In Challenges,Travel

Cycling Vietnam: From Saigon to Hanoi in 25 days

*This is a post I wrote for  another blog over at deadat30.com. I used this ride as fitness training for my first summit, Mt Kilimanjaro. Was quite an adventure so I thought a few of you may be interested in having a read.

 

“So what are you guys getting up to while you’re in Vietnam?” asked the sensible traveller

“We’re thinking of riding from Saigon to Hanoi,” I replied

“Wow that sounds amazing! Hard though.. Make sure you get a good bike and get it checked. I’ve heard a lot of people have motor problems with the older ones.”

“Oh no we’re going to cycle, should be able to avoid any motor trouble ;)”

“I thought you said you were going to Hanoi? I assume you mean on a motorbike?”

“Nah just a bicycle, as in one that you have to peddle”

“What, are you mental? You realise how far that is right? It would take months..”

“We’ll see how we go, should be a blast”

 

So it began..

 

As I was doing a bit of research on traveling around Vietnam I came across a couple of blogs and sites that mentioned cycling from Saigon to Hanoi. Most were done through an organised tour, laying out a set itinerary and charging a small fortune to get you from point A to B, even though you were the ones cycling. I then saw a blogger that detailed his journey, solo, from Hanoi to Saigon on a bicycle, in 26 days. Since starting this site, I’m constantly on the lookout for new challenges. My curiosity was instantly piqued.

I started throwing the idea around to a few travelers, most responses being similar to the one above. Then while galavanting around in Siem Reap, I ran into an American fellow by the name of Jonah who not only liked the idea, he said he was thinking of doing the same thing himself. After a quick chat to make sure we had a similar idea of what it would involve, we locked it in on the spot.

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The bikes with gear loaded ready to set off for the first time.

Making our way independently to Hanoi (mine involving a 5 hour-turned-10 hour van/bus ordeal to Phnom Penh) we met up and went hunting for our modes of transport. Mountain bikes were the only option and after much bargaining at a range of different stores, we settled on 2 for a total of 9 million dong (about $430 usd) Price included all accessories- helmets, spare tyres, chains, sexy little lycra shorts etc.. I wasn’t entirely convinced in regards to the lycra initially, however after only 2 days of cycling,our asses copped such a hammering, the extra padding was deemed essential. With bikes and attire in hand, we determined to set off the next morning, with no plan whatsoever.

That was a theme throughout the entire journey, no real plan (besides eventually arriving in Hanoi). Each night, lying in our respective rooms, completely stuffed, we had a quick check of the map and set a target of where we wanted to get to, sorting out accommodation there when we arrived. We did find a great blog with a full itinerary that gave us a rough route to work to but for the most part we made it up as we went along.

Strapping our packs on the bike racks we kicked off from the intersection of the 2 main roads in the city. We were on our way. For the first 10 days we made our way up and along the Ho Chi Ming highway. I have to be honest, it was HARD. From day 2 on was a constant progression of long, steep and dusty hills. If you’re thinking of giving this a go, mountain bikes are essential. The roads are rough, full of potholes and there’s glass, nails and all kinds of other crap lying all over the place. Amazingly I didn’t get 1 puncture.. Jonah managed 3…sucker.

Without doubt the most hillarious and also the most frustrating part of our journey was the interaction with the locals. Given the route we travelled and our mode of transport, it’s fair to say a lot of the people we encountered had never layed eyes on a westerner before. Besides Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Hoi An we never saw any either.

In the main cities you tend to get a bit of attention, mostly from people trying to sell you something but often just spurred by a little curiosity. Once you’re in the rural areas it’s a different ballgame..

At first it was all friendly, yet fairly timid hullos. We heard them called out every few minutesand we’d wave and return the greeting, happy to be amongst such hospitable people. As we got deeper and deeper into the heartland of Vietnam the polite hullos turned more primal in nature. The timidy soon disappeared and the hullos were yelled out, often repeated with more and more force until we responded or we were out of eyesight. Then the hullos slowly turned into a ehh type sound then into an oooo, oooo (similar to the noise a spider monkey would make) then finally into a loud grunt. This usually occured once every 20 seconds or so, about every second building we rode passed. The thing that suprised me most was the fact that, although children got pretty excited and often had a good laugh yelling at crazy foreigners riding through their country, most of the noise came from adults. Grown men were our main audience and they often wouldn’t let up until we finally responded. This left them satisfied and they often had a chuckle then returned to their hammock and half finished beer.

No matter where we went or what time of the day, we found men sitting round drinking beer, yelling at us to join them!

No matter where we went or what time of the day, we found men sitting round drinking beer, yelling at us to join them!

The feeling of being a touring zoo animal was even more pronounced when we stopped riding. Every time we sat down to eat, the entire restaurant/street would stop what they were doing (usually drinking) and stare. This would continue until they got bored, we finished eating and left, or we stared them down. This usually lasted about 20 seconds until they finally looked away. When we went back to eating, the staring would recommence. If ever we stopped on the side of the road to grab a drink or buy something, a crowd of 10-20 people would gather within about 45 seconds. It’s put me right off the idea of ever being famous..

By day 10 we were in need of some motivation, nothing would serve that purpose better than a refreshing dip in the ocean. With that in mind we cut across to the coast,  arriving at the beautiful seaside town of Hoi An (After a night in a private island resort. It was very romantic).

The 1 day of rest we planned in Hoi An soon turned into 4 as the laid back nature and excessive drinking sucked us in and made it very hard to get back on the bikes. There are a few crazy stories from Hoi An but ill save them for another time. One word of warning- if you think renting a houseboat off a barman at 12am is a good idea that won’t end in chaos, think again.

Even paradise gets stale eventually.. so we kept trying to convince ourselves as we left Hoi An

Even paradise gets stale eventually.. so we kept trying to convince ourselves as we left Hoi An

When we finally got underway we were on fire. Our recovered legs pumped out 120km our first day back and we made it to Hue, another of the mid-sized cities scattered all over Nam. One fact that blew my mind is that, despite a population of some 90 million, there are only 2 cities with more than a million people. As such, the rural population is the majority.

Our muscles, particularly our legs copped a hammering cycling up to 9 hours a day so pain & soreness was a constant over the entire journey. Massages would have been a tremendous help. I say would have because the 4 or 5 times we went in to a ‘massage’ parlour we were very courteously offered a little hand relief after 15 or 20 minutes. They are set up to look ‘legit’, the only way you can tell is when the massage itself starts.

To be honest it’s shit.. usually kicking off with some vigourous rubbing, some skin pinching then a bit of chopping and slapping (this is the massage..). Then after 20 minutes or so they’ll stop, roll you over and point to your pathway to pleasure, giving a quick jerking motion. I don’t know what happens after as I quickly departed at this point.

Believe it or not, the most ridiculous massage experience did not actually occur at a poorly disguised brothel. In Hue we we were led by an eccentric ex war veteran to a blind massage centre. This is where blind people give you a massge.. a pretty well known charity established all around the world (I’m too lazy to look up the name). So here we are stripped down getting more terrible massages (from a worthy cause though-happy to oblige) hoping this wasn’t going down a familiar path. About halfway through this old man bursts out of what appears to be a closet off to the side of the room. He starts wandering around the room, yelling in Vietnamese and absolutely reeking of alcohol. He stumbles over to Jonahs table, assesses the situation for a few seconds then, without warning, grabs a handful of his meat and potatoes. I heard Jonah let out a yell then burst out laughing. Assuming it was due to the massage I didn’t pay any attention until he called over “yo watch that dude”. By the time the warning registered, it was too late. The grabber had his second victim of the evening firmly in his grasp. After assessing my crown jewels he decides to test out his skills as a masseuse. I try and push him away but I was laughing that hard I had no strength. The ordeal lasted about 10mins when the grabber, satisfied with his work, returned to his cupboard to await the next victims.

From Hue it was a fairly uneventful 10 days (relatively..) as we made our way north along highway 1.  Just grinding out long, hot and tiring days as we sought out the finish line. Although Ho Chi Minh was rougher, less organised and less civilized than the 1, we would take it any day of the week. It’s a MUCH more enjoyable ride. Traffic is slower and more courteous and the locals make it an entertaining journey. Although we never really felt in danger on the roads over in Nam it was slightly more nerve racking on the faster paced coastal road where trucks were missing you by inches.

Despite the road conditions, we still preferred the charm of the Ho Chi Minh Highway.

Despite the road conditions, we still preferred the charm of the Ho Chi Minh Highway.

It was a very very sweet moment when we finally reached the Hanoi city centre. Hugs were distributed and hotel rooms were immediately booked. We even managed to get a legitimate massage finally. My god was that painful. Without doubt the hardest thing either of us had done and certainly one of the most rewarding. I stayed in Hanoi about 4 days eating like a champ and checking out the city. Awesome place, definitely tops Ho Chi Minh in my book. The local food is just incredible.

If anyone has similar plans and wants a little more info or advice feel free to shoot me an email. I haven’t included a lot of detail in this post as I’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible.

20 Comments

  • ชุดเดรสคนอ้วน
    Feb 18, 2015 at 02:09 pm

    When someone writes an post he/she keeps the image of a user in his/her brain that how a user can know it.
    So that’s why this piece of writing is amazing. Thanks!

  • Casey
    Apr 04, 2015 at 04:46 am

    Highly energetic blog, I liked that bit. Will there be a
    part 2?

  • Azul
    Apr 13, 2015 at 03:40 pm

    Hmmmm..Id do Bali!I hear its amazing! tugohh the others on your list are sure to be amazing too..I was wondering if this tip could help you..when I have been on the go for long,I had with me a miniatureelectric kettle and a bowl.I found it relatively easy to find oatmeal and /or fine bulgur-cracked wheat(any other fine grain)which i could easily pour boiling water over and have a wholesome sustainablemeal that is also cheap and also helpful when difficult to find appropriate food.(depending on what I found,to the oatmeal I added cinnamon,raisins or any other dried fruit,and to the bulgur I added salt,any other spice,and olive oil if possible)not to mention the possibility of herbal tea.I dont know if this helps,butTo me personally this has literally saved my life and kept me going.to tell you the truth,I even got myself a hot water bottle(you know the one used to put on your tummyin the old days..) and slept hugging it on very cold nights when no sufficient heating was provided,not to mention how useful it is when you do have a tummy ache or any other achefor that matter..!Hope this has been helpful..mia

  • Ameeil
    May 20, 2015 at 09:34 am

    sick pics man!! and holy crap you look like an old man!!!!!! seriously, didn’t rezliae it was you til I saw the caption, old school my friend, old school

  • Leopoldo
    May 27, 2015 at 03:49 am

    Have you ever thought about creating an e-book or guest authoring on other sites?

    I have a blog centered on the same information you discuss and
    would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my readers would value your work.
    If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to
    send me an e mail.

  • Mizan Ali
    Jun 06, 2015 at 06:42 pm

    Hi, great blog. I’m thinking about doing the same but on a road bike, what do you think ?

    • Cody Hudson
      Jun 07, 2015 at 01:51 am

      I wouldn’t recommend it.. The thin tires wouldn’t handle the rough roads too well and you’d be getting punctures every 10 minutes.

  • Kate
    May 05, 2016 at 06:19 pm

    Hi Cody, thanks for sharing. I’m planning on travelling from Cambodia to Saigon and then to Hanoi. Do you know if finding a bike like you found is realistic in phenom penh or Siem Reap?
    Thanks!

    • Cody Hudson
      May 05, 2016 at 06:40 pm

      Hey Kate,

      You shouldn’t have a problem in Phnom Penh, not too sure about Siem Reap.. There are a lot of places to hire them (catered to those visiting Angkor Wat), you might be able to buy one of these?

  • Matias Kallay
    Jun 03, 2016 at 09:16 pm

    Do you think it´s too crazy to do this same trip in the month of July?

    • Cody Hudson
      Jun 05, 2016 at 12:02 pm

      Hey Matias,

      It may be the wet season in July which would make it a little more difficult.. It still rained a bit when we were there, not a huge drama but it could get annoying if it was more frequent.

  • Yoon-ji Kim
    Sep 15, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Hey, great article. I’m thinking about doing this journey in late October-November. Do you have any more specific route details?

    • Cody Hudson
      Sep 25, 2016 at 01:50 pm

      Yeh we followed the inland Ho Chi Minh Highway up until Kon Tum and then cut across to the coast (the 1). Honestly if I were to do it again, I’d stay on the Ho Chi Minh the whole way. More interesting and wayyy less crowded.

      • Yoon-ji Kim
        Oct 07, 2016 at 01:04 pm

        Cheers, yeah keep switching my mind between the two…

  • Yoon-ji Kim
    Oct 18, 2016 at 09:55 pm

    Hey, just wondering where you bought your bikes and equipment from?

    • Cody Hudson
      Oct 19, 2016 at 09:01 am

      We bought them from a bike shop in Ho Chi Minh. There are a range of different options-just be sure to shop around a little before you buy something.

      • Yoon-ji Kim
        Oct 19, 2016 at 11:17 pm

        Thank you! Bought today…

        • Cody Hudson
          Oct 20, 2016 at 05:49 am

          Awesome! Good luck, I’d be interested to hear how it goes.

  • Indochina Explore Tours
    Oct 20, 2016 at 03:46 pm

    15 Days Cycling Holidays Hanoi to Saigon

    Trip Overview:

    Vietnam is a country of breathtaking natural beauty and landscapes, friendly people, incredible heritage and well documented history that quickly becomes a “must see” place in Asia. Today, many westerners still imagine Vietnam through the lens of war, but in reality it is a country filled with captivating natural beauty and tranquil village life. From the rugged northern mountains to emerald rice terraces in the south and picturesque tropical beaches that hug its curvaceous coastline.

    Cycling in Vietnam is unique and outstanding way to experience the daily life of Vietnamese people, discover longstanding culture and colorful tribal people, uncover the world’ cultural and natural heritage sites, meet with friendly and hospitable people. enjoy one of the most delicious foods in the world. Vietnam Beaches cycling tours offers for highlighted landmarks such as Hanoi , Hue, Hoi an, My son, Quy nhon, Nha Trang Sai Gon.. you have great opportunity in experiencing stunning scenic beauty, admire seductively emerald beaches and enjoy rich traditional cuisine and stay in front beach resorts.

    • Cody Hudson
      Oct 22, 2016 at 02:19 pm

      Well said.

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