We’re cycling Vietnam. It was the shocker answer we’d say to locals and other backpackers on why we were in the country. It always took a few tries to explain that it was ‘BICYCLE’ and not ‘MOTORBIKE’. Even a few people couldn’t understand why on earth we would attempt such a silly thing! So we’ll share the whole story and hopefully you’ll be inspired to experience this AMAZING country in an extraordinary way.
Now, I love cycling. Back home I would cycle to and from work all the time. I disliked public transport and haven’t had a car for the last 2 years so it became a part of my lifestyle. Long distance cycling however, was not. I had attempted a few 20-30km cycles while in London and I didn’t really think it was my thing. So why on earth I thought cycling up a whole country would be better is beyond me!
This is a detailed post on the WHAT and WHY’s of our cycle, and more importantly the HOW you can attempt this amazing trip on your own. But if that seems a bit daunting there are a few cycle tour companies out there who take the extra work out of organizing everything. Do your research and see what fits best for you!
We personally, wouldn’t have done it any other way.
There are two answers to this question:
- We like to travel on our own terms and in our own time. Originally we had the plan of doing it like many other backpackers: motorbike. However, looking into this a little further
No Motorbike license = No insurance. As we are both a little accident prone and neither of us had much experience with motorbikes, we looked into alternatives that we could be fully insured for.
- We hadn’t done anything this ridiculous before.
How long do you need?
Once we started cycling we did the whole trip: 2630km in 7 weeks. This was with a few stops along the way to enjoy the area’s we had cycled to and to rest up if needed. We also added an 6 days of cycling down from Saigon to the Mekong Delta which we would highly recommend (but you can give it a miss if you have a tighter schedule).
You can do the trip much quicker if you have met any of the following criteria:
- experience cycling long distance already
- have packed very light
- are planning on cutting down on non-cycling days
- decided to take the train part of the way up the country
- have a bike from home (no need to spend time shopping/selling the bike)
We gauged how long we could make the trip based off of these other two blogs:
They were helpful in planning the overall route as well. Even though BOTH were doing the trip the opposite direction from us and starting up in Hanoi.
After the first week we got a good idea of how far we could cycle each day, which was between 60-120km per day depending on the terrain. Usually around 85km was the average. I was surprised how fast I was able to build up my stamina!
Please look into visa’s ahead of time for your country. We both got the 90 day visa. It was more than enough time for us to explore Vietnam and make our way up the beautiful country.
We started our journey in Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn City) and found that there were lots of options for bikes of a medium or small frame. The struggle was finding one that fit the 6ft3 Brit that I was travelling with. Large frame bikes are hard to come by new or used. We finally tracked a set of used tour bikes that were in decent working order. We bought the rest of our gear from Ride Plus Bicycle Shop as it was cheaper here than where we bought the bikes.
Bikewise: although vastly cheaper, you cannot do Vietnam on a single speed bike. So get yourself a geared bike, one with good brakes and thick tires. Once you find one, make sure you give the bike a good test run before committing to buying:
- Make sure the fit is good as you don’t want to cause yourself more pain riding because the bike is too big or small.
- Make sure that it goes easily into all gears
- If the bike is used is there still a good amount of tread left on the tires? You don’t want to be fixing flat tires all the time.
Keep in mind, with anything: you get what you pay for.
PRO TIP: We did an extra 600 km of cycling down into the Mekong Delta and back to Saigon to ‘test out’ the bikes to make sure that if there were any major issues we could take them back to the shop to fix them before the rest of the journey. We would HIGHLY recommend the Mekong Delta as a part of your journey as the people there were the most friendly and the scenery some of the best in Vietnam.
Prep for Cycling: Planning the Route & Accommodations
We got to experience so much of the beautiful Vietnamese country side! Here are our thoughts on what to do to get you through the country.
Starting the day: Depending on whether you start north in Hanoi or south in Siagon will greatly determine when you need to get up each day. The south gets HOT by 9am and there is very little wind to keep you cool. So we tended to start cycling by 6-6.30am latest. That gave us 3 hours of relative coolness to cycle in before we start going though our water supplies! Up North we found we could lay in a bit later as we weren’t trying to beat the sun, however we dealt with a massive head wind which slowed down our progress.
Pretty much there are 2 main routes: The Coast (Highway QL1)and inland via Ho chi Mihn highway (HCMC). We mainly did the Coast due to it being much easier to ride with a large hard shoulder to cycle on and more plentiful towns to stop in but we also cut inland a few times to experience the gorgeous scenery.
There are a few road types that you need to be aware of when planning the journey.
QL roads (we took the QL1 most of the way up the coast) are usually in good condition and are a typical highway. Lots of traffic between trucks and bikes.
PRO TIP: You may want to have earplugs in your left ear to muffle the beeps!
DT roads. In our experience are less maintained, but also less travelled. Usually the more beautiful route but the road quality can go from good to very very poor quite quickly. We found that we enjoyed the views on the DT roads a lot but some days it wasn’t worth the literal pain in the ass it caused.
CT roads. You can not cycle these. Motorbikes are not even allowed on here. Please make sure you don’t accidentally plan your route using one of these (we did this just once. It added 12 km onto our journey for that day. Not fun).
Just make sure you either have data/gps/ of google maps downloaded offline. We had some issues with Maps.me not having the roads marked correctly (or they just didn’t exist on the maps!).
PRO TIP: use google maps in WALKING mode rather than DRIVING to determine elevation , because that would be factored into how far we could cycle the next day.
More elevation = less distance.
Toilets? You can use any gas station toilet for free. There will be very different levels of cleanliness as well as styles of toilets (see: toilet time part of female cycles blog for more details). But they are frequent and there is no need to worry about finding a place to do the business in.
PRO TIP: You DO NOT need to extensively map out where you need to go.
Knowing where to stop each day: For our cycle journey, big supermarkets (CO-OP Mart, Vinmart, Big C) were priority for where we would stop for the night rather than accommodations.
We would pin supermarkets on Google Maps and attempt to make it from town to town that had one to pick up some supplies everyday. If for some reason we had to stop at a town that didn’t have a supermarket then it would have corner stores/open markets/street food as well as plenty of Nhà nghỉ (guesthouses) or hotels to spend the night at. We only had one experience of struggling to get to a place before night (read about that adventure here). Even with that one struggle there was no need to have camping equipment. You will find a place to sleep.
PRO TIP: Nhà nghỉ (guesthouses) will be cheaper places to stay than a hotel or motel advertised in ENGLISH. They are rarely all on Google Maps. If a place has one Nhà nghỉ pinned then chances are there are another 4 that are not.
Here is every stop we made during our cycling journey! Included excursion out to sights and breaks taken in towns we did not stay the night in.
Prep for Cycling: FOOD
You can start your day off with a Bahn Mi or two and a Vietnamese coffee. There are always local street food vendors selling Vietnamese breakfast food. However, we kept our morning routine a bit more streamlined and kept our food prep for the day quite simple.
Breakfast: We had 1 large cup of porridge & brown sugar each (usually with hot water but sometimes grossly with cold. I would try and convince myself that it was overnight oats to keep my gag reflexes at bay). Both the oats and the sugar we would keep stocked up on from the super markets. Anyone in fitness or nutrition knows that oatmeal is a slow release energy so that we could cycle much further without having to stop for sustenance.
We also would have travel size instant coffee (cold water dissolving in case of no kettle in our room) and travel size condensed creamer. Not your traditional Vietnamese coffee but did the trick.
Snacks for cycles: As all the blood will be in your legs while cycling such long distances, eating anything substantial WHILE cycling was pointless. It would just sit in your stomach awkwardly, not digesting. Instead we opted for the less healthy, but more efficient alternative:
Tang & Snickers.
Both of these gave us a huge amount of energy as the simple sugar in them was easily absorbed and the snickers bar had just enough substance to it to make our stomachs not feel so empty. If we felt an energy crash coming on we would take a few minute pit stop, scarf down a bottle of sugary tang, split a snickers and head back onto the road.
Post cycle: Usually we would arrive in a town mid afternoon around 2-3pm, which isn’t ideal as most street food closes down after 11am until around 5pm. If we had a stop in a town with a supermarket usually there would be a hot counter or at least some fruit and chocolate milk (for the protein gains & recovery) until the local food started up for supper time.
I had been having huge issues with local food most of our time in Vietnam so we eventually started making our own food if the guesthouse/hotel allowed us. (Read MORE HERE ABOUT HOW I COMBATED THIS TROUBLED TUM)
Prep for the next day:
There was only a few things that we would do in the afternoon/evening to prep for the next days cycles. But they were pretty important to stay on top of.
- Shower. If the shower was hot and we were further south this meant washing the cycle gear. Everyday if we could. And Hang everything to dry in front of the A/C or fan so it could dry by morning. The amount of grey sludge washed off us everyday made us understand why all the locals wore face masks while scooting around.
- Eat carbs. Noodles & rice and lots of it. This helps prep the muscles for the next days 6-12 hour cycle.
- Eat Protein. Help muscle recovery and growth.
- Drink plenty of water. Have a Soup based meal which will also help replenish your salts if it was a particularly sweaty day.
- Sleep. Exhaustion can catch up on you and you need to make sure you are well rested. If this means taking an extra day off of cycling then do so. You’ll enjoy the cycles so much more if you get enough sleep. Most nights you will fall asleep regardless of how hard and uncomfortable the bed may be. I would recommend wearing earplugs in most places as owning chickens and roosters is a normality in Vietnam and in our experience they don’t seem to be aware of when to cock-a-doodle-do. They do it continuously. All day & Night.
Here is a list of the extras we had that we packed/needed for the journey:
Check out my list of female specific things I though would be beneficial (HERE)
- Back bike rack for the back packs. We used bungee cords to strap them down.
- Extra inner tubes, tire levers and patches. In case of a flat tire. We would recommend 2 extra inner tubes unless you are confident patching a tire. We had 2 puncture in total between the two of us.
- Multi tool for adjusting shifters. We also used it to remove a broken bike chain link when one of our chains broke and we weren’t in a town that had anywhere to buy another chain.
- Carabiners for attaching things to the outside of the bags for easy access
- String. We found most of ours. Was useful for the makeshift front rack we made on our bikes, to hold extra water to the bike frame.
- Super glue. Used it to fix shoes and sunglasses
- Bike pump with gauge
- Speedometer to know how far we had to go and how fast we were making time
- Bike lock. Nothing too intense or heavy. Most of the time you will keep your bike in a secure area in the guesthouses.
- Degreaser/chain oil, to keep things running smoothly.
- Handle bar attachments. You risk nerve damage if you can’t move your hands into different positions. You’ll find your fingers go numb occasionally. If you can pad your bars with tape (we were recommended ‘sandal-bars’ made from old flip flips you find) to make things more comfortable, do it.
- First aid kit . Thankfully we only used a plaster or two, but a decently stocked kit has been in our backpacks since the start of our travels.
- Water filter, most places have filtered water or a corner store to buy extra water, but in a pinch it’s handy to have if you just want to easily drink tap water.
- Helmet: the only legal requirement for us to be fully insured.
- Waterproof bag/bag covers , in case of rain.
- Rain poncho, also in case of rain.
- Sunscreen: It is incredibly hard to find decent NORMAL sunscreen in non-touristy area’s . The only one I found that didn’t whiten the skin or have ingredients that would amplify the sun’s effect was: Biore UV 50++ anti pollution body care serum. Extra moist. (there are 3 types of this particular sunscreen , don’t get the intensive white or refresh bright, get the EXTRA MOIST one.)
- Rear light and front light. We used these for when we went out early for an excursion, not for when we cycled as it was always a little light our even in the earliest morning starts.
- Toiletries bag with toilet paper and hand sanitizer in a quick access part of the bike.
Selling the bikes:
We honestly didn’t struggle to sell the bikes. The biking culture here is amazing with both local Vietnamese and Expats living here.
If you have a medium or small framed bike and its in good condition once you are done your cycling you easily can get half of what you paid for it if not more. It really depends on the time you have to sell it.
We used Facebook to sell both the bikes. Mine sold quickly on Facebook Marketplace to a local dad for his son as it fit the Vietnamese frame better. However, there wasn’t much interest in the large frame bike on there.
We did manage to sell the large bike a few days later via a group called Hanoi Massive which was a very responsive large group on Facebook. It sold to an expat living in Hanoi who had struggled to find a larger bike frame to fit him. We got our asking prices for both bikes which was a little less than half price of what we paid for the bikes (and the accessories).
Would we do it again? Lessons learned?
100% would do it again.
We joked at the end that we had enough time to cycle back to Saigon before our visa was up now that we were all ‘conditioned’. There is something so magical about experiencing a country slowly and intimately like we did. We went weeks without speaking to another western-english speaking person. We experienced the lifestyle, the country side, the food and the people in a very unique way that would be missed out on if you weren’t able to stop in the small non-tourist towns. We didn’t feel the need to do all the ‘tourist’ must see spots because we feel like being in a tour or with a group of foreigners like ourselves would cheapen our experience of Vietnam.
The only real lessons we learned was if we were going to do this again in the future we would plan from the start to cycle. As we just randomly decided to do this we had WAY TOO MUCH stuff with us and we paid for gear we already had back home.
Route wise. We may have done more of HCMH to see the scenery, but we also wouldn’t have missed out on the Mekong Delta (Read our experience here about the southern most area of Vietnam). Even though most people would recommend doing the route north to south (for ease of going up mountain sides and head wind up north) I enjoyed the fact that it was a bit cooler as we went along rather than warmer.
Who knows maybe in a few years time we will attempt the whole silly thing again!