If you want to boil it down, all you really need for a Vietnam motorcycle trip is a bike, Dong for gas and then some extra Dong for repairs. On the flippy flop, if you want to make the most out this adventure of a lifetime, here are a few items you’re going to want to pick up to make the trek a bit more comfortable.
1. Good Helmet with Visor
Many rental agencies or motorcycle sales will toss in a free helmet to sweeten whatever deal you’re negotiating. Unless you really don’t value your noggin, you’re best off buying your own brand new. With a used helmet, you don’t really know how many times it’s been dropped, used as a chair, or where it was picked up to begin with.
Unless you hit a dealer show room in Vietnam, most of the motorcycle helmets you find are going to be glorified bike helmets. The good news is that you’ll be going at a slower speeds, but you should still pick up something new from a reputable store. You can get a pretty decent helmet between 20-30 bucks US, and if you’re really sweating it you can likely sell the helmet to whoever when you’re done using it.
You’d be well-to-do to purchase a helmet with a visor- it’s going to rain sometime during you’re trip and that rain sure does sting. The rest of the time, the visor will protect you from dust and rocks to the face.
A final note on Vietnamese helmets- the bigger your head, the harder it is going to be for you to find a helmet. I had to go to a few different stores to find a helmet that would fit my ridiculously sized head. If I was simply flying into Vietnam just for a motorcycle trip (instead of in the middle of 10 months of travel) I would have brought my own helmet from home.
They’ll also be days where you’ll find yourself on nice remote roads or dashing through the mountains, and you won’t need a your helmet visor down. Make sure you have a decent set of sunglasses for when you need some wind on your face but the Vietnam sun is still high in the sky.
I included goggles in this entry as well. My helmet didn’t have an option for a visor, so I just bought a knock off pair of Oakley goggles to wear for those days when sunglasses didn’t cut it. In retrospect, I should have bought a helmet with a visor...
Remember those dusty roads I mentioned earlier? There is a reason that you’ll see a lot of locals in facemasks-exhaust, dust and rocks from trucks. Pick up a $1 dollar facemask. You don’t need to wear it all the time, but when you need it, you’ll have it.
As unbelievable as this may seem, parts of Vietnam are cold. Add altitude and rain, and you’re going to find yourself with freezing hands. There is a little old lady near Hanoi who made the sale of her life when two 6’ tall Americans walked into her shop shivering and looking for gloves. She knew she had the upper-hand on the negotiation and she took them for every penny. Good for you little old lady. (In the winter in SaPa it even snows!)
5. Fake Wallet with Bribe Money
Especially if you’re passing through Mui Ne, but prevalent in other touristy cities as well. The reality of travel through Asia is that bribes are a part of life. Cops are crooked, but it’s almost charming really- I wish we could bribe police back home and not have to deal with tickets and insurance premiums.
Keep a fake wallet with about 10 USD worth of Dong in it. When you inevitably get pulled over, you can go through the song and dance with the police that you only have that much money. Stick to your guns and you’ll be fine.
6. International Drivers License
We’ve seen conflicting information online on whether having an Internationl Drivers Permit allows you to ride in Vietnam. Technically, I don’t think foreigners are supposed to drive at all and Vietnam doesn’t recognize the international drivers permit. In reality, it doesn’t hurt to have and it costs less than $15 at AAA near you. (Maybe not even available in your home country).
7. Weather Protection
Sunscreen- Yes. Listen to your mother. Sunscreen is always a good idea. Rainjacket- Yes. It’s Vietnam. It rains. You already knew this. But did you know about VIETNAM PONCHO?! All the locals have them! They go over the entire scooter and will keep you (mostly) toasty and dry. They even have little clear plastic areas so that your front headlight can shine through. Being on the taller side however, meant that the clear part ended up over my instrument gauge but still awesome nonetheless. These should cost no more than $3USD at any roadside shop. (Don’t worry, the poncho is not going to get sucked into the back tire, it may just flap a bit making you feel like Batman speeding through Gotham City).
Waterproof cover or thick plastic bags are also essential. You'll likely not want to deal with a soaked bag of clothes/electronics. Most motorcycle shops/rentals will be able to point you to the right place to get a thick plastic bag if you're in-country or, as always most things are easier to order online at if you're still at home!
So the locals may all drive around wearing sandals, but you weren’t born on a motorbike. Wear full shoes for your full riding days. You’ll inevitably have a time where you need to put a foot down during a quick stop or turn, and you’ll be glad you have real shoes on.
9. Bungie Straps
Way better than having to tie down your luggage every time with a rope. Bungie straps are cheap. Buy more than you think you need because that’s actually how many you’ll end up using the first time your stuff falls off the back of your motorcycle.
10. Unlocked Phone
Bring your unlocked smartphone from home and pick up a cheap sim card with data. It can be intimidating at first to walking into a shop and have someone help you, but the cell phone stores around backpacker areas all know how to help English speaking tourists set up new SIM cards on their phones. You’ll be overjoyed to have access to google maps and Agoda when it’s getting dark and you have no idea how far away from the closest town you are. "Follow the moving blue dot" is essentially how we spent 98% of our day.