Backpacker and travel writer Nathan Edgerton spent four months travelling on a cheap bicycle the entire length of Vietnam from the biggest city in the South to the capital in the North. When the open bus ticket costs just $15 USD some may ask the question, is he crazy? Or does he just have a more adventurous spirit than the average backpacker? In this article, Nathan gives you many reasons why travelling on two wheels is way cooler than four…Plus some tips on embarking upon your own bicycle adventure!
Imagine that, during one of the day-long bus trips that cannot be avoided while travelling in Asia, you looked out the window and saw a lone cyclist pedalling a pack-laden bike slowly but surely along the shoulder.
If you saw this cyclist, would you immediately think of the scorching sun which has already driven the locals to the shade? Would you cringe at the thought of riding for hours in sweat-soaked shirt and shorts, then turn your face to take in the cool stream of conditioned air? Or, would you envy that cyclist? Would you wonder how they are doing it? If it is safe? Whether you could do it too?
When I’ve told other travellers about my 3200km bike tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, they often seem to think that my trip required extensive planning, training, cycling experience, and the ability to repair various bike malfunctions.
In fact, I set out with a dirt-cheap bike, without having ridden a bike in a year, and without knowing how to fix a flat tyre. Despite these and many other shortcomings, the trip went smoothly for nearly the entire distance. This article is to tell a bit about how to do a bike trip through Vietnam and to show how cheap and easy it actually is…
Buying the right wheels for the 3,200 km journey
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City last February with a plan to buy a bike and ride a circuit around the Mekong Delta, then loop back through Ho Chi Minh City and head north along the coast to Nha Trang, then cut inland through the central highlands along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, then back to the coast at Da Nang and north to Hanoi.
The first thing I had to do was find a bicycle. I knew this would be the largest single expense of my trip, but due to a deeply-ingrained thriftiness I was determined not to spend too much on it. I had been advised by friends who know my tendencies to at least shell out some extra cash for a decent bike. But a fancy European bike could cost upwards of $400. This was quite expensive, and I also didn’t want a bike that anyone would be tempted to steal.
A friend pointed me toward the intersection of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Vo Thi Sau Streets, where I could search through numerous bike stores. There were many bikes to choose from, but I needed one with a basket on the front where I could keep my camera and map as well as a rack above the back wheel to which I could tie my camping backpack. I also needed at least a few speeds for climbing the mountains in the central highlands. In the Martin 107 shop I was lucky to find a new six-speed that was just what I needed, for only $120. I swallowed hard, reassured myself that if the bike broke down while I was in the Mekong Delta I could return to Ho Chi Minh City and buy a better one, and handed over the cash.
Now where did you get those saddle-bags…?
Next I had to find some saddlebags to hang off the sides next to the rear wheels, in which I could carry my things. The only proper saddlebags I could find were in a specialty bike shop and cost over $100. For bags! Clearly unacceptable. I left the shop and walked along the sidewalk trying to think of what else I could do, when I noticed a bicycle with a wooden yoke tied to the rear rack, from which thick woven-plastic bags filled with guava hung at each side. In faltering Vietnamese, I asked the owner where I could buy a yoke like his. Instead, he just said he’d sell his to me for $10. Done. I went to the market and bought two new bags for $5, plus some ropes and bungee cords to tie them down, and I was set. Bicycle and bags for under $150.
The first day on the road
My friend and I set out on our first day to My Tho, a provincial capital about 80km south of Ho Chi Minh City. We left early, on the road by about 7AM, planning to ride for a few hours in the morning, take a long break for lunch and coffee to wait out the hottest hours of the day under shade, and then finish off the ride in the afternoon. By the time we had reached the outskirts of HCMC, though, the sun was already getting intense and I could feel the photons pounding into my skin. It was only 9AM. I noticed a sidewalk stall with racks of long-sleeve shirts for sale. figured a loose button-up shirt would be easy to get into and out of, would let some air flow through (I could leave it half-unbuttoned, Latin-American style), and would protect my forearms without my having to put sunscreen on multiple times every day. I picked up a loose-fitting white shirt for about $2 and we were off. (The shirt would last me all four months of the trip and was surprisingly well-suited for biking. I could pop the collar to keep the sun off my neck, and it was also easy to strip off and leave to dry when I stopped for rest breaks, where I’d put on a dry shirt.)
Off the tourist route on Highway 1A
We continued south along highway 1A toward My Tho, through what seemed to be an unceasing suburb with squat concrete houses crowding the highway for nearly the entire distance. It ended up being one of the least beautiful rides of the whole trip. On the upside, by the end of the first day we were already off the common tourist route. Some groups make a day trip from HCMC to My Tho, but by the time we arrived in the evening there were only a handful of other foreigners to be seen. We checked into a cheap room with a fan at a Nha Nghi (guesthouse) for $5 for the night, then cycled around until we found a vegetarian restaurant (“Com Chay” in Vietnamese) where we had rice with a mix of vegetables and mock meats for $0.50 per plate. After that we relaxed in a cafe by the riverside with free WIFI and then wandered around a night-market by the riverside and sampled some che (dessert including mung beans, tapioca, and coconut milk) and grilled corn, then called it an early night.
Out in the countryside & invitations for rice-wine…
Our next stop was Tra Vinh, another provincial capital about 60km away, hidden deep in the delta and remote from the dust and noise of Highway 1A. The ride was easy, along smaller country roads with calmer traffic, flanked by rice fields stretching to the horizon and banana and pomelo trees crowding the roadside. We stopped in a small roadside cafe around midday to rest. These cafes, where you can relax in a hammock with a cool coconut or glass of iced coffee, are unique to and ubiquitous throughout Vietnam.
The owner of the cafe looked at me quizzically, clearly curious about what kind of person would ride a bicycle through the countryside at midday in a button-up shirt. She took a look at the plastic bags hanging from the side of my bike and laughed. “What are you selling?” she asked, referring to the fact that my bags were the same style the vegetable sellers use to carry their produce to the market. I laughed too, and she came over to peek inside and found my dirty clothes, Vietnamese-English dictionary, laundry detergent, and bottles of water. She gave me a “thumbs-up,” then went off to get my drink. One of the best parts of cycling is that people are naturally curious about what you’re doing so it’s a great conversation-starter and, depending on the time of day, can often lead to invitations to come drink rice wine.
I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…
From there I continued with my friend for a month around the Mekong Delta (including some week-long stops on Phu Quoc Island and in Can Tho), then I headed north on my own, covering HCMC to Hanoi in three months. I took my time, resting for a few days in quite a few cities along the way, such as Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Hue. Life was cheap and easy, so I relaxed and enjoyed it. I lived comfortably on $15 per day throughout the trip. Since I was cycling I didn’t have to pay for buses between cities and I also didn’t have to worry about motorcycle taxis around the cities. Plus, the fact that I was spending so much time on the bike meant that I didn’t have as much time to spend money.
And finally, why two wheels is better than four!
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that a big journey like this is not too expensive or difficult. By sticking along the coast on highway 1A (There are lots of beautiful stretches outside the cities) you can avoid having to do much climbing, save for the 500m Hai Van Pass north of Da Nang.
If I had taken the bus, I would never have had the surprising experience of cycling through 200km of desert between Mui Ne and Phan Rang. I wouldn’t have smelled the pungent corridor of fish-sauce factories just north of Ca Na. I couldn’t have gone to dinner with a farmer who invited me to come eat with his family while I had stopped to take some photos. Nor would I have been able to savour the feeling of cruising the last few kilometers into town with the cool pre-evening breeze at my back, euphorically endorphin-saturated, looking forward to a hard-earned shower, dinner, and coffee.
Practicalities of a big bicycle trip:
- It’s still nearly impossible to find a decent bicycle helmet in Vietnam, so you should bring one with you. Also, it’s a good idea to bring a rear-view mirror that attaches to the handlebars so you can switch lanes in traffic without having to turn around.
- Bike gloves with some padding on the palms are necessary for long distance riding. My friend rode without them for a few weeks and began to lose sensation in her fingers! They also protect your hands from the sun. Also, bike shorts will make the trip much more enjoyable. Even with bike shorts, your butt will still be really sore for the first few days, but eventually you’ll harden up.
- There’s not much need to worry about bringing a flat-tire repair kit or air pump. Wherever you may have a flat, you’re never likely to be more than a kilometer from a shop where you can get it fixed. I had three flat tires during my trip and never had any trouble getting them repaired quickly.
- In general, you should hit a decent-sized town every 20 kilometers or so where you can find a guesthouse (Nha Nghi). These are generally cheaper than the hotels (Khach San) which are listed in guidebooks, though the owners will be less likely to speak English. You should always be able to find a Nha Nghi where you can get a fan-room for about $5 per night.
- Smaller towns usually have few people who can speak English, so your trip will be much more comfortable and enjoyable if you learn some survival Vietnamese. One of the best intro books is “Vietnamese for Foreigners” (Tieng Viet Cho Nguoi Nuoc Ngoai) by Dana Healy, which you can find at many PNC or Fahasa bookstores.
- Buy a few ponchos (easy to find in Vietnam) so you can strap them down to your bags in case you have to ride through some rain to get to the next town before nightfall.