It was 11 am and really time to get going. I motioned to Hung, the owner of the restaurant, i.e., “side of the road” food place like there are countless in Vietnam, that I’d like to pay for the tea that I had ordered about an hour ago. “No,” Hung shook his head. “It is free. Today, I serve you.” I was floored by his hospitality and thanked him a few times for his gesture. Little did I know, it would be one of the kindest and friendliest interactions with a local I would have while bikepacking in Vietnam. And it was only my first day.
I had left my hotel in Hanoi, the capital, around 8:30 in the morning after waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. Making it through morning traffic, amidst a myriad of motorbikes, scooters, trucks, buses and the other odd bicycle increased my stress levels. To my surprise, I found a strange fascination with the way traffic flowed and how it somehow “worked”. I saw little to no aggression, even though the rules of the road are loosely interpreted and seen more as guidelines rather than something that needs to be followed to a T.
Honking, in contrast to the United States and many western countries, is rarely used as a display of hostility, but rather as a safety mechanism. To signal, for example, “Hey, watch out! I am overtaking you!”. Or, when approaching an intersection, to make yourself heard before your vehicle can be seen. It might sound irrational to people who have experienced this type of traffic, but, oddly enough, I felt safer in this cacophony of mostly two-wheeled motor vehicles, seemingly weaving in all sorts of directions, than on some of the roads in New Zealand and Australia.
It looked to me as if, for people in Vietnam, riding a motorbike was like walking. Growing up with operating and moving about using these types of vehicles, locals seemingly learn from an early age to anticipate and travel through and with traffic to avoid accidents. That is why I felt okay plunging into this with my bicycle and feeling good about making it out the other end without adverse consequences. Or so I hoped.
Way past the suburbs of Hanoi, the area was still quite densely populated, with businesses in all shapes and forms next to each other alongside the always fairly busy roadway. About 27km from West Lake, where I had started, nature called with nowhere to go and relieve myself. The next best thing I thought of was to stop at one of those many roadside food places, small plastic chairs, and tables being their signature feature, order a drink and ask to use their restroom. Which is how I ended up at Hung’s place.
I had been chatting with Hung – or at least we tried – in simple English for the past 45 minutes, about all sorts of things. I learned that he was the same age as me and kept this place open every day of the week. He had two sons, one of them was ten years old and loved to play soccer. “Not very good. He is too small,” he mentioned with a slight expression of disappointment. I picked up a genuine interest in me as a person, which stood in stark contrast to some of the behaviors I would encounter further south. His gesture towards the end of our conversation and how he expressed his thoughts, albeit in broken English, made me feel positive about my experiences with the locals in the days ahead.
Soon after leaving Hanoi, with the traffic dying down more and more, I connected with the Ho Chi Minh Highway, running inland all the way from north to south, officially ending close to Ho Chi Minh City. The plan was to more or less stay on this traffic artery, a distance of around 1800km. The terrain turned out to be reasonably flat, with some undulating, but not overly challenging sections thrown in. Yet the muggy and humid conditions did their part to make me feel exhausted at the end of each day.
Moving through the countryside and through small towns and settlements, I caught a glimpse of life in rural Vietnam. Apart from the ubiquitous food stalls, there was usually a hodgepodge of businesses sprinkled in between them, ranging from small and narrow convenience stores to hairdressers and, fittingly, motorcycle repair shops with the inner parts of engines ostensibly strewn all across the shop floor. Trash collection does seem to exist, but less so in more remote areas. I witnessed vacant lots being converted to local trash dumps, some right at the main intersection of the town. Failing that, rubbish is merely burned in small heaps right next to the road. The housing situation of people varied significantly between regions. From ramshackle huts just behind their place of business next to the street further north, to quite affluent looking two to three-story houses in central Vietnam.
While places to obtain food seemed abundant, English as a means to communicate was almost entirely useless. Over time, I learned to interpret the signs outside of each of those “roadside restaurants”, marketing the different foods they were offering. It went from Phở bò (noodle soup with meat) and Bún chả (grilled pork and noodles) to dishes like Cơm Chiên (mixed fried rice) and the occasional Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) that usually kept me going throughout the day.
As a western European male, in cycling clothes on a road bike outfitted with bikepacking bags, I was definitely an odd sight. I stuck out like a sore thumb, to put it mildly. Almost understandably, I triggered looks and blank stares from adults, which I noticed the most when I stopped at a place and attempted to order food. It would not go beyond stares, and I never experienced any sort of harassment in those rural areas of the country.
The way that kids reacted to me was almost the complete opposite. At times, when I would pass through a town at the end of the school day, my left arm would tire from waving back at dozens of children, yelling “Hello! Hello!” with unmasked smiles in my direction. Those little interactions would lift me up every time, my heart feeling touched by their innocent curiosity and friendliness.
Vietnam gets its appeal as a tourist destination by, amongst other things, how cheap accommodation is for westerners. Because of this, I opted to stay at nhà nghỉ (guesthouses) and inexpensive hotels along the way, instead of carrying camping equipment. At prices ranging from $5 to $13 for a room with air-conditioning and ensuite bathroom, it struck me as an easy decision. I could certainly live with the condition of some of these places. Dated interiors with stains on the walls, rock-hard mattress (which I actually did not mind), broken tiles in the bathroom and only a subset of the lights in the room in working condition. Despite those flaws, they definitely beat having to find a stealth camp spot in some field at 80F and 60% humidity and coping with the fear of being trampled to death by a grazing buffalo.
For the first four days, the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside eluded me. The weather conditions hid those sought after views behind a persistent veil of grey. Eventually, however, I caught a break. Leaving the town of Quy Đạt and another hazy start to the morning, the sun managed to burn away some of the clouds and mist, and I was treated to an unbelievably beautiful ride through many valleys surrounded by karst limestone cliffs and dense jungle vegetation. I stopped numerous times to take pictures and soak in my magnificent surroundings.
Marveling at nature later continued at Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, where I took a break from cycling and joined a group of other travelers on a two and a half-hour boat tour of Phong Nha cave. Its caverns housed a field hospital during the Vietnam War and served as a refuge and hiding spot.
From Phong Nha, I had plotted a route to Huế and down to Hội An, both on the list of many travelers for their historical parts. I planned to temporarily visit these developed areas of the country, stock up on supplies and see some of the notable architecture before returning inland again and continuing my journey down the Ho Chi Minh Highway to Ho Chi Minh City. Yet, it wasn’t meant to be.
Reaching Huế, roughly the halfway point of my journey, a mechanical issue – a crack in my rear wheel – prevented me from continuing. Trying to procure a replacement seemed difficult and tedious, and it was then when I saw the questionable business practices on display at touristy places like Huế. One bike shop (the only semi-legitimate one in town) was trying to sell me two wheels instead of one. A place that sells the popular Bún bò Huế dish charged me almost double the price than they would ask from locals. Walking the streets, I could not go a single block before being approached by a guy in his twenties, asking whether I either wanted a lift to wherever I was heading on his motorbike or maybe some marijuana. If those attempts failed, the last business proposition was about pitching prostitution services. Every time I shook my head politely and waved to decline the offers. Until one day I snapped and barked at one guy who approached me at Công viên 3 Tháng 2 (Park of February 3, commemorating the bloodiest day of the Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War) next to the Perfume River. “I don’t need a ride,” I yelled, fed up with those blatant approaches.
The other scam I encountered was perpetuated, interestingly enough, by older men, in their fifties and sixties. Innocently chatting you up with questions about where you’d be from and that their daughter studied/lived in that same place. After some seemingly innocent chatter, they would seamlessly transition into offering their services as a tourist guide and that I should not waste my time trying to explore the city by myself. “I can show you all the sites! Take you to beach,” would be a typical sales argument.
I tired of this atmosphere very quickly. Out of options, I eventually decided to travel back to Hanoi and figure out the next steps to get my bicycle back into shape for the next part of my trip.
Looking back at it, I am somewhat glad I experienced both sides of Vietnam. While one can be shielded to some degree from tourist scams and shady practices by booking packaged tours, I find it interesting to contemplate the reason why this is so prominent in places like Huế. There I started to feel like a piggy bank, an object to extract money from whichever way possible. Plenty of people in areas like this make a living and put food on the table this way. Understandable, on the one hand, but that does not make it okay.
Luckily, I have my experiences from the rural parts of the country to compare to and fall back on. While I was being seen as just a number in a sea of tourists that can be screwed over to be deprived of money, I perceived myself as the target of curiosity and friendliness traveling through small-town Vietnam. To the farmer or owner of a small roadside food stall, I am just another customer, not their primary source of income. I am an oddity, passing through their world, naturally triggering second and third looks. But never, or so I like to believe, out of hostility, but of inquisitiveness. And this was never more obvious than in the reactions from young kids when they spotted me on my bike. Maybe I was screwed and overcharged by those rural folks as well. There is no way for me to tell. However, I just like to believe that I wasn’t.
Vietnam is blessed with some astounding natural beauty, and if the weather plays along, you might get to see it in its full glory. Likewise, if you are in luck, you may just find the friendly and curious locals. In contrast to this, there are parts that I found just plain ugly, and some behavior utterly reprehensible. In the end, I am content I got to experience and see both sides of the coin.
My planned route would have followed essentially the entire length of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, starting in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately, due to a mechnical issue (crack in the rear rim) and unable to continue, I had to end my journey in Hue, roughly at the halfway point. The idea would have been to visit Hue and Hoi An before reconnecting with the HCMH inland, following it all the way south.
I decided to travel in a north-south direction, but the opposite is equally possible. Within Vietnam, it is quite easy to buy tickets for domestic flights, even on short notice. The main carriers here are Vietnam Airlines and VietJet (budget airline). As an example, the flight I booked to travel back to Hanoi from Hue cost me $32.
There are settlements, ranging from small hamlets to bigger towns, all along the HCMH and roadside food stalls are abundant. From time to time you come across small convenience stores, where it is good to stock up on snacks, which are sadly mostly of the high sugar/unhealthy kind.
Water needs to be either boiled/filtered/treated first or purchased in bottles. I used a Steripen for water treatment.
As with all the other rides as part of my Star Alliance Round The World ticket, I rode my Trek Checkpoint ALR5 gravel bike. Since the ride is all on tarmac, one could conceivable opt for thinner tires (I rode on 45mm front and 40mm in the rear).
Before setting out from Hanoi, I decided to leave the camping gear behind. Even smaller settlements have at least one guesthouse (some of them are even listed on Google Maps). Given the low cost for a bed, A/C and shower, it made sense to me to not bother with camping.
Proper, dependable bike shops are hard to come by in Vietnam, except in the major cities of Hanoi and HCMC. In Hanoi, I found The Hanoi Bicycle Collective, which sells and services both road and mountain bikes at the higher end of the range. I can highly recommend Prakeet and his team if you need to sort out any issues before starting the ride from Hanoi.
For a SIM Card, I opted for Viettel, which seemed to have better coverage outside Hanoi and HCMC. I purchased a SIM at Hanoi airport for VND 200k, valid for 30 days and 5GB high speed data included.
For areas where there is indeed no coverage, it helps to have offline map data available. I downloaded offline maps in Google Maps as well as using the mobile app Maps.me.
In order to communicate at least the basics, I made use of Google Translate on my phone.
If you don’t want to depend on taxis in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, the ride-hailing service Grab (essentially an Uber-clone) is available in both cities. I used it a handful of times in Hanoi. I wasn’t able to add my credit card in their app, but you also have the option to pay the quoted amount in cash at the end of the ride.
Other resources I found useful:
- Hanoi to Saigon by Bicycle: Diary of a guy who did this trip in November 2012. I found this very helpful for route planning and get a feel of what cycling in this area would be like.
- H2H-Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City: Route of an annual charity ride
- Bike Packing: Ho Chi Minh trail, Vietnam
- The Ultimate DIY Guide to Cycling Vietnam