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Cockfighting, fried rat and lazy locals – explore the exotic world of southern Vietnam as you cycle through the Mekong Delta.

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.

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Liquid gold

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


Vietnam by bike: Discover south Vietnam's secrets, from the saddle
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