First published October 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Riding by motorbike in and out of Vietnam’s two largest cities, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi, can be a miserable experience. The city centers, suburbs, and surrounding industrial zones are often extremely congested, chaotic, polluted, dangerous, and ugly. Getting in or out of Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike takes about an hour (or even two). What’s more, these horrible, busy, polluted rides usually bookend most travellers’ road trips in Vietnam, thus taking the shine off the beginning and end of an otherwise memorable experience. One way to avoid (or, at least, reduce) the discomfort of entering and exiting Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike is to time it right. Certain times of day (and night) are better for traffic congestion and general road-related stress. On this page, I’ve written about ways to combat the misery of riding in and out of Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike, including the best times of day to exit and enter, and other alternative solutions.
BEST TIMES OF DAY TO RIDE IN/OUT OF SAIGON & HANOI
Below is my guide to exiting and entering Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike. I’ve organized this guide into several sections: a general description of what’s it’s like to ride in and out of Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike; a guide to the best times of day to exit and enter the cities; suggestions of other ways to avoid riding through the congested and polluted suburbs; and a map of the extent of the industrial sprawl of Vietnam’s two largest cities. Please note that I have not included specific routes in/out of the cities, because most of my Motorbike Guides feature this on their maps. (For more useful guides like this one, see Related Posts.)
The Urban & Industrial Sprawl of Saigon & Hanoi
This map is a very rough representation of the limits of Saigon and Hanoi’s congested, polluted, bleak and grim-to-ride urban and industrial sprawl. The point is to show a general radius of how far you can expect the grimness to last, and at which point you can expect things to start getting better. Obviously, this is a very subjective map: my idea of where things are ‘bad’ and where they get ‘better’ may be very different from other riders. The point is just to give riders an idea of what to expect. Zoom in on either of the two cities in the map below to see the shaded areas of urban and industrial sprawl:
View in a LARGER MAP
Why Exiting & Entering Saigon & Hanoi is Horrible:
The following paragraphs are a very subjective account describing my (mostly negative) feelings about the ride in/out of Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike – something which I’ve done on hundreds of occasions over the last decade:
If you’re unfortunate enough to exit or enter Vietnam’s capital or commercial hub during peak hours or via main arteries, you may have a miserable experience and impression of the cities. Indeed, even now that I’ve learned to leave and return at optimal times of the day and on less congested roads, I still struggle to come to terms with how ghastly it can be. Vietnam’s biggest cities have an extraordinary buzz – a pulse and a rhythm and a thirst for everything that urban living has to offer. New York, London, Tokyo don’t come close to matching the frenetic energy and hyperactivity of Saigon and Hanoi, especially during the rush hours. This quality is something that has always appealed to me about living in Saigon or Hanoi: at peak times these cities appear to be so obviously the centre of the world; why would you want to be anywhere else? But there’s another side to all this, which becomes apparent when you have to ride across one of the cities and continue through their sprawling industrial suburbs, in order to reach a modicum of fresh, clean air, natural surroundings, greenery, peace and quiet.
The 1-2 hour ride (depending on the route, time of day, and weather conditions) in/out of Saigon or Hanoi lays bare some of the worst aspects of mass urban living and big industry. In the space of an hour or two you’ll witness (among countless other things): litter, pollution, poverty, inequality, chaotic road discipline, noise, dust, and environmental destruction. (Not that any of these problems are unique to Vietnam, of course.) To give just a few examples: I took a photo of my face, my pores blackened with soot, after I had ridden from Hanoi to Hai Phong for the very first time – god knows what my lungs might have looked like (see the image below); Around the industrial zones between Saigon, Bien Hoa, and Vung Tau, where factories (including one owned by the Taiwanese giant, Formosa, who, in 2016, were responsible for dumping toxic industrial waste into the East Sea, thus poisoning the ocean, killing a hundred tonnes of fish, and destroying the livelihood of thousands of fishing families) spew foul-smelling, chemical-laden fumes into the grey sky, the air is barely breathable and all surfaces are covered in a layer of sinister silver dust; And how many dozens of people and animals have I witnessed run-over or caught in collisions with trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes whizzing through the industrial suburbs as if there were no obstacles on the road.
It’s true, however, that some riders find the experience exhilarating, or at least interesting. I did, too. For several years when I started riding in Vietnam, I enjoyed the density of life and industry, the tangled traffic and the evidence of a nation on the move, undergoing great transformation, in the midst of its industrial revolution. But those charms are limited and have, over time, worn off for me. These days, it’s a psychological battle just to keep my head down, concentrate on the road and grind it out for an hour or two, not taking myself or my surroundings too seriously, ignoring the rising feeling that homo sapiens is a cancer eating away at the Earth, that industrialization doesn’t have an endgame, and that nothing makes any sense……before, finally, reaching some fresh air and greenery. Then, the road trip can really begin.
Best Times to Exit & Enter Saigon & Hanoi:
The answer to the question, ‘What is the best time of day to exit/enter Saigon and Hanoi by motorbike?’, is fairly straightforward, but also needs some explaining. Below are the best times to ride in/out of Saigon and Hanoi on any weekday (with the exception of those that fall on a public holiday). Click a time to read more about it:
9.00pm→5.00am: By far the best time to ride in or out of the cities and their surrounding industrial sprawl is late at night or early (really early) in the morning. Exiting or entering the cities anytime from 9pm to 5am will massively reduce the congestion, air-pollution, and driving stress of the journey. This is because these times fall outside of the majority of working hours (meaning there’s no commuter traffic and most of the factories aren’t spewing toxic fumes into the air). What’s more, there are fewer trucks on the roads. However, this last point is only true to a certain extent, because many container trucks ride through the night (either by contract or specifically to avoid the busier daytime roads). Given the choice, I would almost always leave/arrive in Saigon and Hanoi late at night or early in the morning. When it comes to traffic and air quality, there’s simply no better time. For example, I often leave Saigon at 4am, and by 5am I’m clear of the industrial suburbs, and by 6am I’m at the beach or in the Mekong Delta. Likewise, I often leave the Mekong Delta or the beach at 9pm and I’m be back in Saigon by 11pm or midnight.
But there is one drawback to riding at these times. Aside from the obvious effort of either staying up late or waking up early, a major concern for some riders is riding in the dark. Without daylight, it’s harder to see potential hazards on the road, such as potholes, wandering pedestrians, unlit vehicles (not uncommon in Vietnam), or animals. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether you feel confident riding in the dark or not.
11.30am→2.00pm: If night riding is not your thing, there is another time period that’s pretty good for exiting/entering Saigon and Hanoi. The middle of the day, roughly between 11.30am to 2.00pm, is an extended lunch break for most Vietnamese workers, including truckers. This means that large vehicles, cars, and commuters on motorbikes, generally stop for a long meal and a nap, leaving the roads relatively quiet. During this time it’s just about possible to sneak in/out of the cities before things get going again. It’s nowhere near as reliable as riding during the night, but it’s a decent window of opportunity, and many riders understandably prefer it.
Other Considerations: Finally, there are a couple of other factors to bear in mind. Remember that it takes between 1-2 hours to clear the city and industrial suburbs. Therefore, allow yourself enough time within the two riding windows listed above to complete to ride. For example, if you’re leaving in the morning from Saigon, make sure you leave before 5.00am, not at 5.00am, otherwise you’re likely to still be in ‘red zone’ at 6.00am, when things start to get busy. Another point worth considering is that the city of Saigon and its industrial sprawl is much bigger than Hanoi. But, on the other hand, road discipline in Hanoi is much worse than in Saigon. So, ultimately, there’s not much to choose between the two. Lastly, these ‘good times’ to exit/enter Saigon and Hanoi don’t necessarily apply to weekends and public holidays. During these days ‘leisure traffic’ increases dramatically, as millions of people from the cities hit the road for a short break; however, there should also be fewer trucks on the roads, because the truckers too (if they’re lucky) will also be on holiday.
Other Good Alternative Solutions:
In addition to entering or exiting Saigon and Hanoi at the best times of day, there are other ways to avoid the horrible crawl through the industrial suburbs:
Bike-on-the-Train: By far the best, safest, most convenient way to leave or enter the capital or the commercial hub, is to bypass the suburbs altogether by putting yourself and your motorbike on one of several excellent bike-on-the-train options. There are a handful of train routes in/out of Saigon and Hanoi that allow passengers to travel with their motorbike on the same train. These include:
- Saigon↔Phan Thiet (for Mui Ne) [Read Train Guide]
- Hanoi↔Hai Phong (for Cat Ba Island) [Read Train Guide]
- Hanoi↔Lao Cai (for Sapa) [Read Train Guide]
- Hanoi↔Lang Son (for the Northeast Loop) [Read Train Guide]
- Hanoi↔Ha Long (for Ha Long Bay)
All of these train services operate at least once daily in both directions. By taking your motorbike with you on these train routes you cut out the congested, polluted crawl through the industrial suburbs altogether, and you get to experience a great train journey. Personally, I utilize these bike-on-the-train options whenever I can: they are a fantastic resource for riders in Vietnam. (I’ve written detailed guides to many of these train routes HERE.)
Choose your Route Carefully: Another major component of reducing the stress of exiting and entering Saigon and Hanoi is to choose your route in/out carefully. There’s no such thing as a route that completely avoids busy roads, dangerous highways, or polluted suburbs, but some routes are better than others. In most cases, the more direct the route is, the more congested and polluted it will be. Therefore, oftentimes the best routes involve minor detours (away from the main arteries) and are longer in distance, but not necessarily in time. The rewards are: less traffic, less dust, and less stress. In general, the maps in my Motorbike Guides feature alternative, less congested routes in/out of Saigon and Hanoi.
Choose a Different Origin/Destination City: Finally, and most obvious of all, start or end your road trip at somewhere other than Saigon and Hanoi. Potential alternative origin/destination cities include: Danang, Hue, Phong Nha, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Sapa, Dalat, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc and many others. Although some of these places are also big cities, they’re nothing like as busy, chaotic, dangerous and polluted as Saigon and Hanoi. Most of the motorbike rental companies that I recommend on this page either have multiple pick-up/drop-off offices throughout Vietnam or can arrange pick-up/drop-off in multiple cities nationwide.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free & independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I think knowing when to ride in/out of Saigon & Hanoi is important & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here