Overview | Route Descriptions & Maps | Road Stories | For What It’s Worth | How We Rate This Trip
It’s simple, stay off Highway #1, the main road from the very north to the very south of Vietnam. It’s dangerous and not that interesting. Riding in Saigon is a hair-raising experience. It appears to be total chaos but there is a system that can be learned (See Road Stories). The roads to Delat and to Laos on Highway 9 are quieter but still not of great interest. The north has a cooler climate and is better biking because of quieter roads. Hanoi is a nice place to bike (so we hear).
In the Mekong Delta, off of Highway 1, the biking is flat and interesting. You need mountain bikes here because it entails the use of very minor roads, sandy paths, bamboo bridges and small ferries. It’s a leap of faith and very doable. Highway 22, to Moc Bai (a border crossing to Cambodia via ferry) is better than Highway 1.
- Lonely Planet, Cycling Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia
- Lonely Planet, Vietnam, Lonely Planet, Cambodia
- Lonely Planet, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia Road Atlas
Vietnam 2002 Route Descriptions and Maps
Entire trip is Vietnam, Cambodia, Eastern Thailand, Southern Laos
January, February 2002
Saigon to Mytho – Flat 80 Ks
We left the city along the Ben Nghe Channel of the Saigon River. The route is colorful but slow. Crossed over to Highway #1, wide, busy and boring. Finally found a viable alternative at Tan An on reasonable gravel roads south then west to Mytho. Much better. These roads are not on the maps but with constant local consultation you can find them. (see return trip for a superior route)
Mytho to Cantho 80 Ks
Now we get creative. We take a paved road along the river west. After 8 Ks it becomes good gravel. A paved cross road at 20 Ks + and we go left to the river. A small ferry that takes on bikes and motorbikes takes us to an island and we follow motorcycle paths to another ferry, to another island, and then another ferry. There is only one way and people will direct you. Finally you arrive back on the mainland on a good paved road to Vinh Long with little traffic. From Vinh Long it’s 35 Ks on Highway #1 to Cantho (the traffic on this portion is not bad). There are huge ferries that cross to the city. All the traffic has to take these ferries.
Cantho to Tra On 20Ks
Take the main ferry back across the river to Highway #1. Go right along the river. The. road gets rougher as you go until it’s poor dirt. The road was so poor we took a small passenger boat (bike ok on it) back to Cantho. We were originally going to take this route to Tra Vinh. From Tra On, you can get to Vung Liem or Tra Vinh but the roads are rough. We heard that the road from Cau Ke to Tra Vinh is better.
Cantho to Tra Vinh (our second try) 90 Ks
Take the main ferry back across to Highway #1. After 10 Ks turn right to Tam Binh on a paved road then turn left on main road to Vung Liem. Good road, quiet. No ferry in Vung Liem. You must go to Tra Vinh. Road is busier. There’s a ferry here, but it’s hard to find.
TraVinh to Mytho 60 Ks
This is the hard to find ferry, ask for Mo Coy but you land at nowhere. It’s a short ride on a gravel road to the paved road to Mo Coy. The only traffic is bicycles and it’s a great ride. The traffic on the road from Mo Coy to Ben Tre is heavier. Then to Mytho, the road is busy, wide and interesting.
Mytho to Saigon (the better way) 95 Ks
Go to Cong Dong, 36Ks of good paved road and moderate traffic. Then follow signs for Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Surprisingly quiet road to the ferry. After the ferry, traffic increases. Finally into Saigon the traffic is awful. Best to get to Duong Hung Vuong Avenue. It’s a least wide and has a bumpy bike path if need be. It’s the fastest way into the center.
Saigon to Tay Ninh 95 Ks
(We followed Lonely Planet Bike Book from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Out of Saigon in the morning rush hour is a unique and chaotic experience. Overwhelming and slow. Highway #22 to Trang Bang is wide, busy and uninteresting for 50 Ks.+. Right on paved minor road to Bau Don and on to Hoa Thanh and Tay Ninh. The bumps on this road are bothersome.
Tay Ninh to Cambodian Border 45 Ks
(border to Svay Rieng – See Cambodia)
Take the main road back to route 22 at Go Dow, 35 Ks. Then take highway #22 to the border, 10 Ks. Highway #22 has traffic.
Vietnam – First Trip, 1993
Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau 125Ks
Out on Dien Bien Phu St toward Bien Hoa on Main Road. Slight hills. Very busy on wide road. Diesel smoke, mini-vans and lots of honking. Over Mekong River, then right at 27Ks from Ho Chi Minh. Narrow road at first, then wider. Flat, boring and dry. Then some green and some fishing villages. More traffic into town. Last 20Ks into the wind.
Vung Tau to Highway 1 30Ks
Took the coast road north up a hill, then a dirt road. Hotels being constructed. Turned back to Ba Ria. Then to Xuan Lo on Highway 1. Chunky, rocky road. Hard ride. North on Highway 1.
Highway 1 to Danang by Land Rover.
Danang to Hue 108Ks
Generally with a tailwind because we were going west more than north. Rain again. Three climbs. The first is about 20Ks out of Danang. 10Ks up and 20Ks down. Then two smaller 2K climbs and descents. Last 35Ks into Hue are flat. In Hue and around Hue, biking is a good way to get around.
Hue to Danang 108Ks
Sunny this time. Great views from tops of hills. Quiet roads.
Danang to Hoi An 30Ks
Bridge over Han River, then right. Good roads, flat, past a lot of old military, then past China Beach and Marble Mountain. Last 13Ks on a poor bumpy road to Hoi An.
Hoi An to Quang Ngai 124Ks
10Ks along the river to Highway 1. Flat and rough. Then southeast for 114Ks to Quang Ngai. Highway 1 is flat and good in spots and rough in others. A few places we had to walk. Winds from the side. So-so scenery. Aggressive kids. Tried for Mi Lai, but road was too rough. Inland through rice fields.
Quang Ngai to Sa Huynh Beach 65Ks
Mostly flat, some rolling hills and finally to the coast.
Sa Huynh to Qui Nhon 123Ks
All good road. Tail winds got stronger through the day. Some potholes and some rough bridges. All inland and beautiful, mostly because of vibrant green rice fields and distant mountains. It rains here. 110Ks to turn and 13Ks on a busy flat road to Qui Nhon. It’s on a nice bay with little cafes set in palms. Nasty kids.
Qui Nhon to Tuy Hoa 117Ks
13Ks back to Highway 2. Then 104Ks to Tuy Hoa. From junction, it’s 15Ks on a good road to a 5K climb with 10% grades. Good views, then flat on good roads, less traffic. Tuy Hoa is basically a truck stop with a hotel.
Tuy Hoa to Nha Trang 120Ks
After 18Ks, a climb of 5Ks at 10%. Roads variable but good over the pass. Great views of sea on south side of pass. About 75Ks from Nha Trang, the road was very bad. More hills toward Nha Trang with a quick steep climb just 8Ks from Nha Trang. Road improves into Nha Trang. Good scenery. More overcast and some rain. It seemed kinder and gentler here. Nice city.
Nha Trang to Phan Rang 104Ks (113Ks using the back road)
Basically flat, roads okay, some rough spots. Tail winds. We were told about a beach which was too isolated for us. 7Ks in off the highway then we took a back road to Phan Rang. It was narrow and rough.
Phan Rang to Delat 110Ks
45Ks of slight steady climb inland. Then 18Ks climb to 1000 meters.( Japanese road from 1945). Sometimes up 10%, but usually less on good road. Great vistas. Then flat for next 50Ks. Basically good road in the highlands through a valley. Then a 8K climb to Delat at 10% grades. You reach 1475 meters in Dalat.
Delat to Bao Loc 113Ks
Out of Delat, then slight climb, then down steep and somewhat rough road through pine forests for 8Ks to Thoc Prenu (a riverside series of drink and snack cafes). Gradual descent with a following wind on a road without potholes, but rough surface. Fast, then rolling hills. Then a gradual 7K climb before Bao Loc. The following winds switched for half of this ride.
Bao Loc to Junction with Highway 1 118Ks
Slight climb about 10Ks out of Bao Loc, then a long (10Ks) steep (10%) descent on rough roads. Very unpopulated. Beautiful scenery. Forests and mountains. Hill tribe people. This road was built by the Americans for war purposes in the 1960s. New surface patches are rougher than the old surface. After steep descent, it’s a gradual drop on a better road. Then some rolling hills. Traffic is light, then moderate towards Highway 1. It can be hot.
Highway 1 to Saigon 67Ks
No more Highway 1 for us. We took a bus. No scenery. Increasing traffic. Cross the bridge over the Mekong and into Ho Chi Minh on Dien Bien Phu St. Wide highway and very busy. Slight hills.
Road Stories, 1993
On the first day, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh city early enough to ride into town. Our maps only showed the central part of Ho Chi Minh city, so we went by instinct and it ended up to be a circuitous but enthralling trip. The street names made no sense. It was 8Ks to the center, but it took us 1½ hours.
Here are our first impressions:
- Lots of motorbikes and bikes but few cars.
- Left turns and intersections are controlled chaos. (Later we discovered that there are rules of the road. They are just different from ours.)
- Just the opposite of most places. It’s the people over 40 who speak English.
- The city center was vibrant with many restaurants, hotels, and European tourists.
Some Vietnamese products:
- Tooth paste manufactured by “The Tooth Paste Factory.”
- Beer made by ” Beer Factory #2″
These were the last days that travel permits were required. It was a hassle and bikers had to fake it by saying they were traveling by bus. Outside of Saigon, no one asked for these permits. Pickpockets were very active. Groups of four crowd around you on the street and a couple will bump you while another makes the lift. They tried to get me twice while walking within one city block in Saigon. When they failed, they just laughed and strolled away. It’s a police state but where are the police.
So this is communism. But everyone is in business. They are all selling something. They only know their one line sales pitch in broken English. This has got to be a joke. Two European bikers told us this story. They had seen the local kids on bikes hang onto buses or trucks to get a pull up a hill. So one of the Europeans tried it. Apparently there’s a leaning curve. He crashed on the road. While starting to gather himself together, he was approached by a kid salesman, “Buy Gum?”
Taste in western music. The Vietnamese like tonal more than the rhythm. They prefer Karen Carpenter. A traveler told us about a gig in Hanoi for students. There were two venues. A heavy metal band and puppet light show. The band had about ten leather-clad groupies grooving to the music while the rest of the students (in the 100s) were at the puppet show.
The people. They work and study very hard. They are friendly but they have a hard side. They will cheat you. Kids will throw things at you. Everybody has an angle. The kids are very aggressive and just surprise you when they see you. They are very intense, touching you and your bike. It’s difficult. You are greeted by everyone and there are a lot of people on the roads. After 2,000 “Hellos,” it gets old. The idealists tell us about their shyness, civility, and smiles. We saw them as kind of two-faced, nosey, and aggressive. There are plenty of tourists here now that it’s open and they see it as mysterious and forbidden. We feel that this initial infatuation will soon die out. On bikes, the aggressive kids are simply relentless.
There are areas where you feel less comfortable. Usually these areas are exactly where the Viet Cong were strong. I understand how tough it would have been during the war for the American military. Kids in these areas are even more aggressive. Adults too shout at you. The pesky kids are like flies. They are there in no time and you can’t get rid of them. Nothing works.
On the road. We had notes from a Swiss couple we met who rode from Ho Chi Minh to Hue. Their best advice was to travel south with the prevailing winds. Bikes and motorcycles will cross to the left side of the road before an intersection and hug the left side of the road while proceeding into the traffic flow. This is a common practice so you get used to it. In intersections and traffic circles, the largest mass moves. We called this the “power to the people” theory. We hope some video guy will set up a camera above one of these circles. It would be incredible. The locals have an unbelievably cavalier attitude while walking or bike riding on the roads. The busses especially careen through the crowds. We witnessed the worst accident of our careers here. Two carefree schoolgirls taking no precautions tragically run over by a speeding bus.
Hoi An was presented to us was a highlight. It was somewhat interesting but small. This is testimony to the lack of historical architecture left in Vietnam. We liked Hue and we liked Nha Trang. The other cities we stayed in offered very little. The scenery was good but not great. The food was very good. Cold drinks were tough to find. Winds were from the northwest generally and stronger south of Qui Nhon. Closer to Saigon, it’s poor biking along Highway 1. Vung Tau is not worth the trip. Many like the delta and there are bike tours there.
For what it’s worth
- Saigontourist Travel Service – www.deltaadventuretour.com (Vietque (American Vietnamese) who run travel agency in Saigon.
- http://talesofasia.com – web site by American Photographer – Gordon Sharpless
- Lonely Planet Guide Book – Vietnam Cambodia Laos
- Need visas: Vietnam
- Don’t go by land from Hanoi to Saigon, too long, too congested, not worth it.
- Saigon interesting, big, congested, great shopping, and great restaurants.
- I don’t know about Hanoi, but people who know really like it.
How We Rate This Trip
If the highways are not good in Vietnam, then they are being improved. Highway 1 is wide enough around Saigon so there is room for bikes. There are side roads that vary in quality. Some are good biking. Very small roads and dirt paths are available in the Mekong Delta.
Highway 1 is a nightmare with heavy truck traffic. In Saigon, the traffic is overwhelming, especially rush hours. There are bike lanes downtown. In the mountains and in the Mekong Delta there are some quiet roads, but eventually you have to encounter Highway 1.
November to March is the dry season and the weather in the south is warm and predictable. In the mountains and north there can be rain and it’s much cooler around Hanoi at this time.
In the dry season the winds come from the north. It’s best to bike south. In the Mekong Delta the winds seem negligible.
The beaches (especially China Beach) are overrated. Highway 1 is one long village with nondescript shops and houses which block any potential views. The best scenery is on Highway 1 between Hue and Danang. Occasionally, there are very good views of the sea when the road is right along the shore. Delat is OK. Highway 20 from Delat to Saigon has good scenery. The Mekong Delta is flat with agricultural scenery.
There is a Lonely Planet bicycle book but I disagree with it when they direct you down Highway 1 in Vietnam . Your best source of information is other Western bikers when you find them. Guides and Tour agencies don’t have biker’s sensibilities. A good map helps because they use our alphabet and you can point to cities you cannot pronounce.
Road Safety: 2
Hanoi is OK. The Mekong Delta is great when you take island paths and ferries. Highway 1 is to be avoided. We rode it in 1993 and saw two young girls on bikes killed by a truck. In 2002 it was 100 times worse. We met hardened bikers who started on Highway 1 and took the bus because it was so dangerous.
General Safety: 3
Bodily harm or the threat of it is rare. BUT sneak thieves, pickpockets, and bike snatchers are a part of life especially in Saigon. Pilferage is common even in the countryside.
Even in Saigon, you can find good quality hotels and restaurants at reasonable prices. High quality knock-off merchandise in Saigon. In towns of any size or tourist towns, the hotels and restaurants are good and cheap.
Bottled water is almost always available. Outside the tourist cities cold is hard to find. Soda and beer are everywhere. The ice is “iffy”. The coffee is excellent.
Vietnamese food is spicy, fresh and interesting. Even small towns serve excellent food. Best to avoid the tourist places, western places and stick to the local eateries.
There is a good variety of guesthouses and hotels. They are usually very clean. In the cities it’s very competitive so there are lots of choices.
The Vietnamese are very aggressive people. They work hard, haggle endlessly, study seriously and are proud of all their accomplishments.
The Vietnamese have quickly adapted to the western ways. The larger cities are pretty cosmopolitan (western orientated). Very little is left of the old times. Even the Buddhist influence is less than in the rest of Asia.
There is little physical evidence of their history. There are a few colonial buildings in the cities but generally the cities are just 3rd world hellholes.
TOTAL SCORE 79