Tag Archives: Visas

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

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Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

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You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

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Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

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Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

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Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

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Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

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Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

Hanoi Hustlin’ (Hanoi, Vietnam)

The backpacker district in Hanoi was situated in the Old Quarter, a maze of narrow streets, alleys and boulevards centered around a peaceful green lake.  In the evening young Vietnamese couples sat on benches along the water’s edge and watched the sun set over the peaceful water.  On the north end of the lake, a red bridge led to a temple constructed on a small island.  It was an oasis of tranquility amidst an endless cacophony of horns, sales pitches, and motorcycles.

I stood on the red bridge and looked out over the water.  I had a lot on my mind.  I had just lost my bike, and the whole experience had been more costly than I had budgeted.  But more than that, I had just checked my email and read some bad news – getting a student visa into Spain would be more difficult than I had imagined.  A lot more difficult.

I thought I could just swing through the Spanish embassy and process the application within a few days, but now I read that the process would take two to three months!  Additionally, I needed to apply from my home country!

Ahh, what to do?  I didn’t want to come home just to process a visa.  It seemed like a tragic way to end my journey, with the young adventurous wanderer cut down at his peak by a Spanish bureaucrat.  I knew there was a way around this obstacle, because if there’s a will, there’s a way.

But was there a will?  I was completely exhausted from riding the Minsk across Vietnam.  The prospect of coming home sounded so enticing: summer on the beach in La Jolla, drinking Arrogant Bastard Ale at a Padres game, cruising down Sunset Boulevard with my friends…oh, and of course, California Burritos!   Ah, I could taste the Santana’s burrito all the way from Hanoi!

I snapped out of it.  No, Mark, you cannot give up now.  It’s just another roadblock, just something you must overcome. So forget burritos – coming home might sound nice, but once you get on the plane to California you will wish you were back in Asia.  Words of truth.  I stood up from the park bench, and tried to think of some ideas.

I wandered through the Old Quarter for hours.  Cheap food vendors were every five feet, hawking everything from noodles, to baguettes, mangoes, rice and sweets.  Every shop was either a travel agent or a knock-off shoe store.

There were also an odd number pet shops with giant pictures of cute poodles in the windows…wait, why are people eating dinner at these pet shops?  Wait a second, that’s not a pet shop – it’s a dog-meat restaurant!  Though I wanted to travel my taste buds as much as possible, “Poodle Noodles” was a questionable dish to sample.  I searched Zagat for recommended restaurants, but I was told it was a bad time of year for dog.   Apparently, it was too hot for dog.  That was enough of an excuse to dissuade me.

Sidewalk coffee shops were sprawled along the streets, with old men sipping thick, black coffee, and men smoking tobacco from big bamboo bongs.  They offered me a hit, and I took it.  Never again.  The nicotine went right to my head, and I stood up and almost got smacked by a truck as I stumbled down the street.

I went to the Temple of Literature, an ancient institution of higher learning.  Like many of the old Vietnamese buildings, it was highly influenced by Chinese architecture.  The influence did not stop there; inside the temple was a large statue of Confucius, the Chinese scholar from 500 BC.  The Confucian values of respect for elders and an emphasis on education are readily felt as one travels through Vietnam.  China… I was heading there next, but I’d been so preoccupied with my bike journey that I hadn’t even given China any thought at all.  One thing at a time.

I continued on to the Hanoi Hilton, the prison known to most Americans as a place where American POWs were tortured during the war (it is where John McCain was held, and it is why he cannot fully raise his arms).  The museum focused largely on the horrific French treatment of Vietnamese, only briefly mentioning the treatment American POWs.  It showed pictures of them laughing, playing basketball, and cooking Christmas dinner.   Oh, how much I will miss Vietnamese propaganda.

Lastly, I went to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  I don’t remember if I mentioned this before, but the Vietnamese love Ho Chi Minh.  He is even more popular than Obama on inauguration day, maybe like George Washington on his inauguration day. They refer to him as Bac Ho, or “Uncle Ho.”  Most Vietnamese are confident that he actually is their uncle, especially in the strongly Communistic north.

The Vietnamese love him so much that they completely disregarded his dying wish for a simple cremation, and instead they preserved his body in a glass case, like Mao or Lenin.  I had heard that his skin was like rice paper, so I was imaging Uncle Ho to look like a giant spring roll.  He really just looked like a wax statue.  It was creepy.  He was guarded by the most serious Vietnamese soldiers I have ever seen – after all, they were the righteous guardians of 85 million people’s uncle.  They admit tourists for a quick walk through, lasting no more than one minute.  It is totally silent as you enter the room, circumambulate his body and the sickle and hammer flag, then exit.  No cameras, no talking, no smiling.  Just pure respect for Uncle Ho.

I checked that one off my “Embalmed Communist Leaders of the World To-Do List,” set down my day bag, freshened up, and explored Hanoi by night.  It was excellent.  Everywhere there are bia hoi bars on the street corners, and I was staying right next to the greatest concentration of all of them in the city.  The bia hoi is made fresh daily, packaged in kegs, and distributed around the city for instant consumption (it has no preservatives).  One dollar buys you 70 beers – a backpacker’s paradise.

I spent a few days typing up the blogs for this website and trying to figure out a way around this massive roadblock in my journey – how to get my visa into Spain while still fulfilling my dream of riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I visited the American and Spanish Embassies, did research on the web, and spent hours on the phones with bureaucrats from Hanoi to Madrid to Los Angeles.  Finally, I found a solution.

It was complicated, but it would buy me two months of travel time.  But coming back to California for two weeks before going to Spain was unavoidable.  I will not bore you with the details, but let’s just say that I found a loophole in the law, drafted a couple legal documents, got a few official stamps from the relevant embassies, and mailed all the documents around the world.  Like they say in India, sab kuch milega – everything is possible.

So now I had roughly two more months of traveling left, just enough time to cruise through China and catch the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing to Moscow and fly home from Russia.  The days of carefree wandering were limited, and I had to maximize my time.  I could not afford to be ensnared in the web of bureaucracy anymore.  I had to step carefully.  I would have to assiduously research the finer details of this complicated trans-continental train journey, everything from departure times, reservations, prices, and (most importantly) my visa into Russia.

Getting a visa into Russia is notoriously complicated.  Technically, you must have reservations for every night you are staying in Russia and you must present a copy of these reservations to the embassy when you apply for your visa.  You are also supposed to apply from your home country.  Obviously, I could not do either.

I researched this one through and through, and finally I found a loophole – sab kuch milega.  Apparently I could hire a Russian travel agency to make a number of fake reservations for me, then cancel the reservations for a total of $30.  Also, the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong was notoriously lenient on applications.  I had my solution.

So my plans changed, yet again.  I originally intended to travel to the Yunan Province in China, just north-west of Vietnam, but now I knew I must go to Hong Kong.  I had to get that visa into Russia, or else I was not going on the Trans-Siberian.

The Slow Boat to China (Vientiane, Laos)

Vientiane – Chinese Visa – Trouble on the Horizon – The Result

Vientiane was a dull city of a half million people; you would never guess Laos’s capital if it wasn’t for the embassies and inflated prices.  A strange breed walked Vientiane’s streets at night: crazy Lao ladies, beggars, 8-year-old punks smoking cigarettes, the usual middle-aged European sex-tourists, drug-dealing tuk-tuk drivers and the dark shapes of prostitutes whispering from the shadows.

I checked into a drab, $2-a-night crash pad and selected the least disgusting bunk in the 20-person dormitory.  None of the travelers I met was enjoying their time in Vientiane – all were waiting for visas and all were of the same opinion – this place is horrible, boring and expensive; get your visa and get the hell outta here as quickly as possible!

I followed their advice. I woke up early, put on my nicest clothes, and rehearsed my plea on the way to the Chinese embassy.  The Chinese are reluctant to issue tourist visas for more than 30 days, but I needed more time: maybe six weeks to see the sights and about one week to organize my tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Getting a 60-day visa would be crucial to organizing the Trans-Siberian; with only a 30-day visa I would have to skip most of China and spent my time in the Central Ticket Office in Beijing.  I needed the Chinese to grant me an exception.  I turned in my application and spent the next four days researching the Trans-Siberian and planning my next moves.

I was shocked by what I discovered.   Not only was the Trans-Siberian going to be more expensive than I expected, it seemed nearly impossible to organize the necessary visas and tickets.  For a moment, I thought it would be impossible.  Too much money.  Too many hassles.  I looked at a map of the world: I had only traveled about an inch and a half in three months and Moscow was about a foot further!  The distance was intimidating.

But what were my other options?  Scrap my plans and fly to Europe?  For what?  The only reason I would go to Europe was because the Trans-Siberian terminated in Europe.  Hell, the main reason I was in Asia was because the train started in Beijing.  Beijing to Moscow. Asia to Europe.  The Trans-Siberian Railroad.  It was the heart of my journey, the ultimate goal.

No, I could not give up.  If I had to skip Angkor Wat, I would.  If I would arrive in Moscow starving and penniless, so be it.  I was determined to get on that train, and I knew I would make it no matter what.  Gumption, determination and a dash of naïve faith in my own abilities were all I had going for me, so I crossed my fingers, and cast my fortunes into the wind.


Four days later I showed up to the Chinese embassy to pick up my visa.  And the results?  Drum roll………….YES!  I got a 60-day double-entry visa, granting me to 120 days in China and allowing me plenty of time to organize the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  My dream of the Trans-Siberian Railroad was no longer in danger.

Everyone told me it was impossible to get a 120-day visa but I dismissed the naysayers, jumped through the hoops of Chinese bureaucracy, and got what I wanted. Maybe this crazy over-idealistic dream of mine would come together after all.  Only time will tell.

For now I follow the Mekong south to the colonial town of Savannaket, deeper into the tropic heat, towards the famed Temples of Ankor in neighboring Cambodia, and one step closer to my dream of the Trans-Siberian Railroad!