Preparation and the Bike:
Vietnam is the place where I learned (and still learning) to ride a bike: I've done about 9,000km total riding now and all except maybe 500km has been in Vietnam.
The bike I used is a Guangdong China made Haojue 125cc road bike. I don't know much about other bikes, but I think this is a good learner motorcycle. It's not as underpowered as you may think, as traffic in Vietnam doesn't go fast. Most people cruise along in the cities at 30km/h. Even on main highways, you don't often see anyone going over 80km/h.
I originally planned to do the trip in early April 08, however I mentioned it at work (I've been working in VN for over a year) and the comment around the westerners in the office was that it was "suidical" and I was "crazy". Infact the day I mentioned it, my leave got cancelled for a business trip to Indonesia. I'm sure part of the reason it got cancelled was my boss thought I would kill myself and it would upset the project schedule until they found a replacement!
To be fair though, if I'd ended up unconscious in a ditch somewhere.... well I wouldn't be the first westerner workign for my company who ended up unconscious in a ditch after riding a motorbike... The Vietnamese in the office seemed to think the trip would be good fun though - in VN everybody rides a bike.
April would have been better as May was heading into the rainy season and I did hit a bit of rain on the way up.
I picked up a copy of a Vietnam Road Atlas, scanned every single page and loaded it into my PDA type GPS with the Pathaway software www.pathaway.com
. This fixes your position on the map, if you have calibrated correctly.
I looked into getting a dedicated GPS unit like a Garmin or Magellan which would have been good as they are ruggedised and waterproof however there is a big problem for Vietnam - no detailed maps and propriatory maps is what you need for these units. This lead me to the PDA GPS which is a bit clunky to use, but you can load whatever paper map you can lay your hands on into it. For waterproofing, I just put in in the plastic covered map compartment in tank bag. To waterproof the powersocket mounted near the front of the fuel tank, I put some duct tape on it!
Loading the road atlas into the GPS was quite time consuming. The steps are:
1. Scan map
2. Crop as required; mess with it so the file size is manageable
3. Load into Pathaway software
4. Manually input lat-longs of known points to calibrate it; the road atlas had lat longs printed on it, plus I cross referenced with Google Earth. The software calculates the location of other points on the map by scaling from the known points you have input
5. Copy to SD card and insert into GPS
The whole thing took about 30 mins per map page and there were a load of pages in that road atlas....
The good news is you normally don't get lost. A GPS is a necessity in Vietnam IMHO unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Road signs are poor, they only point to the next town which can be known by any number of local names which are different to what is printed on the road atlas. In addition, outside the big cities very few people speak English (I can't speak Vietnamese) and a lot have never seen a map before anyway!
There is a screen shot of the PDA GPS screen below on top of the same page out of the road atlas. My track is shown in RED
. You can see it doesn't always line up exactly with the road on the map, but it is pretty close. The diff is due to calibration errors and also the road as drawn on the map may not be spot on either.
Bike and Gear:
I installed a 12V power socket on the bike so I could power the GPS. For clothes, you can buy really cheap bike stuff in Vietnam. I got a pair of waterproof (and they are very, very waterproof as I found out) armoured pants and an Alpinestars armoured mesh jacket for US$100 all up. While I was at it I also picked up a couple of cordura/goretex armoured jackets for future biking in colder climates.
It's too hot in VN to wear a cordura waterproof jacket, so I stuck with the mesh jacket and put on a cheap plastic poncho when it started to rain.
Why I rode a 125cc bike:
Up until quite recently bikes over 175cc capacity were banned from import into Vietnam. There are also two classes of motorcycle license in Vietnam A1 = under 175cc which is easy to get and A2 = over 175cc and is harder to get. The ban on 175+cc bikes has now been lifted, however they are still subject to a huge import taffif. As a consequence, there are very few big bikes in Vietnam. Since most bike manufacturers don't make 175cc bikes, this leads the largest bike which is easy to get being a 125cc.
The bike I bought cost 20M VND new, or about $1,250 (including the Givi box). If I wanted a larger capacity bike, the next step up would have been $3,000 for a 10 year old Honda dirt bike. I opted for the 125cc. It's still more powerful than 80% of the bikes in Vietnam, which are 100cc underbone stepthrough motorcycles and the occasional scooter.