3 shirts, 3 shorts, one pants/tights, a dress, fleece, rain coat, sunglasses, hat, bike gloves..
We loved the Vietnamese, but on the road, we hated them. It's dangerous and stressful.
February 2020. This was our first ever cycling trip. We're both pretty sporty, but before this trip I used to say that I don't like biking (always felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel). Those 12 days of cycling through beautiful Vietnam were so unique and fun, that I can't imagine a better way to explore this country. I only wish we had more time to keep on cycling, because it was too short. If you've landed on this page, you should absolutely go for it. You don't need any experience of bike trips, you can do a short or a long trip, a slower or faster pace. One of the great things about it, is that you can make it truly your own. It's the least engineered experience you can have, in a country where it's hard to travel without staying in extremely touristy areas or booking tours (unless you're motorbiking). This guide is probably helpful for any DIY south east asia cycling trip.
Our route was HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC → Dalat → Hoi An. With a bit of haggling (just don't take no for an answer) we managed to get the bikes with us on minibuses and buses for stretches we didn't want to cycle. The scenery was unbelievable and breathtaking. We loved our night stops in mid-size cities, with cheap homestays or hotels (Google Maps can help locate those), where people are so ridiculously nice that we thought they were probably trying to scam us (they weren't, they are just really nice, and curious about tourists).
Outside of HCMC, Dalat, and of course (too touristy) Hoi An, we only saw a handful of western tourists. The Vietnamese were so curious and excited about the two strange visitors on bicycles, that every place we've visited, we were the tourist attraction. To our surprise, the Vietnamese (between ages 15 and 60, it seems) don't use bicycles at all, they are all on motorbikes. Only in Hanoi (we departed from there), we finally saw many Vietnamese people leisurely/sportingly riding bicycles. Also traffic in Hanoi seemed less hectic and noisy. Everywhere else we've been, the road is a scary unruly chaos of endless beeps and honks. It requires a lot of patience and focus. But again, for us, it was a once in a lifetime adventure that was more than worth it.
You want to be comfortable and travel super lite. We each had 25 liters and it was more than enough (for more than a month of traveling. the cycling trip was only a part of it). We realized during this trip, that we've been over-packing our entire lives. We slept in cheap homestays/hotels (about 8-16 euros a night), they always provided towels, soaps and more. We gave our laundry every few days and it was ready within a few hours. Internet data coverage is amazing in Vietnam using the Viettel (government owned) sim card, so google maps always worked.
What to pack:
What we regretted packing:
What we bought in Vietnam:
I know it seems like this page has the word gloves in it a lot, but it's the one tip I wish I knew before this trip. Vibrations and pressure on the hands can lead to a nerve damage called Cyclist's palsy. It can happen anywhere, but I think for us it was a combo of Vietnam's road conditions and the bikes we bought. We both experienced numbness and tingling in our fingers (I also had blisters). For me the injury was more serious with pain, and lack of strength and mobility in one hand (as a climber it's very upsetting). I'm still recovering, and hope it will pass. For some the damage is serious and permanent. Please don't risk it.
The buses and trucks are speeding while switching lanes and honking constantly, motorbikes with (what seems like) a thousand coconuts and four kids are not watching as they get into your lane speeding or slowing down with complete disregards to others, while others use your lane (if there is one) to drive against traffic. And it feels like they all never stop beeping and honking, not checking their mirror or even just looking in front of them. It's very stressful, but more importantly its extremely dangerous. Vietnam has 24.5 road fatalities per 100k inhabitants per year. In comparison Norway, Germany, Israel, and USA have 2.9, 4.1, 4.2, and 12.4 respectively. We found cities and some dense areas in between them to be the most stressful and scariest places to drive in. We did not ride our bikes north of Hoi An, but we took a train to Hanoi, and were flabbergasted to witness that Hanoi has a saner, quieter, and safer driving culture. I don't know if this applies for Hanoi only or for the north in general. In any case, our advice is to try to use smaller and safer roads and never ever ride after dark. Try to plan enough time to keep calm, take breaks (also to keep hydrated), ride safe, and enjoy.
I'm just going to say it. We loved highway 1 outside of cities. It was beautiful, scenic, and empty for many parts. But first, you must understand that our experience of a calm Highway 1 was maybe unrepresentative due to timing. We started our trip a week after Tet (Vietnamese new year) and during its school holiday, probably many people were still on vacation. Additionally, it was not long after Covid-19 (coronavirus) broke (mostly in China, it was not yet a pandemic), and Vietnam took fast measures by not opening schools after Tet vacation. So I can only assume, based on all warnings I've read from travelers and heard from Vietnamese people about Highway 1, that our experience was an outlier. That's not to say that our experience was all roses and coconuts. While Highway 1 had little traffic most of the way, it goes through cities and towns, where it was hectic to an outrageous and terrifying level of madness. That was our Vietnam..
Our trip was amazing due to Vietnamese kindness. Almost everywhere we went, people went out of their way to help us and try to communicate with us. It was not easy though, because outsize of Hoi An, Hanoi, and (not as much) HCMC, people rarely spoke English. Hence, I think its essential to learn a few words before your trip. People turned to Google Translate to communicate with us, but many times the translation was senseless. And yeah.. As Vietnamese is tonal, it was hard for people to understand our shameful attempts to speak the language, but they were extremely patient and mostly amused by us. The non touristy non English speaking areas were our favorite parts to travel. English speaking cities were also (almost exclusively) the only places where people scammed us on prices.
Here are some of the words and phrases that we found necessary:
I don't understand
Tôi không hiểu
one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten
một, hai, ba, bốn, năm, sáu, bảy, tám, chín, mười
coffee milk hot/ice
cà phê sữa Nong/Da
I eat/am Vegetarian
Tôi ăn chay
There was also one important hand gesture the Vietnamese were using. Imagine you're holding a big round object in your hand and then quickly start turning your wrist from side to side. In Vietnamese that means no way no go. And trust them, it's a solid NO. If you're taking a turn and someone does it, it means the road is blocked. If you want to stay in a hotel and you get that gesture, you won't be able to stay there. No means no.
We had an exhausting day looking for bikes in HCMC. Previous guides directed us to a street with bikes stores, where we found that about 95% of bikes were mountain bikes, too small for our size, and no second hand bikes. the few people who did speak English directed to a few stores in distant locations in town, all turned out useless with more of the same. Only at the end of the day, we figured out that most people (and the best way) to buy second hand bikes (xe dap) in Vietnam is online. Most popular way is on used bikes Facebook pages (links to popular ones: #1, #2, #3). Another option is the second hand site Chotot (thats a link to the HCMC bikes page). My advice is to contact people BEFORE your trip using Google Translate on Facebbok/Whatsapp. We did eventually find a great second hand bike area in HCMC district 2, Đường Bùi Hữu Nghĩa street. I bought my bike here, and there are other stores on the same street.
I recommend buying a touring bike, ideally with suspension and mudguard, as you'll mostly ride on roads, but many roads are not amazing, and there will be dirt roads. You will also need a rear rack for your saddlebag, If you buy from a store, haggle on the price, test the bike well including breaks and ALL gear, and don't leave the place until you're fully satisfied. We bought our bikes for 4M dongs each, and they served us well (we even got attached), but I'm sure we could have haggled and paid a lot less if we would have had more time and energy (we found the second hand stores only at 8:30PM). At the end of the trip, we sold our bikes in Hoi An to a private person for 1.6M dong each. We probably could have asked for a higher price, but we were happy with our trip, and didn't want to spend time on it. We don't have experience in trying to buy bicycles in Hanoi, but unlike HCMC, Hanoi seemed to be a cyclist friendly city, so maybe it's a lot easier to buy bicycles there. Not only did we see many cyclists and bike stores in Hanoi (we were shocked to see that), it's also the only place we experienced in Vietnam with some kind of a sensible driving culture (double shock).
You probably want to carry a spear tube, small pump, bungee cords, phone mount, few tools, and bike lock (see packing/buying list above). Make sure the bike wheels are quick release. If you need a bike fix, motorbike repair shops (usually marked by a sign "Honda" or "sửa xe") are your man. While its true that for most of our trip those shops were not more than 2 kilometers away, we did ride through stretches of more than 10KM in no man's lands, so be prepared to fix your own flat tires. We were lucky with zero flats.
It was quite intense to bike for hours a day in such a hot country. Accordingly, we were on a strict hydration and nutrients regiment of a coconut break every two hours. Next to almost every snack shop of coffee place you'll find a pile of coconuts (18-30K dong each). They usually serve them with a straw sticking from the top and maybe a spoon to scoop the flesh, which is charming for sure, but towards the end of the trip we asked for them in a pitcher with a lot of ice (they always had ice). Those coconuts were sometimes huge, with more than a liter each, and helped keeping us going. It rarely happened, but in some areas we biked for more than 10KM without spotting a single shop. Thus, we always carried enough mineral water, and made a stop and sip every ~5KM. We also made a lot of coffee breaks for sweet cold/hot Vietnamese coffee, so we were a bit heart broken to find out some shady facts about it.
Some snack shops along the way only had candy, so we tried to have nuts or fruit with us (did you know that bananas are instant energy magic?). We had a banh mi (chay & op la, see glossary) for lunch almost every day (10k dong), sometimes more than one, and we loved stopping for some baked goodies in charming and cheap Vietnamese bakeries. Also, I still fantasize sometimes about coffee with coconut ice cream I've had there.
Before this trip I imagined the heat and climbs would be my nemeses, and they sometimes were tough, but the hardest challenges came with the wind and some road types. When the wind was 20KM/H and higher, we barely made 10KM/H and were frustrated and exhausted. Luckily for us (but probably just normal tropic bliss) those days were followed by calm warm days with excellent road conditions. As for road types, I've decided to avoid dirt roads (as much as we could) after getting blisters on the palm of my hands and my fingers went numb on the first days. But it's not only dirt roads that slowed us down. Riding many of the smaller and older roads was quite slow due to material and quality. As those paths were usually incredibly beautiful, going through villages, fields, rice paddies, forests, and beaches, I recommend mixing those with bigger and faster roads.
We planned our entire route for the next day (not the stops, not even lunch), finding the next mid size town to sleep at while checking the weather and wind forecast. If we had more than one feasible option for towns we could reach by the end of the day, we played it by energy, sometimes stopping early for the night at the closer destination, and sometimes deciding to keep on pedaling to the next town (but never bike after dark). As Google Maps doesn't show info about road types on your route (both for walking and driving options), we planned our route on the free version of Kamoot and then copied the route to Google Maps which we used for online navigation on our bike phone mount.
After a few days of biking, we stopped planning the first coffee break of the day or a midday stop or even where to stop for the night based on recommendations of "must see" beaches or tourist attractions. First reason is that sometimes places/routes didn't exist as Google Map doesn't update fast enough to keep up with the country's construction boom. Second, we realized that our best experiences and most breathtaking rides were not planned, they just happened. Because Vietnam is gorgeous, the people are awesome, and this type of trip is incredible.
Cycling in HCMC was terrifying. We exited the city through a very cool and busy market where people don't get off their motorbikes to shop. Dragon fruit fields as far as the eye can see, a few cheap ferries to cross rivers, and the most breathtaking bridge (also because we thought we might die in traffic) took us to Ben Tre. Click for details#1, #2.
Took some convincing (and taking the front wheel off) but we managed to get the bikes on the minibus with us from Cai Be to HCMC (90k dong per person, 90k per bike), Then we biked around HCMC, took the sleeper night bus to Dalat, then biked around mountainous Dalat that day.
We decided to skip the 800 meter uphill battle of exiting Dalat. After a lot of discussions at the bus station, we got on the bus for the first 58km (towards Nha Trang), where the bus dropped us off at the top of the mountain (220k dongs per person, 250k for the bikes). First 30km of biking was pure downhill excitement and thrilling scenery. The rest of the day was wonderful too, with small roads and beautiful villages. Details.
We finally arrived at the dreaded Highway 1, just to discover a calm and picturesque road. The wind was not as calm, it was so strong that we felt that we were on stationary bikes. It might be common there as the surrounding coconut trees were growing at a 40 degree angle. Once it started to rain too, we found some cute bungalows for the night. Details.
Due to wind and rain forecast we decided on a short cycling day. It did rain heavily every couple of hours and was windy and hilly, but the first 20km were the most beautiful stretch of Highway 1 we've encountered, and the rest was gorgeous too. Details.
A good day with a little bit of everything. A little wind and rain, some hills, Highway 1, small roads between the rice paddies, short dirt roads, cool bridges, some ocean, and lovely small towns. We did make the unrepeatable mistake of biking at night - it was terrifying and should be avoided at all cost. Details.
Sometimes the stars align, the road conditions are fantastic (was hot though), and you just have another banana and keep on going. Lunch and hotel were in lousy locations, but was totally worth it. Details.
Last day of our bike tour was short and fun. We started by coffee on a beautiful remote beach, took small roads through charming villages, and then sped up towards Hoi An. Hoi An is beautiful but excessively touristy. After days of experiencing the kindness of the Vietnamese while barely seeing westerners, we were not prepared for it. Details.
We're a couple from Israel (Jona is also Norwegian), currently living in Berlin.
Love traveling, climbing, yoga, and food. After this trip, we're very much into biking - It's now our favorite way to see the world.