Using scooters to get off the beaten paths

I guess most people have a phase during their teenage years that they aren’t too proud of. For me that is a phase when I was too much into motorbikes. How much you ask? Well, enough to sport a mullet and one of those jeans vests with patches on it. My view of what qualifies as a motorbike was also rather narrow minded. A bike had to be either a full blooded street racing or moto-cross machine. I also thought that the worst thing on two wheels were scooters. These little plastic covered machines with the tiny wheels that don’t handle or accelerate well. I hope that I have become a lot more tolerant since these days. However, I was still having a hard time convincing myself to rent a scooter in Southeast Asia. But it happened. Not once, but twice and I have to admit that I had fun both times.

It started when we were in Bagan, Myanmar. You can’t rent scooters in Bagan because the taxi lobby has managed to get them banned. But the locals found a way around this by renting out electrical bicycles. These aren’t electrical bicycles as they are used in many European and some American cities nowadays. They do have pedals but they are just electrical scooters in disguise. They are fast enough and have sufficient reach to get you around the whole Bagan area. They were also cheap to rent and gave us the freedom to explore the temples at our own pace. Best of all, they were called bicycles and not scooters. Therefore I didn’t have to admit to myself that I was renting a scooter quite yet.

Cows, cars, bicycles and e-bikes in front of a temple in Bagan.

Cows, cars, bicycles and e-bikes in front of a temple in Bagan.

I had a great time riding the little toy bike around and noticed a few days later that I had been in serious motorbike withdrawal. I had sold my last one about four years ago after having owned bikes for almost 20 years. As a consequence I was all for it when J suggested a couple of weeks later that we should rent a scooter and drive to the temple ruins of My Son about an hour away from Hoi An, Vietnam.

The ruins of My Son.

The ruins of My Son.

Some scooters were in pretty good condition.

Some scooters were in pretty good condition.

We got a relatively new Yamaha scooter with enough power to carry the two of us comfortably. The deal is always the same in Vietnam. You get the scooter almost empty and hope that you’ll make it to the first gas station. I had heard that it is more reliable for tourist to buy the gas from the little stands next to the road where they sell it by the bottle. However, my experience was that the gas at the normal stations was significantly cheaper and nobody tried to charge me more than the meter showed. The traffic in Hoi An and the surrounding streets is not as busy and chaotic as in the big cities like Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless the driving style of the locals is creative to say the least. The only consistent traffic law is that whoever has more momentum has the right of way. If this question can’t be answered without a doubt it is discussed by honking at each other. But traffic is slow and people usually find a way around each other. The further away from the city I got the fewer trucks, buses, cars and scooters I had to deal with. Instead the number of bicycles, cows, buffalos, dogs, chickens and pigs on the road increased. But the same traffic rules seem also to apply here, i.e. watch out for cows and buffalos, everything else will move out of the way. I had a blast maneuvering the little scooter through this obstacle course. It reminded me a lot of my youth when I was riding 50cc bikes on the dirt roads around the town I grew up in.

Three little pigs on the back of a scooter in Vietnam

Three little pigs on the back of a scooter in Vietnam

Paradise cave in Phong Na Ke Bang National Park.

Paradise cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.

On a second occasion we rented a scooter in Dong Hoi and drove to some of the caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Natinoal Park. The roads were in a better shape in this area of the country. This was very helpful because the scooter we had rented through the hostel was in a poor condition and needed more attention than the one we were on before. After a short drive I figured out that the order of the gears was backwards, similarly to a racing gear box. Needless to say this was the only racing gene that the little scooter had. I’m also still unsure where neutral was supposed to be. The breaks required a bit of foresighted driving and the speedometer was constantly bouncing over a wide range of velocities. But it was nice to have some kind of motion inside the instrument panel since all the other parts were broken too. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to be on the road and steer the scooter out of the town and towards the hills in which the caves are hidden.

Other scooters were in poor shape. But I'm still getting drive-by high fives.

Other scooters were in poor shape. But I’m still getting drive-by high fives.

But even more important than the fun and independence of driving around ourselves was, that we got to go off the beaten tourist path and got to see a glimpse of what life is like in the Vietnamese country side. Water buffalos were pulling carts along the road and plows through the muddy fields. Kids were playing next to the road and running up to us for ‘high-fives’. At one point we got into what seemed to be the going home rush hour. The little two lane street was filled with bicycles. They were all going in the same direction. It seemed like one big stream of bicycles with people riding in clusters of two to five bikes. They were riding next to each other, talking and joking along the way. Scooters were negotiating their way through the bicycles but every now and then a loud honking car or truck would come by and most of the bicycles would end up riding into the ditch next to the road. It seems chaotic and dangerous from the outside but people are aware of each other and somehow make it work.

I’ve never owned a motorbike that was suited for travelling on. For the few short trips I did on my bikes I usually crammed my toothbrush and a set of underwear underneath the seat and called it good. However, these two excursions have sparked my interest and I can imagine doing a longer motorbike trip in the future, e.g. in South America.

  • Hang Pham

    Hi. I’m in Bagan right now and wanted to get a scooter, but disappointed to find out that they’re banned. So, where did you get your electric bike and around/about how much should we be expecting to pay?

    • Hi! As with everything in this part of the world, what you’ll pay highly depends on your ability to negotiate. We rented our electric bikes from New Bagan, and there were several people renting them and “making reservations” for them the night before. We simply walked down the street, and the bikes found us. We asked around for prices and were quoted 5000-6000 kyat per day per bike, and ended up paying 7000 kyat for half a day with two bikes. Also, we were given the telephone number of the person we were renting from with instructions to call if our batteries ran out as they will simply come meet you and replace the battery. Hope this helps! Have fun!