My head is pounding, my legs are weak and my face is a lurid shade of red. It’s not the first time I’ve been in a sorry state while exploring the backwoods of the Mekong Delta. Usually, however, the malady only occurs when equally intoxicated Vietnamese gentlemen accompany me and there’s a clutch of discarded rice wine bottles lying beneath a Lilliputian plastic table. It isn’t the demon booze that ails me this time, though. It’s the fact that I’ve just pedalled 46km and the locals manning the rest stops in this, the most densely populated area of Vietnam, appear to have downed tools for the afternoon. I don’t blame them.
The temperature is pushing 40˚C and the only other cyclists on the road are occasional groups of young children pottering leisurely home from school, the boys in spotless white shirts and the girls in traditional ao dai. Wobbly looking foreigners on long-distance bike rides are a bewildering and amusing anomaly here at the best of times, and especially so in the searing pre-monsoon heat.
I exhausted the last tepid drops from my water bottle about an hour ago, however, and I am in desperate need of refreshment. About 15 minutes ago, I thought I’d hit upon salvation when a stand selling nuoc mia (freshly pressed sugarcane juice) hovered into view through the heat haze. The owner, however, was absent.
According to my guide Chinh, there are only another few kilometres to go before we pick up the sampan that will ferry us down the Mekong to the town of Vinh Long. There, a minibus will be waiting to usher us into air-conditioned relief and transport us to the city of Can Tho, where we will spend the night. The remaining few kilometres would be a formality for most, but to this parched and gym-hesitant Scotsman, the task ahead is as appealing as an evening spent pressed against the speakers in a Vietnamese nightclub.
A little further down the road we finally strike liquid gold. The lady manning the café doesn’t look chuffed to be budged, but she manages to rouse herself sufficiently to present us with a round of drip-filtered ice coffees and chilled water. Her job done, she sidles back to one of the café’s many hammocks. All of the other hanging beds are also occupied. “Mekong people are so lazy,” laughs Chinh as he drains his coffee, sparks up the latest in a long line of Craven A cigarettes and settles himself in his own suspended snoozing sling. “They’ve got so much here already they don’t have to work that hard.” As a Delta native himself, Chinh’s comment is founded not in scorn but pride.
A lush landscape of emerald green fields, shady woods and sleepy villages, criss-crossed by canals and rivulets fed by the mighty river, the Delta is Vietnam’s land of plenty. Formed by sediment deposited by the Mekong, the area is one of the most fertile and productive in the world. Fruit, fish and fresh produce are abundant, while three rice crops per year yield enough grain to feed the entire country with a sizeable surplus. Contrast that with the two (and often only one) crops yielded from the Red River Delta near Hanoi – Vietnam’s other major rice-producing area – and you get an inkling of why northerners especially often view the people of the Delta as feckless.
Yet while many Hanoians get envious at all this easy living, most visitors love the languid pace. That’s why I’m lying here in this hammock thanking the guardian angel of chunky cyclists for guiding me to this ice-cold bottle of water.
Image: Getty Images
Careless brushes with dehydration aside, the Delta offers fantastic scope for exploration by bicycle. It is pancake flat, making it easy to negotiate, while its backcountry network of waterways, quiet lanes and traditional villages are a world away from the nation’s more frazzling attractions. This is the second time I’ve biked it around the region.
Last time around I was here with my mother who was visiting me in Vietnam for a three-week holiday. It was an eventful trip. Over the course of three days, our group covered about 150km between My Tho and Can Tho, two of the Delta’s main cities. The route stuck almost exclusively to back-roads and narrow tracks barely wide enough to let two bikes pass in comfort. Emancipated from the scourge of the Vietnamese highway – the fume-belching, horn-honking truck – we were able to ease into the rhythm of rural life.
The cycling was special enough, but it was the little events along the way that really made the experience. Stand-out memories include stumbling upon a cockfight in a dusty backyard and an impromptu karaoke session in a bar by the Mekong. I’ll also struggle to forget a complementary treatment in a hotel in Can Tho where the micro-skirted masseuse offered me a happy ending in the flimsy-walled booth next to my mother. Luckily I didn’t know what she meant. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it). This time I’m on my own, so there’s less scope for rowdy group sing-alongs and familial shame.
Image: Flickr Andrew Newdigate
First, though, I need to get out of Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam’s southern hub can be a charmer, but not when you are trying to escape it by road. The urban sprawl drags on for miles. The road is packed with stoic-faced motorcyclists and those devil trucks I mentioned earlier, and the highway is lined with auto-parts shops and grimy-looking eateries serving delicacies such as thit cay (dog) and chao long (rice porridge with innards). Eventually, the ugliness subsides and swaying coconut palms and sparkling waterways signify the arrival of gentler territory.
The Delta proper starts when you encounter the first branch of the Mekong at My Tho. We unpack the bikes and wave a wistful goodbye to the driver just outside the city. I’ve opted for a two-day tour this time, so we’ll be cycling 50km each way on the roads between My Tho and Can Tho.
The first day starts, as it tends to, with a certain degree of misguided enthusiasm. While Chinh, cigarette already affixed to his mouth, sticks to a tempo in keeping with his Buddha-like physique and obvious relish for a smoke, I race ahead greeting the frequent cries of salutation from passing kids in kind. Luckily, I calm down a little by the time we hit the 20km mark when the minor climbs up to bridges play havoc with my calves.
Image: Getty Images
The flow of Delta life is best appreciated at a languid pace anyhow. Indications of the region’s natural prosperity are everywhere. Giant propaganda posters hanging next to fields depict rosy-cheeked workers carting wheelbarrows piled high with spring onions. Drivers veer all over the road as their weathered Hondas struggle to carry the weight of the durian and jackfruit they are carrying. In fact, I begin to lose track as Chinh recounts the array of crops and fruit being grown and fish being farmed on the passing landscapes.
Searing heat and exhaustion aside, it’s a great ride. The most scenic stretch of the journey comes on the first day after a lunch of DIY rice-paper rolls with elephant ear fish, claypot pork and fresh fruit at a historic garden house near Cai Be. We leave the paved tarmac behind to plot a course over rickety bridges, through leafy forest glades and alongside waterways. Here, local fishermen and merchants can be seen mending their nets and loading their boats with produce to sell at the many floating markets in the region.
After narrowly missing out on decapitation descending from a bridge and overestimating the height of a rusting corrugated roof, I’m glad to make it to the sampan that will glide me down the Mekong to Vinh Long. With the cycling over for the day I can finally kick back. As Chinh tries to make sense of my new Lumix camera, I drain a cold can of 333 beer and drift off to sleep while the boat eases down the river. By the time we get to Can Tho it’s just about time to eat again. Tour companies in Vietnam are single-minded in getting their guests to allotted tourist restaurants that have paid commission. As a solo traveller and a resident of Vietnam, I can’t think of anything worse than chowing down on sanitised local cuisine with busloads of tourists on my own. To his credit, Chinh heeds my entreaties and invites me to dine with the guides at a backstreet restaurant away from the river. Barbecued field rat and deep fried eel-like fish with a tamarind dipping sauce make a surprisingly palatable banquet.
For the guides it is time to unwind and they do so in time-honoured Delta style with the help of the local rice wine. Thimble-like glasses are charged, recharged then charged again and the Can Tho night is punctured with loud cries of mot, hai, ba, yo (“one, two, three, cheers!”). My second Delta stupor of the day is turning out to be much more enjoyable than the first.
Image: Flickr Josh Shefman
The Insider’s guide
Nick Ross is chief editor of The Word magazine, a monthly English-language lifestyle publication with separate editions for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
What’s Vietnam’s best-kept secret?
It was the street food, but there’s been so much interest in Vietnamese cuisine over the last two or three years that the secretive aspect of the food here is starting to disappear. These days, the best-kept secret has to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was hidden pretty well from the Americans during the war and, having been converted into a road that scales the mountainous interior of Vietnam from north to south, it’s become well-hidden from tourists, too. The spots of natural beauty, historical sites and ethnic minority villages along this route are quite phenomenal.
Where’s good for an adventure?
If you’re happy driving a motorbike, like scrambling over rocks and through jungle, and are into deserted island beaches, scuba diving and snorkelling, then it has to be Con Dao islands. Even the old, French-built penitentiary there is a bit of an eye-opener.
Where do you go to party?
I would love to talk about certain bars or nightclubs, but it doesn’t quite seem to work out like that in Vietnam. It’s more about where the party’s actually happening on a particular night. If you’ve got your finger on the pulse and are checking out what’s going on around town, then you’ll know where to go.
Where do you go to chill?
Chill? In Vietnam? You’ve got to be kidding, right? Vietnam has to be the noisiest country in the world. If I want to chill, I either stay at home or leave Vietnam.
Where are the best beaches?
Central Vietnam from Nha Trang north to Quy Nhon.
When to go: The best time to visit southern Vietnam (and especially to cycle) is December through February when the weather is dry and not too hot.
Currency: £1 = VND33560 (Vietnamese dong).
Accomodation: Reliability counts for a lot and Saigon Mini Hotel 5 has won itself a hard-earned reputation for service and guest satisfaction. Rooms from £19pn. saigonminihotel.com
Rooms are smart at Nguyen Kang Hotel and come with breakfast and wi-fi. Rooms from £11pn.
Image: Getty Images