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Vietnam update
Basics : Cycling in Vietnam


By Mike Spradbery

Travelling by bicycle has to be one of the most interesting and rewarding ways to see any country - and Vietnam is certainly no exception. There is something for everyone, from rugged mountain biking in the Northern mountains to much gentler touring through the Mekong flood plains in the South. And to see as much of the country as possible, the inevitable ride along Route 1 (which runs the length of the country between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh) will take you on the most varied journey through a diverse country.


GETTING THERE

I flew to Vietnam with Vietnam Airlines. If you are lucky they may decide to let your bike fly free, however, be prepared to pay up to $100 if they decide to weigh it and charge you for excess baggage. Whether or not you box your bike is a matter of personal preference, at the very least you will need to deflate the tyres, remove the pedals and twist the handlebars parallel to the bike frame.

If you are planning on cycling into Vietnam from a neighbouring country, you can enter via any of the standard land border crossings.


WHAT TO TAKE

Your bike! For the main roads in Vietnam, a tourer or hybrid will be fine. If your bike looks very flashy it will attract a lot of attention so it may be worth taping over the logos and badges to make it look less attractive.

You will need all the standard touring equipment: robust panniers, repair tools, spare tubes, chain lube, etc. Almost everyone in Vietnam seems to use their bikes on a daily bases so common spares can be obtained, but your bike will be quite different to theirs so tracking down some parts may prove impossible. In the event of a puncture it is normally easy to find someone ready with a repair kit and pump who will fix your tube by the roadside for a very reasonable price.

Cycling in Vietnam is very safe, however, it is strongly recommended that you wear a helmet. Roads can be busy and you will not necessarily have the rights of way that you are used to. As a general rule, the largest vehicle has right of way - this is very unlikely to be you! It is also recommended that you take a comprehensive first aid kit in-case of an unexpected dismounting.

Think about what the weather is likely to be doing when you travel and take suitable clothes. Pack some good sun cream as it is very easy to get badly sunburned if you are cycling through the hottest part of the day. Also make sure you carry plenty of drinking water with you as it can be difficult to buy between towns. If the weather is very dry it can become quite dusty, so sunglasses or cycling shades are a good idea.

Finally, buy some good maps of the country - you will probably find it easier to get accurate maps before you get to Vietnam.


WHAT TO EXPECT

Expect to have a brilliant, if sometimes difficult, time. There are times when roads are dusty, noisy and congested; times when it's hard to find good food; times when the locals seem intimidating; times when it is hot, humid and you are cycling up hill.

Remember that the sight of a foreigner, let alone a foreigner on a bike, is unusual in the smaller villages in Vietnam. Locals are often inquisitive and may well gather round you to squeeze your brake levers, hold your handle-grips, touch your tyres or simply stare.

Be careful of people riding alongside you on their bikes or mopeds. Having someone trying to practice their English whilst riding two or three abreast on a busy road can be a bit hair-raising. Large groups of school children can be even more dangerous - you can outrun them (on their one-speed bikes) at about 30 km/h, but they love the chase! Occasionally you may even get young kids throwing stones or people extending a hand into your path as you cycle by.

Be careful of the road surface. While roads are generally fine, potholes or rocks can be hard to see, especially if the locals are drying their crops on the sides of the road.


PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Bus: it is generally very easy to travel on buses with you bike, it will simply be thrown on top with all manner of other items. It is a good idea to have some sort of large, light bag that you can put your panniers into to keep all of your bits together. Buses tend to be loaded and unloaded in a hurry and it would be quite easy to mislay a bag.

Also, ensure that your bike is tied onto the roof of the correct bus. We had one incident where we had to change buses in a hurry and the staff were trying to get us to leave without our bikes, assuring us that we would see them at our destination. This was of course a scam so we refused to leave until they put them on the other bus.

Train: travelling by train is more organised but more worrying as you have to part company with your trusty steed. Your bike is transported as a package and can only travel on certain trains. This means that you may have to leave your bike at the departure station and pick it up some time later at your destination station - it is probably safest to travel only on trains that can take your bike.


YOUR BIKE AT NIGHT

Security can be a problem if you have an expensive bike, so take good locks. Generally though, hotels will let you take your bike into your room at night at no extra cost.


ORGANISED TOURS

A number of companies organise cycling tours from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. Although these will work out more expensive, travelling with a group can be more fun and much easier in the event of bike problems. Some charities organise sponsored cycle rides through various bits of Vietnam. These tend to be shorter trips (around 10 days) but are a good introduction to cycle touring, for a good cause.

© 2000 Mike Spradbery All Rights Reserved


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