Blinding lightning flashes through the dark sky. The swollen clouds grumble their agreement. Leaves tremble and are torn from their perches. The wind snarls and the torrential downpour heightens to a roar.
The very cows low in terror.
Along the muddy road, two lost bicyclists struggle against the gale with the storm worsening by the second.
With no other options, the cyclists are forced to seek shelter from a small group of homes. After the local villager realizes the situation, he graciously ushers them into his home where he provides shelter and food.
It was experiences like this that opened Casey Siemasko’s eyes to the wonders of Vietnam travel… all from the seat of her bicycle. Learn how Casey’s adventurous decision to cycle across Vietnam became a journey of self-motivation and inspiration…
Vietnam Travel with Casey Siemasko
How did you decided to cycle Vietnam?
Cycling Vietnam was a totally random decision.
I had originally been training for a marathon that would take place in Danang, Vietnam, but for a lack of time and mostly commitment I let the training slip by the wayside. I was disappointed with myself; I knew I still wanted to accomplish something big, and to experience Vietnam in an active way. I had recently taken a three-day cycling jaunt in Taiwan, and the experience stuck with me.
Why not attempt to cycle across all of Vietnam?
I had known for a while I would be in Vietnam from August to October, but my decision to complete the journey on bike was only made a few weeks before my departure.
When did you go?
In the late summer. Crazy, I know.
How did you get bikes?
We actually bought them! Everyone in Vietnam has bikes, though admittedly the majority of them are not very good quality. It was easy to find a decent bike in just an afternoon, and it only set me back $250. I was able to sell it back at the end of the trip, and overall I think it was less expensive than it would have been to take buses and trains to all the places I visited.
How long was the journey?
Almost exactly 1600 km (994 miles).
The total journey was 45 days, but we probably cycled only about 30 of them. The rest were rest days or time spent in the major cities/tourist areas.
How far did you cycle each day?
This number actually varied a lot. There was one day where we only cycled 25 km (20 miles), and another day where we cycled upwards of 100 km (62 miles). We had plenty of time to adjust our schedule, so we also planned in rest days. I don’t think I realized how crucial these were in keeping motivated!
What were your daily stops along the way?
Vietnam has lots of small vendors on the side of the road. It was pretty easy to find places to stop anytime we needed a Revive (Vietnam’s version of Gatorade) or a coffee. I also drank a lot of coconuts.
In the heat, we would stop every few hours to sit in the shade and re-hydrate—it only took one close call with heat exhaustion to realize how important these were.
Of course, I also had to stop to take lots of photographs of the beautiful scenery and friendly people along the way.
What was your daily budget?
On the days that we cycled, I spent less than $25 a day. This was staying in basic accommodation and eating local food, but it was still very doable.
How did you plan your route?
This was one of the most difficult parts.
I had heard horror stories of the traffic and road conditions down Vietnam’s major Highway 1. A lot of the places we wanted to visit were on the coast, but the most beautiful and off-the-beaten-track towns were on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
Ultimately we found a fellow blogger that had completed a similar journey and used him for inspiration, while adjusting the route to see all the towns and cities we wanted to.
We stuck largely to Vietnam’s interior but also hit up the coast on occasion. We were continually adjusting our route up until the very end.
Flexibility is insanely important if you want to cycle Vietnam.
What gear did you pack for the journey?
Too much! But I would suggest bringing a first aid kit, cycling shorts, lots of sun block, an emergency tire repair kit, and a GPS system. A simple Google maps app was crucial.
How were the roads conditions?
This depends on where you go.
If you stick to Highway 1, then you’ll have a large shoulder and relatively good conditions. There is a lot of traffic, but there’s also a quasi-logical flow to it.
As soon as you get off Highway 1, expect road conditions to deteriorate quickly. There were entire days we were cycling over rocks, potholes, and mud.
Vietnam’s very mountainous, but that’s half the fun!
And no matter where you choose to cycle be ready for incessant honking. It’s the Vietnamese way of saying, “Hey, I’m here, watch out.”
What should women pack for Vietnam travel?
Cycling shorts are key. They really make biking so much more comfortable.
I always recommend to women traveling in Southeast Asia that they bring tampons, as these are not always readily available. Also, some places in Vietnam, such as Dalat, are quite cool. A light jacket and clothing you can layer will come in handy.
Other than that, don’t pack much, especially if you are going to be lugging it on a bike.
Is there a gender divide in Vietnam? What can women travelers expect?
I found Vietnam to be a very safe for women. You’ll find that women work very hard; often they are the ones running small businesses and hotels, and they are very respected within the society.
As always, just follow general safety precautions you would anywhere in the world, such as avoiding drinking too much, don’t walk alone at night, etc.
Are there any culture shocks women should expect in Vietnam?
One thing that is always difficult for me is when I see a family of four on a motorbike, with everyone wearing helmets except for the small child.
Also, women are extremely open and friendly. I often found women putting their arms around me or linking arms after we had just met. This lack of a personal bubble might make some feel uncomfortable.
How did you feel about the culture and people of Vietnam?
Vietnam has a bit of a bad reputation, which I find to be extremely unfortunate. I only experienced amazing generosity during my time there.
For example, one day we got stuck in the middle of nowhere during a torrential downpour—even the cows were going crazy! A poor, rural family took us in, fed us, and gave us a place to sleep for the night, without asking for anything in return.
I think in the more touristy places, visitors can expect to get ripped off a bit more, and it is certainly frustrating knowing that you are being charged double or even triple what the locals are paying.
However, by traveling through many areas that never receive any tourists, we experienced a warm and inviting culture.
What are some typical accommodations and what can visitors expect?
Accommodations can be very basic or provide 5-star services. It’s all up to you and your budget. We paid between $8 and $15 a night on average for a comfortable bed with private bathroom, hot water, WiFi, and almost always cable. Don’t expect breakfast to be included with very basic rooms.
What are three traditional meals (and the best drink)?
Vietnamese cuisine is so delicious it’s almost impossible to pick just three!
- Phở is arguably Vietnam’s most famous dish worldwide. Flat rice noodles, steaming broth, shaved pieces of beef (bo) or chunks of chicken (ga), and a handful of herbs constitute this simple but savory dish.
- Cao lầu is a specialty of Hoi An; For this dish, think wide rice noodles, thinly sliced pork, fresh lettuce and herbs, and a heaping pile of bean sprouts, topped off with crispy, deep-fried dough and fresh squeezed lime. It’s light but flavorful, with the perfect blend of crunchy, crispy, and slightly chewy.
- Finally, Bánh xèo are like deep-fried, Vietnamese-style crepes. The fried rice batter pancakes come served with rice paper and of course an abundant serving of greens.
- And for a drink, you just can’t go to Vietnam without trying Vietnamese coffee! It’s best served over ice with a generous amount of sweetened condensed milk.
What is the most common misconception about Vietnam?
Well I am American, so before I went, a lot of my family and friends expressed genuine concern over what the Vietnamese would think of me (as a result of the Vietnamese War, of course).
However, while the ramifications of the war are still very much present, I never felt any hostility towards the fact that I was American.
This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the majority of the Vietnamese population is actually under the age of 40 and has very little memory of the war itself. Regardless, I never once had to say I was Canadian.
What advice or tips can you give women who might be considering cycling in Vietnam?
Go for it! But try to find someone to go with you.
Cycling Vietnam was absolutely amazing, but I definitely couldn’t have imagined doing it solo. There were a lot of places where I think I wouldn’t have felt safe, not because I was a woman, but simply because they were so isolated. Luckily, there are lots of websites (Bicycle Network, for example) where you can find cycling buddies all around the world.
I also wrote a complete DIY guide to cycling Vietnam on my blog for anyone really serious about going for it!
What was your overall experience cycling in Vietnam?
It was hands down the most difficult adventure of my life—and much more physically challenging than just running a marathon would have been! But it was also extremely rewarding.
I met amazing people, saw stunning places, and pushed my body to accomplish something I never would have thought possible.
I discovered a side of Vietnam untouched by tourism, and having that authentic encounter made the sore thighs worth it.
And now, whenever there is something I’m not sure I can tackle, I just think back to that time I cycled through Vietnam. Suddenly the new task at hand gets a lot more doable.
What did you think about this interview?
Join the discussion and leave your comments, tips, and personal experiences in the comments below to help women travelers.
Casey Siemasko is a freelance writer, blogger, and avid traveler. She finds her life inspiration by exploring new places and meeting new people, and seeks to find magic in the most ordinary of places. When she’s off the computer, she enjoys practicing yoga, training for marathons, and scuba diving. Somewhere in there she also found time to write an eBook, 101 Tips to Living in Taiwan. She and her husband comprise the two lovebirds and digital nomads documenting their travel musings at http://acruisingcouple.com.