In this article we describe the highs, lows and logistics of cycle touring in Vietnam – the perfect guide for anyone interested in doing the same!
Before the more specific cycling advice, we’ve written about some of the social enterprises you can support while travelling through Vietnam. The purpose of Gearing Up is to raise awareness of the work of social initiatives in Asia.
You can support these social enterprises in Vietnam:
Sapa O’Chau is a social enterprise spearheading the responsible tourism movement, working to ensure than an increase in tourism comes hand in hand with an improved quality of life of the local communities and particularly the ethnic minorities in the surrounding area. As you may have guessed, it is based in Sapa, a popular tourist destination in the north of Vietnam. The town is worth a visit as a cycle tourist mostly for the climb up there (1,600 vertical ascent). The views are spectacular, but this is certainly a case of the journey being better than the destination itself. The town is now overrun with shops, rows of identical restaurants and an abundance of guesthouses as a result of a severe lack of planning.
But there is still hope for the town and the region, and by booking a trek with Sapa O’Chau, or by enjoying a coffee in their café, you are supporting their work to provide education and job opportunities to the local Hmong tribes.
Sapanapro, located 15km from Sapa (a motorbike ride away for us as we had to respect our rest day!), is another social enterprise supporting the Red Dao ethnic minority. They have herbal baths, an ideal activity to rest the aching limbs, and produce bathing herbal medicines. A quarter of local households are shareholders of Sapanapro and are able to generate extra income through selling their materials to the organisation.
Hoi An is another town at risk of being over touristified. A huge effort has been made to preserve and cherish the original façade of the beautiful historic houses, but unfortunately many of these houses are almost entirely hidden by the sheer bulk of retail produce aimed at tourists. There are some exceptions, and these are worth a visit. If you fancy a quiet café, then Reaching Out Teahouse, is the place for you. The staff are speech and/or hearing impaired and therefore an aura of peace and quiet is encouraged.
Lifestart Foundation helps disadvantages Vietnamese people and their families to become self-sufficient. At the shop in the historic centre of Hoi An, you can buy handmade goods, take part in an art workshop, have a tour or a free Vietnamese language class. Most importantly of all, the profits generated from these activities fund Lifestart Foundation’s projects in Vietnam, so you know that the money you spend helps to improve the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people in Vietnamese society.
At Lifestart Foundation in Hoi An, they also sell Tohe’s products. Tohe, which also has a shop in Hanoi and online, produces lifestyle products with artwork designed by disadvantaged children.
If you fancied a slightly more special meal than normal in Hoi An, then Streets Restaurant is a worthwhile visit. It is a training restaurant for street children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They learn culinary and hospitality skills during their 18-month training to equip them for jobs in the industry. The KOTO Restaurants (Know One Teach One), in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, are based on a similar model.
Now for the cycling…
Total distance: 3000 km
Largest altitude gain in a single day: 2900 m (climb to Dalat from Khanh Vinh)
Total cycling days: 33 days (average 91 km/day)
OUT – From Vietnam to Laos, 23/11/16: Tay Trang (Vietnam) – Sop Hun (Laos) Border Crossing (Dien Bien Phu and Muang Khua)
This border crossing is well-travelled, well-known and posed no difficulties. The two-hour lunch break the staff were having when we arrived allowed us a decent break too.
IN – From Laos back into Vietnam, 17/12/16: Na Phao (Laos) – Cha Lo (Vietnam) Border crossing route 8.
We had originally planned to cross back into Vietnam further north, at the Cau Treo – Nam Phao border crossing taking route 12, a classic cycling route. Instead we took the Na Phao – Cha Lo border crossing along route 8.
Luckily the border crossing itself, thanks to the heavy industrial traffic, is huge and well organised on both sides. No issues at all for foreigners, but you must have already bought your visa for Vietnam by the time you arrive at this border as visas are not issued. Having crossed the border, the first ‘guest house’ is at least a 40km ride away where the road hits the QL15 (Ho Chi Minh Highway). We pitched our tent on the porch, as this was far preferable to the concrete box we were offered, but if you have the energy we would suggest continuing south for 20km or so.
OUT – From Vietnam to Cambodia, 25/01/17: Ha Tien (Vietnam) – Prek Chek (Cambodia) Border Crossing
Another well-trodden border crossing: no problems!
Vietnam is home to the truly ubiquitous nha nghi (guesthouse). In the north you can reliably find one in even the smallest, most unassuming settlements, in the south you need to plan a little better. Low end nha nghis cost between 150,000 and 250,000 dong (usually with a towel, hot water and a trail of ants, sometimes air con and rarely a mosquito net). This, and the difficulty of finding suitable ground, means camping in Vietnam doesn’t really happen.
Terrain is either too mountainous and jungly, too highly utilised by rice farming, or too densely populated. Although having a tent can lure you into a sense of ultra-flexibility, beware of the simple request of asking whether you can place your tent in a village or outside someone’s house. Usually your request would be met with some laughter and discussion amongst a family, before they nod their heads and beckon you towards a covered patch of ground. Other times, however, the whole debacle can turn into an entire village conference and before you know it the police are involved – Vietnam is a police state, after all.
It is in fact the responsibility of guesthouses to take your passport and report your presence to the local police. Generally, this poses no issues and you needn’t know it’s happening. However, it does help to explain the hostility you can sometimes encounter when asking what might seem like a simple request to pitch a tent. It also helps to explain why some guesthouses won’t allow you to stay at all – they don’t have permission.
In one town, we asked around and, having been ushered to one empty building, another man gesticulated for us to follow him on his motorbike. He showed us another empty building with ideal tent-pitching rooms, if it hadn’t turned out to be the local police building. Once the man had gone, perhaps feeling that he’d carried out his duty, the police themselves shortly returned. One phone call to their superiors made it plainly clear we were not welcome.
Having met the local English teacher earlier in the evening, we went back to ask whether we could pitch our tent in her courtyard. Thus ensued a village conference, including some police trainees who had followed us down the road. It soon became quite clear nobody was going to let us pitch our tent anywhere near their property, but we couldn’t get away with just slipping out whilst the debate continued. Eventually the conference came to a close, with what they considered a perfectly plausible proposal, of cycling another 30 km (at 9pm at night) to a town somewhere vaguely in the direction of where we were going, which might have a nha nghi. We said our thank yous and pretended to take on board their brilliant suggestion as we cycled further down the road and pitched our tent in an outhouse of the local market. (Moral of that story: don’t always ask for help from locals.)
Food! Vietnam is a food paradise for cycle tourists: varied, cheap, fresh and constantly available. Snack continuously on exotic fruit, deep-fried bananas and questionable chocolate, and drown yourself in incredible roadside nuoc mia (sugar cane juice). In the south you will also find cafes every 100m to indulge in super sugary ice coffees with condensed milk: fantastic cycling fuel.
The Vietnamese roads we cycled were almost all tarmac, meaning dust-free, speedy riding.
Big mountain climbs in Vietnam are epic achievements that you can’t help but keep referring to.
Dalat climb: Distance – 105km (Khanh Vinh to Dalat), Total vertical ascent – 2,900 metres.
We cycled the infamous Dalat climb from the direction of Nha Trang (see route map for exact overnight location, Khanh Vinh). We’d cycled for 7 days beforehand and the preceding 4 days totalled just over 500km, so we knew we were in for the most challenging day of our tour yet. Waking up in a trucker stop (NB: Khanh Vinh features no guesthouse foreigners are allowed to stay in, so don’t say we didn’t warn you!) we cycled the first 15km from the town to the bottom of the climb, had breakfast and stocked up on banh mi, food and water at the market conveniently located there. The first available food is not until 60km into the ride, having already climbed up to the 1,600 metre mark.
It’s tough and the mountains just keep giving, but the views are astounding and the climb is absolutely worth it! There is a campsite (Zoodoo) at 70km that can rent you a tent for the night (100,000 dong) if you’d prefer not to cycle to whole way to Dalat in one day; if you have your own tent there are plenty of wild camp spots.
Although we try not to cycle in the dark, the views as we entered Dalat in the early evening were spectacular as the mountains are peppered with illuminated polytunnels. Dalat is a perfect spot for a rest day (or two!) with wonderful cafes (although not a social enterprise, Bicycle Up was the clear winner). We struggled to contain our excitement as we entered the most magnificent bakery we have set our hungry eyes on in south-east Asia: Lien Hoa.
Variety of Scenery: Over the course of a day in Vietnam we would often find ourselves cycling through a morphing landscape, over spectacular mountains (especially from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu), across flat plains, into the jungle, through palm trees, into woodland. Zone out for a second and you can suddenly realise your surroundings have altered significantly. One particularly wonderful setting was around Hue. The old imperial city and the capital of Vietnam until 1945, the city is home to thousands of coastal tombs and they are a constant, beautiful and impressive feature of the ride.
As always in south-east Asia, industry and lives are lived at the side of the road, giving any cyclist an incredibly unique perspective of Vietnamese culture. Take a look at our video ‘A Day on the Road in Southern Vietnam’ for a snapshot:
Highway 1 is just as terrible as everyone says – it’s truly miserable and is no place at all for any cyclist. It’s impossible to avoid if you want to visit Hue or Hoi An but you can easily minimise exposure.
The language barrier is a constant source of frustration. By no means did we expect most Vietnamese people to speak conversational English, but we would have appreciated more effort in trying to understand our basic spoken Vietnamese and careful sign language. We’ve heard this put down to ‘shyness’, but it usually feels more like interacting with us is more hassle than it is worth.
Most mis-understood and poorly communicated section of cycling: Mekong Delta
Often the boats and ferries are referred to as the most charming aspect of cycling the Mekong Delta. Although a novelty, this quickly gets old and turns into an inconvenience if you need to get to the border before your visa expires. The most idyllic and wonderful part of the Mekong Delta is leaving the roads and reaching the canal-side paths. These are mostly located west and south-west of Can Tho (a city worth spending a night in), can be found on maps.me and were reliably surfaced, free of traffic and wonderfully pleasant to cycle!
If you have any questions please send us a message. Cambodia up next!