How to Travel Vietnam by Bicycle
Europe tends to be the most popular destination for cyclists on tour, with its ubiquitous bike lanes, temperate summers, and helpful social networks like Warmshowers.org. However, Southeast Asia is also prime cycling territory. Vietnam, with well-maintained roads, cheap food and drinks, and guesthouses every 30-40 kilometers, is probably the best country in the region for a long bicycle tour. This article will show how you can pull it off.
Note: I'm no hardcore cyclist. I'm a backpacker who took a four-month budget cycle adventure covering about 3200km. More-experienced riders may disagree with some of what I write, but I just want to show that a cycle trip through Vietnam can also be comparatively cheap and easy.
Buying a Bicycle in Vietnam
There are a few options for getting a bicycle in Vietnam. You can tough out the trip on a cheap local bike, like I did. However, more serious cyclists can find high-tech bikes in Ho Chi Minh City or some other big cities in the region. You can also bring a bike along on your flight.
Locally-Made Bikes: There's a row of bicycle shops in Ho Chi Minh City on Vo Thi Sau Street, near the intersection with Nam Ky Khoi Nghia. Bikes here cost around $120-200, and the best for touring are made by Asama. My bike had only 6 gears, which made for hard work on some uphills, but it was still fine for the trip. Hardcore cyclists will probably be disappointed by the bikes, but if you don't mind pedaling a little harder and going a little slower these are fine.
Imported Bikes: There are a few shops in the city selling high-tech imported bikes which cost around $400. They're hard to track down online, but if you ask around the bike shops on Vo Thi Sau or in online forums you'll be able to find them. Cyclists report that it can be easier to find a high-quality bike in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Vientiane (Laos) or Bangkok (Thailand) and bring it with you.
Cycling Gear: To Buy or To Bring?
You've got more flexibility with how you'll get the rest of the gear you'll need for the trip. Except for the panniers, everything else is small enough that you can easily bring it with you from home or from other cities in the region.
Panniers: You'll need panniers, also known as saddlebags, to carry your things on the bike. These cost around $100-150, and you can buy them at specialty bike stores in Ho Chi Minh City. You can probably also find them at such stores in other big cities in the region. If your bike has a rack above the back wheel (many of the Asama bikes have this) you can tie a wooden stake to the rack and then use bungee cords and ropes to tie your backpack down to that.
Bike shorts: Though amateurs may not realize it, the extra padding that bike shorts give is crucial to pulling off the bike trip. That is, unless you can withstand wincing in pain for 8 hours per day. These cost around $40 and can be found in sports stores in Singapore and Bangkok. They may also be available in Ho Chi Minh City by now, though they were difficult to find when I did the trip.
Riding gloves: You'll need riding gloves to help keep the sun off your hands and absorb the constant vibrations from the handles. Your hands can quickly start to go numb without them. You can find these in Vietnam, but it's a good idea to bring them along.
Bike helmet: Most Vietnamese people cycle without helmets, so it's quite difficult to find a good one there. A specialty shop might have it, but it's best to bring one with you.
Repair kits and pumps: You can easily find repair kits in Vietnam. The compact pumps that touring cyclists use are hard to find, so bring this with you if you want one. However, so many people ride bicycles in Vietnam that repair shops can be found almost any village. You'll rarely have to go more than a few kilometers until you find one. It will almost certainly be easier to push your bike to the next village or catch a ride on a passing truck rather than fixing flats by yourself on the roadside.
On the Road
Cafes and Hammock Cafes
It's unlikely you'll ever go more than 10km without finding a roadside cafe where you can stop to have some coffee, water, soda, or fresh coconut juice. This is one of the most convenient aspects of cycling through Vietnam. In a class of their own, the best cafes for cyclists have dozens of hammocks tied to trees and posts. One of the most satisfying experiences is to chance upon one of these cafes just in time to escape the sun and have a mid-day nap.
I would usually begin riding around 7AM and stay on the road until around 10:30. Then I'd hang out in a cafe and read or study Vietnamese for a few hours until around 1:30 and get back on the road until the evening.
It's handy that so many people ride bicycles in Vietnam. If you've got a flat tire, loose brakes, a slipped chain or any of the other countless malfunctions that could arise, you're never more than a few kilometers from a shop where someone can repair it. In mountainous areas it may take a while to find a shop, so you may be better off if you catch a ride to the next town on the back of a truck.
In my experience, bicycle mechanics are some of the most honest people you'll meet in the country. Even when I was clearly stranded, I was only charged around 10,000 dong ($0.50) for repairing a flat tire.
Guesthouses and Hotels
Vietnam is quite densely populated, and while this means the roads are quite busy it also means you're never too far from a town large enough to have a guesthouse. You'll typically hit such a town at least every 30 km as long as you're in the lowlands. If you're in the mountains it could be up to 70 km.
Hotels (khach san) are generally more expensive, running around $7 per night for even the cheapest rooms. Guidebooks usually only list khach san, so they make accommodation in Vietnam seem more expensive than it is. Look out for guesthouses (nha nghi). These primarily cater to Vietnamese people, but foreigners are also allowed to stay. You'll probably need some basic Vietnamese to arrange a room, but it shouldn't be too difficult. If you're willing to look around a bit, you should be able to find a room for 100,000 dong ($5) in a nha nghi in any town.
Traffic in Vietnam is notoriously unruly and the roads are crowded. It can be quite dangerous if you're not careful. However, people are used to seeing people on bicycles and one advantage of being a foreigner is that people take special notice of you. As long as you keep to the right and always check behind you before passing someone you should be fine. Also watch out when two big trucks are passing each other, especially on smaller roads. You may need to ride on the shoulder to give them room to get by.
City riding is a different beast. It's all too common to find people coming straight at you even though you believe you're on a one-way street. Odds are that you're right, but that isn't going to stop anyone. Awareness of your surroundings is key. Just take it slow at the beginning, and eventually you'll get a feel for the informal rules of the road.
A Taste of Traffic in Vietnam
Budget: $15 Per Day or Less
Another great thing about cycling through Vietnam is how affordable it is. Here's a short breakdown of my day-to-day expenses during the trip.
- Fan room in a guesthouse: $5
- Meals: $1 x 3 (sometimes 4) = $3
- Water (1.5 liter bottle): $0.25 x 3 = $0.75
- Drinks (coffee, energy drinks, fresh coconuts): $ 0.40 x 6 = $2.40
- Total per day: $11.15
In a normal day of cycling, these were my minimum expenses. Meals can be more expensive if you go to foreigner-friendly restaurants in the cities. Since you're on the bike all day you hardly spend any money, so it's actually a pretty great budget trip.