Cycling Vietnam
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.

Father and daughter

Be Prepared
Thorough preparation can save big headaches later on. A cyclist I once encountered in Saigon planned on camping along the way to stay within a budget. A fine idea in many places, but very difficult to do in Vietnam and a great way to catch the eye of the police. With this in mind, a wise first step should be some researching of your trip. There now exists an enormous amount of information on the Web, including travelogues, health, weather, and other particularly useful information. Our resources page is a good place to begin. Get a current, balanced perspective on what is a rapidly-changing country. For instance, Highway 17 is for the most part impassible on bicycle, and most other vehicles for that matter, despite looking like another road on many maps. Many travelogues are very subjective — try to read between the lines. And some people can't enjoy their travels unless the going's miserable. For an excellent example of this read Michael Buckley's book Cycling to Xian, especially the sections on eating.

Packing

PACKING LIST
- Passport (and Photocopy)
- feminine needs
- Visa (and Photocopy)
- sweater or light jacket for Hanoi
- plane tickets (and Photocopy)
- sunglasses
- money/passport pouch
- walking shorts (one pair)
- Traveler’s checks (bring receipts!)
- one pair light pants (not jeans!)
- credit card
- Collared (1) and T-shirts (2)
- Photocopy of birth certificate
- underwear (3)
- Photocopy of immunization record
- light socks (3)
- Vietnamese phrase and guide books
- light, comfortable shoes
- basic first-aid kit
- bathing suit
- mosquito repellent (with DEET)
- small wash cloth
- lip balm with sunscreen
- small towel
- waterproof sun-screen (high SPF)
- wide-brimmed hat

Bike
- extra spokes
- chain tool
- chain lube
- tools
- tubes
- gloves
- helmet
- handlebar bell
- handlebar bag
- pump
- cable lock

Optional Extras
- sandals or thongs
- address book
- camera, flash, film
- business cards
- extra camera battery
- earplugs!
- medications
- journal
- photos from home to share
- small gifts for children (pens)
- small utility knife
- small binoculars

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.

New friends

On the Road
On the bike, wear a hat, long sleeve cotton shirt with the collar turned up (thanks Henry) and plenty of sunscreen on exposed skin. A wide-brim hat helps protect your face and neck (the ubiquitous Vietnamese green pith helmets are excellent for this and only cost a dollar or two). Flying insects, trucks kicking up debris and children occasionally throwing things make sunglasses a good idea. Despite the excitement, don't overdue it the first few days riding as your body adjusts to the climate, overcomes jet lag, and digests new, exotic foods. Adding fatigue thrown to the mix can quickly compromise your health. Everything, including cycling, is much more difficult in the tropics - that combined with poor road conditions make it wise to scale back distance projections made over a map from home or the cafe table in Hanoi after a couple of coffees. Drink fluids constantly - heat stroke is a real possibility. Bottled water can be scarce in rural areas but there is always plenty of boiled tea, bottled sodas and beer. Check bottle seals for tampering - sometimes bottled water is merely refilled. And because the Vietnamese seldom drink plain water, asking for it may get you rice wine instead! Nouc mia is sugar cane juice made at roadside stalls and is very refreshing - look for the long stalks of the sugar cane lying around. Coconut juice is also common and delicious. Carry lots of small bills, asking the price before drinking anything as the price may rise dramatically after you have quenched your thirst if you do not.

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 always help.

Cycling Routes
Don't feel compelled to cycle the entire length of Vietnam. Some areas are definitely worth skipping if only to reserve energy for the better routes. Overland rides into the country, such as Lao Bao from Vientiane are over difficult, lonely dusty roads with very little in the way of accommodation or food. The same is somewhat true of the Dien Bien Phu loop. Very scenic, but killer hills and few places to each or overnight. And skipping the ride from Hanoi to Hue may conserve your good impression of Vietnam. The area has notoriously bad roads and some areas curiously lacking the usual Vietnamese graciousness. The northern section of Highway One also does not hug the scenic coastline as it does in the south. You may want to choose the train or plane to bypass this area. Make sure the train you are on has a cargo car for your bicycle to accompany you or it will arrive on another train.

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.

Danger
Riding on Highway One can be unnerving, but it is still ridable. Remember: cyclists are at the bottom of the food chain, or pretty close to it. There are no traffic lines on the road and there are no traffic laws, or at least laws that are adhered to. In tight situations, drivers will expect you to get out of the way. Fortunately drivers almost always honk whenever passing, but try to stay far to the right and be prepared to bail out to the side of the road. Likewise, you should use your bell frequently. Rural people (and animals) seldom look up when crossing the road unless they hear an engine or horn. An easy way to get killed cycling in Vietnam, or much of the world, is to ride at night. Many drivers keep their lights off and will not see you. Rocks, pot holes, drying rice and coffee, darting children, chickens, dogs, water buffaloes demand your undivided attention to the road ahead. Tired? Wave a truck down. Someone with room will stop. This road service is usually at no charge, but even a small amount of money goes a long way. Unlike Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi are still ridable cities, where bicycle and scooter traffic still dominate the wide, tree-lined streets. Although swarms of two-wheeled traffic crossing each other like schools of fish can be intimidating at first, it can soon become an exhilarating experience. Sunday night "cruising" in Saigon should not to be missed. After nightfall, the city center becomes packed with two-wheeling Vietnamese all dressed up going "di troi" - around.

Recommended 3 Week Tour:
1 Hanoi train to Lao Cai (Chinese border)
2-3 Lao Cai to Sapa (see our itinerary)
4 Sapa to Pho Rang (return along the Red River)
5 Pho Rang to Yen Bai
6 Yen Bai to Hanoi (train)
7-8 Hanoi to Halong Bay (for kayaking)
9 Hanoi to Hue (train)
10-11 Hue to Hoi An
12 Hoi An to Quang Ngai
13 Quang Ngai to Qui Nhon
14 Qui Nhon to Tuy Hoa
15-16 Tuy Hoa to Nha Trang
17 Nha Trang to Phan Rang/Nin Chu
18-19 Phan Rang to Dalat
20 Dalat to Bao Loc
21 Bao Loc to Binh Hoa (bus Binh Hoa to Saigon)
22-24 Mekong Delta

Other Diversions
If you've come halfway around the world, don't miss two of the most incredible World Heritage Sites on the planet. The hundreds of limestone peaks vaulting out of the emerald waters of serene Halong Bay are picturesque. Halong is only a couple hours journey from Hanoi and there are firms that now offer kayaking making that trip even more worthwhile. From Saigon you can now take a short flight directly to Siem Reap, Cambodia which is base for exploring the greatest concentration of stone monuments in the world - the temples of Angkor. You can easily spend a week exploring Angkor. From Siem Reap you can fly directly onto Bangkok so no backtracking is necessary. Phnom Penh, Cambodia is worth bypassing now that there is a direct flight to Siem Reap. If you do wish to return to Vietnam remember you must have a reentry visa. Enjoy your trip!

Update (2002)
Unfortunately, much has changed for cyclists since this article was written about a decade ago. The most important change, in terms of cycling across Vietnam, is the tremendous growth in automobile, truck and motorbike traffic. In many places, the roads have become dangerous to the degree that several tourists on bike were killed in Vietnam in early 2001. If you do go by bike, there is plenty of information and advice out there to research, although some of it is of the "go for it!" and "you'll be glad you did it" variety. But in a country with the highest road fatality rate in the world, this would be foolish without at least knowing what you are getting into and preparing accordingly. Ride defensively and on the safer routes ("I'm going to ride every mile" may be a foolhardy). I also urge you to consider taking out emergency medical and air evacuation insurance for your trip (www.internationalsos.com has clinics in Saigon and Hanoi)) - a small price to pay if you have an accident. We have also posted a notice that female travelers should read.

This article was originally published in  


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