Cycling in Mai Chau, Vietnam

Biking the Mekong Delta

This article/blog first appeared in ExpatSingapore: Singapore Expat

My cycling tour in Vietnam was an incredible cultural and physical experience that I’d love to try in other places. My bum may disagree, however.

As you approach middle age, your travel criteria begin to change. Somehow, climbing mountains and sleeping on a cot in a barebones hostel just isn’t as appealing as it once was. But getting older doesn’t mean you have to trade adventure travel for group bus tours. I’m still fit and up for a challenge, as long as it involves a decent bathroom and a soft bed at the end of the day.

The three-day bicycle tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, offered by the tour company VeloAsia, seemed to provide a healthy balance of adventure and comfort. Their website assured that cycling in the Mekong Delta is flat. (Flat is good; I can do flat). Plus, a support vehicle accompanies the group at all times to supply water, shelter from the sun or rain, and mechanical support should you break a chain or get a puncture. At the end of the day, cyclists are dropped off at the luxury Victoria Hotel in Can Toh where a hot shower, a cold glass of wine, and a beautiful sunset over the Mekon awaits you. Hot damn! This is my kind of cycling.

VeloAsia was very helpful, e-mailing us detailed information outlining everything we needed for the trip, including visa requirements, the necessary documentation, inoculations, clothing and useful cycling equipment. (I later wished I’d read that last section more carefully). They also sent itineraries for each day, but these were only guidelines, as our cycling days were spontaneously planned according to road conditions and the cycling abilities of the group. The three-day tour price of US$518 included two nights’ accommodation at the Victoria Hotel, breakfast, lunch, water and snacks, appropriate bicycles, helmets, bags, ferry fares and a bilingual guide.

We set up our tour for the middle of November, starting on a Monday and ending on Wednesday. This gave us the weekend before the tour to explore Ho Chi Minh City. We booked rooms at Grand Hotel on the main shopping street of Dong Khoi because it offered an airport pickup service.

Day one and Day Three of the cycle tour took us on a variety of roads surfaces, from sandy tracks and hard-packed earth to cracked pavement and smooth paths. While some tracks were better than others, VeloAsia’s promise of a flat ride came good – The Mekong Delta was a like a pancake. I think I changed gears three times in three days. There were many water crossings, on local ferries usually full of farmers and their produce. Streams and river tributaries were traversed by riding over narrow wooden bridges with no guard rails – one wrong wobble and you’d be over the edge – this added an element of thrill to the ride. Most of the roads we cycled were too narrow for cars, so we didn’t have to worry about being hit by one.

Our pre-arranged lunch-stops on Day One and Day Three were in delightful ‘home-styas’. Sinh, our guide, phoned ahead to tell them when to expect us and lunch magically appeared at the table after we had freshened up. On the first day, we feasted on sumptuous caramelized fish, raw vegetables wrapped in rice pancakes, soup, pork, rice and fresh fruit. It was all beautifully presented and delicious. Lunch on Day Three was in a restored, listed building. This unusual home, built during the Japanese occupation in WWII, was a blend of traditional Vietnamese and Japanese architecture.

On Day Two, we were given a short break from cycling – a blessed relief to my tender tush. Instead of hitting the road, we were treated to a sampan tour of the commercial floating market at Cai Rang.
As our sampan nosed its way into the throng of boats, we were enveloped in the babble of voices as farmers in sampans floated alongside the larger boats, bargaining hard with commercial buyers. It was a colorful experience scented by the gasoline fumes floating over the murky Mekong.
We were intrigued to see how the ‘river people’ live and work in their boats. Through frilly-curtained windows, we caught glimpses of hammocks, clothes drying, cooking, and beautiful, small shrines to honor the gods and goddesses that protect their lives on the river. Many of the boats were decorated on either side of the bow with painted eyes to ward off evil.

“Streams and river tributaries were traversed by riding over narrow wooden bridges with no guard rails-one wrong wobble and you’d be over the edge”

Our sampan pilot took us down one of the tributaries to see how the Vietnamese live along these river ‘road’ . Strung across the river was an arrangement of primitive electrical wires, and a forest of TV aerials poked out of cottage roofs. Most families seem to have televisions, radios and electronic entertainment devices, but I saw no evidence of washing machines or other domestic appliances. ‘Parked’ outside each cottage in a thatched roofed ‘garage’ was the family transport – a sampan, neatly morred and waiting to take produce to market and children to school.

Before we got back on our bikes, there was a bathroom stop. A rickety door opened to reveal a porcelain squatting-pan in the timber floor, which emptied into the river below where small children were playing. My companions and I took one look at this and decided to hold it in. Sinh had warned us things could get rough!

Lunch on Day Two was at a restaurant overlooking the river in Can Tho, where we could see the charming waterfront promenade near the launching area for riverboat tours. After lunch, we headed to the Victoria Hotel for some rest, and my bottom nearly danced a rumba of joy – saddle-sore doesn’t even begin to describe the pain. We rewarded ourselves with a swim in the pool and a heavenly message, which worked wonders for the beleaguered bum. As we emerged, fresh and rejuvenated, we caught the sun setting over the Mekong, boats of all sizes silhouetted against a blazing sky.

That evening, at the Star Light Lounge roof terrace on top of the famous Rex Hotel, we agreed that the tour so far had exceeded our expectations. We were thrilled by what we had been able to see and learn about this small area of Vietnam, and we had been especially impressed with Sinh’s informed and open commentary. He spent time riding with each of us to answer questions and, as the countryside rolled by, opened a window on the Vietnamese people and their way of life. It was like having private tuition on the local agriculture, fishing, history, culture, politics and booming economy. And serious discussion often segued into hilarious stories from his childhood: he grew up in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the ‘American War’.

How well had we coped with the physical challenge? My travelling companion is a woman in her early 30s and very fit, so it was not an issue for her. And apart from my being saddle-sore, I was fine, too. After our third day of cycling, we were driven back to Ho Chi Minh City for one more day of shopping and exploring. At our hotel, we said farewell to Phoung, our courteous and conscientious driver, and Sinh, our tour guide and mentor.

Would I do a bike tour again? In a heartbeat. This little adventure holiday proved to me that as long as this heart is still beating, I’d still rather be experiencing other cultures ‘up close’ than viewing them through a bus window.