Introduction

Vietnam is a beautiful, diverse and heavily regional country. With tropical beaches in the south, dense jungle in the central highlands and rugged, karst mountains in the north – this is a country that will surely suit every cyclists’ taste.

When you mix in the mouth watering food options, delicious coffee, abundant cheap accommodation, interesting Sino-Asian culture, varied religious outlooks, approachable language and friendly locals — it’s really hard not to like Vietnam!

Whether you’re looking at getting a 15 day, 1 month or 3 month visa (like us), Vietnam has more than enough to keep you cycling & energised every day. Lots of cyclists make use of Vietnam’s great overnight buses to cover more ground and see more of the country. We did this a couple of times and would definitely recommend it if you’re short on time, or you want to pack in some highlights!

More info on this and much more below…

Our Route

We spent 3 months cycling the country from south to north. Our route took us from the gentle, coastal roads in the south; to exploring the remote Ho Chi Minh Road in the central highlands and finally ending up cycling the impressive Ha Giang Loop,  hugging the Chinese border in the extreme north all the way to Dien Bien Phu, where we crossed in Laos.

Below, you’ll see our full route. To open the map full-screen in a new browser tab, click on the ⛶ symbol in the top right corner of the map.

You can see all our route recommendations at the end of this handbook

Essential Information

Below, you’ll find tabbed sections that have all the golden nuggets of information we think you’ll need.

To open & close the tabs, simply click the + icon

Budget & Money Matters

231,218 vnd per person per day

Our daily spend in Vietnam was 231,218vnd pppd (9.96 USD / 14.42AUD / 7.70GBP). This includes all food & drink, accommodation, entry fees, short-distance transport.

Change it up

Vietnam Dong (VND) is the currency of Vietnam. Below you’ll find the typical exchange rates for major currencies (as of November 2019)

  • 1 USD = 23,195.63 VND
  • 1 EUR = 25,634.47 VND
  • 1 GBP = 29,754.89 VND
  • 1 AUD = 15,926.38 VND

Cash is king

95% of transactions in Vietnam happen with cash. Some hotels, shops & restaurants will take card, but really only in the bigger cities.

Watch out for fees

ATM’s are widely available across the country, but they all charge a withdrawal fee and these charges range heavily from 10,000vnd to 6%. We found that with my Mastercard, EXIMBANK was the best. We could withdraw 3,000,000vnd for 10,000vnd, but unfortunately their atm’s were only in the bigger cities. The next best option for me was AGRIBANK which is everywhere, including more remote areas. They charge 22,000vnd for a maximum of 2,000,000vnd per withdrawal. There’s also CITIBANK and HSBC, which I hear are good if you bank with the respective banks, but I didn’t use them so can’t comment on their function.

*Top Tip* — withdraw larger lump sums from atm’s rather than paying multiple fees.

Typical Costs

Typical costs for Vietnam are pretty hard to list because the country is so regional, and at times feels like 3 countries in one. Of course the larger cities will offer both dirt cheap and wildly expensive options, but this is our best attempt at picking the most common value for the daily essentials…

  • Motel/Inn (“Nha Nghi”) – 150,000-250,000 vnd
  • Hotel (“Khach San”) – 200,000 – 400,000 vnd
  • Noodle soup (“Pho”) – 25,000 – 35,000 vnd
  • Fried rice (“Com Rang”) – 20,000 – 30,000 vnd 
  • Filled baguette/sandwich (“Banh Mi”) – 10,000 – 30,000 vnd
  • Bunch of bananas – 10,000 – 20,000 vnd 
  • Western style food – 30,000 – 150,000 vnd
  • Vegetarian buffet (“Chay”) –  30,000 – 40,000 vnd 
  • Vietnamese coffee without milk – 20,000vnd – 25,000 vnd 
  • Vietnamese coffee with milk – 25,000 – 35,000 vnd 
  • Italian style coffee – 40,000 – 70,000 vnd 
  • Fruit shake (“Shin Tố”) – 15,000 – 40,000 vnd
  • Litre of drinking water – 10,000 – 20,000 vnd
  • Hiring a motorbike for a day – 100,000 – 150,000 vnd 

Note on costs: I don’t drink alcohol so can’t offer much advice on this. I think generally beer is around 5,000 – 8,000 vnd.

Accommodation options

Nha Nghi…everywhere!

Accommodation is abundant all across Vietnam. Due to the staggeringly low price, we mainly stayed in family run motels called “Nha Nghi” most nights. Prices range from 100,000-300,000vnd, but we mostly paid 150,000vnd for two people (75,000vnd pppd)

You choose…

Hotels are very common too. They tend to be a bit “cleaner” and therefore a bit more pricey (200,000 – 400,000vnd). They care called “Kach San”

Camping in the paddies?

Wild camping is absolutely an option, but due to the amount of rice paddies everywhere, it can be quite challenging to find a good (dry) spot. That being said, we found great camping all along the southern coast line, the Ho Chi Minh Road from Khe San – Phong Nha, the Ha Giang Loop, Cao Bang and in Ninh Binh/Tam Coc areas.

Top tips for saving money & not getting ripped off

Haggle!

Vietnamese culture is very trade oriented. They expect some haggling and will more than likely raise the price of things on you because you’re not local. As a general rule, we take about 30-40% off given price and likely arrive at about 20-25% after some very gentle and polite negotiation. 

Everyone loves a story!

We found that telling people about our story was a really useful tool to gain discounts on accommodation. Of course this won’t work every time and for everyone, but mostly, people discounted rooms from 250k to 150k, because we were upfront about why our budget was so small and we asked for help… 

Learn the key phrases!

A great tip for general travel, but learning enough of the local language, we feel is essential. We’re not talking about becoming fluent, but we found that day-to-day you tend to have the same/similar interactions (hotels, markets, restaurants) and so learning phrases to introduce yourself, ask for the price of a room and basic numbers will really go a long way in helping you save precious cash.

Food & Water

Food is abundant and incredible in Vietnam. Whether you’re a meat eater or vegetarian/vegan, Vietnam has you covered. Just like the language, Vietnamese food is regional and super varied across the country. Of course there’s the staples like pho, fried rice and bahn mi everywhere, but each region has a specialty that they’re fiercely proud of and that will likely blow your mind.

Although much of Vietnamese food culture is centered around meat & fish, the availability of soy meat, mock meat & tofu is abundant. Vegetarians can still try all of the countries most famous dishes, without impact on flavor and as a cheeky bonus, 30-40% cheaper than the meat equivalents – yay! 

We could write for hours about the food in Vietnam, but instead, here’s our run down the the best dishes and some useful tips when ordering:- 

Top Vietnamese dishes you HAVE to try:

  • Bun Thit Nuong – Our joint favorite

A cold noodle salad with BBQ pork, Vietnamese mint, roasted peanuts and a cool, fragrant dressing. The best we found were in Ho Chi Minh, Ninh Binh & Ha Giang city at a restaurant called Blue Sky Foods.

  • Banh Mi – Our kryptonite & savior 

Brought to the country during the French colonial period, banh mi is the every man’s snack of choice and a staple for touring cyclists. We had 3-4 banh mi every single day. Across the country you’ll find tonnes of variations from beef balls, to sardines. But the most popular and traditional is roast pork with pate, shredded pickled vegetables and chilli sauce. 

*Cheeky tip* – We found that carrying a few plain banh mi in our panniers, that we could fill with peanut butter, banana, nutella and other awesomeness was a game changer. To order just plain bread, use the phrase, “banh mi khong” – (bread no). 

  • Banh Xeo – Street food at it’s finest

A crisp, savory pancake that is filled with bean sprouts, fresh herbs and shrimp. Then re-stuffed into either a light rice paper sheet, or lettuce and garnished with basil, mint and mustard leaves. An absolute must try and easily made vegetarian following the same tips below.

  • Pho – The most famous dish in the whole of Vietnam

Pronounced ‘Fur’ this scrumptious noodle dish is eaten at anytime of the day, but mostly for breakfast. Pho generally comes as beef (pho bo) or chicken (pho ga) served with a clear, wonderful broth over flat rice noodles and flavorings of herbs. Optional garnish of sliced red chillies, fresh lime, bean sprouts, holy basil and cilantro. 

  • Chay Buffet – Vegetarian Buffet (not just for veggies)

Found all over the country, these vegetarian buffets saved us time and time again. In the larger cities, you’ll be able to fill your plate as many times as you like for circa 30,000 vnd. In the more regional areas, search on your maps for “Chay” or “An Chay” and you should find at least one. Our favorite was in Hanoi and called – Com Chay Dieu Tam

  • Cau Lau – Hoi An’s specialty 

Originating in Hoi An (where we had it too), cau lau is life changing. Thick wheat noodles topped with juicy, roast pork (soy sub) and drenched in a herby, chilli broth, plenty of Vietnamese greens, bean sprouts, peanuts and often a side of light prawn crackers.

  • Cafe Trung – Vietnamese Egg Coffee

Originating from Hanoi, whipped egg is layered over hot espresso to create a light, fluffy coffee that keeps you coming back for more. Think of an egg custard, or uncooked whipped meringue. Absolutely incredible… ahhh I miss it already! 

The best we found was in Hanoi again at Cafe Yen

Awesome tips for Vegetarians:

  • As vegetarians, a few key phrases are important to get your banh mi game right. As banh mi is traditionally a meat based dish, the phrases “banh mi khong thit” – (bread no meat) and “banh mi chay” – (bread vegetarian) will enable you to get these delicious morsels at any street vendor across the country! 

Sometimes, in super remote areas you might find it difficult to find strict vegetarian food, so it’s useful to know a few staples that every restaurant has regardless of where you are, ‘cos let’s face it… going to bed hungry isn’t great! 

  • Vegetable – Rau (in the south) Xau (in the north) 
  • Morning glory fried with garlic – Rau muong xao toi 
  • Com rang toi – Garlic fried rice 
  • Mi xao chay – Fried noodles vegetarian

Drinking water

While the tap water is not drinkable in Vietnam, we didn’t buy a single bottle of water in 3 months. 

  • Fill-up at restaurants from their bottled water supply after eating meals.
  • Stop at petrol stations and check to see if they have the big jugs of water. The water is clean and they will often allow you to fill-up your water bottles if you ask nicely.
  • Alternatively use a portable water filter. We use the Sawyer Mini and it’s RAD!

Sim cards & data

Data… all the data

There’s three main providers in Vietnam – Vinaphone, Mobifone, Vinatel. We both used Vinaphone for the full 3 months and never experienced and problems, so for that reason they get our vote. That said, we met other people who also said Vinatel was great too. I think they’re much of a muchness… 

With Vinaphone, we opted for the 89,000 vnd 30day package which gave us an almighty 60gb of data, sms and voice calls – though we never used the later. This was the best deal by far at the time, so we downloaded all the podcasts, maps and music we wanted… what luxury!

Language & Phrases

Easier than some, but definitely not easy

Coming from Cambodia where we had no chance of deciphering Khmer script, we were excited to learn Vietnamese. Due to both the Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century and  French colonialism in the 19th century, Vietnamese follows Latin script. This makes it (comparatively) much easier to read and learn.

NOTE: anything in (brackets) is my phonetic understanding of the word.

Everyday essentials

  • Hello – Xin Chao – (Zin Ciao)
  • Goodbye – Tam Biet – (Ta Biet) 
  • My name is – Ten Toi La – (Den Doi La)
  • How are you? – Ban Khoe khong – (Ban Quay Kong?)
  • Thank you – Cam On – (Cam Urn)
  • Excuse me – Xin Loi – (Zin Loy)
  • No problem – (Com cozzi)
  • Yes – Dung – (Duun)
  • No – Khong – (Kong)

Safety & Sanitary

  • Can you help me? – Ban Co The Guip Toi Duoc Khong – (Ban Koh Tay Zup Doi Der Kong)
  • I’m lost – Toi Bi Lac – (Toy Bee Lak)
  • Toilet – Phong Ve Sinh – (Fong Ve Sin)
  • Where is the toilet? – O Dau Phong Ve Sinh – (O Dough Fong Ve Sin)
  • Hospital – Benh Vien – (Meng Ve En)

Basic Numbers

  1. Mot
  2. Hai
  3. Ba
  4. Boom
  5. Naam
  6. Saww
  7. Baie
  8. Taam
  9. Jin
  10. Muoi
  • Hundred – Tram – (Cham)
  • Thousands – Nghin (Neegh)

Buying & Ordering 

  • How much? – Bao Nhiêu Tien (bow new dhen)
  • Can I have – Toi Co The Co – (Toy coh Tay Kaur)
  • The bill please? – Tinh Tien (Dun Dien)
  • Hungry – Doi Bung – (Doy Boo)
  • Delicious – Ngon Wha *in the north* / Ngon Whey *in the south* – (Nngon Wah/Whey)

Food & Drink Items

  • Beer – Bia – (Be-ah)
  • Water – Nuoc – (Nurk) 
  • Ice – Nuoc Da – (Nurk Dah)
  • Hot Water – Nuoc Nam – (Nurk Num)
  • Coffee – Cafe – (Cafeh)
  • Fruit Shake – Sinh To – (Sin To)

Vegetarian Essentials

  • I am vegetarian – Toi La An Chay – (Toy La Ann Chai)
  • No meat – Khong Thit – (Kong Tit) 
  • Vegetarian – An Chay – (Ann Chai)

Introduction

Our favorite routes in Vietnam

We spent 3 months cycling the country from south to north. Our 3,123 km route took us from the gentle, coastal roads in the south; to exploring the remote Ho Chi Minh Road in the central highlands and finally ending up cycling the impressive Ha Giang Loop, hugging the Chinese border in the extreme north all the way to Dien Bien Phu, where we crossed in Laos.

We did a lot of riding in Vietnam, both super remote and in the bustling cities. Below, you’ll find a collection of our favorite routes, complete with:

  • Annotated google maps
  • A Komoot map
  • Essential statistics
  • Important considerations
  • Our highlights & lowlights
  • Things we’d do differently

Our Top 4

The Ho Chi Minh Road

Our favorite route! We just wished we found it sooner...

The Ha Giang Loop

The infamous Ha Giang Loop. Scenic, breathtaking and well, well worth the effort

Giving China a hug

A completely accidental route, but ever since we rode it, we’ve been telling anyone that’ll listen to us about it. This is a must ride!

Coconuts, palm trees & white sand

A national park that's easy to miss... But boy you'd regret it if you did!