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Common Tread

How to survive a motorcycle tour of Vietnam

Jul 10, 2015

It's a dark, hot, steamy night in Ho Chi Minh City. 

A thick sludge of drowsy travelers pours out of the airport. I’ve just arrived as one of five motorcycle riders from Chicago. With the support of Ducati Vietnam, we’re about to travel the entire country by motorcycle. It’s a plan we’ve been carefully crafting for over a year by the name Hilo Project. Getting through Vietnamese customs with all of our gear was our first step. Success. Now we must find our guide.

Vietnam city riding
Traffic in Vietnam. Photo by Juan Hernandez.
Bleary-eyed, the five of us stand aimlessly on the sidewalk with our bags. We recognize no one. We are jet-lagged, exhausted, and dehydrated from a day and a half of cramped air travel. We have no idea where we are going, or how to get there. We have no working cell phones, no local money. So we wait, admiring our first glimpse of the local chaos. Meanwhile, what seems like Ho Chi Minh City’s entire 12 million citizens race by. We will later come to realize that everyone in Vietnam is always calmly racing off to somewhere. It’s as if nothing in the entire country is in the right place — everyone, everything, is constantly moving.

A smiling young guy strolls up to us easily in a bright red Ducati shirt. He’s part of the local Ducati Vietnam team that will be guiding us through more than 1,700 miles of Vietnamese roads to Hanoi. Smiling and serene, he buys us a round of drinks and then shuttles us to our hotel, where we get, maybe, four hours of sleep.

Ha Anh Tu
Our fearless guide, Ha Anh Tu admiring the sunset in Sapa. Photo by Chris Force.

The next day, fueled by excitement, adrenaline, and sickly sweet Vietnamese coffee, we meet the eager Ducati Vietnam crew for a showroom orientation. They have thoughtfully prepared a countrywide route that will take us through hundreds of tiny villages, winding mountain passes, and gorgeous back roads. A fleet of brand new Ducati motorcycles awaits us, including the Diavel, Multistrada, Hyperstrada, Hypermotard, Monster, and the brand new, fresh from the factory, Ducati Scrambler. Understandingly, they want to teach us a few things about the local roads before tossing us the keys.

With a mix of fatigue and excitement, the five of us head up to the second floor, where a small classroom environment has been organized. We are eager to learn the secrets that will keep us alive for the next three weeks on these crazy roads.

“There is only one rule about riding in Vietnam," we are told. "There are no rules.”


Vietnam traffic
Typical traffic in Vietnam. Photo by Juan Hernandez.

Out the window we apprehensively watch the waves of rush hour traffic, all scooters, increase in frequency and density. The roads become raging rivers of scooters — each crammed with more passengers, cargo, and animals than the last. Families of four, queen-size mattresses, 10-foot-long ladders, live farm animals, all are being shuttled on tiny scooters.

We’re tossed keys, randomly choose bikes, and get ready to ride, with a last piece of parting advice. “Just go with the flow. No one wants to hit you.” That, and “Try not to pass huge trucks on the right when in the mountains.” That sums up the advice we receive about riding in Vietnam for the next three weeks.

And, surprisingly, that’s exactly the advice we needed.

Hilo Project group
The Hilo Project crew: Cat Pham, Laura Heidenreich, Juan Hernandez, Dave Mucci. Not shown, Chris Force (behind the camera!). Photo by Chris Force.

Compared to the scooters — well, actually compared to pretty much anything — the Ducati Diavel I’m riding feels enormous. It hates slow speeds, and it plunks into traffic with the grace of a log being tossed into a stream. With a mean low growl, the bike fires into action, and becomes much lighter on its feet. Once we’re moving, we ride as fast as we want and wherever we want. I can’t emphasize the "wherever" enough.

Making friends with local peddlers in Vietnam. Photo by Juan Hernandez.

Like the obnoxious metal-flake helmet from China? Photo by Juan Hernandez.
Traffic comes from all directions in Vietnam. Road dividers are merely mild-mannered suggestions. Roads themselves carry a loose definition. Sidewalks, planks of boards, metal ramps — anything you can roll two wheels over passes as a “road” in Vietnam. Everyone, and everything, uses whatever surface is available. Through our travels, rural and urban, we come across just about everything we can imagine in the street: cows, sheep, goats, pigs, piglets, ducks, and thousands of dogs. Really, the only things we didn’t come across were cars.

One of many mountain passes in Vietnam. Photo by Juan Hernandez.

Cars are rare in Vietnam. Much more common are wildly handled, overloaded trucks with homemade rigs that spray a greasy stream of water onto their brakes in a feeble attempt at increased performance. This leaves the rare motorcycle rider the fastest, most nimble vehicle on the road. Always. In fact, being the fastest thing on the road is the only true constant. Everything else is unexpected.

After an afternoon tasting of rush hour traffic, we get one more night’s sleep and head off on our journey. We get out of the city easily, and into the most amazing mountain riding. The chaos starts to take on an orderly, liberating feel. There are no speed limits. There are no cars. There are no rules. In general there is very little road rage, although we did tend to test the locals' patience often.

Taking a break for the views on top of the Omega Pass. Photo by Juan Hernandez.

It’s up to you how, and where, you want to ride. Want to (accidentally) split lanes on a blind hairpin turn in the mountains between a massive bus and a near-out-of-control truck? No problem — just don’t die. (I didn’t, but it took me a few hours to get the “jitters” out.)

Vietnam mountains
Another mountain pass. Photo by Juan Hernandez.

Being able to, day after day, push the limits of your skill, comfort zone, and an entire fleet of finely tuned Ducati motorcycles was the most amazing riding experience of my life. What’s it like to drag pegs on the Monster with a pillion? Well, let’s find out today. (Turns out it’s a lot more scary for the passenger, but fun as hell for the rider.) How’s the Scrambler feel standing up while riding up hill in the rocks? Great! On the Motard? Terrifying — the pegs are too slippery. On the Diavel — a nightmare. Then comes that long, perfect stretch of straightaway that lets me get the Diavel into sixth gear to see what happens. (Tip: hold on tight or this bike will leave you behind.)

We got familiar with each bike, and intimately familiar with ABS — something I now think is crazy to ride without.

Chris Force admiring the views in Ha Long Bay. Photo by Juan Hernandez.

We also learned what we could from the locals by the way they handle two wheels. Everyone has a job to do, a place to be, and something to carry. It’s as if the entire country is one big team, trying to get everything in its place. If you ever find yourself in Vietnam on two wheels, take this lesson: just go with the flow.