Riding a Motorbike in Vietnam

We know that beofre arriving in Vietnam you’re going to have million questions about riding.

The below aims to reassure some of those worries. Driving in Vietnam will certainly be different to driving in your home country, but providing you’re safe, it’s a lot more fun too.

Quick links below

Parking

The first and most important  thing to say about parking is that in Hanoi motorbikes are extremely easy to steal. They can be gone in the blink of an eye.
Home
At home you should try to keep the bike away from prying eyes and behind securely locked gates and a fence that are tall and that hopefully have something sharp on the top.

The lock should be of good quality and so should the part of the gate or fence that you are locking.

It isn’t unheard of for thieves to leave a padlock in tact and cut the gate around the lock. As is it not also unheard of for thieves to lift bikes over fences up to two metres or more high.

I suggest keeping a bike inside the house, in a locked garage or behind the house out of sight rather than in a front courtyard where it can easily be seen and stolen when you are not at home.

Bike Parks


In Vietnamese the words Trong Xe written on a scrap of card indicate that a certain area is being used as a bike park. You’ll have seen many of these around and in general I’d say they are safe and relatively hassle free places to store a bike for a few hours. I wouldn’t recommend storing a bike there overnight but also feel that if you are familiar with the guards or have a close connection to them in some way that it could be an option.

There are one or two points to note

Get a ticket and do not lose that ticket. Check that either the plate number is written on the ticket or the ticket number is chalked onto the bike
If you lose the ticket there could be a fine and it will be difficult to get the bike without the registration documents, which you do not hold. There are times when leaving a copy of a passport and a letter to say you take full responsibility can persuade a guard to let you take the bike but these are rare. You will normally need to contact us to get the bike for you and it can be troublesome. DON’T lose the ticket!

Find out how long you can keep your bike in the bike park. Often these places will be forced by the police to shut at midnight. If you have not collected your bike by then it will be impounded by the police who will then possibly only release it to the staff at the bike park, even though it is OUR bike, so that they can claim payment for inconvenience. This again makes it difficult to get the bike quickly and causes frustration for everyone.

As a rough guide you can expect to pay between 2,000 to 5,000vnd for a short stay but this will differ depending on location, time of day, public holidays etcetera. I cannot advise on overnight charges as I won’t leave a bike overnight. It goes without saying that you should endeavor to find out how each different place works before leaving a bike there.

In a flat / apartment

A mix of the above advice applies to parking in your apartment. There could be the additional procedure of registering the bike with the guards but this is usually simple and your landlord is the one to do this for you really. Again find out how things work first, then leave your bike there.

On the street


If you are going to leave the bike outside a shop, then check that it is ok for you to do so. The owner / staff will often let you know very quickly if you have put your bike in the wrong place and tell you where to put it. Do take their advice as they spend a lot of time in that location and know exactly what is best for all concerned.
If you park illegally it is likely that the police will impound the bike. This then means we will need to find the local police station that has the bike. Show them the registration documents. Ask that they fine you. Pay the fine, which is in a different office as police do not accept payment of fines. Return to the police station and ask for the bike back. It is long winded and tiresome.

Please park in the correct place. Never cause a fuss or raise your voice at the police it will cause a lot of difficulty and no one will appreciate it. Get angry on the way home.

If you leave the bike outside a bar or restaurant that you use then tell them so and they will usually show you where to park or have someone park your bike for you. Then if there is any problem the owner / manager should be responsible and take care of it.

Leaving the bike on the street and not in a bike park is only really an option if you are going to be somewhere for a very short time. In that case it is best to use the steering lock and the front wheel lock whilst you are not with the bike. Check that you have the keys beforehand.

DO NOT leave the bike with anyone other than a bike park attendant who gives you a ticket and with whom you see other (Vietnamese) people leaving their bikes with.

If you leave the bike with a random stranger you will at best get the petrol stolen. Parts could be exchanged and the bike could be left for the police to pick up or, at worst, be stolen and sold off as parts. It sounds obvious as does some of the other snippets here but these things do happen.

Police Issues 

The first thing I must say that is in all my time in Vietnam 99% of my dealings with the police have been very positive ones. I think that the police here are fair and generally try to do the right thing by foreigners. In general I tend to steer clear of the police and find that the presence of a foreigner tends to make things slower and more awkward. I prefer to let the young man that works for me deal with these things.

It seems that as of writing this (Feb 2010) the police are out in force implementing the laws due to the increase levels of traffic nowadays. I feel that foreigners are going to start to get stopped more and more often.

I would think the main reasons you may find yourself dealing with the police are:

  • You parked in the wrong place.
  • Your violated the traffic laws.
  • You lost the bike parking ticket.
  • The bike is lost / stolen

Here is some general info that you may be unaware of about those situations and also my suggestions for what to do in each situation. Please do NOT take these as hard and fast rules. Each situation created by the mixing of many different factors and thus there is no single correct answer. What follows are merely suggestions.

Call us.

Tell us where you parked and we will know where your bike is. We will then arrange with you a time and a place to get the bike back. The process is usually,
We go to the police station and asked to be fined. We go to a different office to pay the fine. We go back to the police station to collect the bike. Most times this is a little long winded but still a relatively painless process

Nine times out of ten you are going to get away with minor traffic violations as do Vietnamese people. However, if you are pulled over by the police for something then you will probably have to pay a fine. The official way to do this is for you to receive a ticket and then go and pay the fine at another office and then return to collect your bike. In reality this may not happen and you may find yourself paying the fine directly to the police officer who I assume will pay the fine for you as you do not know where the payment office is.

If you lose the ticket you will usually need to deal with the bike parking guards only. However, in come cases the bike will be passed on to the police. We then have to take the registration documents to them, pay any fines and then take the bike. This, again is usually very simple, however there are times when it is not as easy as it sounds.

If the bike is stolen, it should be reported to the police as stolen. The chances of you finding the bike again are very slim but there is a small chance and I have known it happen. We are happy to help you inform the police and will translate for you. We will ask you to pay the current value of the bike based on the bike’s age regardless of whether or not you report the bike stolen or are hopefull that it will be found. Once you have compensated us for the loss we will give you all the registration documents as the bike is then yours.

The golden rule when dealing with the police is “Smile and be polite”. As soon as you stop being friendly walls will come down and things will start to get very difficult very quickly.

Riding Tips

1. Bike Setup.

Being on the bottom of the pecking order you must take every opportunity to reduce the risk of accidents. The first step is to ensure your bike is set up for YOU and you are comfortable with it. The following checks should be done whenever you set out, or if not, at least weekly:

Tyre Pressure

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Most tyres will state the recommended pressure on them. It varies between the front and back and often gives a range so if carrying a pillion err on the high side.

Tyre Tread

As a rule of thumb once a tyre tread reduces below the diameter of a match head (1.5mm), replace them. The roads in and around Ha Noi are often covered with a fine layer of dirt or oil, even more so after prolonged dry spells. As it is the contact between bike and road that helps you stop, do it right.

Brake tension

It’s important to ensure both front and back brakes have the correct amount of play in the cables. Braking ability is severely reduced if there is too much slack. Also have your levers/pedals adjusted to suit both your riding position and size.

Mirrors

DON’T RIDE WITHOUT THEM. Make sure your mirrors offer the best rear vision possible and they are correctly positioned so you can easily see without the need to move your head.

Lights

In many developed countries motorcycle headlights are ‘hot wired” i.e. there is no on/off switch but they are on all the time. There is a very good reason for this and it applies more so in Vietnam as visual awareness often has more effect than the constant use of horns. Check all your lights are operational before you set out. Head lights, tail light and indicators.

Horns

They are often ignored here but once again every little bit helps.

Riding position.

Be comfortable in your seating position. Try to sit as far forward as is comfortable. This also applies to your pillion. The aim is to have as much weight forward as possible to allow you to both steer and stop. It’s not a good idea to have your pillion wrap their arms around you (although nice). It’s better to hang onto the hand grips supplied or relaxed on your thighs.

The five key points to remember are

  • Sit well forward
  • Keep your head up and point your chin in the direction of travel
  • Relax your arms and keep minimal weight on your wrists
  • Keep your back relaxed and support your weight with your stomach muscles
  • Grip the bike firmly with your legs and knees. (sometimes a little difficult with motor scooters but try to keep your legs together)

2. Getting Underway.

Mounting/Dismounting

Always get on and off your bike away from the traffic. In Vietnam they drive on the right so get onto your bike from the right hand side.
Head Check. Stand out from the crowd and look before you leap.

Stabiliser.

As you have learnt, the rear brake on a bike is poorly named. As far as stopping goes it accounts for about 10% of your ability to do so. Think of it more as a stabilizer than a brake. By dragging your rear brake when taking off you will be able to maintain a straight line and avoid those embarrassing bumps into surrounding bikes when taking off from the lights.

Speed

The faster a motorcycle travels the harder it is to turn. Reducing speed before turning is essential. During very low speed turns, such as doing a U turn, the gentle use of the throttle combined with the use of the rear brake (dragging) will allow you to complete the manoeuvre with confidence.

Steering

A motorcycle can be steered in a number of ways. Handle bar pressure, body weight and changes in speed all have an effect on a motorcycle’s direction of travel. Experienced riders will use a combination of all three to achieve a smooth turn.

Head Position

Always keep your head up. Focus on the road ahead and not on your front end. Remember your head acts as a spirit level and if it stays up, the odds are you will to.

3. Road Positioning.

The correct road position to maintain, especially in Ha Noi, is not always the easiest thing to do yet is one of the best ways of protecting yourself from dangers. Keep well clear of hot spots such as oncoming traffic or parked vehicles and always have an exit strategy up your sleeve.
The tactics you employ outside the hustle and bustle of the city are very different yet the underlying principle is to always give yourself somewhere to go should the unexpected happen.

There are three things you need to consider when choosing your position on the road. These are: space, surface and sight.

Space. 

As a motorcyclist you have very little to protect you in a crash apart from your protective riding gear. The more space you leave between other vehicles and pedestrians, the better. Creating space from hazards is known as buffering. Keeping well clear of hazards also increases others ability to see you.

Surface.

Paint, oil, water, sand, gravel, pot holes and debris are all examples of different road surfaces a rider needs to manage. Although it’s best to avoid riding on such surfaces sometimes it is impossible. A good example in Vietnam is when you try buffering from oncoming vehicles even though the road surface is terrible. It’s best to slow down and keep your buffer space.

Sight.

A good road position can allow you to see further and gather more information about what is happening up ahead. Try to choose a road position that gives you good vision without compromising your buffer from hazards.

By actively managing space, surface and sight a rider can significantly reduce the chances of crashing.

4. Stopping

Friction between the bike and the road surface is what allows us to stop. In order to get the best possible amount of friction you must prepare, or set up for it. By correctly setting up the bike for braking you can almost double the friction footprint available.

Braking is a two stage operation NOT one.
By taking up the slack in the brakes, braking;

  • Moves the weight forward
  • Compresses the suspension
  • Places the brake pads against the disc and
  • Flattens the tyres (increases the friction)

Put light pressure on the brake levers and pause (set up the brakes) then progressively apply the necessary braking pressure (squeeze). This two stage braking (set up and squeeze) vastly improves braking effectiveness, reduces the likelihood of skidding and provides better control.
Applying the front brake in a curve can make the bike run wide, or skid.

The majority of motorcycle accidents are caused by over-reacting to a dangerous situation. It is human nature to react to danger but with practice your braking technique will reduce this percentage. In effect, it works as your own ABS (Anti-lock Braking System).

5. Balance.

Head position is extremely important, more so on the smaller motorbikes most of you ride. Looking through a corner will help your coordination and balance when cornering. Use your peripheral vision to scan the road surface while keeping your head pointed in the direction you want to go.

Developing safe habits is the best strategy for staying out of trouble on the roads. If you practice the skills above over a period of time and develop them well, we hope your chances of staying safe on the roads will be greatly increased.

Regards,

Thu, Danny and Chris