I arrived in Vietnam on a whim, and I didn’t stay for a person, or a job, or any place in particular. I stayed for the road trips. I’ve done quite a few now, from two hours to two weeks, from one companion to 15. Some were smooth sailing, others fell apart completely. And I’ve since realised there are certain guidelines that, when followed on the road, ensure a trip doesn’t spiral into catastrophe.
1) Keep Your Companions in Sight
Make sure you have a visual in your rear-view mirror on those behind you. Depending how big your group is, it might be useful to split into groups — faster drivers at the lead, slower ones trailing behind, but everyone sticking with a buddy or two. This way if there is a problem — flat tyre, emergency pitstop, etc. — no one is left alone on the side of the road. When your companion pulls over, you pull over, too.
2) Honk When Passing Anything
Whether you’re passing someone on a bicycle, another motorbike, a car, or a truck, lean on the horn. I once saw a road trip companion plough into a woman with a baby — he tried to pass her on the left, she turned left without signalling. Baby went flying. (Everyone was okay, thankfully, but we narrowly escaped an angry dad with a stick.)
3) Appoint a Sheepdog and a Navigator
The navigator leads; they have reliable GPS and are skilled enough at driving a bike that they can safely check it without pulling over. The sheepdog needs to be fast, so they can float between the front of the party and the back, keeping everyone together, hanging towards the back most of the time in case anyone pulls over with a problem, but ready to speed up to the front to inform the leader of any situations.
4) Leave no Biker Behind
If you want to keep the group together, then you are only as fast as your slowest person. I once had an experience where certain companions tried to show off, driving fast and recklessly weaving through traffic instead of going at the pace of the group. And guess what? They got lost. Put your pride away and stick together. And when you make a turn, wait in clear view of the rest of your party and make sure they all make the same turn, too.
5) Make Your Pitstops Count
You all need to be on the same schedule. Granted, bikes burn through petrol tanks at different speeds — automatics like Nuovos need to fill up first, then semi-autos like Waves, and last, manual bikes like Wins (which can sometimes go all day without refuelling.) It also helps to fill an empty water bottle with petrol for emergencies, and for those bikes that will run out faster than others — this way you can pull over quick and refuel without losing much time.
6) Don’t be Picky about Food
If you’re road-tripping rural Vietnam, you’re going to eat rice and noodles for a week — just accept that now. And forget about finding food during nap time (noon to 2pm) or late at night. On a road trip, you eat what you can get. I always pack emergency snacks, too, in case I can’t find anything else. And try to be nice to the vegetarians in your group — it’s especially hard for them to find food out there.
7) Cover your Skin
We all know that helmets are mandatory. But your skin is vulnerable on a motorbike, too. Heatstroke is no joke. I learnt my lesson on my very first road trip, driving back delirious from Mai Chau, feeling like simultaneously puking and passing out on the highway.
When you’re in direct sun for hours, sunscreen does absolutely nothing to ward off harmful UV rays. Always cover your skin with long sleeves and pants — it will also help minimise your roadburn in the event that you hit the asphalt. Those women on the road in full body suits aren’t doing it just for vanity.
8) Set off Early
Seriously, 9am should be the latest you leave. The earlier the better — remember, you’re racing the light. You don’t want to be on rural mountain roads in the dark. Have you ever been on a night bus in Vietnam? Those drivers are crazy — same goes for the late-night truckers. Make sure you have enough light to get to your next destination, and if you start to lose it, stop in the nearest town and wait for the next day.
9) Be Skeptical of Google’s ‘Shortcuts’
Google Maps does not differentiate between highways and dirt roads. I once took what appeared to be a shortcut through Ha Giang, only to find myself struggling up and down two mountains on an unpaved, muddy track. What should have taken two hours took five, and was terrifying, too. Stick to the highways.
10) Try Not to Complain
There is probably no worse fate in life than travelling with a chronic complainer. If you don’t have anything positive to say, keep it to yourself. Road trips are exhausting, stressful, and intense. It’s important to keep group morale high — negativity spreads like a virus. Laugh at your misfortune instead of moaning about it. It will make a world of difference.