How to Prepare for Long-Distance Cycling in South-East Asia

Recently we’ve been asked, in an email from Frederik, how we prepared for our cycling journey through Vietnam. It actually surprised me that I have not written about it before, even though I have spent with Agness two months on a bike, making it through approximately 2500 km of roads in various conditions. This journey was certainly worth the effort, I’d like to get back to long-distance cycling as soon as I can, while I’d strongly support anyone who’s up for this challenge.

Naning border two people are standing with bikes

This is the place where the whole cycling adventure started…

 

Frederik from Belgium is planning a year-long trip to South-East Asia (and maybe even longer!). He asked us several questions and I think some people may  benefit from the answers he received, so I compiled them in here.

Did you bring them from Poland?

We decided to cycle while already being on the road – in China. Therefore, we have bought bikes there.

A bike on the grass

Agness’s bike

 

Although most of us in Europe think that there will be nowhere to buy essentials in Asia – such as bikes, helmets, etc. – we are wrong. There’s pretty much everything you need readily-available stone-throw away from wherever you are, especially in SE Asia, which is often frequented by foreign travellers on bicycles.

My recommendation would be not to worry too much about the equipment. As much as it has to be easy to ride, it will never be 100% reliable and there’s no certainty that someone will not steal it, so make sure your bike is comfortable, but it’s not too expensive. I recommend having light helmet and cycling glasses (with interchangeable lenses for the day and the night). You can use a backpack you would normally have, all you do is simply strap it behind your seat. No need for specialized bicycle sacks. They are not too useful if you want to go trekking or exploring for few days without your bike.

A boy on a bike in Vietnam

On our way to Hanoi

 

How was it to ride your bike in South-East Asia?

Cycling will be very helpful to find cheaper accommodation, because you can easily and quickly find another place to stay. Most of the places will have hostels /guest houses scattered pretty much everywhere. Plus, people will often invite you to stay overnight with them and their families.

Three people are cooking on the road with bike in Vietnam

Cooking scrambled eggs with a little help of locals

 

Was it very tiring?

If you had to cycle all the way without stopping, it would be very tiring. However, you will set your pace and your breaks, plus every night you will restore your energy. Remember to eat and drink a lot (water!). You are your own boss and if you need a break for a week, take it. Also, as you go along you will build more strength and will be able to do more miles without extra effort.

Vietnamese scenery mountains

Passing by mountains and hills

 

Did you store them somewhere?

When it comes to storing the bike, you should take it with you everywhere and leave it in hostels / guest houses when you want to go walking without it. While you have to be careful, it’s not as bad as you may think. Most people in SE Asia are very good and honest, especially off the beaten tracks.

 

Tell me everything, the proc & cons, if you can :)

From my point of view, cycling is the best way to really experience a country. It has it’s pros as well as cons, of course, but I’m sure you will love the experience and will have plenty stories to tell. I think the biggest disadvantage of cycling is that when you start, you can’t stop. You will always want to go back to long-distance cycling. It’s very addictive!

Traffic jam in Hanoi a girl on a bike

Finally in Hanoi!

 

How much did you pay for your bike in China? New or second-hand?

We have bought two new (good quality and light) bikes for around $400 each, but as it turned out later, it was a mistake. We should have bought cheap (up to $50) ones. If you have a cheap second hand bikes, it will still get you where you want to go, while you don’t have to fret about locking it outside overnight. Whatever happens, you will probably be able to sell it for the price you bought it for and it wouldn’t be the end of your journey should someone steal it. In SE Asia bikes are a common way of transport, so buying one will not be a problem.

Hanoi road

 

When you started, were you an amateur? Is it feasible as an amateur? Of course I’m used to riding my bike in the city, but not for several hours a day.

We had no biking experience whatsoever. You’d thought it will be hard to get used to, but honestly it won’t be. It’s not like you’re running a marathon. You can stop whenever you feel tired and go as far as you, and only you, want. If you want to go over your limit, you will, if you don’t, you won’t. You need no experience, you’ll get it quickly.

 

How many kilometers did you a day, approximately?

We did between 40 and 160 km a day, depending on how many hours we rode, how did we feel and the most importantly, how much the sun allowed us to. In Vietnam, it’s not the lack of sun, but scorching sun, that stops you. On average we did around 80 km a day.

A boy is cycling and there is a beautiful sunrise behind him

Sometimes the weather surprised us in a nice way

 

Do you need to have a good understanding of bicycle repairing?

We have no clue about repairing bikes. Well, I can screw a screw, but that’s just about it. What you’ll find is that local bikes break very often, so there’s always someone around who can cheaply do it for you (cheaply means well under $1 for a puncture).

 

Could you easily take your bike on buses, trains, etc? For example when there was a part that you couldn’t/didn’t want to ride?

Yes, in China we didn’t have to pay more, but in SE Asia it’s a good reason for them to double the price. The annoyance is that you pay more. Nevertheless, there are routes where you will struggle to get on with your bike. I’d recommend hitch-hiking with your bike then. You’ll be amused how many things can fit into a small pick-up/car/motorbike.

Vietnamese road

Stunning scenery

 

Was it ever dangerous on the road?

In terms of traffic, well, all the road users will leave a 3cm safety gap between you and their vehicles… scary at times. I think it’s rather safe, because they are used to many other people on the road, however there was an incident some time ago when 2 bloggers were killed cycling in Thailand. We never had any accident, but I’m very careful, while Agness does exactly the same thing as I’m doing when we ride (she has no clue about road traffic, whatsoever).
I had two situations were people wanted to rob me, but I also had a pepper gas, therefore I never lost anything.

 

Good luck !

To Frederik and everyone else who is up for a challenge.  Cycling through any country will enrich you with many experiences others only dream of, and at the same time, it’s really healthy :)

 

Do you have any questions or would like to add to the topic? Please comment.

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{ 44 comments… add one }
  • Emily April 7, 2013, 2:31 am

    Biking SE Asia is such a good idea. A coworker of mine just came back from Vietnam where he rode a motorbike around the country. Since I have no experience on a motorbike, I feel like riding a bicycle may be a better way for me to do it once I go there. Thanks for the info!!

    Reply
    • Cez Krol April 7, 2013, 3:35 am

      Motorbike is a much easier option, but still very good idea. You still get to experience everything that surrounds you, go to places less travelled and interact with people on the way, while at the same time it’s not so tiring and time consuming. Same to you, I prefer cycling though, especially that it’s a safer option (slipping on the road at 10 mph is different to the same accident at 40 mph).

      I hope you’ll manage to go long-distance cycling. It’s truly worth it.

      Reply
  • Bennett April 7, 2013, 3:35 am

    There are some really great tips here guys! Your adventures on your Vietnam cycle ride were awesome!

    Reply
    • Cez Krol April 8, 2013, 5:47 am

      Thanks Sarah, we really miss those days.

      Reply
  • The Guy April 7, 2013, 9:23 pm

    That is scary that people wanted to rob you but good for you for being so prepared.

    You both must be so fit now after cycling for two months, wow! It sounds like a great idea and you can admire the scenery at your own pace, something you struggle to do when travelling fast, such as in a car/train.

    I think it is brave as well as I know how crazy the driving is in China and I’ve seen lots of accidents. Also the last thing I knew was that you needed a licence for a bicycle in China.

    Reply
    • Cez Krol April 8, 2013, 5:58 am

      Well, there were only 8 guys, I was alone at 2am and had a laptop in my hand, nothing to worry about (when the pepper gas works).

      I loved the whole journey and yes, it made us stronger (legs). Shame there’s no way to train upper body while cycling, so that there is s a balance between lower and upper body.

      I’ve never heard about a licence for bicycles in China, you scared me now, I need to ask someone.

      Reply
  • Leigh April 8, 2013, 1:43 am

    My hat goes off to you for cycling on your own through Vietnam. I did it with a tour and found it to be challenging because of the traffic – but very beautiful when you could get on quieter backroads. After a few days our confidence grew but I was always on high alert for motorbikes appearing out of nowhere.

    Reply
    • Cez Krol April 8, 2013, 6:11 am

      My hat off to you for cycling in so many places around the world ! Then yes, traffic comes from nowhere, and all the time, so after a while it becomes natural that something will appear somewhere. I think this had an influence on our speed, we travelled slower than we would for example in Europe.

      Reply
  • Jennifer April 9, 2013, 3:09 pm

    I think this is such an amazing thing that you and Agness did. I bet you got to see so much great scenery. I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to ride a bicycle in Vietnam as I’ve seen how crazy the traffic can be, however maybe it is better in the more rural areas. We hired motorbikes in Laos to get around to waterfalls, local villages etc and we’d like to go back and do a big trip around laos on a motorbike.

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder April 10, 2013, 4:26 am

      That’s true. We saw amazing places and passed by local villages where we met friendly locals. Some of them tried to rip us off though, but in general that was a great experience. I bet you really enjoyed motorbiking the waterfalls. We hired a motorbike in Thailand once and Cez got crushed!! No more motorbikes for us :)))

      Reply
  • Jess @UsedYorkCity April 9, 2013, 8:45 pm

    So cool! Love that people invite you inside, that’s so welcoming! And also good to know that you don’t need to spend a ton of money to get a good bike that will get you where you need to go!;-)

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder April 10, 2013, 4:52 am

      Exactly, but sometimes we were charged extra for our bike :(((. So locals were extremely hospitable and that was so amazing.

      Reply
  • Carmen April 10, 2013, 2:55 am

    Agness, you look exhausted but so happy! Awesome idea guys!

    Reply
  • Steven April 11, 2013, 7:54 am

    That must have been a journey of your life! I really admire you for doing so. 2 months on a bike – that’s insane!

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder April 12, 2013, 9:59 am

      It was an amazing lifetime experience. Really exhausting but we have such great memories from Vietnam and plenty of interesting stories to share with our kids in the future :)

      Reply
  • Halida A. April 19, 2013, 11:29 pm

    Thank you for the post, Cez! Really inspiring. I have always love riding bicycle, but never really thought of cycling through SE Asian countries.
    It’s not common anymore to see people riding bicycles in big cities as they now have motorcycles. I think it’ll be a good start for me to explore my hometown by bike (I lived there for about three years and missed it like crazy). Thanks again, Cez! :-)

    Reply
    • Cez Krol April 24, 2013, 6:03 am

      My pleasure Halida. I’m happy it’s inspiring people to cycle.

      To be honest, it doesn’t matter too much where you cycle – you’ll always discover something new.

      Good luck on your journey!

      Reply
  • [email protected] April 20, 2013, 2:46 pm

    Hi Cez and Agness, what a terrific adventure. I have done some biking trips within the US but not outside. It’s interesting to read about your experiences and valuable tips. I love that you cooked on the road and got help from the locals. What a priceless experience!

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder April 23, 2013, 2:42 am

      Thanks guys a lot! It was an amazing adventure indeed!

      Reply
  • Sofia April 29, 2013, 5:40 am

    Thanks for this article, some very useful information there.

    We met an older man who was biking his way through South East Asia (he seemed to go to exactly the same places we did since we bumped into him in every country!). He had a foldable bike which seemed ok, but I think he took the bus quite often and used the bike mostly to bike around in the areas he visited.

    I would like to bike through a country (or a few) one day, my only concern would be wi-fi haha! I guess I would just have to take a week off instead ;)

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder May 1, 2013, 5:11 am

      Thanks Sofia for sharing. Yes, we also bumped into some foreign bikers when cycling though Vietnam. Some of them also took local buses quite often and used their bikes mostly to bike around in the areas they visited. You should try it one day. It’s exhausting, but so much fun. Cez’s planning to cycling Japan soon :)

      Reply
  • Natalia | Always Trekking May 21, 2013, 8:20 pm

    Ohh! How nice! This is right up my alley. How many km did you a day on average? Did you find it difficult to navigate through the country?

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder May 22, 2013, 3:42 am

      We did around 60-120 km per day depending on how tired we were and how hot it was. It was not difficult to navigate through the country. We had our Google map, followed the road signs and asked locals for direction if we got lost. Great fun! :)

      Reply
  • mana August 3, 2013, 8:25 am

    It’s a nice option to travel on a bike when you have a pepper-spray and a knife in hand.
    How did you transport your bikes from china to vietnam?

    Reply
    • Cez Krol August 11, 2013, 3:26 pm

      I’d say it’s kind of essential for your safety and peace of mind. Thanks to this you won’t be scared to go where there are no people, which is a must sometimes if you want to find cheaper places to stay or eat.

      We transported them by trains and a bus. There is no problem with that in China, as many people take a lot of bulky staff with them. You won’t even have to pay extra if you want to do the same in China.

      Reply
  • Jo October 20, 2013, 4:43 am

    Hi There,

    I’m currently planning a cycling trip from Hanoi to Chang Mai (I live in Saigon).

    I’ve done quite a bit of research re: gear, but would love your input.

    What did you bring? And what did you not bring and wish you had, or what did you bring and find totally useless?

    Cheers!

    Jo

    Reply
  • Phunawa April 28, 2014, 5:15 am

    I love biking! Nice pictures. Just feeling the wind on the long highway. :D I tried biking within ranges of the beach resorts in kharon. And I found it more enjoyable and appreciative trip rather than the beach itself.

    Reply
  • Oliver December 15, 2014, 6:44 pm

    Hi!
    How is biking in china? My plan is to start from gangzhou and then to off the vietnam/laos/camobodja. What ive heard is that traffick is crazy. Im thinking that maybe its a better idea to take a train to vietnam. What do you guys think?

    Reply
  • Sam December 30, 2014, 7:46 am

    Hey Agness and Cez,

    Love the blog, it’s been super helpful! You guys have totally gotten me super excited about my upcoming trip. I’m planning on doing a long bike trip covering the greater portion of Taiwan over two and a half weeks, leaving late January 2015.
    Not sure if you guys are still checking these or answering comments, but I was just wondering if you guys had any important food-related tips for these long distance bike trips? I know finding power bars and that sort of thing can be quite difficult to find in parts of SE Asia, so what did you guys find was a good take-along kind of power snack?

    Enjoy the travels.

    Cheers,
    Sam

    Reply
    • Cez Krol December 30, 2014, 8:52 am

      Thanks for your comment and kind words.

      We always had some bananas and nuts with us and stopped for a snack quite frequently (we cycled in summer in Vietnam, when it’s very hot). I also love Vietnamese coffee, so that was something that I drunk at least twice daily.

      I don’t think Taiwan will be hot in January, so I’d say it’s a great time you picked. You’ll cover a lot of ground :)

      Good luck and keep us updated!

      Reply
  • Sam Hausner January 5, 2015, 10:46 am

    What was your experience with stray/wild dogs? I live in Thailand and am hoping to do a bike tour of the region in March. I’ve noticed just here that dogs can be very aggressive with bikers. Did this happen with you?

    Reply
    • Cez Krol January 6, 2015, 12:32 am

      I had a pepper gas with me. Didn’t have to use it, but it was reassuring. Just have it handy, and when a dog comes too close you can use it. You can buy pepper gas in Thailand (I bought one there).

      Enjoy your trip!

      Reply
  • rebecca July 9, 2015, 1:20 am

    Very inspiring, I have been thinking about cycling around South East Asia. This is a great beginners article to read. I follow your blog often but found this on google. I didn’t even think about checking your blog for tips, although, it does make sense being such a money saving option :)

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder July 12, 2015, 7:39 am

      Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • simone November 19, 2015, 6:18 am

    hi. i have the same idea. i will buy a bicycle in hanoi. can you give me details about the roads you took, because i am a little bit afraid of the traffic.
    thanks in advance.
    simone

    Reply
  • Gary April 30, 2016, 3:24 am

    Thanks for the article as it’s straight to the point and easy enough to understand. Particularly noting the points about not making expensive purchases since repairs are readily available all over etc. Good advice for the rest of us!

    Reply
  • Kip May 18, 2016, 9:01 pm

    Hi everyone. Great website!! Amazing what you did and thanks for the brilliant photos, and candid anecdotes from your memoirs.

    I did a month on a bike from Copenhagen to Berlin in Sept October. Was grueling, but rewarding and never mind I looked like a Greek God after; lol, so toned and in such great shape. Was wonderful not performing in the sin of all sins, gluttony on a daily basis a few times a day and rationing what I had. I did this trek on 1-2.5 Euro a day. Shopped at places like Nette 2000 throughout Denmark (like a Job Lot in the US, just with quality food)…bought half priced day old breads and jams, and left coins on roadside stands along the really rural routes along the Baltic and the farm areas into Faxe and down into Gedser and eventually the ferry to Germany (Rostock). I was not prepared, not prepared physically, not geared properly. I eventually got to Berlin. Then biked from Munich to Salzburg, then Salzburg almost to Vienna, but it was getting cold and I was running out of money, and the very last thing I wanted to do was stay in a hostel or a big city. Nothing like a city to ruin the trip. Love Copenhagen and Salzburg and Munich, but it rips away at your soul, after a day or two in the cities, and you eagerly want to depart ASAP, as I am sure many would agree.

    I am prepping mentally and physically for a trek of all treks. It was up in the air, but now I am doing it, but with a good deal of cash, but only spending it on teas and coffee’s and some pubs to meet the locals. I bought a very expensive tent, one person, green to blend in, and I am leaving June 1 for London, seeing some football matches, and then flying to Ibiza, and on June 14th, Biking, ferrying and hiking from there to Madrid, Barcelona, to Amsterdam for a dance festival, and then throughout all of Italy and Greece, eventually, if I make it unscathed, to Rio for the Olympics in middle August. I would love to share my experiences with you, and should have my own little site up within the week. You’ve been an inspiration to make it a longer journey this year, and I am going to stock up on pepper spray once in Brazil… :) just in case, Rio isn’t Southern Denmark, pepper spray and then some I was highly advised upon :) Thanks for doing what you do!

    Reply
  • laura July 28, 2016, 2:35 pm

    hey! This is really helpful! I’m hoping to ride in SE asia but still trying to gather info on everything. The last bike trip i was on we would sometimes ride for hours into the night because we couldn’t find a place to stay or even a camp ground. did that ever happen here? Also it would be really helpful if you posted a map of your start/stop and the route you went. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Agness Walewinder July 30, 2016, 4:03 pm

      Hey! There are always some hostels/motels around so don’t worry about it!

      Reply
  • John August 23, 2016, 8:10 pm

    So you didn’t camp out at all? Would you say that because camping is not possible (e.g. because of lack of suitable sites) or because it’s not necessary (e.g. other inexpensive accommodations)? What about hammock camping?

    Reply
    • Cez Krol August 24, 2016, 2:54 am

      Hey John, it’s actually both. Cheap accommodation is everywhere, and finding a spot to put up a tent not that easy. Hammock would be possible to set up, but mosquitoes would eat you alive (and malaria would take care of your remains).

      Reply

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