How to navigate Vietnam by motorbike

The internet and 3g is incredible in Vietnam. Coverage is wide and there are only a few spots in Vietnam with no signal. To navigate Vietnam by motorbike is easy! Here are few ideas to set you in the right direction.

Getting a phone with a sim card
Calculating distances and hours
Choosing a route
Phone holders and USB chargers
The weather and when is best!
The map choice to help navigate Vietnam by motorbike
Understanding road terminology
Using Google Maps
Using Maps.me
Finding Hotels on the road
Finding Hotels in remote locations
Vietnam hotels explained
Finding food on the road

Getting a phone with a sim card

Providing the phone is unlocked, a sim card with unlimited internet can be bought for around 70,000vnd (3usd). At the time of buying the sim card, get a 10usd top up card and ask the assistant to activate unlimited internet which is around 80,000vnd (4usd) for a month. This gives around 5usd spare for emergency phone calls.
There will be a choice of Mobi or Viettel. Supposedly Viettel has slightly better coverage, however both are great and just take whichever is presented.

The phone shop is “the gioi di dong”, which can be found throughout Vietnam. They are yellow phone stores that are normally blasting out music. Type in “the gioi di dong + city name” into googlemaps. Most of them have employees that can speak basic English. If in HCM the Gioi Di Dong nearby the backpacker street are very familiar with setting up phones for foreigners.

A complete guide to getting a sim card in Vietnam.

Calculating distances and hours

Miscalculating time is one of the biggest mistakes a traveller can make when looking to navigate Vietnam by motorbike. Everything googlemaps suggests needs to be doubled or tripled.
Googlemaps does not accurately account for the turns in the roads. Road speeds are slow, although it might feel fast, in the real world the speeds reached in Vietnam are slow.
200KM is a full day 8 hour drive, expecting 300-400KM in a day is impossible.

A normal backpacker will take 20-25 days to travel the distance of Vietnam when stopping to do tourist activities. The north and above Hanoi is another 1-3 weeks depending on how deep the driver goes.
10 days would be an all day straight drive with nearly no stopping.
7  days is the record we have seen at Tigit Motorbikes. A Malaysian guy on a Honda Blade, a difficult accomplishment with good skills on a motorbike!

Two Vietnamese girls do Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi in 40 hours.

Made the news ! Click bait stuff and probably impossible…..
At Tigit we use trucks to transport motorbikes between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Trucks will take 4 days whilst using rotating drivers.

Not going to make it boys!

Not going to make it boys! Shoulda had less beer last night!

The distance is large, so plan the holiday with time to spare!

Choosing a route

On the Tigit website we have routes and maps of Vietnam. Another popular source is Vietnam Coracle where Tom presents 5 suggested routes.
The website I originally followed many years ago when arriving in Vietnam is Time VS Focus.

Vietnam Back roads is a popular group where questions can be asked about road conditions and weather.

For a safe and consistent motorbike trip, read Saigon motorbike loops where the weather is nearly always hot!

For the North of Vietnam read Hanoi and the North of Vietnam.
Do research, and go to the Northern areas with the expectations of an adventure holiday!

For Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi routes read Saigon to Hanoi by motorbike.

Finally read the following to decide Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi or Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh.

Phone holders and USB chargers

Some companies offer phone holders and USB chargers. Phone holders were removed by Tigit due to drive by snatches, and the general low quality builds leaving expensive phones to fall when the holder breaks. Tigit now uses GPS bags which can be bought for 300,000vnd.

Don’t fall for gimmicky USB chargers. Just buy an external power pack.

USB chargers are bad for the motorbike. The chargers used  are usually Chinese and dangerous for both the motorbike and the phone. Attaching them voids any warranties and adds another layer of diagnostics due to mechanics automatically blaming the 3rd party add on. Instead we recommend people buy external USB power-packs for around $15 from phone stores such as The Gioi Di Dong.

The weather and when is best!

March and April are the best times to travel Vietnam by motorbike. Across the country the weather conditions are mostly stable!
The South
Ho Chi Minh is always hot – from Ho Chi Minh and heading North the weather gets colder, but it is nothing more than a jacket and wet weather gear.
In the South to  Middle, the rainy season is from July to October.
The stormy season where the middle of Vietnam can get hit by cyclones is from September to December.

The North
August to September is the best time to travel the North. The weather is mostly stable and the yellow paddy fields bloom.
Keep in mind this is also stormy season in Vietnam and random cyclones can smash through the area at any point. Storms come and go quickly, they usually pass over within two days. Apart from safety concerns for the big storms (check news sometimes), then just continue with the holiday knowing that the storm will pass.

March and May is also good for mostly stable conditions.
June to August is rainy season.

December to February are cold, so cold that the snow can fall. Plan for a skiing holiday and you should be ok! A big mistake travellers make when motorbiking Vietnam is to assume everywhere is hot. With Tigit Motorbikes it is possible to send luggage on the train, so plan ahead and have the correct gear sitting in our office waiting for cold weather conditions.

The Weather in Vietnam is confusing!
Vietnam has varying weather depending on the season and South or North. It is not worth planning the holiday around the seasons.
If it rains hard the waterfalls run hard and rivers become spectacular.
If it is hot in the south it is mostly cold in the north.
If a storm hits, then it is unlucky. The aftermath and drama of big storms is worth the stories that will come from the holiday!

Travellers spend far too much time worrying about the weather and attempting to predict it. Just get on with it and drive, there is nothing that will stop a holiday.
However if you are someone who really does need good weather to enjoy motorbiking Vietnam, then the best chances are to do a South Motorbike loop.

We use Accurate weather as our forecast.

A little bit of rain never heart anybody!

A little bit of rain never heart anybody!

There are no seasons, or conditions that will stop a true adventure seeker from enjoying a motorbike holiday in Vietnam. Every condition and season has its pros and cons.

The Map choices to help navigate Vietnam by motorbike

  1. Googlemaps is the single most important tool needed for navigating Vietnam by motorbike. A phone with a sim card and unlimited internet can cheaply be acquired which sets up a traveller with the ability to navigate Vietnam without difficulty.
  2. For remote regions with no signal, maps.me provides an excellent backup, staying connected to you and your route at all times.
  3. Ask for help! Vietnam is a country where the locals are more than happy to try and help you find your way. Just remember that the locals often have no idea where the next town is that you are asking for, and a culture of yes, yes, yes with no ability to say “no” can often send you even further down the wrong path! Enjoy the willingness and enthusiasm, but accept help with a pinch of salt.
  4. Get a road map. The only good road map of Vietnam is an Atlas sold by the bookstore chain Fahasa. Type Fahasa into GoogleMaps to locate the bookstore. The Atlas is blue with a picture of a bridge on it. In the modern ages this is not required, but for the old school compass folk… the ways of the past are still possible!

    Crossing a river

Understanding road terminology

AH1 – This is the main highway connecting the South and North regions. Mostly this is busy and should be avoided. However for quickly entering and exiting cities the AH1 can be useful and generally is the quickest method of getting from A to B.

QL National Road – QL Roads are usually in good condition and always paved. The majority of time travellers will be sticking to the QL roads for their motorbike road trips.

QL **b – Usually an alternative to the primary QL road, if seeing a B sign it is usually a better choice as the road tends to be more remote.

CT Super Higheway – These are for cars only, and no motorbikes are allowed. The exception to the rule appears to be the CT08 in Hanoi which allows motorbikes.

DT Countryside Road – These are usually in reasonable condition, but some DT roads are incredibly difficult. They tend to be remote roads that contect two places of relative importance, but often these roads are destroyed and never repaired.

TL, very small road – Normally single track. Usually for villages and shortcuts, most of the time travellers don’t need to worry about these.

Explore, explore and explore some more!

Explore, explore and explore some more!

Using Google Maps

The timings on Googlemaps need to be double or tripped to get the real time. If Google says 2 hours, this means 4 hours in real time.

Open up GoogleMaps and get plotting. Googlemaps contains the most detail, so is best used for getting an overview.
Once planned, open up Google MyMaps

Using the layer system create the route of your dreams. Once ready, export this to KML and send it to yourself on email.
This route will now display on your mobile device on “your place”.

Googlemaps is great at documenting every potential road, but in places of no signal the already created map gets deleted. Maps.me provides a quick and light alternative to help follow routes in times of no signal.

Using Maps.me

Maps.me has excellent offline capabilities and also runs lightly in the background of the phone. Googlemaps is a resource hungry app that eats battery. For journeys where everything is known, then navigating with Maps.me can extend battery life.
Locate the email you sent to yourself, and click the KML file to import this to Maps.me.

Maps.me has a great function to enable or disable different routes. Adventure seekers can create several routes on Google Mymaps, import these into Maps.me and display all the route options on one screen.

Finding Hotels on the road

For normal South to North motorbike trips, using Agoda.com, Booking.com or Hostelworld.com are the best ways to get popular places to stay.
AirBnB is also beginning to take off in Vietnam and is currently ridiculously under-priced.
Homestays are also a great option by typing “location + homestay” into Google or GoogleMaps.

In our opinion the best way to find hotels is by typing in “location + hotel” into Google and using the new Google hotel finder.

Finding Hotels in remote locations

Especially when navigating the North of Vietnam is may be hard to gauge how long a road may take. Advanced searching for small clusters of buildings where Hotels or Nha Nghi’s may be located is a way to save getting stranded in the remote countryside.

Find any main road and start zooming in on GoogleMaps, following the trace of the road. Look for anything that looks like a town. Nearly every small town in Vietnam has at a Nha Nhgi.
If the Nha Nhgi is showing up on Googlemaps then the chances are that the town is relatively big.
Even if there are no Nha Nghi on Googlemaps, it can be assumed anything with a collection of buildings is likely to have something!

Vietnam hotels explained

Party hostels – Dorm rooms usually at around $7 a night with a “free breakfast”. Party hostels operate for the masses of backpackers and the money is made from selling beer and tours. These can be found in any backpacker area and are usually booked through Hostelworld.com

Rubbish Hotels – Hotels usually start at 250,000vnd per night, or 12usd. If travelling as a couple, or as a group who don’t mind sharing, then these work out cheaper than dorm rooms. Vietnamese operated hotels often have 3 or 4 bedroom rooms and the benchmark price of 250,000-300,000vnd gets split among the group.
These hotels tend to have rock hard mattresses, but provide basics of what can be expected from a $12 room.

Good Hotels – To get a good hotel in Vietnam and the budget needs to rise to around 500,000vnd or $25.
500,000vnd will get a nice hotel room, good mattress and often a buffet breakfast. Good hotels are usually booked through Agoda.com or Booking.com

Nha Nhgi – Usually best to try and avoid these, they are technically boom boom hotels for the locals. Have yourself a secret girlfriend, then off to the Nha Nhgi you go! Quite amazing how many there are, and these are provided in nearly every small town or village.
The price can be around 150,000vnd and much like a hotel provide a rock hard mattress, only this time a pleasant stained bed sheet comes free with the room.
At least there is somewhere to rest your head having got stranded on the road.

Home Stay – Usually used when travelling the North of Vietnam above Hanoi. The motorbike tour companies have been operating in the North areas for over 15 years. They needed remote places to stop for their tours. Thus the Home Stay was born where they established and trained willing families into dealing with foreign hospitality.
Home Stays usually provide comfortable dorm room style bedrooms and sufficient facilities to keep a traveller happy.
Home stays tend to provide food and expect their guest to drink lots of Rice Wine.
The Home stay can provide an amazing experience. They usually need booking in advance so the family can prepare for you. The downside is these tend to be remote, leaving you on their eating schedule and dependant on whatever food they provide.
The price is around 150,000vnd for the night + food.

Finding food on the road

Tourist areas will have an enormous amount of choice for both Vietnamese food and western food.

When in countryside locations the western food quickly disappears and leaves the traveller relying on local cuisine.

The Safe stuff for unadventurous travellers
Beef noodles – Pho Bo or Bun Bo
Wake up, load up your bike, get driving and keep an eye out of Pho Bo. These are in every small town and village and no planning is needed. Just drive until you see one!

Baguette (banh mi)
Usually not found in the very remote areas, but for a speedy breakfast in the morning a Bhan Mi can quickly get you on the road. They can also be carried for use as an on the road lunch.

Lunch Time – Pho Bo again, or maybe a Chicken (gà) this time.
Or if time is on your side then Rice with Beef.

Dinner time  – Rice with Beef (com, thit bo)
Chicken with rice – Cơm gà
Some remote places may even be able to throw in french fries. (Khoai tay chien)

Or if in a restaurant with a menu, look for Bò lúc lắc which is beef cubes and french fries. Find this and your evening of locating safe unadventurous food is set and complete!

Oreo – Yes Oreo and other terrible candy can be found in most small towns and these should be bought for when the going gets tough!

The not so safe stuff
Dog – Thịt Chó
Frog – Ếch
Eel – Lươn eel
Duck Fetus – Hột vịt lộn
Snail – Ốc
Pig Brain – óc heo

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