas a similar room would cost $15-$20. I did try some backpacker hotels where rooms were in the $5 range with a shared toilet down the hall, but generally stayed away from these places because security for my cameras and traveling gear was always a concern that outweighed the savings.

Driving in the big cities was a test of avoidance, trying to avoid getting in the way of the thousands of other motorcycles on the same roads accustomed to their erratic driving patterns and seemingly observing a polite rule of contact avoidance. In Hanoi I sat in a fifth floor restaurant above an intersection where five roads converged with no stop lights, no stop signs and no police directing traffic waiting with my cameras to film an accident, but none happened. While there was no yield to the right rule, the motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses all seemed to observe a contact avoidance rule. If contact was about to be made, the drivers would slow or stop, then ease their way around each other, never once appearing to engage in road rage or finger waving. However, horns were used wildly from sun-up to sun-down, a wake-up call each morning that life on the roads was beginning.

The Minsk excelled at off-pavement riding  far better than my 600cc big bike would have managed.
The Minsk excelled at off-pavement riding, far better than my 600cc big bike would have managed.

Once outside the larger cities, the roads were easily ridden as long as I remembered I was small and anyone with a bigger vehicle had the right-of-way, whether they were right or wrong. The major dangers on the roads were potholes, gravel, mud and people walking and riding bicycles, or other small motorcycles. However, most of these hazards were easily avoided due to the slow pace at which everything moved, including my 125cc or 110cc motorcycles. Of all the roads and trails I rode in Vietnam the worst was Highway 1, the main coastal highway between Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh in the south. On this road trucks, buses and cars were driven at speeds well above that of the small motorcycles, forcing motorcyclists to the sides. If I could find a parallel road to this main highway I would take the small road instead of Highway 1 to stay away from the blaring horns and wallowing trucks and buses.

I needed a visa to enter Vietnam, which I was able to secure from Bangkok in Thailand in three days. A short flight into Hanoi from Bangkok, then a taxi to the “old quarter” of Hanoi found me a clean and safe English-speaking hotel room for $40 within walking distance of several motorcycle rental and sales agencies. For the two-three weeks I was riding in Vietnam the rental route was better than the sales option because of the loss I would take selling the new bike when I left versus the daily rental fee.

Locals in the small villages were as curious about me as I was them  but they were also very shy.
Locals in the small villages were as curious about me as I was them, but they were also very shy.

I took with me my helmet, which was far superior to what could be purchased locally or available from the rental agencies. I also took my own riding jacket, pants, boots and gloves. Rain had me looking for a rain suit in Hanoi. The best fit I could find was marked XXXL but would more likely be a Large anywhere else. Finding large, western fitting riding gear would be nearly, if not impossible in a country where I was one to two feet taller than the average person and twice as big around. A dry bag for my change of clothes managed to hold enough for two weeks and the rental agency provided handmade saddle bags for the rest of my gear. I did take my own tank bag for carrying my two cameras and lenses, an item I knew would not be available in Vietnam. I saw not one other tank bag while I was there. I also carried my own tool and tire repair kit. The one item I regretted not taking was a seat pad, sheepskin, gel or air filled. The seats on the small motorcycles were not made for 190 lb people like myself, but instead more appropriately fit the 100-120 lb local buttocks.

I hate snakes  even ones pickled in snake whiskey  a very popular drink in Vietnam.
I hate snakes, even ones pickled in snake whiskey, a very popular drink in Vietnam.

Cash was king, like in most third world countries, and I converted $100 U.S. dollar bills easily at banks or money changing places when I needed smaller bills. While I carried credit cards, there were very few places that would take them, like upscale hotels, where I was not staying. I did not see any ATMs, McDonalds or Burger Kings, but did see one Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. For the time I traveled my daily budget averaged about $100 USD which included my visa, airfare from Bangkok, food, gas, oil, motorcycle rental and sleeping with an occasional beer.

With only a paper map I was able to find the major sites and borders. Once I took a short cut through an area the rental agency said I could not travel through, just to see how far I could get before being stopped. A small outpost was manned by two soldiers who turned me around and sent me back but were quite friendly about it. There was no gun pointing or shouting, just simple hand motions telling me I could not ride into the restricted military area, much the same as with a military base in the USA. They even made me a cup of tea and showed me on my map an alternate route to where I wanted to go.

Rice fields were everywhere  tended seven days a week with no time off for holidays or vacations.
Most of Vietnam is green and lush, but the landscape is quickly changing as the country has Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy.

The jungles were green and lush, but sometimes I could see where Agent Orange had killed every living thing on a hillside, leaving brown ground, likely still poisonous 40 years after it had been dropped. There were still vestiges of what the Vietnamese called the American War, like war museums and parts of military vehicles. I did some touristing in these places but was in Vietnam to ride roads and jungle tracks, getting a taste of driving motorcycles in this third world country. While I was solo on my ride I never once felt threatened by locals, soldiers or police, everyone was quite friendly and helpful.

If you would like to ride in a communist country before it becomes globalized, Vietnam is an easy one to do. However you should do it soon. Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy and the Big Mac is not far away. For those whose personal adventure riding envelopes are less extreme there are several motorcycle tour operators who can package an individual tour for you or put you in one of their group tours. ExploreIndoChina operates out of Hanoi and uses Minsk and Ural motorcycles, one of their owners literally being the man who wrote the book on Minsk repairs.

To get a digital taste for riding in Vietnam, watch for the new DVD to be released this fall from Globe Rider Productions and distributed through the Whole Earth Motorcycle Center titled “Motorcycling in Indochina and SE Asia.” For more on motorcycle riding in Vietnam go to tinyurl.com/56s8ey

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