Cycle Touring through Southern Vietnam
Mui Ne to Rach Gia (through the sand dunes and the Mekong Delta for Phu Quoc and Ha Tien)
I described my main aims and bike set up in my last post: see here.
Though I didn’t stick to my plans exactly, in the last week of my training month up in Mui Ne I completed two 50 km rides. As I was getting ready to start my tour I decided to just go for it.
My thoughts were that if I found myself rapidly tiring after 50 km or so then I’d just stop at some guesthouse. That said my initial aim was to try to ride about 80 km (50 miles) per day.
Before I go on to describe the routes, I’d like to talk a little about distance measurements. My phone does not like Strava (or vice versa) so I am using Runkeeper to get a general overview of route travel. The problem with the GPS tracking on my phone is that when I pause for a while, it will turn itself off and on again about a dozen times, adding time to my rides and distance to the trip even if I am just sat down eating a snack.
On one occasion, when the GPS was poor I reached a speed of 125 mph, and travelled an extra few miles in under a minute: proper cycling legs I’ve got.
Anyway, all distances are taken using my old fashioned CatEye with a speed magnet on the front wheel. Interestingly having a speedo on a bike has proved to be of great interest to many people in the more rural areas, especially aboard ferries when people don’t seem to have much better things to do than give it a good poke.
Vietnam Cycle Touring Route Overview
Stage 1: Phan Thiet to La Gi; November 1st 2015; Distance 76.1 km (47.3 miles)
First ride on my cycling Vietnam / SE Asia trip. Went well, very tired legs in last 10 km. A section of about 7 km would have been better on a mountain bike, broken road turning into sand track, all uphill.
I set off with a little anticipation and some nerves. How far would I get, would I enjoy myself, would I keel up and die by the side of a Vietnamese road?
I’d planned my route south on Strava, trying to pick quiet roads. From what I see most cyclists (and indeed scooter riders) tend to be in a hurry and head straight onto the main Vietnam A1 highway. That is something I did not want to do. I was in no hurry; I wanted to take nice quiet roads with fresh air instead of traffic fumes.
I knew the road out of Mui Ne was uphill, but I have done it many times, so despite my excess weight I knew I could get up it no problem. According to Strava, I had one more hill on the route, a little higher, just outside of Phan Thiet, and then it was flat.
What Strava did not tell me was this road was basically a bridleway, quickly going from broken road to dirt track and then to sand. Fucking brilliant! And I do mean that, I just put the bike in a low gear and was doing some technical uphill off-roading within the second hour of the trip, no traffic, loved it.
After about 7 or 8 km the road hit the main coast road and the surface improved dramatically. I had decided to just go as far as I could today, with a general aim of making it to LaGi, about 75 km down the coast. There’d be no shame in stopping after 40 km if I needed to.
What can I say, the scenery along this stretch of coastal road was stunning, sea on one side, desert on the other.
And all the way, people, not only the school kids, were shouting Hello.
I reached the fishing village of LaGi no problem.
Quickly found a guest house (150,000 VND), and then lay down in a state of knackerdness. I later went out and explored the town, grabbing a Bahn Mi, before resting again and going out for some Bánh xèo in the evening.
Stage 2: Lagi to Long Hai; November 2nd 2015; Distance 81.4 km (50.6 miles). Total Distance: 157.5 km (97.9 miles)
Started the day a little sore but feelling fresh after a good sleep. Cycled inland a bit up a hill for a few km before the road hit the coast again.
This time the coast became perhaps even more stunning; again it was quite surreal riding with beach on one side and desert on the other.
I arrived in Long Hai tiring fast, and was glad that I was planning a few days rest.
I can hardly describe how beautiful the coast is in this stretch of Vietnam. The roads are very quiet. There are many resorts springing up, and even a Casino at Ho Tram. I recommend everyone to visit this part of Vietnam as soon as they can.
Presently most people go to Mui Ne or Vung Tau as they are convenient to get to. When the new airport is built in Saigon, this stretch of beautiful beach will probably only be an hours drive away, and I can see it rapidly being spoiled by development. You can read more on this route (from the point of view of a scooter driver) but in the opposite direction here.
Stage 3: Long Hai to Saigon; November 5th 2015; Distance 103.2 km (64.1 miles). Total Distance: 260.7 km (162 miles)
My first ever 100 km ride (just under 5 h 30 min of riding time, maybe I should have used EPO!).
I wanted to get to Saigon in one go as I knew the route would not be much fun. I was planning to spend four days with my friends David and Lukas (links to their super duper businesses), and generally eating a lot of Sushi and Beef Brisket.
The first 60 km or so were along a busy highway, and not much fun. I just pedalled and stuck to the edge. Then I had to make the turn towards Saigon. I had decided to take a quieter way in and head towards the Cát Lái Ferry; since a new bridge has been built most heavy traffic avoids this route. Even better, due to road works all cars had been diverted to a different route. So I shared a quiet, bridle-path-like road with the scooters for the next 20 km, sweet.
After the ferry, all traffic was separated with moto/cycles having their own lane with a concrete barrier. So though there was a lot of scooters it felt pretty safe riding into Saigon. I then reached a big bridge, which was a bit like going up a hill, especially after 90km of travelling.
As expected the last 10 km into Saigon to Japanese town in D1 were as busy as could be. But you just ride with the flow, so it wasn’t that bad. Arrived in Saigon, absolutely knackered and starving, grabbed a rice bowl and had Brisket and beers that night.
Stage 4: Saigon to Go Cong; November 9th 2015; Distance 59.3 km (36.8 miles). Total Distance: 320 km (199 miles)
Set off a little later than normal to avoid the early Saigon rush hour. Was still busy for the first 10 km out of Saigon, but I then took a back road south towards Go Cong instead of the main highway, and it was pretty much just me and scooters.
The road got quieter the further I rode. And the scenery improved likewise, I was soon riding over bridges and taking my first look at the many offshoots of the Mekong.
I felt pretty good physically until about the 40 km stage, then I hit a headwind for about 15 km and my left knee started to hurt. I was thinking about going to My Tho, but decided to stay at Go Cong instead.
Stage 5: Go Cong to Ben Tre; November 10th 2015; Distance 61.2 km (38.0 miles). Total Distance: 381.2 km (236.9 miles)
First section was along a nice country road, lots of pleasant scenery.
Rode through My tho, which was a lot bigger than I thought it would be.
Crossed the bridge over the Mekong there, very high and long, fantastic views off the top of it.
Then rode into Ben Tre, a great little town.
Stage 6: Ben Tre to Tra Vinh; November 12th 2015; Distance 74.3 km (46.2 miles). Total Distance: 455.5 km (283 miles)
Though this ride was about 75 km there were a further 10 km or so of ferry rides, as the Mekong is very wide here.
At one point I was riding on an island between two branches of the Mekong. Some of the nicest riding that I’d done in the Mekong, absolutely beautiful.
Felt a lot stronger physically than for a few days and didn’t really tire until about 60 km.
It was a very humid day, and I was soaked in sweat and developed a case of runners nipple. A plaster and then a dousing in coconut oil helped to fix that.
Stage 7: Tra Vinh to Can Tho; November 13th 2015; Distance 88.0 km (54.7 miles). Total Distance: 543.5 km (337.7 miles)
I was initially going to head south towards the south of Vietnam, but on reading up it turned out that the things this area are most famous for are mud and mosquitoes. Erm, I turned right to Can Tho; one of my favourite Vietnamese cities.
The first 35 km of the ride I felt strong, but then I had to wait 30 min for a ferry, with a further 25 min to cross the Mekong (quickly followed by another 20 min ferry ride) and my legs sort of seized up and never really recovered.
Even though I stopped a few times for sugar cane juice I never really felt good cycling again and the last 20 km turned into a painful struggle and required a lot of willpower, despite the road being as flat as can be.
To top it off, it got busy as hell about 15 km out of Can Tho, I looked it up later and learnt the population of Can Tho is 1.3 million, I had never realised it was that big before cycling through it.
An update on weight (Can Tho) and thoughts on calories burnt per KM/Mile when cycle touring
I spent about three weeks training in Mui Ne (started at 30 km up to 50 km) and have now done seven rides (62km to 103km).
During this time I have tried to keep at 2,500 calories on a non-ride day, increasing to about 3,000 calories (sometimes a little more) on ride days.
So far I have lost 4 kg, this represents 30,800 calories of work (based on 7,700 calories/kg of fat burn). Together with the 7 ride days x 500 extra calories above base (3,500 calories), this comes to 34,300 calories.
Given I have now ridden 941.1 km, I estimate that I am burning 34,300/941 = 36.4 calories per km or 58.6 calories per mile.
Given that I am about 20 kg overweight, on a touring bike with panniers, and in a hot humid climate, does the above estimate seem right? Seems a lot higher than the usual 25 calories per km / 40 calories per mile I seem to read when reading about cycle calorie burning. Any thoughts on this, then see my Reddit post.
On another note, by Can Tho, I had lost 8 cm (3.1 inches) from my waistline!
Stage 8: Can Tho to Rach Gia; November 17th 2015; Distance 113.3 km (70.4 miles). Total Distance: 656.8 km (408.2 miles)
Once I got away from Can Tho towards Vi Thahn the scenery became some of the nicest I had seen in the Mekong.
Lots of paddy fields with farmers working in their hats (just like you imagine in a stereotypical image of Vietnamese rice farmers); marvellous.
I felt very strong and soon reached Vi Thahn and decided to head to Rach Gia, despite it being by far the furthest I would ever have cycled.
About 5 km later road works and gravel roads started, and lasted for the next 35 km, the energy drained from my legs rapidly, and I crawled into Rach Gia, aching everywhere, in a small gear and at about 15 kph despite the final road in having a good surface and as flat as a pancake; last 5 km there was little energy left in my legs.
Spent a few days working in Rach Gia then jumped on a ferry to Phu Quoc for six days on a tropical island.
Other non point to point rides when Cycling Vietnam
In addition to the main point to point rides I have also done a few rides in other areas, especially when I have had work to do, and wanted to put a few miles in when I had not ridden for a few days, and during my time in Phu Quoc.
Presently these add up to about a further 72 miles (115 km). I suppose that exploring around should be included in my total km/mile count. I’ll think on it.
Rach Gia towards Ha Tien, about 20 miles
This was a dreadful journey. I was initially thinking of taking this road to Ha Tien (about 90km), and then getting the ferry to Phu Quoc.
Anyway, I had decided to get the ferry to Phu Quoc from Rach Gia instead (8.45 am; cost 340,000 VND for the ferry & 50,000 VND for the cycle (Total 11 GBP; 17 US$; 16 euro).
I thought I’d do a round trip to the half-way point to Ha Tien, then once I’d got to Ha Tien (Ferry from Phu Quoc to Ha Tien; 8 am or 1 pm; 210,000 VND + 50,000 for the cycle; total cost: 7.5 GBP; 11.5 US$; 11 Euro) I’d do a similar trip from Ha Tien towards Rach Gia, to link the points up, and complete the cycle route.
Anyway, the road from Rach Gia to Ha Tien is by far the worst and most dangerous road I’ve personally cycled in Vietnam. It seemed to have an unnatural number of local buses and tour buses, that tended to drive past me very closely and then immediately pull up in front of me to let someone off/on, then repeat the process, there were a similar amount of heavily loaded lorries on the road, which to add to my woes was potholed like hell. After 12 km, I hit major road construction, called it a day and rode back to Rach Gia.
Rides around Phu Quoc
On my journey from Can Tho to Rach Gia (largely through road work gravel) I noticed a click coming from the back of the bike, I thought it was gear/chain related, but I couldn’t find anything. Anyway, upon closer inspection of my bike in Phu Quoc I found out the cause: a broken spoke; great.
I was really looking forward to cycling around Phu Quoc Island and had three, possibly four trips planned of about 60 to 80km. My plan was to just go with one pannier, carrying a towel, swimming shorts, and some food and drink with me. Then to find some nice isolated beach to chill a while, cycle another 20k or so, and repeat. Anyway the broken spoke put paid to this.
There are no cycle shops I could find in Phu Quoc, and the scooter shops could not help. I read up on it a bit, and apparently if one spoke goes, you should be ok to ride a little, but a second spoke breakage is likely to follow. Ideally, you’d replace the spoke immediately to stop damaging your rim.
With the above in mind, and the fact I really wanted to explore the island, I decided to go for a couple of short rides (40 km or so), without panniers and at a more leisurely pace than what I normally travel at.
As usual, this plan went slightly askew due to road works. On my first trip to the NW of the island, I pretty much rode 10 km of dirt track alongside the beach; it was very pleasant at my much-reduced speed, trying to avoid every bump.
On the second trip south, the same thing happened but worse, as it had been raining the road (read dirt track) I wanted to take was all mud and puddles, it would have been a blast on a 26 inch wheeled bike (new dream bike) but not on mine with a broken spoke, I decided to call it a day.
I did get some nice views on my trips, especially towards the NW of the Island, which is beautiful. In the SW of the island they seem to be building a lot of resorts, glad they are not spoiling the NW coast.
That’s it for now. I have a 15 km trip to get the ferry to Ha Tien, next. I’m hoping I can get a new spoke fixed there (and to buy some spare ones and a spoke key). If not I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’ll probably have to go up to Phnom Penh, and given the states of the roads it may be better to stay on the Vietnam side and head up the Mekong and jump a boat to Phnom Penh. Ideally, I’d get it fixed and head to Kep/Kampot in Cambodia and then towards Battambang, avoiding Phnom Penh altogether (I’ve been there loads of times).
Total Distance since buying bike in October: 1177 km (731 miles).
Total Distance point to point: 656.8 km (408.2 miles).
Total Distance on my SE Asia Tour 771.8 km (479.69 miles)
Weight loss: 4 kg as at Can tho, done a few hundred km since then though, that said ate a lot of western food on Phu Quoc!
Cycling in Vietnam: Awesome sauce.
More specifics on my routes can be found on my Strava page.