by Patrick Morris
Most of you reading this already know that cycling is without a doubt the best way to explore and experience a place. Without barriers between you and the environment or the high speed that is so common with other means of travel you can take it all in one push of the pedal at a time. But you may have not known that nowhere is this more true than in Vietnam - a country dominated by two-wheeled vehicles and where most of the people in the country live outside the major cities along the rural roads. To make your potential two-wheeled journey more enjoyable, here is some practical information culled from over many miles bicycling throughout the country while leading bicycle tours. If you do actually end up traveling through Vietnam on bike and want to share your experiences or travel advice, please send us note and we'll try and post it on our site.
First and foremost - don't over pack! Besides quality bicycle parts and certain other essentials like cotton socks, almost anything forgotten can be bought cheaply in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Saigon and to a lesser extent, Hanoi and cities along the way. During one trip I picked up a rain poncho and pith helmet in Hue, plastic fenders in Hoi An, and a bike bell and derailleur parts in Nha Trang. I've also had decent cycling shorts made in a Saigon, a dress shoulder pad sewn into the crotch.
Bring a tough bicycle as solid replacement parts are hard to come by. Want to rent instead? Sorry, that quality of bicycle hasn't yet been imported. A mountain bike with mixed-use tires for the pavement and dirt is a wise choice, although if you are comfortable on your touring bike then that is what you should bring. Pack spare parts and gear such as extra spokes, tubes, a pump, cables and a spare water bottle. Bring along some tools: a spoke wrench and chain tool or one of the new multifunction tools and a small bottle of chain lube. Your bicycle box is an excellent place to stuff your helmet and other supplies into for the trip over as the weight limit is frequently very high. Don't forget to deflate your tires as some airlines require it.
For easier access
to such things as maps, snacks and a camera, a handlebar bag or rear-mounted
rack with bag is indispensable. A handlebar bell is required equipment
- the louder the better. You can buy one of these en route for about a
dollar. Many cyclists find a rear view mirror attached to a helmet or
glasses useful. Padded gloves ease the shock from rough roads and protect
hands from the sun. Carry a photocopy of your passport and other essential
documents and try to use them instead of the originals when possible.
The practice is dying off, but passports have been held by police and
others to extract unreasonable payments. I've also had some success showing
my Driver's License. Bring a couple of newer, not-bought-in-Vietnam maps
(ITMB in Vancouver, Canada publishes excellent ones). A guide book may
confuse more than help and which should be assumed not entirely accurate
- Vietnam changes rapidly and many places listed therein have been spoiled
by success. A phrase book is also handy for at least pointing to unpronounceable
words. Sharing some pictures from home is always great at breaking the
ice, although the Vietnamese are typically very informal anyway.
On the Road
Intense heat combined with bicycling may make ice irresistible, but in my experience it is usually safe - except in Hoi An, where for some mysterious reason we've had a high percentage of people go down with stomach problems. Raw vegetables are a no-no, try to eat only cooked or peeled foods. Speaking of stomach problems, carry toilet paper. Rural toilets rarely have it and a bush along the way may actually be preferable. Cookies and other sweets are well stocked in numerous cafes that line the roads. These cafes are also the best spots to find shade, cool down and perhaps nod off for a while. Don't be afraid to stop into homes along the way: in Vietnam it feels like you are always a welcome guest. Infections can happen very rapidly - treat cuts and abrasions quickly and thoroughly. Second skin bandage is handy for covering areas exposed to the rigors of cycling. For medications, pharmacies are well stocked in Western drugs and are present in even small towns.
It's an old travel advice cliché, but learning some of the language will certainly help and enrich your experiences on the road in Vietnam. One especially important phrase is bao nhieu or how much? You will often be overcharged if you ask the price first, but you may be grossly overcharged if you do not. Bargaining is customary and if you choose not to you may pay top dollar. More complaints about traveling in Vietnam are about this one issue. Try not to take it personally (it's not) and move on that much wiser. Lonely Planet puts out a very good phrase book to help you along (although keep in mind phrases and accents are different in the North, Central and Southern regions and tonal languages are best learned verbally, not read). Phrases in your book can simply be pointed to in a jam. Fortunately, you should find no shortage of eager tutors - even on two wheels.
Hotel laundry can be rough - you may prefer to wash your own delicates like cycling shorts and sun dry. Also make sure to double check all your clothes have been returned to you correctly. The Vietnamese day starts at sun up - everyday. At the hotel, ask for a room off the street and earplugs may help even if you don't sleep in. Some cities like Saigon have constant noise not just during the morning rush hour.
Bicycle and other
theft is not common outside of Saigon. However, curious tinkering is not
- gears are changed and cyclometers, water bottles and pouches can disappear
in a flash. Keeping an eye on your things when suddenly surrounded by
a hundred children can be difficult - keep important stuff tucked away.
Solo travelers are always at a disadvantage. This is especially true for
women. Midday, amused harassment by beer-guzzling, karaoke lounge lizards
is not unknown. Don't be afraid to yell or hit back, but stopping and
calling it to the attention of the locals is the best bet - someone will
The Mekong has a lot of traffic with narrow roads and frequent ferry crossings, but there are some good rides on side routes - again, research your route carefully. Ask around the tourist cafes in Saigon. Our office in Saigon will gladly give you some advice. The Central Highlands are sparsely trafficked with the bonus of cooler weather and excellent scenery although you will miss the populated and more interesting towns along the coast on Highway One. And no, there is no one contiguous Ho Chi Minh Trail, at least that you could ride a bike on, let alone find. Yen Bai, about 100 km North of Hanoi, to the Chinese border and up the climb to Sapa is a very scenic ride, especially up to Lao Cai on a sparsely-driven, switchbacked road. Continuing on what looks like a nice loop from Sapa out to Dien Bein Phu and back to Hanoi is very rough going. There are few places to stay and the road is difficult. I've met hard men arrive in Hanoi after that loop and it took them days to smile. The ride across into China from Lao Cai is now possible. The cycling is supposedly nice and the train ride to Kunming one of the most scenic in Asia. However, watch out for the food (or lack of)!
Police now pretty much leave travelers alone. However, rural areas north of Hanoi, border regions, Quang Tri province and occasionally Danang, can be hazardous to your wallet. Arrest or physical force is unheard of. Smiling and playing stupid, but unintimidated may get you going again without a fuss. But if you are stopped - try to show only the copy of your passport or it may be held for ransom. Fun diversions? Pulling off the highway into a schoolyard is an experience not to miss. A couple hundred children immediately surrounding you is quite a charge. In fact, heading just off the main road anywhere in rural areas will put you in place many foreigners have never been. Expect Vietnamese on bicycles and motor scooters to ride with you to practice English or just exist with your progress. You may also be invited to their home - these invitations provide the finest travel experiences in Vietnam, so try not pass too many of them up. Locating a box to rapack your bike in after your trip is next to impossible, but Vietnam airlines may let you fly your bike out without a bike box and usually care for it well.
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