Vietnam main page        HOME

Cycling in Vietnam

based on my trip from Hanoi to Saigon, Xmas 1993/94

My Bike

I picked a 3-speed brake hub (German Fichtel & Sachs, similar to the English Sturmey Archer) from my local scrap yard and reworked it. I added some bike spare parts, tools, a pump, a chain lock to my luggage and flew to Hanoi. All my luggage apart from the hub was a 7kg rucksack.

In Hanoi I met up with a friend and he helped me buy a good Vietnamese bike. I wanted the best one with 26" wheels. It cost me US$50 while cheap bikes are available from $25. We then brought the bike to a repairman who took apart the original rear wheel and fitted my 3-speed hub. It cost 1$ for a half-day job. We sent my bike home by rickshaw where I fitted the wheel, some levers and cables myself. The bike had now 3 brakes: Front and rear rim brakes plus the coaster brake of the rear hub.

Next day I went out to find a longer seat post that would allow me to have the saddle a bit higher. Not available. My friend figured out I could use 22mm piping used for water installation and this worked fine. The bike had no light, but I didn't intend to use it at night.

Benefits of a Bike

Without a bike, people stare at you in Hanoi. When you sit on a bike they ignore you just as if you were one of the many Vietnamese !

Now mobile, I moved around town independently. I got familiar with the Hanoi map and traffic rules quickly and I discovered many interesting things (many bakers, butchers, haircutters, ... speak German !). What a difference to the times when others decided where I best go !

From Hanoi, I used the train to travel southwards. No problems bringing a bike on the train, there are special bike tickets and bike cars were I never had the slightest damage done to my bike. I could now get around the nasty rickshaw drivers who often overcharge tourists by factor 10 or 100 !

With the bike, I picked my hotel AFTER I had a quick look around what's available in a town. I went to restaurants and markets by bike. Crowded places like markets have their own bike parking lots. Bicycle theft is not a big problem in Vietnam; motorbikes are more popular amongst thiefs.

In Hue, I did all my visits to tombs and pagodas by bike. It's great not to arrive in a tourist crowd. With friends in Nha Trang, I went out to rock and karaoke caf‚s in the evening (by bike, of course). Once, they asked me why all the tourists like to carry heavy rucksacks on their backs instead of putting them onto bikes. They think that tourists are perfectly stupid... and now I can perfectly understand them.

Often I had a passenger on the carrier. In a Saigon bookshop, I once asked for a specific book and the owner told me there'd be one copy in his second shop, 3 km north. I packed the old man on my carrier and off we went. Perfectly normal (for him) !

Recommendations on riding in Vietnam

All I could find out from the guy who sold me the bike is that I have to go on the right side and when I happen to come to one of the rare traffic lights, I can turn right though it is red. Later I found out other things, some through accidents:

  1. Never (!!) turn left or right quickly so that the others cannot react. There are lots of people on the street and they all ride their vehicles with a lot of foresight. They will slam into you if you do something that they did not expect.
  2. Don't use your brakes. The guy behind you does not have brakes. Don't speed up. Try to maintain a constant speed. You can mess up someone else's plan to cross a road if you are at a certain spot too early. This someone else might then be run over buy another guy who expected someone else to be 2 meters to the left at this moment...
  3. Crossing a road or turning around (Busy roads cannot be crossed on foot. Use a rickshaw or bike): Wrong: Go slow until traffic thins out and then quickly turn left and make a quick run to the other side. Definitely, someone will be coming to slam into you from the side because you expose a huge surface to the traffic from both sides. Right: Go at the normal speed. 500m prior to the point where you want to arrive on the other side, move to the center of the road very slowly: Find a gap between two bikes at your left and move in. Then wait for another gap to come along further left and so on. From the middle of the street, you have to find your way head-on through the oncoming traffic. People will see you coming and will avoid you. Go slow and slightly drift to the left while you move on. The riders on collision course with you will recognize your intention and will pass by on your right. So you slowly get left until you reach the pavement. This is where you are safe. Turn your bike around on the pavement or behind a parked rickshaw.
  4. Crossroads and Roundabouts: Take a look from a distance and study the traffic movement of that specific spot for a while. Stay with other cyclists who go where you want to go.
  5. Extreme situations: If there are really many vehicles on the road and if visibility is limited because of missing streetlamps and the many beers that you had, there is no point in relying on foresight alone. Too many unexpected things happen and many of the other things you don't expect any more. It is then best to ignore everything, apart from what happens right in front of you. Go very slow, go straight and if it has to be, stop and wait until the situation in front of you clears up.
  6. Accidents: There are really a lot, in Vietnamese cities. You could actually wait with your camera for one to happen. As long as only pushbikes are involved, there are hardly any serious injuries. The ones with motorbikes and busses though are often fatal and getting more frequent. Fortunately, the Vietnamese help immediately as good as they can. A spectacular accident can easily attract 100 onlookers. High chances, that there is a doctor amongst them. In Nha Trang, I distracted two female cyclists (simply by being white). They didn't pay attention to the traffic for a second. I heard several people fall off their bikes behind me, but I had no time to take a look back in that dense traffic.


My parents said they hadn't raised me so that I would go to Vietnam. They expected that it's a wild place from where people don't return, not a place where one would want to be outside a safe hotel or tour bus. Definitely not a place to ride a bicycle - this is what they thought. Well, all rubbish. Vietnam is a true cyclist's country. When you can handle a major European city, then don't be afraid. Just be extra-cautious during the first days.

Non-Bike, Vietnam

I travelled by rail 4 times, I ate the food served on old "Vietnam Air" trays 4 times and I ended up with diarrhoea 4 times.
Better today ?

Vietnam main page        HOME