Simon Hilton is a UK citizen who’s been living in Czech capital city of Prague for around 18 years. After quitting his job as Art Director in a big international publishing house, Simon simply didn’t feel like it was a good time to look for another position and felt the need to do something physical.
He put his bike into a cardboard box and headed to Hanoi with intention to cycle down to Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon), which is more than 1700 km away. The adventure ended up with a 3000-kilometer road trip through Cambodia and Thailand.
It seems you’ve just made a cycle trip of your life. Where did the idea come from?
Me and my girlfriend Sylva spent a lovely holiday in Vietnamese resorts Hoi An and Hue two years ago. Both are beautiful historical cities by the sea with beautiful beaches. We rented a bike and made a one-day trip around Hoi An and the surrounding country side, which was truly amazing. Catching a train between the two cities I happened to glance out of the window and see a lonely cyclist with a fully loaded touring rig, battling the rain. That was the moment I had the idea of cycling the length of Vietnam, not knowing then that in two years’ time I would be riding the very same bit of road in the pouring rain watching a train pass. Hoi An and Hue are wonderful cities and are worth of visit if you’re ever in Vietnam, I do recommend to make a stop there for at least two days.
How did you pick an appropriate bike for such a journey?
I’ve had this bike for four years, it’s a steel-framed touring mountain bike “Salsa Fargo” with drop handlebars, it’s a true workhorse. It’s comfortable and it has big 29-inch tires, so you don’t need a suspension. It also has very relaxed frame angles and was just brilliant for this trip. That said, if I do any other trip I would go by a faster bike – probably with a relaxed road-frame bike with definitively thinner, faster tires. And I would take far less with me.
So what did you actually take with you?
“Everything but the kitchen sink” – the simple answer is far too much! No, I didn’t take a tent! You can find accommodation pretty easily everywhere, anything from 10 to 30 dollars can get you a nice basic room. All my luggage was attached to racks, two front panniers and one seat bag at the back of my saddle. I had shoes and the heavy stuff on the back, and the lighter clothes in the front to balance the weight and better steering, my tool kit was under the crossbar. In heavy traffic I wore a Patagonia yellow jacket for better visibility and that also kept the elements out. I purchased some bright red Specialized cycle shoes just before I started the trip, also to get the attention of the other road users. GPS bike computer, small amount of food like muesli bars and a mobile phone were on, or near the handlebars. I always filled two big water bottles before every ride and constantly refilled them. The complete bike with the equipment was about 25 kilograms, including water, to meet the airline weight limits. To be honest I took too much. When you’re cycling in warmer climes you only need two or three T-shirts, some shorts, flip flops and your cycling gear.
How many kilometers per day did you manage?
I made it from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in 13 and half days, and my GPS showed 1790 kilometers altogether, which makes it roughly 132 kilometers per day. It could have been done quicker but I was in no rush and enjoyed the passing country side. I think the longest days were 190km and 180km back to back but I did have the wind in my favor. The distance was not an issue, really, I just basically looked on the map and planned to head for that destination by mid-afternoon, so I had time to look round the town or city having arrived.
What about the drivers? Were they respectful to a cyclist?
In general yes, but once I was a witness to tragic accident, when a school kid was hit by a heavy truck. I arrived when the small body on the side of the road was already laid under the straw mat. There were some kind of spiritual ceremonies with joss sticks being provided. There are many kids going to schools on bikes and scooters, so I would image this is an everyday hazard in this part of the world. The good thing is that except the lorries and buses there are not many cars as they’re quite expensive for the locals and so there’s a lot of free space for bikes and scooters on the inside lane or hard shoulder, but It was quite common to have scooter and small vehicle head the opposite direction on this hard shoulder so you can’t be too complacent. Mainly, my route was Highway 1, but it’s very busy, especially the upper part in the industrial north, I would have rather taken some smaller roads with far less traffic but they seem to take twice the time to cover the same distance.
Was the cycling demanding for you?
The 100km plus distances became easy after a few days on the road and there weren’t many hills except the area around Da Nang, where was a mountain range, but it’s possible to go through by a 9km tunnel if you feel the need. The real problem was weather and the traffic so I guess yes, after all, I lost some extra kilograms.
Were the people surprised when they saw a European guy on a bike?
All the way down I permanently met kids who waved at me and called “Hello mister!” and they really wanted to communicate. Occasionally, I would have someone pull alongside on their motorbike or scooter and want to chat with me for a few moments, usually the conversation would consist of “Hello mister!”, “Where you from?”, “Where you go?”. I would answer not really knowing if they understand me or not, usually smile and then they would ride off down the road and carry on with their busy lives. On one of these occasions a young student and his friend riding a pillion pulled alongside, heading to Saigon themselves and we shared a lovely conversation for over 50km through the most horrendous rain storm. I would love to thank him and his mate for their company that day. I thought there would be more people on bikes doing a similar trip but I met only three other cyclists on the road from Hanoi to Saigon. One was from Belgium, we had a brief chat for about five minutes. And then I saw other two guys heading the opposite direction on Highway 1. We just exchanged a friendly wave.
How was it to be alone in a completely foreign environment for so many days?
I’m quite used to being in a foreign environment living in Prague. But I do enjoy the traveling in different countries and communicating with the locals is all part of the fun. You learn a lot when you’re by yourself on trips like this.
What about weather?
The north of Vietnam is far cooler, very much the same as a European climate, so it was a perfect place to start. I did have torrential rain for three days, it was kind of tropical storm off the coast. As I headed south the heat started increasing and as I approached Saigon it became incredibly unbearable. I tried to start the day earlier around six in the morning to get some miles under my belt before the real heat picked up, stopping to take a brake and lunch when the temperature was at its maximum, always taking a drink every ten kilometers as hydration was a main problem. I drank all day long but still when I went to the toilet the color of my urine was dark yellow, even brown.
What about sicknesses or diseases?
The only problem I had was on the first sunny day when I forgot to apply my sun lotion and I got terribly sun burnt on my arms, ear, and nose. It was very painful and the result is still visible.
How did you navigate on your ride?
I took a large map of the country to plan the day and the next destination, a Garmin 800 edge cycle computer on my handlebars, and my Garmin Forerunner 910 XT running watch for backup of distance. But surprisingly, I found the downloaded maps from Google, which I downloaded to my smart phone, were much more useful and more detailed than the Garmin products. But I couldn’t use the phone all day long because of the limited battery life. If I had to choose the one from all I would take the Google maps and get a charging device for the phone.
Was it a big relief when you arrived to the destination?
Relief? No! But it did give me a nice sense of achievement when I saw the Bitexco Financial Tower from distance on the run into town. I had a few celebratory nights out in Ho Chi Minh city and enjoyed myself. I met up with some old friends and I must thank them for helping me with the rehydration program.
Your journey actually didn’t end in Ho Chi Minh City, right?
No, my return flight was via Bangkok, so I decided to cycle back rather than fly. So I headed to the Cambodia border, which is less than one hundred kilometers away. It was funny because in the no man’s land between Vietnam and Cambodia I got a puncture so I fixed the wheel surrounded by the board control police and many bewildered onlookers. Compared to the busy and chaotic traffic of Vietnam the roads in southern Cambodia seemed empty. It took me two days to reach Phnom Penh where I spent the next few days sightseeing and visiting the infamous Killing Field. Then I headed to Siem Reap to see the legendary Angkor Wat temples. Instead of taking tuc-tuc to visit the historical sights, which most people do, I found that cycling was a far better way to visit the ruins. It’s truly an amazing place and the highlight of the trip. After leaving Siem Reap I headed to Battambang, then onto the Thai border, down through the foothill to the beautiful island of Ko Chang where I stayed for a week until continuing to Bangkok. The total distance was almost 3000 kilometers on bike.
Did you have some technical difficulties during the trip?
Not really, I got my bike well serviced beforehand by my mechanic who would have spotted anything unusual that might cause a problem. On the ride I got five flat tires, that means each one averaging every six hundred kilometers, which is not bad. I originally started the trip on a pair of Maxxis Aspen low profile mountain bike tires 29ers. These got damaged by pieces of glass and road debris so I replaced them in Ho Chi Minh city. Unfortunately, the choice of tires was limited in Vietnam, but I managed to pick up a pair of Specialized Fast Trak 29ers, not my preferred choice, a bit wider and slower than my previous tires, but came in useful on the sandy roads of Cambodia near Krong Svay Rieng and Siem Reap.
Did you enjoy local food?
In Vietnam the food is great, but you can get bored by noodles and Pho soup after two weeks on the road and I did contemplate a celebratory McDonalds when passing the large roundabout on Bến Thành in Saigon. It’s easy to find a good meal in Cambodian large cities, but far more difficult on the road and small towns. Roast turtle, pickled water bugs and animal intestines seem to be the only thing I could find on the road to Phnom Penh. Fortunately, I found a lady who understood I wanted the rice porridge and herbs without the animal intestines on top. I didn’t want to get sick on the journey. Thailand is a culinary food heaven, undoubtedly the best place on the planet for delicious healthy food and with 7-Eleven every 10km on the road makes it very easy to pick up water and energy snacks along the way.