So here’s the thing about motorbikes in Vietnam: technically you’re not supposed to drive without a Vietnamese licence. And you can’t get a Vietnamese licence unless you have Vietnamese residency. So that would seem to be that, right?
Well. Like so many things in Vietnam, in practice it’s a little bit different. Generally, you can rent a bike and the authorities will turn a blind eye, so long as you’re not driving like a total idiot and are wearing your helmet. Specifically that second one: driving is really more a common-sense based endeavour than a rules-based one, but the second you’re caught without a helmet you can bet shit is going down.*
It’s near impossible to explore much of Vietnam – particularly Dalat, Sapa and especially Cat Ba Island in my experience – without getting on a motorbike. When I arrived in Dalat I was faced with three choices:
- take an overstuffed day bus tour;
- take an overstuffed and overpriced Easy Rider tour (the bus and bike schedules were the same);
- get on a bike and do it all myself.
You *cannot* do it all yourself in a short time without, well, failing. Additionally, I was generally trying to avoid riding a bike at this stage because, you know, paranoid Westerner. So I ended up opting out of Dalat pretty much immediately.
After my lift on a bike in Hoi An from Mr. Lac (the lovely owner of my homestay), and the Forced Moto-Taxi Incident during a mad dash from Hanoi airport to a bus station to get to Cat Ba, I had become slightly more comfortable with bikes.
However I’d realised I didn’t enjoy being on the back of them very much – too out of control.
And so it was that, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon on Cat Ba, Mike and Matty, two lads I’d met the previous day, taught me how to drive an automatic motorbike. They found the one part of road that was quiet and well-paved, and got me to bomb my way down it. From there, the wider road awaited.
This was, as it turns out, a correct life choice. All the gallery photos? Things I would not have seen if it weren’t for riding a bike.
Won’t lie, there were some hairy moments. In Cat Ba there was more than one time I thought I would skid on gravel. In Sapa, we headed up a mountain pass after the Silver Waterfall, only to turn back because lorries decided they were going to bomb around steep corners, leaving the choice of driving over the ledge or being squashed. Strangely, we opted for neither.
But it’s an experience I definitely wouldn’t change for anything. The bikes aren’t fast, they’re easy to control. Admittedly I went slower than basically anybody ever did without falling off every 30 seconds, making the whole thing a highly comedic and considerably lower-budget version of The Fast and The Furious on slow-paced scooters, but I’m happy with that. If I can handle it, anybody can.
I still wouldn’t drive around Saigon or Hanoi though. I liked biking, but if Saigon residents are Kaizo Mario, I’m definitely Yoshi after a few drinks.
*Disclaimer: I strongly recommend you get a motorbike licence in your home country, and won’t be held liable if you don’t – this is apparently one of the big reasons insurance claims get denied. Basically, I got really lucky through sheer naivety and not-knowing-what-I-was-doing-itis. Everybody else doing it isn’t an excuse; if you’re going to do this, licence up.