Vietnam Cycling Trip :: Lessons Learned
It’s great to be back home in Australia after two weeks cycling around Vietnam. I always love traveling off the beaten path because it provides opportunities for great adventure and gives me an immense appreciation for how good our standard of living is. Trips like this one to Vietnam puts everything back into perspective.
Any cycling trip takes heaps of planning and this one was no different. There’s one man to thank for this and he goes by the name “Dear Leader”. He’s a good friend who grew up in Vietnam (which is an amazing story on it’s own) who loves to cycle. I’m not sure how we would have pulled this trip off with so few dramas without him.
I’ll be honest with you, our trip through Vietnam wasn’t all a bed of roses. There were heaps of crappy roads, bad traffic, constant honking and unsanitary conditions for us Westerners. I’m not sure where the Lonely Planet got the idea the that the World’s Greatest Cycling Routes includes Vietnam’s Highway 1. There were a few excellent sections but we were relieved whenever we found our way off it. That said, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was the experience of a lifetime.
Many dramas can be avoided with bringing the right equipment for a trip like this. It was a bit of a learning experience for me so I payed close attention. Here’s a list of what we brought that we couldn’t have lived without (in no particular order):
- Pack light. There are cheap laundry facilities everywhere. It might be a good idea to bring some of your own laundry soap though. It looked as though our clothes were scrubbed on rocks or something. Lycra doesn’t like this. It might be a better idea to wash your expensive knicks yourself and give your cheap t-shirts and shorts to the laundry service. Most of us brought 3 sets of kit which was perfect. 3 or 4 t-shirts, a pair of shorts, bathers and sandals was all that was needed. Also, laundry soap worked terrifically for washing our bikes.
- Kitty Fund. One of things that worked out incredibly well was having one person (i.e. Dear Leader) pay for everything out of a kitty fund. Everyone threw in a couple hundred dollars and all meals and small purchases came out of this fund. It was so much easier than figuring out the bills (which were ridiculously cheap anyway). Dear Leader also chose where we all stayed, what we ate, and our travel route for us with no questions asked. It was a pure dictatorship. Otherwise we would have had 10 guys debating about where to eat, where to stay, which roads to ride, etc.
- A Vietnamese translator. We’d still be wandering around HCMC airport without Dear Leader. There were many doors that we wouldn’t have had opened for us without someone who spoke the language. Outside of the cities there were very few people who spoke English. I’m not saying that this trip wouldn’t be possible without a translator, but it would be much more difficult.
- Van and driver. This cost us $100 each and was worth 10 times that. He was basically our swany for two weeks. He got us water, found our hotels, brought us food, etc.
- Spare set of wheels. One person brought a front wheel, and another person brought a rear. With a group of 10 it’s inevitable that you’re gonna get a few punctures and broken spokes. A spare set of wheels proved to be invaluable. If everyone keeps their drivetrain in decent condition you shouldn’t have much of a problem using a Campy cassette with a Shimano or SRAM groupset (or vice versa). It’ll work just fine.
- Everyone should put on new tyres before departing as well as bring a spare tyre or two. With some bad roads we had to endure there were a few cut sidewalls. I brought Conti GP4000’s (24mm) which worked well. Another one of us sweared by the 25mm Shwalbe Durano Plus tyres. Obviously bring a few tubes and a puncture repair kit as well.
- A competent bike mechanic. Our bikes took an absolute beating and there’s no such thing as a bikeshop in rural Vietnam. At least have someone who knows the basics riding with you (adjusting gears, truing wheels, replacing cables, re-greasing bearings, etc).
- Babywipes for wiping down the bike, your shoes, your hands, etc. You can buy these at any shop in Vietnam so you can just pick them up locally.
- Sunscreen…and LOTS OF IT. We couldn’t find sunscreen at any of the stores and you’d be screwed without it.
- Gloves: I wish I had brought a set of gloves with me. With all the sweat and sunscreen all over my hands I would have liked to have a set of gloves. They also came in handy for the 3 guys who crashed.
- Chain lube. You’ll be wiping down your chain with babywipes everyday and lubing your chain every morning. Everyone will be bumming lube off you as well, so you better bring lots.
- Electrical tape came in handy for a few things like damaged bar tape.
- Free WiFi was unbelievably accessible – even in rural towns. Computers were usually available in hotels and were basically free. I brought my own laptop because of obvious reasons, but if I weren’t updating this blog I’d be happy with just my iPhone.
- Charger for camera battery and Garmin. Vietnam uses 220V and a 2 prong adapter is all that’s required.
- Mobile Phones – Very important. Most current dual mode GSM phones will work on the Vietnamese mobile networks (900MHz and 1800MHz). Most of us bought SIM cards and minutes for $10 (from Vinaphone) and never ran out with extensive use. Having mobile phones came in very handy to communicate with each other when we got split up.
- Earplugs. Everyone except for me snored like a chainsaw. Especially Dear Leader and #8 (our driver)
- First Aid Kit. Some of the roads weren’t overly safe to be riding on and there was a good chance that a crash would happen (we had 3 crashes). Bring a good first aid kit was lots of saline, gauze, disinfectant, etc.
- Travel Insurance. For less than $100 you can get unlimited medical coverage and $4k of lost or damaged belongings. I went with AAMI. Well worth it.
- Prebook in-flight meals and entertainment if flying with Air Asia or other budget carriers. We got our flights for $360 return which was a deal of the century. Of course once they get you in the airport all the add-on charges begin. No big deal, but we could have saved some hassle and money by buying our in-flight meals and entertainment. Once you were on the plane you could only pay with cash (Malaysian Ringgit or Aussie Dollars). I was VERY hungry and bored coming coming back to Aus.
- Luggage: With Air Asia you’re only allowed 15kg of baggage to check-in and 7kg for carry-on. Anything more will cost you $5/kg if you don’t pre-pay for supersized luggage. All we did to get around this was take half our stuff out of our bags, get it weighed and tagged, put all the stuff back in, and then carry it over to the oversized baggage drop-off area. Worked like a charm. The old “foot trick” on the luggage scale worked great as well (prop your foot under your bike bag/box to reduce the weight). With the carry-on bags we simply hid any extra bags out of the check-in agent’s site and brought it on the plane after we got our tickets. The carry-on baggage rule was abused to it’s limit.
- Energy Foods: Some of the guys brought gels and bars. I didn’t and I was envious at times. Bananas were the only other foods available to eat while on the bike. I bought some Tang to put in my waterbottle which tasted quite good. One guy in the group used electrolyte tablets which was lighter than taking 2Kg tubs of powder. Much easier to mix as well. Also, one of the guys brought enough homemade energy bars for all of us. These were fantastic. I’ll post the recipe sometime soon.
- Lunch and Dinner. The general rule we followed is don’t eat anything that’s not cooked (with the exception of baguettes). The vegetables and fruits are washed with water that won’t sit well with most Westerners. However, things like bananas that can be peeled are okay to eat. The foods we enjoyed are the following:
– Com Ga – Chicken and Rice
– Ban Xeo – Vietnamese Savoury Pancake
– Bun Bo Hue – Soup similar to Pho but different (from Hue region). My favorite!
– Bun Thit Nuong – rice noodle vermicelli with flame grilled meat. Awesome!
– Mi Quan – Cao Lau – Thick noodle soup
– Pho – a beef noodle soup that’s very popular. Can’t get enough of it.
– Rau Moun xao- Water spinach. A hit every single meal.
– Ga Ca ry – Chicken Curry (Vietnamese style)
– Stir fry Frog legs with lemon grass and ginger. They grow the frogs big in Nam but I wish they were bigger.
- The bike I rode was a Parlee Z4 with Ultegra groupset and Mavic Aksium wheels (compliments of Cycling Edge shown above with the patriotic handlebar tape). It worked amazingly well without falter. It was good enough to do the job but not so precious that I was cringing at every unsealed road we ventured down. It was comfy, light and strong. Since it wasn’t my bike I rode it like I stole it! You wouldn’t believe some of the treacherous roads I bombed down.
- Four of the other guys had Cervelo S1’s and one guys had a Look 595. All of them were very nice bikes equipped with SRAM Red. I’m not sure I would have liked having this nice of a bike going down some of the roads we did. They all did the job extremely well but some of those roads may have taken a few years off their lifespan. If you have a well equipped second bike, definitely bring it on a trip like this. 75% of the roads were as smooth as glass, and 25% were pretty sketchy. We did one 16km stretch that was some of the roughest gravel I’ve ever ridden on.
- Shimano Dura-Ace Di2: This stuff is the future and I gotta get me some. One of our guys was riding an Avanti with Di2 groupset and it didn’t miss a shift. He didn’t even need bring the batter charger. I don’t think that Shimano has tested Di2 in any place as rough and gritty as Vietnam and it worked flawlessly. This was the ultimate test and it passed with flying colors.
- Compact Crankset. Some of the hills were big enough to warrant using a very small gear. A 11-26 or 27 cassette would work just as well if you didn’t have a compact crankset.
- Spare bike? Given the number of people in our group I think we should have considered taking a spare bike. We were very lucky that someone had brought a spare saddle which was needed, but by the time you think of all the spares you may need you might as well take a whole bike.
- Bike Packing: A softshell bag or a cardboard bike box worked the best. These took up minimal amount of room in the van and were the lightest to bring aboard for baggage allowances. See the photo below for an excellent way to pack a bike into a box with keeping the rear wheel on to protect the derailleur.
I’m sure there’s a few things I forgot to mention but after soliciting suggestions from our group these seem to be the main points. Hopefully you got something out of my two weeks of blogging from Vietnam and it got a place on your cycling bucket list. I’d definitely like to go back again and explore the North. Give Vietnam a few more years and it’ll be a completely different place. Many guys in our group had done a similar trip two years ago and they were astounded by the development in this short time.
I leave you with this video from our trip.