Motorbikes, motorcycles, or scooters are a huge part of the the culture in Vietnam. They are great on fuel, they keep the roads from becoming too congested, they’re like mobile aircons. Yes, it is a bit scary at first, but if you’re moving to Vietnam you really should consider getting one. I love to walk, but in Vietnam it’s too damn hot and the sidewalks are too cluttered with bikes, stalls, and holes. The public transportation system in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are not great. They’re limited, often packed, stifling, and not very convenient. Hands down, a motorcycle is the best way to get around. Unless you know you’re going to be in Vietnam for a really long time, I recommend buying a used bike because they are cheap, easy to repair, and they don’t attract as much attention from the infamous Vietnamese police. Also, like any vehicle, the resale value isn’t great — once you drive a new motorbike off the lot you can knock off a quarter of its value, so don’t think you’ll be able to sell your 2 year old scooter for anything close to what you paid for it. On the other hand, a 10 year old scooter is almost worth the same as a 12 year old one. I’ve bought two used bikes in Vietnam — this morning I was very close to buying a third (it’s addictive). Here’s what I’ve learned about the process.
Where to buy
There are a bunch of places to get bikes owned by foreigners, or by people who are looking to sell to foreigners. Here’s a breakdown of a few online sources. In order to compare them, I’ve checked all the sites to see how much the average Honda Dream is (a popular backpacker’s bike).
- Travel Swop – A website where you can sell or buy things from other travelers. You can definitely find some deals on here, but most of the bikes are Honda Wins, Dreams, or Waves and they’ve been driven from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (or vice versa) being repaired with cheap Chinese parts along the way. Of course, there are exceptions, so browse the site daily because they’ll go quick. Honda Dream: $250/5,300,000 VND
- Tigit Ho Chi Minh City – Mainly sells to backpackers, but will also sell to people living in the Saigon area. Bikes are well maintained and fairly cheap. The owner is British and he’s happy to help with any questions you might have. Honda Dream: $300/6,380,000 VND
- Craigslist Vietnam – Again, you can sometimes find good deals on here, but you don’t know how well maintained the bike has been. There are some jerk-wads on there that will try and rip you off so beware. Honda Dream: $275/5,850,000 VND
- Quang Minh Motor Hanoi – A fairly popular shop with the Hanoi backpackers. I haven’t had any experience with them, but I’ve heard the owner speaks very good English. They don’t show what they have online, but I read about a sale that listed some very reasonable prices. Furthermore, the bike comes with a free helmet and they will also deliver. They’re mainly directed at tourists who want to ride around Vietnam for a while, so the bikes may have a lot of miles on them. Honda Dream: $200/4,255,000 VND
- Honda 67 and Cub Factory Ho Chi Minh – If you’re looking for something stylish and classy, this place can hook you up. They mainly restore Honda Cubs, Honda 67s, Honda Challys, which are good options if you are looking for something under the 50cc mark — anything over that and you legally should have a Vietnamese license. It’s English owned and the bikes are well maintained. Honda Dream: unknown
What Type of Bike
This largely depends on what type of person you are. If you want something showy, there are a lot of cool vintage bikes that have been fixed up. Saigon Scooter Centre has old Vespa’s that have been updated with new engines. They’re real sharp looking, but costly. If you just want something straightforward, easy to use, inexpensive, reliable, and with enough power – I recommend a SYM Attila. They are fully automatic, so you don’t have to worry about shifting gears or stalling it. They are made from quality parts unlike some of the Honda bikes that have often been repaired with cheaply made Chinese parts. You can take the Attila to a SYM dealership if you need to repair it, which reduces your chances of being ripped off. I’ve heard about multiple backpackers that have rode them from Saigon to Hanoi (over 1500 km). They go about 28 kilometers per litre or 80 miles per gallon. They are very affordable. In Vietnam, everyone wants the latest thing whether it be the new iPhone or the new model of Attila. This means perfectly good Attilas are being sold at great prices. In fact, you can pick up a used one for about 3,500,000 VND or $165. It’ll be about 10 years old, but as long as it was well maintained it should be fine. The only downside to the Attila is that it looks like a spaceship mated with a jet ski. The newer models are actually pretty sharp, but you’ll have to pay a couple thousand if you want one of those.
Before You Buy
Before you throw your money down, make sure that the bike comes with a registration card (a little blue card that has a serial number, make and model, name of the original buyer, etc). You’ll need this to avoid getting your bike impounded. Every bike should also come with a license plate.
Bike Inspection Checklist
Check to make sure the following parts work:
- The horn
- All the lights including: signal lights on front and back, brake lights, headlights, rear headlight
- Brakes – front and back
- Engine – put the bike on its centre stand (make sure the back tire is off the ground), start it up, gun the engine. Listen for clicks, knocks, and anything else that sounds bad. The engine is probably the most expensive thing to fix, so this is important.
- Gears – test every gear if you can. If you can test drive the bike this shouldn’t be hard, but if you are running it on the bike stand it might be tougher. The transmission is probably the second most expensive thing to fix.
- Tires – Check to see how worn they are and if they are wobbly. If just the tread looks worn down it’s a pretty cheap fix, but if the tire wobbles when it spins then you’ll probably need to buy a whole new wheel.
- Mirrors – not a huge deal because they’re cheap, but a lot of bikes will be missing mirrors.
- Speedometer/Odometer – These break often and easily. Most bikes in Vietnam don’t have working ones. Neither of my bikes have speedometers, but I don’t think it’s much of a problem. You rarely even have the chance to go over the speed limit. An odometer is handy for knowing when to get your oil changed, but unless you are going a long distance, you can determine that by time.
- Fuel gauge – another item that rarely seems to work on Vietnamese bikes. I’m used to not having a fuel gauge on my motorcycles, so it’s not a problem for me at all.
WikiHow also has a good checklist
Having repairs done is a good way to get a bit more bang for your buck. If, say, everything looks great except the back brake, don’t be afraid to ask them to get it fixed before you agree to buy it. Most places that sell bikes will have a mechanic that they can get cheap repairs from.
Finalizing the Deal
When a deal has been made you pay the person, they give you the keys and the blue card, you drive away. That’s it. If you haven’t learned how to drive yet, you can probably easily haggle free delivery. Learning to ride will be easier at home where you can take it slowly, as opposed to learning on your way home from the motorbike store and risk wrecking your new set of wheels.