One of the first things you will notice about Vietnam is the number of motor bikes. 37 million of them, according to the department that registers them. So the thought of bicycling around through the mayhem on the streets may fill you with trepidation despite wanting to tick cycling in Vietnam off on your bucket list like me. In fact, you may be so scared, you may be tempted to go with a specialised tour despite being on a tight budget. I’m here to tell you a DIY Cycling Tour of Hoi An is not as frightening as you may think.
I chose Hoi An as a place for my cycling adventure because the roads are nowhere near as busy as they are in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. It has a wonderful vibe and a relaxed atmosphere. In the centre of Hoi An is UNESCO listed so motorbikes and vehicles aren’t allowed, so it’s a great place to put the ‘training wheels’ on before you gain the courage to navigate the town traffic in order to get to the country side. The area is also incredibly flat so it makes pedalling really easy.
Some things to consider before heading out:
- Work out a plan of what you want to see before you set off or you can just free wheel it with no plan at all. I wanted to see a temple, some rice paddy fields and water buffalo. Whichever way, ensure you have an offline Google map of the area before heading off as this allows you to search for directions and nearby points of interest even if have no internet access. In this way you don’t have to worry about getting lost either.
- You’ll need a bike so the best place to get a bike is through your accommodation. If it’s not free, then it will be very cheap at about $2 or $3 a day. We decided to stay at Bach Dang Hoi An Hotel because it was quite cheap and close to central Hoi An.
- Check your bike and make sure it’s in good condition and that everything works. Make sure your bike has a basket so you can put your back pack in there so it doesn’t make your back hot and sweaty.
- Consider buying yourself a helmet. I didn’t use one, but if you feel safer then it’s a good idea to buy one of the many shops selling motorcycle gear. They are not fancy and very uncool (as seen here as my husband buys one for the motorbike back on the farm), but safety first and they are cheap at about $5.
- Bring plenty of water (although there are plenty of places to buy water and food along the way). Prices are cheaper than in town and your money will go back into the local community, helping the poorer areas of the province.
- Hat and sunscreen.
- A sarong in case you encounter a temple and want to go inside.
- Mobile phone for navigating and emergencies. The phone number of people who own the bike in case you get a puncture.
- Your camera.
Tips for cycling in and around Hoi An
- Try to avoid rush hour, which is normally between 7 and 9 am and again at sunset. However, we went in July which is the hottest month in Vietnam so these times were the coolest so we cycled for a couple of hours before sunset and we only encountered one busy road from the beach back to our hotel.
- It can be quite nerve-racking to begin with but it won’t take long to get into the groove and ‘trust’ the local road users despite conditions that would not exist back home. Don’t ever look behind you otherwise, you are at risk of running into someone swerving in front of you. When you come to an intersection, slow down but don’t stop as other’s will anticipate your movements. You can try hand signals if it makes you feel better but they don’t mean much here and I wouldn’t ever consider letting go of the handlebars.
Suggested DIY bicycle tour itineraries
There are plenty of options for your self guided DIY cycling tour of Hoi An so it entirely depends on what your ‘thing’ is.
- If hauling yourself out of bed before dawn to weave in and out of the alleys of the old town excites you, then take the bridge over to the other side of the old town and get a different perspective. Meander back to the dock by the central market between 4 and 5 am for a steaming bowl of pho for breakfast as the fishing boats dock, the sun rises and the vendors set up their stalls.
- Big night, the night before? Never mind, there’s always the dusk countryside tour. Within a short ride of the city centre you can see farmers and water buffalo at work in the rice paddies, fishermen reeling in their nets in the rivers and monks going about their business in temples. It turns out this was my ‘thing’ with a variety of options to pique my photographic interest. So welcome to my self guided Paddies and Pagodas Bicycle Tour.
- This DIY cycling tour of Hoi An route is only 10 km and how long it takes depends on how often you stop to take in the local sights (and how hot it is). It took us a couple of hours as I stopped frequently to capture pictures and we also spent quite some time at the Pagoda. In hindsight, we could’ve dog legged through town and the roads would probably be less busy. From Bach Dang Hoi An Hotel, head in a northwesterly direction up Nguyen Tat Thanh. Follow the road and you will pass a cemetery and at the first set of traffic lights turn right on Nguyen Chi Thanh and follow the signs for the Van Duc Pagoda, which is down the end of this road after you veer right. Van Duc is the largest and most active pagoda in Hoi An. It’s not on the tourist map so it gives a real insight into the gentle Buddhist beliefs behind much of Vietnamese culture.
However, the best time to visit the pagoda is in the evening when the whole temple including the gates and gardens are lit up with candles and lanterns. On full moons and auspicious Buddhist celebrations like Buddha’s birthday, monks travel for miles to come and pray at the pagoda. If you turn up at about 7 pm on these occasions, monks go to the nearby river to release paper lanterns while chanting prayers. Make sure you show respect by covering up shoulders and knees for both men and woman so just pack a sarong in your backpack before setting off and remember to leave your shoes outside. Leaving the pagoda, continue east until you hit the paddy fields and enter Tra Que island. The whole island is worth an explore and I wanted to spend some time at the Tra Que vegetable village which is in the west section of the little Tra Que island pictured, but it was starting to get dark and I wasn’t brave enough to handle the busy traffic at night. At Tra Que Village we would’ve seen local farmers tending the most famous herb gardens in Central Vietnam. If you want to head to the beach then turn left on busy Hai Bà Trung street or head right to go back into town. From the bridge you can see the fishing traps made out of sticks. An Bang Beach was disappointing because I come from a country which has the most pristine and remote beaches in the world (see my blog on this here). So this overcrowded place did nothing for me. However, it’s another bucket list item as I want to say I’d been to “China Beach”, the name of a show in the 90s I loved to watch. This is the southern part of the beach which stretches from Da Nang where the America GIs used to spend their R&R during the Vietnam War. I’m not sure, if the beach is always overcrowded, or if it was because of the weekend. It was so packed that the guard of the motorcycles and bikes tried to charge us for parking our bike! We said we’d only be 5 minutes so he let us go without paying, but do so at your own peril unless you have a very good memory where you parked your bike, as they all look the same when there are thousands to choose from.
- Still got the wanderlust? Then try this DIY cycle tour of Hoi An itinerary. With an easy 14 km loop, this route takes you along river paths fringed with coconut palms through villages of craftspeople, fishing families and coracle boat-makers. Take a right at the traffic lights on Cua Dai Road, straight past the Cua Dai market, which is definitely worth having a look. Follow the road over the bridge until it becomes a single track between shrimp farms and coconut palms and you will come to a small village of carpenters building structures from bamboo and coconut palms. The roads leading off the main path will all take you back to the same road a little further towards town from the start point of your loop on the Cua Dai Road. You can’t get lost on the tiny island of Cam Tanh where a Western face is still very much a novelty.
This footage is courtesy of my oldest son who was the only one in the family who wanted to come exploring with me. The video is not very exciting but it does show you what you’re likely to encounter along the way.
That evening we managed to muster up some more energy to walk into town to grab out evening meal. A local told us about the best Bahn Mi place in Hoi An and they weren’t wrong. It’s called Tiệm Bánh Mì Phượng (flagged in orange on the map)and it’s on the corner of Phan Chu Trinh and Hoáng Diếu. There are no westerners in here but the locals queued up to Laos to get one at the ‘drive through’ with their motorcycles. I literally fed the whole family, including two very hungry teenage caterpillars, for $3!
What would I do differently next time?
- Go at a different time of year. July is simply too hot (but we didn’t have any option see blog here).
- I loved exploring the countryside so much that I would try a different route each day and go for the whole half a day rather than a couple of hours.
- Stay in Hoi An longer.