Vietnam Cycling Reviews – Mekong Day Trip
Whoooo Hoooo!!!. From the 1st May to 30 Sept 2015, Vietnam Bike Tours is offering a very special discount to readers of Ho Chi Minh City Highlights. There are great savings to be made on all their day tours from Saigon. You can view this very generous offer HERE . Not convinced? Read about my fabulous day out with them down the Mekong below.
Escape from the chaos….
On Wednesday I went out on a trip with Vietnam Bike Tours to the Cai Be floating market in the Mekong Delta. This is the first in what I hope will be many Vietnam cycling reviews. It’s a very personal account so I guess it’s a little different to most you might read, but I hope you enjoy.
Vietnam Cycling Reviews (Nr 1) – Mekong River Day Trip with Vietnam Bike Tours
Heart pounding I woke up with a start at 5am. Whoooah! What’s that all about? Was it nerves or excitement? As the fog cleared from my brain I realized it was both. I was heading out on my first bike ride since finishing an epic 7000km, unsupported ride across Australia. I would consider myself a reasonably experienced rider and I LOVE bikes. I’m fascinated by Vietnam and I hadn’t been to the Mekong in almost 20 years, so was really interested to see if it had changed. What on earth was there to be nervous about?
It boils down to the fact that I have been having too good a time since we moved back in April. I haven’t weighed myself but I’d be betting I’ve gained about 10kg since we’ve moved back. It’s been almost 5 months since I’ve done much exercise at all. At my age an abundance of great food, way too many refreshing beverages and no exercise equals very fast weight gain. (Don’t worry that’s one of next month’s projects!) I was actually a bit worried that I would slow the group down, blow a gasket or trail out the back and get lost. All my ride gear was back in Australia, I was hoping like hell I wasn’t going to be the big, fat gumby in amongst Lycra clad fitness fanatics. I was also worried about safety aspects. What if the Mekong had changed as much as Ho Chi Minh City had? Riding a bike in that kind of traffic was a definite health hazard.
The meet up point was in the very posh Grand Hotel in District 1. I was very self conscious in my leggings, T-shirt and pseudo sandshoes waiting in front of one of the posher establishments around town. Was it just paranoia that had me thinking the uniformed bell boys and security guards were keeping a careful eye on me? I was more than relieved when I spotted a local that looked like he fitted the bill of a bicycle guide. I’d texted him to say I was here and he looked to be trying to find someone. To my relief I was right. He was waiting for me and for four other passengers who were staying at The Grand. Now that I had been “found” it seemed that I was no longer a person of interest to the staff of the hotel…(Again that might just be my paranoia!)
I was even more relieved when 4 very normal looking Aussies turned out to be the other participants. There was not a scrap of lycra to be seen. They were all fairly fit looking but none of them were about to ride the Tour de France. Looks like I might just stand a chance of keeping up with the group.
It’s not until you start to drive out of Ho Chi Minh City that you realize just how big it really is. Around 10 million people take up a fair bit of space and you seem to only momentarily exit the city before you are entering the Mekong which is home to around 21-23 million people. It’s around 2 hours to the start point with a rest stop for ablutions and a much needed coffee. The time went quickly in air conditioned comfort as I got to know Tan and the others. My only real worry now, which I was trying to ignore, was the big black clouds looming on the horizon.
As we assembled the bikes it started to spit. Tan added some cheap (35 cent) plastic ponchos to his basket as he stocked up on water. He clued us up with basic biking instructions (go right, go left, gear down – for bridges -bike up, bike back, hole, bump). We adjusted our seat heights to suit and placed any electronics in plastic bags he provided.
Within 5 minutes of setting off we were stopping to put them on and within 20 minutes we had them off again. Such is the nature of the wet season in Southern Vietnam. It usually never rains for long and it’s often a welcome relief when it does. As we pedaled along I was pleasantly surprised at how cool it was. There was plenty of greenery around to shade our way and the little bit of rain we’d had really dropped the temperature.
Even on the ”main” road out of town, the traffic was very benign in terms of volume and behavior. No one seemed in a particular hurry and they were careful to give the “obvious” foreigners a fairly wide berth. Big wide smiles, lots of cheery waves and a chorus of “Hellos” guided our way the whole day. Even when we were obviously holding up progress the locals seemed more amused than annoyed. I get the feeling not many people exercise for pleasure down here. They’re all too busy working and riding a bike is a necessity not something you do for fun.
In no time at all we had turned off the road and began following small paths winding in and around the many waterways. Just wide enough for bikes to pass, we were practically riding through the front yards of the locals. Despite the fact concentration was required to avoid and manage the many traffic hazards like potholes, bumps, kids and various animals, there was still ample opportunity to observe the daily lives of those who called the Mekong home.
It wasn’t long before the network of criss-crossed paths had me totally turned in a circle. Quite often shaded by vegetation, I had no idea what direction we were headed. There was a complete absence of street signs for assistance and many of the landmarks looked suspiciously the same. I’m notorious in my house for my poor sense of direction, but I had a feeling even the best navigators would have trouble on this trip. I kept Tan firmly in my sights as I would knew I would never find my way out by myself and didn’t think they’d be much English spoken even by the youngsters. The one fall back was that I had his number in my phone. I could always hand it over to a local to explain where I was.
A couple of km’s in we hit the one and only stretch of dirt road for the day. It was no more than 200 m long but created havoc nonetheless. With determined looks we all put the pedal to the metal as we tried to power through the slippery surface but at an inch or so deep in parts, the mud soon had us dismounting to prevent a total stack. Thick clay-like mud clung to our tyres and piled up so high in the brake calipers that it was impossible to move without banging it off every few metres. No-one was too perturbed though. It was pretty funny and made for some great video and pics. And the locals thought it was hilarious. As we all reached the bitumen I turned my thoughts to how the rest of the ride would go. . The gears were totally clogged, as was the chain. Riding was going to be pretty damn difficult from here on in….OR NOT!
Strike one for Vietnamese entrepreneurship. Not 20m from where we’d reached the road was a very happy “bike wash”. 10 minutes later, the bikes were almost cleaner than when we’d left and we’d scrubbed up pretty good as well. Tan exclaimed at the extortionate 50 000 VND charged to clean us up but the guy just grinned as he pocketed the money. Let’s face it…we would have paid multiples of that if we’d been on our own.
We ambled along at a comfortable pace, stopping for pictures, water and deliciously sweet Rambutans. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t have a GoPro. Some picture opportunities last only a split second. By the time you make a decision to stop, get out the camera and click the shutter the moment has passed. There were many such occasions over the course of the day.
After 23kms we reached Cai Be where there’s a thriving floating market. Markets are always best in the mornings but we obviously couldn’t be there in the early hours. It was still interesting to see how people lived and worked and provided some great picture opportunities. I watched with apprehension as a young boy plunged head first into the fast moving water and splashed his way over to a boat moored in the middle. He had an unconventional mode of swimming, somewhere between a windmill and a threshing machine, and his little head went below the surface several times. It wasn’t till he reached up and clambered to the safety of the deck that I realized I was holding my breath. He probably does the same thing several times a day and I can only presume the boat was his home. Waterways are the highways of the Mekong and there are plenty of kids about. I wonder what the statistics on drowning are and if they’re any higher than in our seriously regulated Western societies.
Not long after, we arrived at the dock where a boat would take us and the bikes to our lunch stop. There appeared to be an audible sigh of relief as we dismounted and loaded the bikes onto our boat.
The dock is obviously a regular tourist stop and there are ample souvenirs to purchase if you so desire. It is difficult to bypass all souvenir sellers on any tour in Vietnam but I’m pleased to report the vendors here weren’t that pushy. Maybe that’s because we were much later in the day and had already seen the bulk of the crowds. . I’m pretty sure the prices are marginally higher than you’ll pay in real markets in Saigon but then you aren’t going to get the full show there are you? As with any discretionary shopping here in Vietnam you should bargain hard (but politely).
The demonstrations on making caramelized rice snacks and coconut candy were really interesting. I’m intrigued that it still appears to be more profitable to make these things completely by hand than on a production line. What can these people be getting paid when it’s cheaper to have someone double wrap a small piece of candy worth cents? I was told they could process around a 1000 per day each. The economics just don’t make sense to me.
As we motored down the river, daily life on the Mekong drifted by. Rickety shacks perched on stilts and antiquated boats were transformed into homes with the addition of pot plants, gardens and knick-knacks. People went about their daily lives oblivious to the gawking stares of foreigners floating by. I couldn’t but question if this peaceful existence would disappear entirely if the damming of the Mekong for hydro electric power goes ahead, hundreds of km’s away in Laos and Cambodia. Would the seemingly endless hunger for energy by Asia, wipe out a whole way of life three countries away?
Our lunch stop was surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens. Portions were large but I didn’t see too much left on anyone’s plate. Appetites had certainly been stimulated by our efforts. Rested and refueled we hopped back on the bikes. A few winces gave away the fact that bottom bits were definitely feeling the effects of our morning’s efforts. Still, everyone was in high spirits and there was only another 15kms to go.
Temples, churches, local markets and life in general in the Mekong served to take my mind off my bum. Motorbikes stacked to the brim with goods, vied with us for space on the tiny paths. There’s obviously been a fair few resources allocated to widen the path system in places, but the sheer quantity of routes means it will be some time yet before all of them would be complete. Selfishly, I was happy about that. With infrastructure comes more traffic and greater speeds and I was rather enjoying ambling along.
Everyone finished the ride tired but in good spirits. Cycling had given us an insight into the workings of the Mekong that other tours probably couldn’t. Tan had been an excellent guide. Appropriately, he’s from the Mekong and is a wealth of knowledge. The cycling really isn’t that demanding and even when the going did get a bit tough as we hit the mud it was all part of the experience. Was I happy with my performance? Absolutely! But I have made a personal commitment to get back on the fitness track starting 1st August. I’ll keep you up to date with how that progresses.
Things I would do differently in the future
- Take more water breaks. Tan carried plenty of water but I don’t think we took the opportunity to drink enough because there was so much going on. Dehydration brings on fatigue so much more quickly, especially in humid weather.
- Make sure you put the guide’s number in your phone. The group is riding in single file and you might be held up because of traffic. The path twists and turns so despite the fact that Tan took good care and waited often till we all regrouped, two riders did take a wrong turn close to the end. All ended well but if they had exchanged numbers Tan could have rang them immediately.
- Wear a light weight long sleeved shirt. Despite sunscreen and cover for much of the ride, the sun does have a fair bit of bite. There were a few pink shoulders amongst us all.
- Wear a peaked cap under your helmet. Despite wearing total block-out on my nose it was still a bit pink this morning.
The trip I went on is called “Mekong River Day Trip – Cai Be Floating Market by Bike”. If you’ve already been to the Mekong or are just a cycling enthusiast, Vietnam Bike Tours has a huge list of other trips on offer. There’s a number of other half day and day tours available as well as long journeys that touch the rest of Vietnam and even venture as far as Thailand. My experience to date has been extremely positive. Good bikes, a great guide and interesting itinerary. I’m really hoping now I get an opportunity to do parts 2, 3 and more in my Vietnam cycling reviews.
Don’t forget. Vietnam Bike Tours is offering an amazing discount on all their day tours from Saigon. The discount is EXCLUSIVE to readers of this website. You can view this very generous offer HERE.
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