Travelling this country atop a saddle takes you places you’d otherwise never venture. Here are personal accounts of cycle rides both in and out of the big cities. Words and photos compiled by Nick Ross
Route: The Long Thanh Loop
Where: Highway 1 to the Big C roundabout. Highway 51 through Long Thanh. Turn right towards Nhon Trach. Follow all the way to the Cat Lai ferry. Straight to District 2
I’m on my longest solo ride yet — a 78km loop via Long Thanh back to Saigon. I stop for a break 22km in, looking for a bottle of that cheap but surely unhealthy cyclist’s drink ubiquitous in Vietnam — Revive.
In front of me motorbikes hurry past in a mad rush to get to Vung Tau. It’s only 6am and already the traffic is out in force. And in the two cages to my left, roosters welcome the new day, even though the sun’s been up for half an hour.
This is the life of a cyclist in this country, or at least a cyclist who likes distance. Early mornings to beat the heat; crazy highways; odd roadside shacks in the middle of nowhere. If you’re gonna cycle, you’re gonna end up in the oddest of places. It’s part of the fun, the experience.
The idea for getting back on a bicycle came from a now recently-departed-Vietnam friend in Hanoi. With several other cyclists, three or four mornings a week he would cycle from West Lake to Noi Bai Airport and back. 50km before work.
I remember being amazed. Even now I marvel at how after 50km, my friend could do a solid day’s work. I can’t.
But it was another cyclist who got me back on the wheels — albeit an electric bike around-the-world cyclist — Guim Valls Teruel. By letting my daughter and me borrow two bicycles one July afternoon in 2013, the man behind The Hanoi Bicycle Collective unwittingly inducted us into Vietnam’s cycling club. A month later both my daughter and myself had bought bikes. My daughter cycles occasionally. Me? I haven’t looked back. — Nick Ross
A typical conversation I have when I’m cycling:
“Your Vietnamese is good,” says the old woman selling banh mi chung. I’ve made it to Long Thanh. Breakfast. “I guess you’ve been here a long time.”
“Yes I have.”
“Hen gi… Thought so. Is your family here?”
“Yes, I’ve got family in Saigon.”
“Where are you going? Vung Tau?”
“No, Nhon Trach and then back to Saigon.”
“Pull up a seat and get in the shade. You should stay out of the sun for a bit.” — Nick Ross
Route: Around Central Hanoi
Where: Start at St. Joseph’s Cathedral then follow the bicycles around the city
How long: Around 8km
8pm on the last Friday of each month, St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi. Over 100 people ready to ride bicycles around downtown Hanoi. Positive Mass — Vietnam's answer to the worldwide cycling phenomenon, Critical Mass. The ride will celebrate its third anniversary in September. That’s 36 rides and counting.
We cycle together with 100 other cyclists through the small and crowded streets of Hanoi. It’s an experience, particularly when you can see the look on people’s faces as we pass by. We do nothing different to what the millions of motorbikes do every day in town — we move together. But we do it on bicycles. We’re trying to promote their use in cities.
We start from the Cathedral and head down Nha Tho towards Hoan Kiem Lake. It is always a great feeling as the mass of bicycles joins the mass of motorbikes on the lake road, Le Thai To. Petrol riders are always shocked to see these bicycles appear from nowhere. We then turn right on Trang Thi — a much bigger street where it is easy to cycle freely and quietly. Due to the size of our group, we always have to be careful not to be cut off from each other by traffic lights. So we travel at a slow, steady pace.
Once we join Dien Bien Phu, the road gets busy again — cars, motorbikes, buses, making it difficult for us to travel in a group. But after the traffic lights at the intersection with Tran Phu, it gets peaceful.
We pass the mausoleum before turning onto Phan Dinh Phung, where traffic is always quiet on Friday nights. Once we arrive at the end we turn right and pass under Long Bien bridge before cycling down Nguyen Huu Huan and heading onto Ly Thai To.
Turning past the Ly Thai To statue we are once again on Hoan Kiem Lake, where our friends, the motorbikes, join us en masse. We circumnavigate the lake before finishing up at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. — Guim Valls Teruel
The Perfect Preparation
Route: Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne
Where: Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau via Highway 1. The coastal road from Vung Tau up through La Gi to Mui Ke Ga. Then on to Phan Thiet and Mui Ne
Before I rode the 250km to Mui Ne, the most I’d ridden was 70km to Can Gio. This was two years ago. The trip culminated in me holding hands with strangers around a bonfire on the beach, and drinking way too much rum and coke. It was an adventure.
The idea for the more recent ride came in the pub. I’d heard my riding partner Matthew talking about the trip with a friend. When I contacted him the next day, it turned into a reality I couldn’t back out of. S***.
Without an actual bike to my name — this part is pretty important — I settled on a brand new cyclo-cross, two days before we were due to leave. This would allow me to “burn up the tarmac” one day, then “plough through mud like butter” the next. I’m a sucker for a catchy sales pitch.
The day before leaving, I rode the bike from District 2 to a friend’s impromptu barbecue in Phu My Hung. There I drank the maximum amount of alcohol I could in the allotted six-hour window, figuring the beer carbs would increase my ‘cadence’, and the naturally occurring whisky starches would enhance my all-round ‘road awareness’.
It was only during the short trip to meet Matthew for our pre-departure breakfast — full English of course — that the reality of two-and-a-half days in the saddle took shape. Friends had warned me of the suffering, and I wondered if I was doing the smart thing. At the last minute I nearly suggested we get the ferry to Vung Tau. We could ride from there. But I stopped short.
Day one was a 110km slog along the highway to Vung Tau, where we were offered a choice of hourly or nightly accommodation. It was the public holiday crush and we opted for nightly. Day two was a slightly more pleasant grind through fields of dragon fruit in the 40-degree heat. My hamstrings and lower back screamed all the way, while my partner’s nipple chaffing got out of hand.
Day three brought the relief that it would all be over soon, and rewarded us with a world-class stretch of panoramic coastal road between Mui Ke Ga and Phan Thiet before we hit our final destination, Mui Ne. On reaching it I chalked up a victory for what I call the unprepared amateur athlete, then sat in the pool at Joe’s Garden Café soaking up the serenity of my win. I recommend it to you all. — Jon Aspin with additional input from Matthew Rosenthal
Tips: Pack light, bring a spare inner tube, drink nuoc mia (sugarcane juice) and keep peddling
Route: Saigon River to Hoc Mon or Cu Chi
Where: Go to the ferry in Go Vap — Pha An Phu Dong. It’s at the end of Nguyen Thai Son Street. On the other side turn immediate right. The path takes you to the river. You’ll have to work out the rest
Distance: 50km to 80km depending on how far you want to cycle up the river
“I hope you’re not going to write about this,” said Mike (name changed). “I don’t want the whole world knowing this route.”
I told him I would only direct people to its start — after all, cyclists are possessive about their routes. This satisfied him.
The route in question was one I traversed in early January. It was a Sunday morning and one of the cyclists I was with suggested we hit the Saigon River. Not the part running past Districts 4 and 7, but the section going inland through Hoc Mon and then Cu Chi.
“There’s a river path,” said Mike. “It’s a nice ride, but a lot of it is off-road.”
James concurred. “It’s 50 or 60k. It’s a nice journey.”
We had set off late — when you’re cycling 50km off road, 7am is a late start — and by the time we were on the return journey from the riverside pagoda in Hoc Mon, the sun was already high in the sky. It’s one of the dangers of cycling in Vietnam. Too much sun. Heat. Heat stroke.
On the return leg two of the cyclists began to fall off the pace — another normality when you’re cycling in groups — and the going was slow. I was getting hotter. And hotter. But it didn’t matter. When you cycle in a group you look out for everyone — it’s part of the experience. The camaraderie. And anyway, our prime objective had been fulfilled — getting out of the city. — Nick Ross
The App of all Apps
Most cyclists in Vietnam — at least, certainly in Saigon — use Strava, an app to track routes, speeds and unite the cycling community. Me, I’m not all that keen on it. It’s an ego thing. I don’t like cycling over a bridge only for Strava to tell me my speed over this hump in the road puts me 100th out of 150 other cyclists who’ve done the route. I have a competitive spirit, but not that competitive. Or maybe the issue is I just don’t cycle fast enough.
However, if you want to track or discover routes, this is the best way. It’s also good if you want to team up with other cyclists. Simply find friends or follow someone. You’ll be surprised how many avid — sorry, crazy — cyclists there are out there. Some of them are damn fast, too.
Here are a few of my favourites. The loop routes can be joined anywhere along the route.
Ho Chi Minh City
The Canal Loop: 40km
District 2 — Dien Bien Phu — Nhieu Loc Canal to Phan Dinh Phung — Straight up Nguyen Kiem to the Pham Van Dong roundabout — right to Thu Duc — through Thu Duc down Highway 1 back to District 2
The Phu My Bridge Loop: 60km
District 2 — Highway to Phu My Bridge — Nguyen Van Linh to Highway 1 —East-West Highway — Ton Duc Thang — Nguyen Huu Canh — Saigon Bridge — District 2
West Lake: 16km
The full lake road plus Lac Long Quan, Thanh Nien and the section going past the Hanoi Club and Thang Loi Hotel
Past Thang Long Bridge: Minimum 20km. Up to 60km
Au Co — An Duong Vuong — Dong Ngac — Thuong Cat — river road towards Son Tay — back again
How Safe Is It?
Humans justify their behaviour — it is natural. And as a cyclist, I do just the same: cycling in Vietnam is safe. At least, I feel much safer on a bicycle in Vietnam than I do in London (which is where I also cycle a lot). The difference is the type of vehicles on the road. In ‘Nam it’s mainly two-wheeled — you’re part of the traffic and once you hit decent speeds, you’re not much slower than the motorbikes. Where the traffic is based around four wheels, the vehicles around you have to avoid you. It’s a different sensation and infinitely more dangerous.
But then, I’ve seen two cycling accidents in Vietnam. None of them were serious, but both were caused by idiot motorbike drivers who pulled out without looking. Oh, and I once almost got taken out by a taxi.