Guide to Buying a Honda Win Motorcycle in Vietnam

2015-05-01 08.07.45       Here it is, my guide to buying a Honda Win motorcycle in Vietnam. With the popularity of this mode of travel in Vietnam, when I decided to dive in and buy one, I was surprised at how little information there was on the web. Hundreds if not thousands of people go to Vietnam every year, buy a motorbike and tour the country for varying amounts of time. It’s not hard to imagine why, it’s an experience, these bikes are everywhere, and they are affordable as hell.

Early in 2015, while I was backpacking around SE Asia, I  bought a Honda Win 115cc in the north of Laos from a fellow traveler. I had almost zero riding experience but I jumped on it, headed south and traveled the entire length of the country. I then entered Vietnam and rode it all the way north visiting several small villages, towns and cities going all the way near the Chinese border. During this time I got to stop in villages where there were no other westerners. I met some amazing locals and had some amazing experiences. Every week I got better at riding and felt more comfortable on the bike. I only crashed once, riding on a rainy day on a street of mud going less than 20 kph.  Luckily I was just a little banged up and I learned a lot from my little mishap. All in all, riding through the backroads in mountainous areas and zipping back and forth through the switchbacks were some of the best moments of my life. I put over 5,000 km on that Honda Win. I became addicted and I have ridden a number of other motorcycles since then.  Now that I’m back in the US (temporarily), I currently own a Honda Shadow and love to ride as much as weatherly possible. In my future travel plans I can’t imagine traveling any other way. So…if you’re thinking about it, take the plunge, and GO FOR IT!!!

2015-05-24 11.10.07

The Good:

  • Buying and traveling by motorcycle in SE Asia will completely and utterly transform your travel experience, mostly for the better. It slows down your pace of travel, you’ll see more and experience more. You’ll stop in towns and villages that get little or no foreign visitors, which will make you somewhat of a celebrity. In general, people in these towns and villages will be much more friendly and genuine than those in touristy cities. This will make your experience more authentic.
  • Everywhere you go you’ll have complete freedom. While others are haggling with tuk tuk drivers and taxi’s, you’ll be able to just pick up and go at the drop of a hat whether it’s around town for the day or to another city.
  • You’ll rack up major cool points with other travelers for being adventurous enough to travel by motorcycle. Plus you’ll be in a position to give rides to others, especially attractive individuals.
  • Gas is cheap. Including the small repairs you’ll have to do to the bike, in the long run you spend less than you would have traveling by buses and trains, not to mention all the tuk tuk rides.

The Bad:

Just like anything, it’s not all a bed of roses. But to me the ‘bad’ just toughens you up and is by far outweighed by the ‘good’.

  • It gets tiring. Your butt and legs will get numb very quick and even just a few hours of travel can sometimes be downright exhausting, especially when it’s also hot and humid.
  • Your bike WILL need repairs. At some point it is likely that it will refuse to start, or break down on you, leaving you stranded somewhere remote. Although money-wise most repairs are under $10, it’s a hassle and inconvenience. On the flip side, whenever I broke down some friendly local would stop to help me within 15 minutes and I was never really stranded anywhere for very long. Also, in any given city or town, you are never far from a mechanic.
  • If you’re new to riding you’ll probably burn your leg on the exhaust before you learn to avoid it.
  • Some SE Asian drivers are crazy. Even if you ride extremely safe you’ll have several close calls that will make your heart beat so hard you’ll think it’s going to jump out of your chest.

& The Ugly:

Well, if you crash, things will be pretty ugly. Be careful and wear at least some protective gear.  At the very least always wear a helmet, pants and a long sleeve shirt.

Choosing a Bike:

BUYER BEWARE! There are a lot of other travelers or locals selling total lemons. These bikes will break down on you within weeks or days of buying it. If you want to buy a bike, take it to another mechanic who has no vested interest in whether you buy it or not and ask him to look it over. If it only needs a few small repairs and you like that bike, then it’s ok to go for it. Beware any seller who doesn’t want you to take it to another mechanic or offers for ‘their mechanics’ to look over it. Here are a few things to think about when looking for a bike:

  1. If you can, buy the bike in Hanoi from a mechanic shop and sell it in Ho Chi Minh. You’ll get it cheaper in Hanoi (don’t pay more than $225) and you can sell it for the same amount or a little more in the south.
  2. Don’t pay more than $200 if you buy from another traveler. He/She probably bought it for $225, rode it hard for a couple months and is trying to sell it for more than they paid. The bike will probably have more problems if you buy from a fellow traveler.
  3. Make sure it comes with the ‘Blue Card’. This is the ownership card. It will have a Vietnamese name on it but as long as you possess it you are the owner of the vehicle.
  4. Don’t buy one that has all the engine and parts spray painted black. It may look cool but the person may have painted it to hide something such as a mechanical issue or metal corrosion.
  5. Don’t buy a bike that had the engine rebuilt. Many people try to use this as a selling point but it’s bad news.
  6. Don’t buy the first one you see. Don’t get carried away by your excitement to buy a motorbike. If you pass up on one bike, another better one will be right around the corner.
  7. Ride the bike and listen to how it sounds. Make sure it shifts smoothly up and down and especially into neutral.
  8. Make sure there is no oil or gas leaking. Look for drops on the floor.
  9. Check that the Headlight, Indicators (front and back), and Break Light are all working. Don’t worry if the speedometer doesn’t work, none of them do.
  10. Honk the horn to make sure it works. You’ll need it a lot, especially in Vietnam.
  11. There are 110 cc and 115 cc versions of this bike. Make sure you get the 115 cc. It really makes a difference. A friend of mine had a 110 cc, his luggage was lighter than mine and he had to go up most hills in 2nd gear and mine made those same hills in 3rd.
  12. Ride the bike in a straight line and let go of the handlebars. Make sure it still goes straight and doesn’t pull you in one direction or the other.
  13. Put the bike on the repair stand and spin both tires with your hands. They should spin for a couple seconds before stopping.
  14. Rev the engine in neutral and make sure no smoke comes out the exhaust.
  15. All these bikes have luggage racks. Look for a bike with the luggage rack welded on verses tied on with bungee cords. This is optional and not really a big deal, but the welded racks are just more secure.

 

Riding Tips:

If you already know how to ride and have a license in your home country, some of this may be elementary. However, if you’re experienced, you’ve still never rode in SE Asia, which is a different animal altogether, so I think this section can benefit everyone.

  • Ride like you’re invisible.
  • In Vietnam, the bigger vehicle always has right of way. Remember that you are at the bottom of the totem poll and ride accordingly.
  • On many larger highways there are separate but parallel roads for motorbikes and cars. Don’t ride on the cars’ side or you’ll get pulled over and most likely have to bribe a police officer or two. Yes I had to do this…
  • Ride like the locals. See how they negotiate their maneuvers and do the same, but be even safer about it. It’s safer to adopt a ‘when in Rome’ attitude to driving there. Your riding-habits from your home country may get you killed.
  • Shoot for riding about 200 kilometers on any given day. It’s enough to make it to another town but not so much that you’ll be too exhausted to do anything once you get there. That’s usually about 4 to 5 hours including stopping for a meal.
  • Lock your bike up when not riding. Once after spending only 5 minutes in a camera shop I came out and could tell that someone tried to roll my bike away but my chain lock on the back tire stopped it from going any further than a few feet (1 meter).
  • Use traffic signals as a guideline rather than a rule, look for how others are driving.
  • Never, Never, Never ride around in flip flops. If you have to stop suddenly and put your foot down you’re probably going to break something. I saw way to many westerners, especially near beach towns, riding around with flip flops, shorts and tank tops. If skin meets floor it’s going to stay there.
  • When you go to a mechanic for any reason, even just for an oil change, ask him to check other parts of the bike. Preventative measures are always safer and cheaper than waiting til something goes wrong.
  • Most likely the mechanics you go to won’t speak English, or any other western languages for that matter. You can communicate what you want by pointing to your own eyes then waving your hand over the bike for a check-up, or by pretending to pour something into the oil cap etc…
  • If you want to ride the bike into Cambodia or Laos, understand that whether you get through the border checkpoint will depend upon the mood of the customs agent. I got through just fine, without even paying a single fee, but I know others who were told they could not bring the bike into their country and they had to sell it at the nearest border town before crossing over. Be prepared to deal with this. Either sell the bike or try the next closest border crossing. You can even offer a bit of money to the border agent, you won’t get locked up like you would for trying that in the West.
  • Buy a rain coat
You can even sleep on your bike in a pinch
You can even sleep on your bike in a pinch

That’s about the bulk of it. If you are in Vietnam or going there, and considering buying a Honda Win, don’t overthink it, just do it. Write me if you have any questions. I can honestly say It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made while traveling. As the guy who sold me the bike said: “You’re not buying a bike, you’re buying an experience.” So my advice to all of you reading this: Ride with confidence, Be safe, and Have the time of your life!!!

IMG_9638
Not a Honda Win, but just an example of the beautiful places any motorcycle can take you.

2015-05-24 11.25.25

 

 

Bac Ha & Ha Giang, skirting the Chinese border

Sa Pa to Bac Ha was a pretty quick, 4-hour ride. The only hard part was that it was scorching hot. We were sweating bullets. We got to Bac Ha, a quiet frontier town devoid of all tourist activity. We stayed there only one night. The highlight of the town was visiting a mansion that was built in 1921 by the French to appease a local tribal chieftain. I miss European architecture, and felt right at home wandering around the building, not a soul in sight except the keeper of a small souvenir shop who was in the back messing with a sewing machine.

2015-05-26 18.44.25

From Sa Pa my friend and I decided to ride to Ha Giang, still skirting the Chinese border. To me it looked pretty close on the map. I would’ve guessed 5 hours max. I didn’t know that the roads would be filled with potholes most of the way, sometimes the road wasn’t even a road at all. We went at a snail’s pace through the most windy roads I’ve ever rode on.  Each curve, each bridge looked exactly the same. Each kilometer took several minutes, and each minute felt like an eternity. We stopped for food in a town that was like the twilight zone. Dreary, gray communist concrete buildings, no one was out, and all restaurants were closed. Luckily we found one open. We asked a couple there how far to Ha Giang, and we learned that we still had 100 km to go through that windy crap road. We passed the time, mostly me, by singing songs at full lung-power which helped occupy my mind. Despite the heat and horrible road conditions, the scenery was beautiful. Most of the time we were next to a small river that at times turned emerald green. With it being so hot, I was very tempted to take a dip but time was of the essence.

2015-05-27 16.35.33

Coming upon the next town off of Highway 1 (which signified we were almost to Ha Giang), was like finding El Dorado. We were so happy after the long, butt numbing ride through the mountains. We were only 30 minutes from our destination and the sun was going down fast.

There’s little to say about Ha Giang. We got a nice hotel with air con (an absolute must this time of year) for cheap, and I got my teeth cleaned for 100,000 VND ($5). We took a ride the next day to Tam Son. This area was heartbreakingly beautiful. The motorbike kept overheating from the exertion of taking 2 up such steep roads. We stopped twice for sugar cane juice, our favorite cool-down pass-time in Vietnam. There was a moment, riding through the mountain, when we went through a pass from one side of the mountain to the other. Once we went through, the view opened up to the other side, and we spotted Tam Son nestled amongst the tall towering karsts like a long forgotten city. Seeing the town appear like that, hidden in the mountains of way northern Vietnam, I felt like I was way off the map. In any case, we were definitely way off the tourist trail.

2015-05-28 13.17.40

Later that evening, we caught a night-bus back to Hanoi, arriving at 3 am. We couldn’t go to the hotel, so we rode around the lake, we read our Tarot cards on an app I have, and just passed time until we could finally grab our things. That same morning, we caught another bus to Cat Ba island. All in all that day was a tiring, but amazing day.

2015-05-28 13.17.30

Sa Pa

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From Hanoi, I took a 10-hour ride with a fellow motorbike traveler to Lao Cai, close to the Chinese border. After a night there to rest, we headed up the misty mountain to Sa Pa. Once we arrived in town, I knew this place would be one of the highlights of this trip. First off, the weather was actually cool there. After three months of sweating bullets and taking 4 showers a day, the drop in temperature was most welcome.

On my 29th birthday, two guys and I took a ride through the villages in the valley. We rode on a thin strip of concrete leading through rice paddies to a stream where we swam. Later we tried to find a village over the mountain. The terrain got more and more rough, and at times we were practically going off-road with our bikes. We never found the village we were chasing, but on the way down we were invited into a man’s home. He boiled kettles of water for us to drink, and we smoked tobacco out of a waterpipe that’s very common in Northern Vietnam.

After I was in Sa Pa for three days, my Laos travel companion decided to pay me a visit in Vietnam. I knew she would absolutely love it there, so I took a bus back to Hanoi to get her, and we immediately caught a train back. I took the motorbike on the train for a small fee. The next morning when we arrived in Lao Cai, we started on the bike up the mountains. Our ride up the steep roads was interrupted by the bike braking down, which was foreshadowing to the numerous other problems I was to have with the bike in the next week before selling it. A family on motorbike stopped to pick up my lady, and we got the bike to a mechanic to fix it up. Vietnam is full of helpful, friendly locals like them.

 

 

The bike fixed, we arrived at the Green Garden Guesthouse. It’s an amazingly cheap place to stay with a gorgeous view. We spent the next few days taking rides in the surrounding area. One morning we visited the Silver Waterfall. Further down the road after the waterfall we turned a corner, and the grandeur and beauty of the valley took our breaths away. In several places amidst the tall lush mountains on the other side, were thin, tall waterfalls that made the whole scene look like something out of a beautiful dream. We winded our way through the mountains, me trying keep a good balance between watching the road so as to not crash, and enjoying the raw, natural beauty before my eyes. I have never seen anything quite like that before.

After a few days we decided to move on to see more of Northern Vietnam. After being on the motorbike for over 2 1/2 months, and seeing much of the Vietnamese countryside, I feel that the beauty of the area around Sa Pa takes the cake.

Phong Nha National Park

Phong Nha National Park

Enter Phong Nha National Park, a breathtakingly beautiful place. I did a 60 km loop on my motorbike through a section of the park. I found it so serene, so full of life. I got lost in those cliffs, weaving about while forcing myself to pay a little more attention to the road so as not to veer off an edge to certain death.

Phong Nha National Park

Halfway through the loop I stopped at Paradise Cave. I’m really attracted to caves. I think it’s because the beautiful, dark, quiet, immense space calls to the nerdy introvert in me. I walked around for a couple hours before resurfacing. There are other caves in the park, but I figured that after my tour of North Vietnam, I will come back south and stop by again to see the caves I missed. Stunning place, a truly unique slice of our little beautiful planet.

Paradise Cave

 

2015-05-08 11.28.54