Vietnam is an easy and wonderful place to pedal. It’s energetic, beautiful, and has a powerful history. Citywise, I liked both Hanoi and Saigon, though they are very different. Hanoi is laid back and cosmopolitan, while Saigon is more of the chaotic whirlpool that Asian cities can be. More broadly, the attraction of the north is that it’s rugged and hilly. The attraction of the south is that the riverways and ferry travel around the Mekong delta are culturally interesting.
A substantial part of any cycling tour is the serendipity that originates in not having a plan and simply getting lost. But here are some notes on tidbits that are worth doing.
My impression of Ho-Chi-Minh City was incredibly favorable, as it was energetic and exciting. Absolutely take a walk through the Reunification Palace, visit the Main Post Office (an impressive colonial building across from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Diamond Square), and, of course, the War Remnants Museum. Map.
2. Mekong Loop (6 days or so, 300 miles)
From Saigon, ride a loop through the Mekong Delta. The small roads among the waterways and the frequent need to get on ferries keeps things interesting, and the people are wonderful. The big tourist attraction in the area is the water market of Can Tho. I found this fascinating, even if there were a lot of goofy white people with cameras. Hiring an early morning boat tour of the market is the typical way to go, and it’s pretty fun. It certainly gives you a good sense of the role of the river in daily life.
Ride through My Tho, Ben Tre, and Vinh Long and spend the night in My Tho after the exciting (nerve wracking?) ride out of Saigon. After Can Tho, head up through Long Xuyen. Close the loop. So,
Day 1: Saigon to My Tho
Day 2: My Tho to Can Tho
Day 3: Day in Can Tho with floating market tour
Day 4: Can Tho to Cao Lanh
Day 5: Cao Lanh to Tan An
Day 6: Tan An to Saigon
From Saigon, ride north via small roads, avoiding Hwy 1 as much as possible. It helps to have acquired a road atlas in Vietnam; the Vietnamese are highly literate , and will almost invariably help you navigate and map read. A must-see sections is the stretch from Hoi An to Hue (south to north), perhaps including the ruins at My Son, and the Demilitarized Zone. I had a superb pair of wool cycling knickers custom made for me in Hoi An. My Son is slightly interesting, if you like ruins/archeological sites (which I do). If you had to skip it, you won’t be making a big mistake. I took a Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An, which was fun not least of all due to the very drunk Aussies.
The ride between Hoi An and Hue is very nice, even if the traffic in Da Nang is mayhem. If you’re traveling north from Hoi An, there are roads that hug close to the shore to Da Nang (see rt 538 on the map, below). Da Nang itself isn’t that hard to get through, but it takes awhile (there’s a nice clean toilet at the main shopping mall in the center of town). Just don’t get on the road going out to the Monkey Mountain peninsula (543), because then you’ll have to backtrack.
North of Da Nang, you want absolutely to go over the pass on the old road, 1A (Hwy 1 goes through a tunnel under the mountain). The pass is called Hai Van, and they’re great views on it. Prepare yourself for the crafty hawkers selling trinkets at the top. Still heading north, if you stay on 1A, you will pass through Bai Lang Co, which is unremarkable. There’s lodging there.
heading north to Hue, there’s no need to stay on Hwy 1. There’s a tricky variation on the route which is one of the nicest rides I did. Take a look at this map, where I’ve painted the route in red. (The bottom right quadrant of the map is Hai Van pass, so it picks up where the above map left off, moving north.)
The turn-off at ZDis hard to find, and it’s on to a dirt road, but once you’re on it, it’s gorgeous as it heads out toward the shore around Dam Chu Hoi. Right where it gets skinny, there’s a brand new bridge that is not on any maps. But don’t worry, there’s a bridge there, big and shiny, so you can cross over to the long strip of land on the ocean. (I was doing this ride north to south, and I could see the gap on the map. I asked a friendly guy at a coffee shop in Hue if I could hire a fishing boat to take me across that gap because I wanted to ride the strip of land, suspecting it was cool, and he was like, “Well, yes, you could do that,” giving me a strange look. When I got there and found the bridge, I realized that he thought I was an idiot for not just riding across.)
That road on the narrow strip is fun and cool, no traffic, really mellow, friendly people, a real slice of Vietnam. When you get to the end of it (slightly before Tan My), you’ll turn inland to get to Hue.
Definitely ride to the citadel in Hue. In fact, it’s quite nice town to ride around in.
Hanoi is one of the most pleasant, easygoing cities I’ve visited in Asia. Must see: Water Puppets!
5. North Loop (including Sapa)
The other really great loop is in the north. It is over completely different terrain, both geographically (very hilly!) and culturally. I joined the loop in Dien Bien Phu, coming from over the Laos border. So I can comment with complete confidence only on the section from there to Hanoi: It’s fantastic.
The most crucial route note I can offer is to definitely stay at the Lan Ahn Hotel in Lai Chau. If you’re coming west to east, there will be a new development off to your left as you approach Lau Chau. Go through that and continue on until you get to a busy crossroads, where you’ll turn left and head down the busy market road to get to the Hotel. It’s nice there.
Now, the question is how to turn this into a loop. One obvious plan is to start from Hanoi and get yourself on to Route 6 through Son La. That’ll make for about a 700 mile trip, comfortably doable in, say, twelve days, depending on how long you intend to stay in Sapa, which you should do. There’s an easy train from Lao Cai (just below Sapa) to Hanoi.