Riding a motorbike through Vietnam is intoxicating. There’s a palpable sense of liberation—no longer are you confined to tourist hot spots or backpacker districts. To get the most out of any trip, routes need to be researched, weather patterns should be understood and most importantly, with limited space on a bike, packing needs to be done efficiently.
Understand the climate and the region
When many travelers arrive in Vietnam, they falsely assume the weather will be consistently hot throughout the country. However, at over 1,600 kilometers long, Vietnam has three recognizable climatic zones. This means that at all times of year there is somewhere baked in sun and someplace else shrouded in cloud cover and rain or mist. In the south, the wet season runs roughly from May to November and the rest of the year is very hot and humid. In the center of country, the weather is usually very hot and dry from March through August. In the north, it is usually dryer and cooler from November through April. The far north can get bitterly cold in January and February.
Anyone planning a Vietnamese motorbike adventure should be well aware of the weather patterns they may run into. If you’re lucky enough to have a lengthier time period in the country, then you’ll need to think a bit more about what to pack as you’ll most likely run into different weather.
Decide on sleeping arrangements
Most backpackers opt to stay in hostels, guesthouses, homestays, or hotels as they travel across Vietnam, so there’s nothing additional that needs to be packed. However, for the very adventurous out there, there is an even cheaper option—wild camping.
For those traveling off the beaten path, this is a fantastic option and something that’s quite easy and fun to do. If you go this route you’re going to need to pack either a mosquito hammock or a tent, the latter of which is going to take up substantially more room. You’ll also need a good thermal sleeping bag and you may consider picking up a small pot or pan to cook over open fire at nights.A homestay in Northern Vietnam © Sam Roth
Find a middle ground
For a motorbike journey, suitcases are a no-no. You’ll want a 50-75-liter travel backpack depending on the length of your trip, and bungee cord to strap it down. If you’re staying in hostels, pack a lock as well. It’s also a good idea to have a day backpack that you can hang over your handlebars.
Most backpackers struggle with either over-packing or under-packing when planning for a motorbike journey; however, it’s almost always better to go light. Clothes can be rinsed in rivers and most hotels, hostels and guesthouses will be able to do laundry for you. As far as footwear, riding in shoes is safer, yet almost everyone switches to flip-flops at some point. Either way, bringing both is not a bad idea.
If you’re traveling through the central or north of the country in the winter months then you’ll need multiple layers. Depending on how cold it gets this could include a thermal, sweatshirt, and a thicker jacket. Waterproof gloves are also a good idea, as are thicker socks.
Anyone riding through the country should have adequate rain gear as well. Most go with a simple poncho; however, a nice rain suit is usually a better option and can be picked up easily in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. A pair of pants is wise for anyone and necessary in the northern winters. A towel and swimsuit should also find their way into any pack, regardless of the time of year.
Another necessity is a good med-kit. Riding is dangerous and it’s quite common to see road-rashed foreigners slinking from one bar to the next in many of the backpacker districts. A reusable water bottle is also a smart bet, as is a larger half gallon sized jug to fill with gas in case of emergency.