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Free Wheeling Vietnam

Author: Sarah - Travel Expert at Explore Worldwide
Date Published: 22 September 2023
Vietnam conjures up images of breath-taking landscapes, culinary magic and vibrant cities. So, when Sarah got the chance to explore one of her must-visit destinations by bike, did she hesitate? Absolutely not. Here’s why.

Confession number one: I often follow my stomach around the world. One of the main reasons I was so excited about visiting Vietnam for the first time was because I knew the food was going to be amazing. I also wanted to see as much of the rural heart of the country, as I did of the frenetic bustle of its cities.
A cycling trip made absolute sense. I could experience the real Vietnam from handle-bar height and work up a good appetite at the same time. Win-win!

The trip I chose was a two-week south to north tour, from Ho Chi Minh up through the Central Highlands to Hanoi, via tropical islands, verdant forests, Vietnam’s longest sea bridge, the mountainous Hon Giao pass and a sleeper train. Confession number two: I chose an e-bike. First things first. The cycling was a revelation. I chose an e-bike as although I have a good base level of fitness, I hadn’t cycled in a few years and wanted to make the most of the rides, stop and take photos and still be able to catch up with the group. The trip was graded ‘moderate’, a happy medium between challenging and leisurely. Whilst I did have to put in the effort, with the help of the e-bike I made it to the top of the more challenging rides with a feeling of accomplishment and having enjoyed myself, rather than slogged up a hill.

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh at the start of the trip, my first impression was the noise of the horns; apparently there are nine million mopeds in the city, also known as Saigon. Pavements and roads are jam-packed, it’s a modern city, but clean and tidy and an ideal base for the first few days. There we met our local guide Hoan, who took us on a walking tour of the city – the perfect introduction to the country – and the food.

He led us through the bustling streets of the Old Quarter before we headed to a restaurant, my first opportunity to taste the local cuisine! I was not disappointed. The flavours of my beef and vegetable stir fry were so different from Thailand. We often make the mistake of lumping all Southeast Asian food together, but the spices are different – not just heat-wise, but in flavour. The produce is so fresh, it was better than anything I’d had at home. I had the best pineapple I’d ever had too; perfectly sweet, juicy, and refreshing. It was soon to become my favourite way to hydrate on our cycling stops.
Over the course of the first few days, we’d head out of the city early, to avoid traffic and the heat of the day. Cycling was a brilliant way to see how the country changed even within small pockets of countryside. On one of our first rides in the Mekong Delta, we stopped to watch as coconuts were harvested, buying them to crack open so we could drink the water before eating the delicious meat. We were in the moment, enjoying the fruits of people’s labour, knowing we were supporting the local community. It was a great introduction to the rural Vietnamese people too; while cycling, people were swinging on hammocks at the front of their houses, waving hello as we passed by.

Soon we left the city of Saigon behind us, our rides each day getting a little longer and a little more challenging as we made our way through the highlands. However, it barely felt like exercise when cycling somewhere so beautiful! It was easy to talk to others in the group, keep an eye out for points of interest and I rarely broke into a sweat (at least from the exercise!). In between rides, we always had downtime and rest days, walking tours, trips around the local towns and museums, so we never felt rushed.
On day five we cycled the Hon Giao pass to Nha Trang and I was grateful for my e-bike decision. Hoan explained that there was only one road and, as we couldn’t divert off it, we could take the road on at our own pace. At points I was by myself because I’d stopped to take photos. Then I’d turn my e-bike on and catch up with someone for a chat, enjoying the views of the foothills and stopping for sweets to keep me going. The landscape was so varying, with villages and forested areas that changed from pine to almost jungle-like forest filled with different birds calls.

Then there’d be a roadside stall, lush countryside, and rice fields. At the top the whole group shared a real sense of euphoria. Only heightened by the most exhilarating downhill ride I’ve ever had. The vast scenery opened up before us and we just took it all in. That day especially the beer at lunch felt very well-earned!

We met friendly people all along the journey, and in the most unusual places. At the site of the Mai Lai Massacre, in the museum, children from the local school were visiting and despite the immense sadness of the place, they came over to talk to us – full of questions and keen to practice their English. It really showed the resilience and openness of a people, who acknowledged the past they’d experienced but embraced the opportunities of the future.
In Hoi An, the influences of Vietnam’s multicultural past are everywhere. On a walking tour with Hoan, we visited an old Japanese house, where we watched artists hand-stitching beautiful intricate scenes before heading to the ornate and fragrant Chinese Temple. Wandering the streets, there were colourful paper lanterns hanging between the buildings, intertwined with floral vines. By day, these were bright and eye-catching, by night, utterly spectacular.

With the big rides behind us, we headed north. This involved a 13-hour overnight train to Hanoi, a part of the trip that had been daunting me. But it was fabulous – a mini-adventure that turned out to be great fun and a real highlight! I bought a bao bun, which was light and delicious and the group sat in one of the cabins, sharing some beers and reminiscing about the journey so far. None of us got much rest on the train but as the next stop was a relaxing one, it didn’t really matter.
We spent just over a day in Halong Bay on a lovely junk boat, eating mango and chilli salad, fragrant rice with sauces and spring rolls. We even had a summer roll making masterclass on the top deck of the boat. With such fresh, light food available everywhere, I didn’t feel guilty taking second helpings, especially since cycling gives you a good appetite. Another couple of highlights of our time at Halong Bay included racing kayaks around a lagoon in the middle of limestone cliffs and climbing to a viewpoint to see the sky change over the islands before sunset.

Our last stop was Hanoi. I wandered around the picturesque Old Quarter, with long vines, and colourful floral trellises trailing down the buildings – a real concrete jungle! – and reflected on my adventure.
Our days had started early, but I’d noticed that people were already out exercising too, running on the beach, swimming, and
working out in outdoor gyms, with every generation coming together to keep fit. It’s a real lifestyle attitude they have, there’s an emphasis on physical and mental wellness that is so inspiring and interesting to see, especially when it seemed like the whole population was getting involved. It’s reflected in the food too – so healthy, and ideal for fuelling our days in the saddle.

Another thing that will stay with me about Vietnam is the colour – it’s just so vibrant, as though someone’s turned the saturation up. But it was the cycling that had exceeded all my expectations. Even when riding on busier roads we were well taken care of: Hoan made it so easy to navigate something so different from what we’re used to at home (I’ve never had to dodge a chicken before!), cutting a line with the mechanic at the rear, so we always felt safe.
Take me to Sarah's cycling trip


Sarah's 5 essentials to take on a cycling trip

1. Padding cycling shorts
If you buy no other item of cycling clothing, this one is a must. The padding makes any length of ride, be it short or long, much more enjoyable and lets you really focus on the scenery. As an option (or for extra cushioning) add a padded saddle cover.

2. Bumbag
If you don’t have a cycling top with pockets already, a bumbag is great; plus it’s useful for more than just cycling. You’ll have somewhere secure to keep essentials, like money, phone, suncream, tissues and hand gel.

3. Helmet
It might seem like an obvious packing item for a cycling trip, but safety absolutely comes first! That’s why you always need to take your own helmet so you can ensure the right fit and comfort.

4. Sports sunglasses
Whether rain, shine or just plain overcast, glasses are very helpful. They can stop the wind, dust and rain getting in your eyes. Some sports glasses even have changeable lenses for different weather conditions.

5. Water bottle/hydration pack
A water bottle that won’t rattle or fall out of your bike’s bottle cage is essential as hydration is key when riding. To keep your hands on the handlebar, use your filtered Water-to-Go bottle to fill up a wearable hydration backpack to drink on the go and keep your essentials in one place.

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