You move to HCMC and soon notice that the seemingly chaotic traffic is quite civilised without necessarily adhering to road rules, and there’s very little if any road rage. The give-and-take seems to work well.
You also realise that some sort of motorbike could be very useful, and that nothing beats it for (relative) speed and ease. Unfortunately you’ll need a Vietnamese motorbike licence. You don’t need a licence for anything under 50cc, which may be enough for city traffic if you don’t carry too many passengers; but otherwise, you’ll have to convert your foreign licence or get a local one.
Image source: baomoi.com
The legalities of foreign licences and International Driving Permits are unclear – government announcements seem subject to different interpretations, and police on the ground may be characteristically ignorant of them.
You can do this either yourself for a few tens of dollars if you’re willing to run around for lots of make-work bureaucracy, or go through an agent for a few hundred dollars where you’ll still need to run around a bit with them. At least they’ll take care of the theory test in Vietnamese if you don’t have a foreign bike licence (you’ll still have to do the practice test yourself – see Google Videos).
Keep in mind that if you convert a foreign licence, it will only be valid for the duration of your visa or foreign licence, whichever comes first.
Image source: tinhte.vn
Get the mandatory third-party insurance, less than VND 100,000 a year, sold by women (always women) by the side of the road. The police like to see that. Much more importantly, however: check your own medical insurance about riding a bike.
Scooter or ‘Proper’ Motorbike?
Many foreigners and aspirational Vietnamese want Vespas, especially the vintage two-strokes with their tiny, dangerously unstable wheels. Modern Vespas are more stable, like their (much cheaper) Asian counterparts. Scooters have the advantage of bodywork (floorboards, leg shields) that keep you relatively dry on flooded roads.
‘Proper’ motorbikes have larger wheels that are more stable through potholes and over bumps, and are more comfortable for country trips. Many popular models provide the best of both worlds with large wheels and some bodywork.
What to Remember?
Depending on specifications, you can buy a popular Honda Wave (motorbike, little water protection) brand-new from around US$800, or a Honda Airblade with some bodywork from US$1,400, right up to a delectable Honda SH150 for US$4,000. Yamaha Nouvos and Suzuki Hayates are other sensible choices. Taiwanese Sym Attilas are popular too, though their tiny wheels are less than ideal. A new Piaggio (Vespa) will set you back around US$6,000. Steer clear of the China-built Honda Win 110cc, advertised by backpackers who come down from Hanoi two-up with luggage: they don’t have the legendary reliability of ‘proper’ Hondas.
Image source: Vespa Topcom
If you buy second-hand, do it from a resident expat who knows a bit about bikes, or at least from someone who understands regular maintenance – not just workshop visits when something snaps. Servicing receipts are priceless.
Regular engine oil changes are crucial – the oil breaks down quick smart at low speeds in stop-go city traffic. Caring owners change the oil monthly or every 1,000 km, which takes less than 10 minutes at a dealer for VND 100,000 max.
Also look for clean air filters and decent tyres, along with a near-new battery (batteries don’t last long in this heat).
Where to Buy?
If you can afford to buy new, see what the official dealers can offer. Go there in person and bring a Vietnamese-speaker. Do an all-in offer with cash on the table. Avoid their second-hand bikes, you don’t know the history.
Try to get the bike registered in your name, which may or may not be possible without a Vietnamese partner – see how you go. Until recently, if you bought a bike second-hand, holding the blue registration card was proof of ownership, regardless of the named first owner three steps removed. Apparently this is now illegal, but no-one really knows.