Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
My bicycle...

Rush hour in any big city in Vietnam means two-wheel gridlock - bicycles, motorbikes and a few cyclos). Cars are the exception. Bicycles are a major means of cargo transport - up to 500 lb. per bicycle.

Everyone else does.

Parking a car in Vietnam is like trying to squish a camel through the eye of a needle.

Although you may have an accident or two, you probably won't be going fast enough to get injured.

Vietnamese love to see Westerners on bicycles.

For a trivial amount of money you can put your bicycle on top of a bus. Try doing that with a broken-down car or motorbike.

You can have a flat tire fixed for somewhat less than eight cents.

You are at the bottom of the food chain. The only thing lower is a stray chicken.

The fumes in any of the larger cities can be quite overwhelming.

There are no ambulances in Vietnam.

Do you ever wonder where the single socks go that disappear in the dryer? Well, you're about to find out what happened to that one-speed bicycle you outgrew when you were nine.

17 flat tires on a good day.

The pavement can get so hot that your wheels stick to the asphalt.

If you bring a classy mountain bike from the west, expect it to be tinkered with by bystanders every time you leave it unattended. Small parts (like your mileage meter) may be stolen.

"I had long since ceased sightseeing and limited my rather blurry horizon to the immediate implications of the next rock or rut. My bowels rumbled with the acidic warning of incipient diarrhea. My body creaked more than my bicycle and my sunburned skin felt like of an overripe melon about to explode. From deep in the nether regions of stiff-backed, prickly-skinned, head-pounding Hell, I saw my guide take an abrupt turn onto a brambly footpath and disappear."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Repair costs in Vietnam are truly trivial. If you have your own bike be sure to double check any unusual repairs.

If you want to move up in the road pecking order, bring a fog horn. Sneak up behind a bus or truck and blow it. They'll assume you're huge and get out of your way. Then they'll come after you and run you down...

Vietnamese roads sometimes resemble goat paths. Delicate road bikes need not apply.

Ride early in the morning or later in the day. The midday heat is deadly. Manage your water intake very carefully. I always carried a camelback and had a second water supply that was being iodized - so at no point did I have to wait to drink.

Don't expect to cover the same distances you would in the States. Roads are rotten, ferries will add hours to your schedule, and that lovely beach you just passed really needs to be visited.

Consider taking the bus for some of the less scenic parts of your route (i.e., the last few hundred miles north to Hanoi). This will allow you some side jaunts or a few days of non-cycling sight-seeing.

The bicycle will make you hugely popular with the Vietnamese - they will feel an immediate kinship. Often the villagers would fall in beside me for an impromptu chat...

Do not ride at night - many Vietnamese cars/motorbikes don't use their headlights. Bicyclists usually don't have headlights.

Helmets. They're hot, they're heavy, they get stolen, and they protect your most important body part... buy one and use it.

If you get into an accident, assume it's your fault. Everyone else (including the police) will. Pay off the other driver quickly and get away before a crowd gathers and the police get involved.

If you park in established parking lots you'll be given a receipt for your bicycle. Don't lose it.

Buses stop frequently and often without warning. Whenever I heard a whistle behind me, it usually meant that I was about to be squeezed off the road...

There are several makes and manufacturers of bicycles in Vietnam. What you buy/bring with you will depend entirely on your needs.

B.Y.O. Bike. If you plan to cycle Route 1 from Saigon to Hanoi -- or any other long overland journey - then you would do well to bring your own bike. Although large parts of Vietnam are flat (particularly along the coast) there are some significant passes on Highway 1. If you plan to pedal in the Tonkinese Alps bring a many-geared bike and calves of steel. Also be sure to bring whatever special tools you need and all necessary replacement parts.

If you're thinking of buying a bike in-country, you have several choices:

Vietnamese-made bicycles. They carry names like "Saigon" and "Corporate". I believe that their gear systems are made out of butter and their spokes out of uncooked noodles. Buying one of these is a great way to get to know the local mechanics. On the other hand, they cost less than one night's stay in a cheap motel in the States (about $35).

Imported Chinese bike or a bike made with Chinese parts. These are the typical schoolboy bikes - heavy, one-speed and relatively durable. Be extremely careful how the parts were put together if you choose a Vietnamese-assembled version.

If you want to go really fancy with a three-speed version made from good imported parts (Taiwan, Japan) then it will set you back at least $100.

You can also buy a second-hand like I did.

Mountain bikes are sometimes for sale at the backpacker cafes on either end of the Saigon-Hanoi route. This is taking something of a risk since it means you arrived without a bike but if you have the time to wait around for one that fits you and your pocketbook, you will save yourself some money. Be sure to pump the owner for road information as part of the deal.

Remember the Law of Tonnage... You are about one third up the pecking order.

In most cases a guided tour won't be necessary and will actually limit your options. There are very few roads in Vietnam so it's hard to get lost. Lodgings abound and if you don't make it to a large town by dark you can stay in just about any house along the road.

The Saigon-Danang stretch of Highway 1 is by far the most worthwhile.

The Central Highlands are hilly and somewhat user-unfriendly but lovely.

The Hanoi - Son La - Dien Bien Phu - Lao Cai - Sapa - Hanoi loop is very long and very mountainous but will reward you with some of the most stunning scenery and friendly hill-tribe people you have ever seen.

Hong Gai is also worth seeing. The bicycle trip from Hanoi to Haiphong is dangerous and the road is crowded. Consider taking the bus.

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