Pedaling the Delta

Off the road cycling in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam


The reports I had heard from friends about their adventures in the Mekong Delta were largely negative. They had all been dragged on similar whistlestop tours that included little fresh air, uninspiring boat rides and a tedious visit to a candy factory. So, when the chance to see The Delta in a more original and revealing fashion arose, I was raring to go.

 

The idea was to do the trip on a pushbike with cycling enthusiasts John and Van, the co-founders of Vietnam Countryside Explorer. They were to take me on a journey seen by few others. Forget the dodgy dust-bowl highways, tourists horded onto the next spot like ants or the visits to tired-looking rice processing mills. This, I was told, would be the real deal.

 

“We offer an alternative trip to the Mekong,” explained John on the morning of departure. “The area is so perfect for riding that we feel there is a need to offer cyclists a unique route through The Delta.”

 

“Most tours follow the same paths,” added Van. “With my knowledge of the region we can help travellers avoid the crowds and really appreciate the scenery.”

 

Crossing a bridge in the Vietnam jungle 

The Great Escape

 

Meeting on the steps of the Opera House for a 7am start, we take off for The Delta in a minivan. Sitting with Van and John, through a medley of jokes and grins it’s obvious how excited they are about the ride.

 

Escaping Saigon fills me with relief, a feeling amplified by the sight of locals relieving themselves into the murky river that snakes along beside us. We stop off for a bowl of pho bo and I begin to get to know the duo better. John is an Australian, living and running a business in Ho Chi Minh City. His love of cycling and faith in the skills of close friend Van has led him to invest in this blossoming project. Van will be our human GPS/bike anorak for our dive into The Delta. With five years of tour experience and a collection of secret hand-drawn maps among his artillery, I feel assured that the trip will indeed be an eye opening alternative look at the area.

 

An hour or so later down the road the rumbling gravel below shakes me from a daydream and I know it’s time to saddle up. Van sets to work oiling gears and checking brakes, while I slip into my complimentary Lycra top. As I don’t want to ruin morale by exhibiting the male equivalent of a camel toe, I foolishly reject some skimpy cycling shorts. My knees creak in disapproval as we set off down the highway, but they stop whinging as we dip down onto a riverside path.

 

Our path is ideal for cycling, a concrete vein weaving its way through the vibrant green scenery. Soggy paddy fields flank us on both sides while brightly coloured butterflies flap in and out of vision. Van, or ‘Van-the-Man’ as he is affectionately known, highlights the fruit that is flourishing all around us.

 

“There is lots of food growing here,” he explains. “The land is so fertile you get everything from mangoes to mushrooms.”

 

The Ultimate Ride

 

It becomes evident during this opening section that a bicycle is the ultimate vessel for a trip into the Mekong. Despite my garish garb I don’t feel in any way intrusive upon the calm rural scene around me. You’re still hurtling along, but without the harsh spluttering of an engine to interrupt the peace.

 

Later we pedal our way to an ex-army base in the forest of Xeo Quyt, where we are led across a rickety bridge and then wobble into some small wooden rafts. The whole group is struck silent as we paddle down the thin passage that worms through the thick forest. A Mekong equivalent of the Cu Chi tunnels serves as a captivating respite from the ride.

 

My slightly numb buttocks urge me to don the padded spandex previously spurned, so I nip off behind a hedge and re-emerge looking like (or thinking I do) the real deal.

 

Soon we are soaring into Sa Dec, a charming little town littered with crumbling buildings. I pause on a bridge to soak up the seemingly time-locked scene and realise I haven’t seen another tourist all day. We stop for lunch in an old colonial villa that was the childhood home of French novelist Marguerite Duras, a writer who put Sa Dec on the big screen when her famed novel The Lover was made into a movie.

 

With bellies full of noodles and spring rolls we charge on to the ferry port, warmly anticipating an overnight stop in The Delta’s biggest city Can Tho. We have a brief traipse around the town and then decide to hit the hay early in preparation for a sunrise trip downstream to Cai Rang floating market.

 

Water World

 

After what seems like a minute’s sleep my shrill alarm clock is forcing me back into the land of the living. I greet the others in the reception with a sleepy grunt and shuffle behind them down to the jetty. Van whistles and swiftly procures us a boat.

 

All along the waterside I can see locals going about their morning routine. A vested old man crouches and washes his hair, while next door two children are spitting toothpaste into the surf below. Brightly coloured plants and clothes hang from the rafters of every stilted house, all of them rickety to the verge of collapse.

 

Ahead is the cluster of boats that make up the floating market. Cameras poised, we weave through the assortment of buoyant stalls, Van-the-Man hauls aboard some ca phe sua das while busily pointing out the different groceries on sale around us.

 

“They advertise what they are selling, by strapping a sample to high bamboo sticks,” he explains.

 

Many of the boats have colourful eyes painted on their bow, this crowned with flowers and wafting incense lends the scene an ancient, magical quality. The sun has shifted from a deep orange to golden as we make our way back towards a horizon silhouetted with black spiky palms.

 

All shorted up 

Roads Less Pedaled

 

Back at the hotel we refuel and I wiggle my derrière back into black spandex. Soon we are on one of Van’s lush hidden tracks. The riverside is such a hive of rural activity I nearly crash several times due to the distraction. One moment is spent considering the woman drying water hyacinth to make furniture, the next fearing for the old gent fishing by electrical charge. The looks of surprise from the locals confirm my suspicions that we really are on roads less pedaled.

 

We see a schoolyard ahead packed with kids relishing their free time and decide to roll in. At the sight of these luminous berks circling their playground they squeal excitedly. I do my usual silly clown routine in front of the children, blowing raspberries and dancing; during which I notice their school library is a tree. Books rolled up and crammed into half cut plastic bottles dangle from every branch.

 

We cycle on through the green maze that shoots off in every direction. John is up front and has turned up the pace, not wanting to lose face I pursue him with moronic vigour and predictably crash. I fly over the handle bars face first into a wicker basket housing a fighting cock. Luckily me and the cock are practically unscathed. I only have a cut knee and a dented ego to nurse back to normality.

 

Back to Reality

 

Our cycling sojourn through The Delta is rolling to a close and I know I’ll be sad to leave. The cycling bug has definitely chomped down on me and the stunning surroundings increase my resistance to boarding the bus. Van and I cap the trip with a slow cruise through seemingly endless paddies as he regales me with tales about the region and his infectious passion for biking through the countryside.

 

Back in Saigon I realise how wrong I was to dismiss a tour to The Delta; it is simply about choosing the right one. The last couple of days my eyes have flickered restlessly over the whirlwind of sights The Mekong has to offer, all the while getting some good exercise and satisfying the universal tourist obsession with avoiding its own ilk.

 

For more info, visit www.vietnamcountryside.com. 

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