Vietnam is rapidly becoming one of the most popular countries in the world for adventurous bike touring. It's easy to see why. This long, slender land with such an unhappy history has an amazing array of landscapes, with thousands of km of roads linking mountains and beaches, jungle with intensive paddy field landscapes. Vietnam represents a viscerally intense cycling and cultural experience, love it or hate it, you will not forget your trip.

There are many possible cycle tours in Vietnam, ranging from very tough and challenging rides in the northern uplands, to more gentle meanders along the Mekong Delta. The classic route for cyclists is Highway 1, the main road linking Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. The most popular section of Hwy 1 is from the historic capital of Hue south to Nha Trang and other tourist resorts to the south. For the fitter and more adventurous cyclist, the central and northern highlands are very worthwhile challenges.

What to take?

Roads in Vietnam can be rough in sections, and more minor roads are often dirt tracks. However, for most of the main routes, the surface is good enough for almost any type of bike, except perhaps for the lightest of road bikes. Even the paved roads can be a bit muddy, don't forget your mudguards. Bike repair shops are around in nearly every town, but they often do not have the tools for western bikes. Local bikes are usually poor quality and are not recommended for touring. Bring a basic toolkit or multitool and some spare spokes, along with a cracker/chain whip for repairing drive-side spokes. Regular touring or road tyres are sufficient for most of the country.

The climate changes significantly from north to south. There can be snow in winter in Sapa, at the same time as it is 40°C in Ho Chi Minh City. The coast can be very windy. Rain can be heavy and persistent over most of the country at many times of the year. Only in later winter on the northern highlands would serious wet/cold weather gear normally be required. Elsewhere, a light fleece and wind/waterproof top should be sufficient in addition to your normal kit. There is no major cultural problem with wearing shorts/lycra, but longer trousers/skirts may be more appropriate in more remote areas or visiting temples. T-shirts and casual clothes are widely available, and if you can't find anything to fit you, there are numerous tailors who will make you anything from shorts to a silk sleeping bag liner to a tuxedo, all in a few hours. Cosmetics and medicines are very widely available, but watch out for counterfeits.

Camping is very difficult in most of Vietnam; there are few suitable places to pitch a tent. Nearly every town will have guesthouses, so tents and sleeping bags are an unnecessary encumbrance. Expect to pay between US$6 to US$20 a night in a typical guesthouse or local hotel. The quality is very variable, and can rarely be judged by outside appearances so always check out a room on offer before accepting it. Food and beer is very cheap and usually of a high quality. The best Vietnamese cooking is superb, always ask locals for recommendations, Vietnamese people are enthusiastic foodies. Vegetarian food is usually available, but sometimes communicating what you want is difficult. Roadside stalls selling typical Vietnamese food and drink are nearly everywhere so it is not necessary to bring cooking equipment or food (apart from snacks). Chlorine or iodine tabs are necessary for drinking tap water in most of the country.

Safety

The roads near the major cities are often chaotic, polluted and accidents are frequent. The quality of driving often leaves a lot to be desired. However, many Vietnamese cycles and as a result, drivers are usually quite 'bike aware' and leave a reasonable gap between themselves and cyclists. The hard shoulder on major roads is usually considered cyclist's territory. One of the joys of cycling in the Vietnamese lowlands is riding in the early dawn with crowds of cycling schoolchildren. The usual Asian driving rule that the right of way goes to the biggest vehicle applies. Watch closely local cyclists and copy what they do and you should be quite safe. Remember that most vehicles will toot their horn once to let you know they are coming behind you. A second toot means you are directly in its path. A third toot means hit the paddy field immediately if you want to live!

In general, Vietnam is a safe country to travel in. There is some petty crime but violence against tourists is rare. Both male and female cyclists rarely experience aggression, hassle or danger, but the normal common-sense precautions should be taken, especially after dark in urban areas. Although guesthouse owners will normally report to the local police travelers outside the normal tourist areas, hassle from police/army is unknown, but as a precaution do not be seen taking photographs of anything that looks militarily significant.

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See also:

Basic riding technique