Northern Vietnam by Motorcycle
Words & Photos by Bryson Smith, August 21st, 2019
The thrum of the motorcycle, the seemingly limitless curves and bends of a high mountain pass, vistas replete with terraced rice fields and cascading mountain streams: these are just some of the awe-inspiring sights & sounds a motorcycle tour of Vietnam will give you.
This past July, I took a trip to the North of Vietnam, exploring Hanoi and the surrounding countryside and mountains via motorcycle. My traveling companion was a fellow Nomad team member, Remy Margerum, who in his day to day role handles our finances. I got him out of the office for a whirlwind nine-day tour of Northern Vietnam. We left the USA with no more plans than a desire to ride motorbikes and see as much of the countryside as possible. If you ever wanted to explore Vietnam from behind the handlebars of a motorcycle, then check out this trip report for tips on where to ride and what to see.
Remy and I stepped off the plane at Noi Bai International Airport and into the oppressive heat of Vietnam in July. July is coincidentally the hottest month on average in Vietnam. If you can, I would avoid taking your trip to Vietnam in July. However, if that's when you can go, then go for it! Just be prepared to sweat it out a bit.
We took a Grab from the airport to Hanoi proper. Grab is the Uber of Vietnam and an invaluable App to download before heading there! Once We arrived in Hanoi, we set out to explore the old quarter of the city, which is made up of tight streets which seem to mesh jungle vines and tangles and tangles of electrical wire and cables into a seamless ecosystem. Thousands of mopeds create a seemingly endless tide of people, swept about the city on all their different individual errands. There is simplicity to the traffic of Hanoi; you flow through it instead of waiting for crosswalks, stop lights, and any other traffic aids you might be accustomed to. To cross the street on foot, you just go for it, maintaining a steady and deliberate pace until you reach the other side of the street. The motorbikes and relatively few cars will find their way around you, just trust them. As for the buses, all bets are off and keep your head on a swivel.
After a couple of hours exploring the streets, having bowls of Pho and delicious Bánh mì, we returned to our hostel for its excellent happy hour and then, with our newfound hostel friends, explored the nightlife of the old corridor. The old corridor is packed with other tourists, cheap beer, and delicious street food.
I won't recommend any specific places to eat and drink in Hanoi as I think the best part about the city is wandering around and trusting your intuition to help you find the good stuff. My best bowl of Pho the whole trip was found late at night in an alleyway where a tarp, plastic stools, and no walls created a restaurant. I have no idea if the place has a name or how to find it, but it was fantastic. The real joy of street food in Vietnam is finding a place that calls to you and trying it.
However, there is one thing you must try if you visit Hanoi: Bia Hoi. Bia Hoi is a light beer brewed fresh every day in Hanoi. It is delivered via motorbike to spots all around the city that serve food as well as the eponymous beer. It is cheap, widely available, and beloved by locals and tourists alike. Bia Hoi are easily identified, and I seemed to find one on almost every block in the old quarter.
As we got farther and farther from Hanoi, the city gradually gave way to countryside and farms. We reached our first stop, Hoa Binh City, right around sunset and had dinner along the river. There isn't much to see or do in Hoa Binh other than explore the riverfront and we were exhausted from the first day's ride. We ended up passing out early intending to get up before dawn to cover as many kilometers as possible the next day.
We left Hoa Binh City early the next day and set out to ride as far as possible. Hours of riding took us through many different small towns, open countryside, improbable dirt roads, and at least one water crossing. As the day progressed, we slowly gained altitude, leaving behind some of the oppressive heat and humidity of the lowlands. The solitude traveling by motorcycle creates plenty of time for mental quiet, despite the relatively loud noise of the bike's engine.
As we gained altitude, the towns were replaced by mountain passes that cut through dense jungle. After hours of riding, we were ready to stop for a break and happened upon a roadside stand that overlooked a river. Shortly after Remy and I sat down for some refreshments, a truck stopped, and two guys got out. We started talking to them, despite our nonexistent Vietnamese and their limited English. When they learned that we weren't sure where we were staying that night, they insisted that we stay the night with them, about 30 kilometers up the road. We set off behind our newfound friends. A little way up the road, we stopped at one of their friend's homes for dinner. We were privileged enough to experience a traditional Vietnamese dish, black chicken, which was cooked over a woodfire. We were both very grateful for the kindness shown us and the spontaneity with which the experience presented itself. If we had planned out our trip in more detail, we never would have met our new friends and experienced their gracious hospitality.
After our exceptional dinner, we headed a little farther up the road before staying with our hosts for the night. The next morning we had breakfast with them before hitting the road for the remaining three hours to Sapa.
Once We Arrived in Sapa, we checked into a hostel for the night and explored the lakefront area and had some street barbeque. Sapa is currently undergoing serious development, with new hotels rising out of the cliffs and paved roads replacing dirt tracks. Overall, it felt as if the city had sprung up to meet tourist demand, and while the views were beautiful, the road along the way was ultimately more interesting.
The next day would be our biggest ride of the trip, we were planning on staying with some friends, about 45 minutes outside of Hanoi, around 7 hours from Sapa. We awoke early to wet roads and light rain. To make matters worse a wrong turn out of Sapa ended up taking us down the worst road of the whole trip. After about an hour going the wrong way, we realized our mistake and headed back to Sapa to get back on track. Fortunately, the right road was nicely paved, albeit still windy and wet. We made our way back to lower elevation, and the humidity and heat returned. All in all, our journey back, due to some wrong turns and fatigue took about 10 hours. A decent day of riding for previously uninitiated riders like Remy and I. We arrived at our friend's place covered in mud and looking somewhat haggard.
The next day we rode back to Hanoi, returned our bikes, and checked into the same hostel we had stayed in before, completing the circle of our trip. All in all, we had ridden about 700 kilometers, vastly more than either of us had ever done. Our route was mostly unplanned, opening up the possibility for adventure. A motorcycle tour through Vietnam gives you the freedom that a guided tour or bus trip never could, and I highly recommend it as a way to experience Vietnam.
Bryson's Vietnam Travel Tips
When it comes to renting a bike in Vietnam, there are tons of different options. If you are only looking to ride around Hanoi, a single-speed moped is the best option. These are everywhere so you won't stick out from the crowd too much. Experiencing the unstructured ebb and flow of Hanoi traffic is one of the best ways to get to know the city and see it as it is for many of its inhabitants. If you are looking to get outside of the city and experience more of Vietnam, then I highly recommend renting a Dual Sport Bike. This will give you extended range, more capability over rough terrain and dirt roads, and more power. For this trip, we rented Honda XR150s from Thang Motorbikes in Hanoi. Thang Motorbikes offers discounted rates for longer-term rentals as well as guided tours. However, if you plan on being in Vietnam for longer than a month, I recommend buying a bike and selling it at the end of your trip. Check out this in-depth guide to buying and selling a bike here.
2. Route Planning
Google Maps works reasonably well in Vietnam, and I relied on it for all of our navigation. Some seemingly insane routes that took us through rice paddies, washed out single track and small villages ended up working despite moments of desperation while following the route. If I were to go again, I would have gotten a paper map as well for back up. I can't speak personally to the accuracy of this National Geographic Map, but I have used other Nat Geo Maps for Mexico, and they were great. Another invaluable piece of gear to help you navigate is a phone mount for your motorcycle. This will allow you to check your navigation without having to take your phone out of your pocket while riding.
If you are staying in Hanoi, there is a whole host of hotels and hostels to choose from, especially in the old quarter of the city. I stayed at the Central Backpackers Hostel, which is a great place due to its excellent WiFi, air conditioning, and proximity to the nightlife of the old quarter. Plus it's $5 a night, hard to beat that. If that's not enough, they have a free beer happy hour for guests every night. You get unlimited beer for one hour. If that's not enough, did I mention the free beer? Once we departed Hanoi, we stayed in a mix of hotels and with locals in their homes. There are plenty of homestays along the major roads in Vietnam. We were lucky enough to make friends who invited us to stay with them. If you are in doubt as to where to stay, then I recommend downloading Hostelworld. You can find and book hotels, homestays, and hostels through their mobile app, making lodging a breeze.
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