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The complete guide to cycling in Vietnam
By Pankaj Mangal •
Vietnam is a tropical country in South-East Asia located between the latitudes 8° and 24° N. The country is shaped like a slim, curving scythe, that is a narrow strip in the middle, and broader at either end, resembling Italy in shape. It has a long coastline along the South China Sea, which is a western extension of the Pacific Ocean. Vietnam is mostly hilly, with mountains accounting for over 40% of its land area, and is densely forested, with tropical rainforests covering some 42% of its landmass. Hills, tropical rainforests, and the pacific coast are thus the dominant topographical features of Vietnam and one should expect them to make up a large part of the cycling experience in Vietnam. The north-eastern end of Vietnam, bordering China, called the Red River Delta is a fertile swathe of flatland that accounts for much of the country’s population and its agricultural productivity. Rice paddies are the dominant topographical feature of this region. The country has a wet and generally pleasant climate with high levels of precipitation. Proximity to the sea and the presence of mountains have a moderating effect on the climate of most parts of the country despite its nearness to the equator. Vietnam is extremely rich in biodiversity and is home to 16% of the world’s species of flora and fauna. It has a population of close to 100 million people, most of whom enjoy a relatively high standard of living. Agriculture, petroleum extraction, tourism, and of late, the services sector are the primary drivers of its economy. The country is relatively prosperous and is rated as among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Vietnam is recognized as a regional power in South East Asia, and globally, as a middle-power in international affairs. The Vietnamese people are hardworking, welcoming, and proud of their rich heritage.
When to go cycling in Vietnam
Like most tropical regions, Vietnam has hot summers, mild pleasant winters, and an extremely wet rainy season. Being located in the northern hemisphere, the best season for cycling Vietnam is generally from September to May, with regional variations as described below:
Northern Mountains – Sapa, Ha Giang: The cycling season in the northwestern mountains of Vietnam runs from late August to May. December and January are cold with light showers, and travellers need to prepare accordingly.
North Vietnam – Hanoi and Halong Bay: The cycling tour season in this region runs from October to May. December and January can be cold with occasional rainfall. May to October is hot, with heavy rainfall in the months of August and September.
Central Vietnam – Hue to Nha Trang: Central Vietnam is a narrow crescent-like coastal strip that is at times only 60 kms wide. As a result it experiences coastal weather phenomena such as high rainfall and occasional typhoons during the wet season that runs from September to December. Travellers during this season should be prepared for last minute changes to itinerary. The Best season to visit this region is from January to September with average temperature hovering around 30°C.
South Vietnam – Saigon and Mekong Delta: South Vietnam is a year-round cycling destination on account of its pleasant tropical climate. April and May can be hot, but for the rest of the year, the temperature hovers around 30°C. There is moderate rainfall from May to early November but it settles soon, leaving the weather cool and the countryside looking lush. November to February are the best time for cycling in South Vietnam with warm weather, clear blue skies, and a light ocean breeze blowing in from the Pacific.
Where to go cycling in Vietnam
Saigon and Hanoi - The two largest cities in Vietnam are Hanoi located at its northern edge, which is also its capital, and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) at its southern tip, which is its most populous city. Vietnamese cities bustle with activity and are steeped in centuries of rich culture and heritage. They are also great places to try delicious local cuisine which is now also becoming a global phenomenon. A cycle tour from Saigon to Hanoi takes you across the length of Vietnam, skirting its azure pacific coast and through its numerous hills, tropical rainforests, and rice fields, and is a great way to experience the country at close quarters. Ha Long Bay, one of the most recognizable sights in Vietnam and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is located close to Hanoi. The terrain around Hanoi and northern Vietnam, in general, is hilly and is ideal for people who love hills. Southern Vietnam, around Saigon, is flatter and ideal for those who prefer riding in the plains.
Southern Vietnam and Cambodia - Culturally and historically, Vietnam is a part of the larger Indochina region that also includes Cambodia and Laos. Biking Vietnam thus can also incorporate adjoining Cambodia that is home to the famous Angkor Wat temple. The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is located in close proximity to Saigon and makes for a great cycle tour from Saigon across the mighty Mekong river which is the economic and cultural lifeline of Indochina. The terrain in southern Vietnam and into Cambodia, unlike the rest of Vietnam, is mostly flat.
Northwest Vietnam - Northwestern Vietnam, known as Tay Bac is a mountainous province that has a pleasant tropical highland climate that is favorable for cycling all year round. The region has some gorgeous scenery comprising of mist-covered mountains, terraced fields, fast-flowing streams, and wildflower-covered hillsides. Vietnam’s highest mountain peak, Fansipan, standing 3143m above sea level is located in this region. A cycle tour in northwest Vietnam can also be combined with a trip to neighboring Laos.
Northeast Vietnam - Northeastern Vietnam is the region to the north of Hanoi. It has an interesting mix of topography. The region immediately to the north of the Red River Delta is plain, which rapidly gives rise to mountains yet again. On the east, the region has a small coastline along the Pacific Ocean. Northeastern Vietnam is also crisscrossed by a large number of rivers that add to the geographical diversity of its terrain.
Currency – The official Vietnamese currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). As of May 2021, One Dollar equals 23112 Dong. The American Dollar may be accepted as a mode of payment in large business establishments, especially in the two major Vietnamese cities, Hanoi & Saigon. In smaller business establishments, smaller towns, and in rural Vietnam, the Dong is preferred. Most ATMs will dispense only Dong. In neighboring Cambodia, ATMs dispense the American Dollar as well. Mastercard/Visa are accepted in large business establishments. It is advisable that you keep some local currency handy at all times.
Transport – For traveling within Vietnamese cities, there are several options such as the Cyclo ( a three-wheeled bicycle taxi) and the Xe Om, a motorcycle taxi. One can also use taxi cabs to get around. There is frequent intra-city bus service as well. For traveling between Vietnamese cities, there is frequent bus and rail connectivity. Saigon and Hanoi are connected by air service.
Language – Vietnamese (Tieng Viet) is the official language of Vietnam. English is widely spoken and understood by a large section of the population. French is also spoken and understood by many people, a legacy of Vietnam’s colonial past.
Culture – A large section of the Vietnamese population identifies as atheists, while Buddhism, Christianity, and folk religions are practiced by smaller numbers. Vietnamese people are generally warm and hospitable. However, one needs to be mindful of local traditions. It is advisable to dress appropriately when visiting sacred spaces or people’s homes. It is considered respectful to take off one’s shoes when entering people’s homes or religious places. Vietnamese people are generally polite and may not object to being photographed out of courtesy but it is advisable to seek people’s permission before doing so. Avoid photographing military establishments or military personnel in Vietnam.
Appliances & Devices - Vietnamese electricity supply voltage is 220V at 50 Hz. Most countries in the world use electricity at 220-240V with the exception of North America and Japan where 100-120V is used. You should check the back of your device to see if it is compatible with the voltage before plugging it in. Most hotels in Vietnam use two-pin Type A, Type C, and Type F chargers. If your device has a 3-pin plug, it is advisable to carry an adapter with you.
Mobile Coverage – Vietnam has reliable mobile networks in most regions except the remote mountains. You can use your mobile phone in most Vietnamese cities as long as you have global roaming activated. If you plan to stay longer, you can buy a local Vietnamese SIM card that you can use on unlocked mobile phones. Mobile internet is generally cheap and reliable in Vietnam. Viettel, MobiFone, and Vinaphone are the most popular Vietnamese network operators.
Visa – All nationalities require a visa to enter Vietnam. Visas can be applied for online or at the nearest Vietnamese embassy or consulate in your country. Tourist visas may be valid for 15 to 30 days and need to be renewed if you wish to extend your stay. Most visitors are eligible for a Visa on arrival as long as they arrive at one of the three international airports in Vietnam.
Cuisine – Vietnamese cuisine relies heavily on rice, soy, fish, and pork. Peanut sauce is also a part of several Vietnamese street food items. If you are allergic to any of these foods, you might want to inform your tour guide beforehand. Green tea is a popular beverage. Vietnamese cuisine is generally rich and varied and enjoyed the world over.
Religion – Vietnam is officially an atheist state. As per polls a majority of the population don’t believe in a God. The others however practise Buddhism or are Christians.
Time Zone – The Vietnamese time zone is GMT+7.
What you may find – Conical hats: Traffic: Silk Shops; Rice paddies: Buffalos: Landscapes: Lot of two wheelers.
Through the notes – Some references that will help understand Vietnam better
- Read: Writings by Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh.
- Listen: to US based Khanh Ly, a contemporary pop music icon
- Eat: the staple pho( noodle soup) or Ga Tan( stewed chicken with medicinal herbs,dates and grilled baguettes)
- Watch: The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene ‘s 1954 novel and starring Michael Caine.
- Drink: the cheap and widely available bia hoi( draught beer) , Ca phe( coffee) served with condensed milk.
What to pack
Some not to be missed essentials which can be carried
Clothing: Cycling Shoes, Rain Jacket, Dry bag, Sunglasses. If you are travelling to North Vietnam in December-January you might want to carry light woolens as nights can get cold.
Personal: Toiletries, Chargers, Emergency Cash, Medication,
Gear: You are welcome to bring your own gear, such as pedals, seat, helmet, toe clips and cyclometer, to use with a bicycle. However, please inform us in advance if you choose to bring any of your own things.
Miscellaneous: Small towel, Waterproof cover, Plastic Bags, Hydration Kit, Journal, Notebook, Camera