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