South East Asia is a sensory overload, there is so much to take in and almost nothing stands still. Vietnam is a whirlwind of colour and movement but also delivers unexpected moments of tranquillity and calm.
We started our trip in Saigon, where we were picked up early from our hotel, to make our way out of the city for the beginning of our cycle tour of the Mekong Delta. Starting off in the small town of Tan An, we were immediately overwhelmed by the heat. Having left Melbourne airport where the temperature was just 9⁰C, the strength of the sun and 38⁰C were akin to being in a fan forced oven.
The ride took us through beautiful countryside, scattered with rice paddies and dragon fruit plantations. The roads were dotted with ‘Hondas’ (scooters) and school children on push bikes. Our tour guide had warned us not to worry about being “beeped” at and to hold our course as we peddled onwards. It took a good five minutes to become accustomed to the beeping, which pollutes the air on a constant basis. The best way I can describe driving and cycling on roads in Vietnam is ‘organised chaos’. Imagine a cross between dodgem cars and precision driving. Ultimately, you need to put your faith in other drivers and pray to your deity of choice!
Turning to a small by-way with less traffic, we had more of a chance to get to know our tour guide, who had grown up in the Mekong Delta and offered a wealth of knowledge about the history and culture of the area. Locals refer to this region as the ‘Nine Dragons’. There are eight natural arteries of the Mekong River that make up the Mekong Delta and the industrious Vietnamese dug out a ninth to better align the Delta with their symbology beliefs.
After our morning ride, we hopped in the mini-van to drive to lunch. We’re both pretty light eaters, but after a morning on the road we were certainly keen to start sampling the local produce. Our first meal was the beginning of a trail of gastronomical delights. We devoured course after course of fresh and delicious regional food.
Following lunch, we continued our bike ride but this time through the more suburban areas of the Delta. What westerners would call a footpath served as the village's road and we became accustomed to our guide’s frequent warnings “look out!” “bike!”, “bridge!”.
One of the things we enjoyed most about our cycling trip was it wasn’t like a typical tourist tour, where you hurry from one historical monument to the next, only touching on the surface of its cultural significance. With the Travel Associates tour, we got a real sense of how the locals lived. We were constantly within meters of day-to-day family life.
Whenever we stopped, we would meet a local who would curiously ask our tour guide where we were going. These are some of my fondest memories from the trip and our tour guide said that if he stopped at the same places in six months, or even a year, these friendly locals would ask after us by name. The people of the Mekong Delta have long memories and very open hearts.
Teams of children in every town would race out onto the road to say “hello”. At one stage, a small boy ran for over a kilometre screeching at us in Vietnamese, trying to catch up with us and just when we thought he must have given up, he reappeared - being transported on his friend’s bicycle. I thought our tour group would be expanding, as he clearly really wanted to stay.
Over the course of the next three days we peddled over 200 kilometres through little towns and gorgeous countryside. Each corner we turned presented something new and special to discover, including: incredible landscapes, local produce, temples and pagodas (they are as common in Vietnam as bus stops are in Australia). We saw traditional boats being built, as locals stretched wood over burning coals, we watched them dye raffia and turn it into a woven mat. We learned about Caoism, a religion formed in Vietnam in 1926 and which has a following of around 300,000 in the Mekong Delta.
The fertility of the land was apparent, through the abundance of fruit and vegetables blossoming everywhere. There was not a moment on the four day journey that we stopped and weren’t within reach of beautiful, fresh, local food. We sensed change in the west of the country as we neared the Cambodian border, signs of development diminished and poverty became quite apparent. This region was as sombre as it was beautiful. The people were just as welcoming and apparently happy as their fellow countrymen, but the history of this region has left it with an air of sadness, which I believe will take years to rectify.
After a long morning ride, we visited Ba Chuc, the location of one of Pol Pot’s infamous ‘killing fields’. Over 3,000 people were killed here and there is a grisly memorial with the skulls of many of the men, women, children and babies who were massacred on display. The horror of this scene is juxtaposed against the beauty of the landscape, making it even more surreal. It is difficult to comprehend how something so ugly could have happened in this beautiful place.
Cycling on from Ba Chuc, we completed the last of our big days of riding. Cycling along a busier road, our mood was relieved by a friendly local, who wanted to ‘race’ me. He was riding a scooter, so I politely declined, instead he sat at the front of our group, forming the head of the peloton and breaking the wind for us. At the end of a long day, this was a most welcome act of simple kindness, and was typical of the treatment we received from the Vietnamese.
After staying the night in the regional centre, Can Tho, we spent our last morning visiting the floating markets, and completed the final 10 kilometres of cycling before heading back to Saigon. We were sunburnt and exhausted but most of all, sad to be leaving this special part of the world.
- Amanda & Mathias
Clients of Noller & Turner Travel Associates
This cycle tour was fairly tough physically. Before travelling to Vietnam I had completed a half-marathon and my husband had completed a 24-hour mountain bike race. While we’re both very fit, neither of us found it to be an easy ride. The roads are narrow and at times descend into dirt, so you need to concentrate at all times to make sure you don’t run into anything or anyone. Coupled with the unrelenting heat, the rides can be especially tiring.
Note that it can be difficult to find sunscreen in Vietnam. Make sure you pack your own and if you must buy some while you are there, go for the highest SPF you can find. I got so burnt I needed Nurofen Plus to help me sleep and that was after applying bucket loads of Vietnamese ‘SPF 35’.