Tag Archives: Mekong Delta

Cycling in Vietnam: Summary & Advice

Our two week tour of Vietnam proved a great experience.  While we only cycled a few hundred kilometers on nine days of cycling, the mix of activities fit the conditions we encountered.  For instance, the two days devoted to Ha Long Bay did not involve cycling, nor did our day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.)

Our experience of Vietnam and its people was very positive.  We had three different sets of drivers and guides – for the three separate regions – and all of them were helpful, experienced, interesting, and personable.  All of our hotels were clean, comfortable, and endowed with good breakfasts.  The personnel were courteous and helpful.  The included meals at chosen restaurants were tasty and copious, if sometimes repetitive.  Overall this trip was “two thumbs up.”

So, should you do this trip?  And if so, what might you need to know beforehand?  Here are a few thoughts.  Some we learned ahead of our departure;   some we wished we had.

So many colourful occasions

So many colourful occasions

Should you do this trip?

If this is your first cycle trip overseas, Vietnam may not be the best place to start.  Vietnam’s travel infrastructure is not as well developed as locations like northern Europe.  You’ll be more exposed to traffic with unfamiliar rules.   Our day cycling in Hanoi was not for everyone – although we wouldn’t have missed it.  Language challenges may be greater here – important should you get separated from your group.  The different cuisine could leave you battling a stomach bug on a ride, and facilities are often hard to find.  But if you’ve got a few tours under your belt, and are looking for more culture, history, and different landscapes, then we’d highly recommend the tour we took.

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Best Time to Go

Using climate sites, we determined that February is generally the driest, coolest month of the year, and the average temperature is good for cycling.  However, averages can be deceiving.  On our own tour, it was 60F (16C) in the north, and 95F (35C) in the south.  Most of the time it was cloudy and misty, and in central Vietnam it rained non-stop for two days.  However, two weeks later, some friends enjoyed blue skies all the way.  So, we still think February and March are good bets, as long as you avoid the holiday rush at Tet – usually over by mid-February, occasionally a bit later.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Visas, Vaccinations, Medications & Trip Insurance

Finding online information about visas was challenging.  There are a plethora of companies offering to help get you a Vietnam visa for a fee, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s legitimate.  In end, Cheryl and I opted to leave our passports at the local Vietnam consulate for a few days.  Others in our group were happy using the services of a local travel company specializing in Vietnam.

Vaccinations were another matter.  This is a complex subject, and a lot comes down to your assessment of the risks versus costs.  We all updated our basic travel inoculations, but we fretted over rabies and Japanese encephalitis.  Different members of our group got different advice from different travel clinics.  How big is the risk?  Frankly, it’s small for both diseases.  Still, losing the gamble would not be fun.  Some in our group opted for both.  Cheryl and I elected just to be cautious about mosquitoes, which can spread more than just encephalitis.  As for rabies, we found a local doctor who offered much cheaper rabies shots provided we came in as a group;  the cost saving came from a technique developed by the WHO.  The lower price tipped the scale for us.  Our decision was reinforced when a friend was bitten by a dog in Cambodia; she underwent the full post-bite inoculation series upon her return to Canada.

Advised by a conservative doctor, we also had prescriptions for anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics, loads of insect repellent, and even a set of clothing impregnated in pyrethrins.  To our surprise, during our two weeks in Vietnam surrounded by flooded rice paddies, we never saw a mosquito, and so left most of our supplies untouched.  We did run out of some common medications like decongestants;  Paul reacted badly to the smoky air that seemed to blanket the country.  However, we easily replenished our supplies locally.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

For the first time, we elected to take the Dukoral oral vaccine against traveler’s diarrhea.  Traveling friends swore by it.  Still, the jury’s out on how effective it was.  We used bottled water, even for teeth-brushing.  We stuck mainly to the tour-sponsored restaurants and didn’t indulge in street food, although we ate salads freely.  Had we slipped up, we were prepared to follow a questionable meal with Pepto-Bismol and a stiff drink – again, as advised by our travel doctor.  But, despite eating a wide variety of dishes from set menus, no one in our group had any problems.  So we didn’t really need that rice wine with snakes in it.

We also bought travelers’ health insurance for our trip.  Since our Vietnam tour was only part of a ten-week away time, we ultimately bought full-year travel coverage, plus a rider for the extended time.  A friend who works as an insurance broker tracked down the best deal for us, which had trip cancelation and lost baggage insurance into the bargain.  Fortunately, we never needed any of it – but we have in the past.

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Clothing

What to take can be a challenge.  We packed largely for biking in the “average” climate.  Turns out we were under-dressed for the cool conditions in the north, and our polyester biking gear was too hot for the steamy heat down south.  Check the temperatures in Hanoi and Saigon.  Cheryl wished she’d brought some compact down, and a couple of extra light pants and long-sleeved tops for the North.  As you may know, the local inhabitants wear long pants and sleeves, even when it gets warm;   tourists are obvious because they wear shorts and singlets, even when it’s chilly.  The cycling rain gear we brought turned out to be too warm; we did better with the semi-disposable ponchos we picked up in Vietnam for a dollar.  After the first day, we eschewed our heavy lace-up shoes in favour of Keen’s sandals;   they were cooler and dried out more quickly after a rain.  Even the locals mostly rode in flip-flops, rain or shine.

Finally, after Cheryl’s run-in with a pickpocket in Hanoi on Day One, we wished we had more clothes with zippered or concealed pockets – anything to make it easy to spread our cards and cash around.

Whenever we stayed two days in the same hotel, we were usually able to wash a few light clothes and have them dry before we checked out.  Laundry prices at the hotels were often fairly high, although at one or two locations that charged by the kilogram instead of per piece, we found them very reasonable.  And the clothes always came back neatly folded, flower scented, and well before the promised time.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Cycling Equipment

Taking your own bike helmets is absolutely necessary.  In some countries, bike tour companies have the odd spare for those without.  In Vietnam, even some of our guides rode without helmets.  Paul had taken a spare to Vietnam and left it with our last guide, who was most appreciative.  Biking gloves were also a good idea, although not essential.  And they did get very sweaty in the steamy south.

Since distances were relatively short, we decided not to take our gel seat covers.  Some of the tour operators supplied bikes with gel covers included.  The bikes themselves were mostly decent Trek mountain bikes; the ones in the hilly north were almost brand new and had disc brakes; in the flat south, they were older and less well equipped.

We had also taken rechargeable blinking lights for front and back, but ended up not using them.  While we use them at home, especially when riding country roads with higher speed limits, we decided not to in Vietnam.  In the traffic conditions we usually encountered, we suspected they might have been more distracting than helpful.  Bright clothing was useful; for one thing, it alerted drivers that we were tourists, unfamiliar with the local driving customs.  It also helped us keep track of our group.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Unlike trips in Europe, the bikes did not have carriers or panniers, only a small pouch on the handlebars.  However, the van was seldom far away, so we could generally leave extra clothing there and retrieve it if needed.  However, we were glad we’d brought a couple of small packs to wear.  The operators also supplied water bottles for the rides, but we were glad we’d also brought our own – especially handy on non-ride days.  Given the frequent advice not to drink tap water, we were always buying large bottles of water and refilling our own.  Or drinking the beer, which was often cheaper.

Perhaps the most useful thing we took were rear-view mirrors that attached in seconds with Velcro.  None of the bicycles came with mirrors, but every scooter on the road had two, and we soon knew why.  For about US$4 each, the mirrors were well worth it.  Two per bike wouldn’t have been remiss.

P1050650croppedsmall

These paths left little room for passing.

Money, Cards, & Internet

Since almost everything was included on this tour, the money we needed was primarily for drinks, tips, and extras.  Since many of the smaller shops didn’t take cards, a bit of cash was essential and that in Vietnamese Dong.  To keep our wallets filled, we relied on debit cards at ATMs.  We had no trouble finding ATMs, although perhaps only half of them worked with our cards.  One in our group had a “special” card that was non-standard.  She never got it to work, but fortunately she had another.  Advice when traveling: always have more than one type of card, and keep them separate, just in case.  When Cheryl had hers stolen, she still had another – and I had two as well.  The limits on ATM withdrawals were quite low, but then, we didn’t need much money.  Larger hotels and restaurants accepted most credit cards.

The free Internet in every hotel was excellent without exception:  fast, ubiquitous, and reliable – much better than we later experienced in Australia.  We had no problems backing up photos to the cloud – until we left Vietnam.  Reminder:  don’t forget your power-plug adapter.

Water puppets in Hanoi.  (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Water puppets in Hanoi. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Tips

Tipping provided us with considerable confusion, and our group had several lengthy discussions on what to do.  Tipping porters at hotels and airports was easy enough, usually around US$1.  At meals, we only paid for drinks, and tipped on that amount.  However, all the set meals were included in the tour price, as were hotel stays, but we never figured out how tips should be handled on these items.  Mostly we just muddled through.

The real confusion came with tipping cycle guides and drivers.  We received three different guidelines from the tour operator and the booking company.  Some implied a sliding scale, depending upon the size of the group, others did not.  None were clear on whether the suggested amounts were a total for guides and drivers, or an amount for each.   In the end, our group held lengthy discussions and came up with a per-day per-couple minimum for guides and a smaller minimum for drivers.  Then, at the end of each segment, Rob would collect the amounts in an envelope and present it to the service provider.  Even that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped.  Most of the time – but not always – there were two drivers, one for the van, one for the bike truck.  Drivers sometimes came and went without notice; twice, last minute changes of plan had us miss our farewells with a driver.  The line between drivers and guides was often blurred:  on one leg, our cycle guide spoke little English, so a second attractions guide rode with us, and the first guide doubled as van driver.  One day, our cycle guide was under the weather, so, he brought in cyclist friend and sat the ride out.  In the end, we did the best we could.  We tried to remember that everyone we dealt with worked long and hard, and none were overpaid.  Tips were always welcome, whether in dong or US dollars.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Cycling Protocol

Finally, it would have helped if we’d reviewed our cycling protocols.  The six of us had often ridden together at home as part of a larger group, and we should have known better.  Somehow, in the excitement of a foreign country, we forgot some of our practices.  Especially in the Mekong Delta, the trails turned and branched endlessly, and it was very easy to miss a turn.  If each of us had stopped at every decision point until we could see the following rider knew where to go, we would never have become separated.  As it was, we lost members twice, both times for more than twenty minutes – which seems like an eternity when you’re listening to crickets.  We will allow that following the protocol can be challenging here, as there are so many decision points.  So, don’t hesitate to ask your guide to slow down, especially if you want to stop to take photos.  At day’s end, we were all reunited, and after unruffling a few feathers, had a good laugh about it all.

P1050616croppedsmall

There’s lots to distract an avid photographer. “Which way’d they go?”

Bon Voyage!

We trust you’ve found these thoughts useful in planning your cycle trip to Vietnam.  Have a great time, and let us know how it went.

More Information

 Related Posts

 

Rest stop in a northern village.

Rest stop in a northern village.

Cycling in Vietnam: Saigon & the Mekong

Day 11: Hoa takes us to the Hue airport early the next morning, where we catch our final plane leg to Saigon. After ten days of temperate to cool weather, we step out into sauna-like temperatures.

P1050743

Staff welcome us to our Saigon hotel

Whether you call this city “Saigon” or “Ho Chi Minh City” is a sensitive issue to some, depending on which side you found yourself on during the Vietnam War. On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon and renamed it “Ho Chi Minh City” to honor the Communist leader. Although this is the official name of the city, many continue to use the old name, and the main river that flows through the city is still the Saigon River.

P1050597

Ho Chi Minh is Everywhere. (Portrait in Saigon Post Office.)

Our Saigon city guide picks up us and takes us for a city tour of the colonial-era post office, followed by a small factory and retail store where disabled people – including many war casualties – create lovely pieces for the tourist market. We’re not sure how much of the proceeds the artisans make. We visit a large, noisy, pungent wholesale market where you can buy almost anything. We also do a self-guided tour of the Ben Thanh retail market near our hotel. It’s hot, and we are soon looking for ice cream.

P1050578

Wholesale Herb & Fungus Counter

Our new cycling guide, Hai, picks us up the following morning and we take a two-hour van trip out of Saigon, heading into the Mekong Delta. We are relieved to not be cycling in Saigon, which is hot and crowded, although it seems a little less chaotic than Hanoi. Hai tells us that this is this fifth profession. He was a farmer, teacher, fortune teller, priest – almost, until he met his future wife – and now he’s a travel guide. His father fought for the South in the Vietnam War and was imprisoned following “Reunification.”  He died in prison a couple of years later.

P1050609

Modern Police Presence in Ho Chi Minh City

Gathering our bicycles between My Tho and Cai Lay we catch a tiny ferry to an island, cycle over it to another ferry, disembarking on the island of Tan Qui. The paved pathways are narrow, and used by many others on foot, bicycle, and scooter. Frequent bridges rise over shallow canals and sloughs, and passing is often tight.

P1050682

One of the Wider Paths on the Delta Islands – note the added “passing lane”

I have my clip-on side-mirror knocked off by a passing scooter, but fortunately, it isn’t damaged. (Nor am I.) We see lots of jackfruit growing beside the pathways, and continue to be amazed by how large and varied are the loads that can be carried on the scooters.

IMG_4539

A load of jackfruit passes en route to market (Photo by Rob Mudie)

We catch a tourist boat and tour the larger waterways of the Mekong River where large floating markets used to flourish, but are now much diminished. We stop for lunch at an open-air restaurant on the water and gawk at a beautiful elephant-ear fish presented to us for lunch. The waitress teaches us how to make spring rolls from its white flesh. (Yes, we are still eating spring rolls for every meal!).

P1050640

It tasted even better than it looked!

P1050674

An Elephant Ear Fish soon to be someone else’s lunch

During the afternoon, we also pass an unusual Cao Dai temple. Caodaiism is a uniquely Vietnamese religion, that sounds like an amalgam of all of the world’s major religious traditions and beliefs. Founded in the south of the country in 1926, it was banned by the communists between 1975 and 1997, but currently has about four million adherents. These numbers put it behind Buddhism and Catholicism – the latter a legacy of French colonial rule – but ahead of Islam and Hinduism.

P1050622

The All-Seeing Divine Eye caps a Cao Dai temple

The twisty tree-shaded paths crisscross the islands of the Mekong Delta, with branches around every corner. It’s hard to tell one lane from the next, and we try to stay close to the rider ahead of us. At one junction, Paul and I realize we’ve lost the scent, and alight to reconnoiter. We don’t want to guess at the correct direction, and decide to wait until someone notices and returns to see what happened to us.

P1050675

A peaceful moment on one of the larger bridges over a Mekong channel

The minutes tick by, and we listen to the sounds of cicadas, as well as commerce at the local corner “store,” really no more than a couple of shelves outside a path-side home. Eventually, Hai comes cycling back and we’re reunited. En route, we learn that one other of our number had also lost their way, and made a guess. Fortunately, he guessed right.  Two days later he was less fortunate.

P1050648

A Catholic Church on a Mekong Island

We can imagine how easy it would be for Viet Cong infiltrators to hide out in the Mekong Delta. Aside from the dense cover, even the river and tributaries are filled with meandering bunches of water hyacinth. According to Hai, the Viet Cong would often hide in the water using lumps of the floating plant to camouflage their movements. Today there is enough vegetation floating by to hide an army.

P1050626

Water Hyacinth floats by a Middle-Class Dwelling

We take another ferry across hyacinth-spotted waters, then pedal a few kilometers to spend the evening at a lovely homestay set on a large estate. The rooms even have air-conditioning, which we appreciate.  At the start of dinner, we have another lesson in the making and eating of Vietnamese pancakes.

P1050657

Our homestay in this comfortable estate built in the 1800s

Day 12: The following cycle day is a very busy one. We visit a local black pepper plantation, as well as a brick kiln.

P1050666

This farmer was happy to show off her newly planted black pepper plants

The kiln is fueled with rice husks, but this practice may be discontinued in the future, due to the amount of smoke and pollution generated. We watch a lady make rice paper with rice flour and mineral water. She steams it, removes the thin paper and dries it for two days in the sun, resulting in a very hard circle of rice paper.

P1050672

Rice paper is used to wrap the salad rolls we learned to make earlier

A man demonstrates the creation of ‘popcorn’ when he heats sand, pours rice into it, and filters the result through a sieve. The product tastes a lot like puffed rice, which is to say, rather bland.

P1050663

Hai explains brick making methods at a canal-side kiln

We find ourselves in front of a large bottle of 40-proof rice wine filled with layers of dead venomous snakes. Apparently they are put into the strong wine alive, and they respond by emptying their venom sacs while expiring. According to tradition, the wine is ‘guaranteed’ to promote strength and longevity.

P1050670

“Mot, hai, ba, yo!” (Did I really drink that snake wine?!)

Before we have a chance to think rationally, we find ourselves with a thimble of the concoction in our hands, and with a ‘mot, hai, ba, yo’ it’s down the hatch. We notice that there are many bottles of rice wine filled with all types of snakes and scorpions for sale, but we decide that it’s unlikely we’d get them through customs, so choose not to purchase them. That’s the only reason, I swear. Paul looks a little green, but he swears he feels stronger.

P1050669

Can we buy this at the Duty Free?

We cycle past a couple of men cooking rats over an open fire. They are called ‘rice rabbits’ here, perhaps to make them more palatable, but while we consider ourselves pretty game for most things, we decline to partake in this delicacy when offered. Hai told us he got used to eating them during the lean years in the early 1990s, and finds them tasty with a good sauce.

IMG_4577

Would you like soy sauce with your “rice rabbit,” Ma’am?

He takes us to a small coffee shop to try durian. It is the stinkiest fruit on the planet and in some apartment buildings it’s banned. The first durian he purchases he opens and declares ‘bad’, and goes out to get a new one, which he declares ‘really good’. We can’t tell the difference.

P1050679

When it comes to Durian, I’m afraid I’m in the other 95%

The sloppy flesh takes a lot like smelly cheese, and Hai tells us that Vietnamese love this fruit, but only about 5% of the rest of the world cares for it, so it has little export potential. We head back to Saigon after this busy day. Two hours later, Paul says he can still taste something like stale Limburger.

P1050678

Coffee in a hammock seems a more palatable custom

Day 13: Our last cycle day we head out of Saigon again, and take a 30 km cycle through the rice fields and rubber plantations around the Cu Chi tunnels. After lunch, we visit the tunnels where local villagers who sympathized with the Viet Cong for years hid from US and South Vietnam troops in a 250-kilometer network of tunnels. At one time, over 16 thousand men, women and children lived underground.

P1050711

Tunnel air vents were hidden in forest termite mounds

Tunnel entrances were sized to admit only the narrow shoulders of the generally small Vietnamese people.  The area was peppered with lethal man-traps.  In many areas, there were three levels of bunkers; the lowest, more than 30 feet below ground level, could usually protect the tunnel-dwellers from bombs dropped from B-52s. Still, more than half the tunnel dwellers were eventually killed during the Vietnam War.

IMG_4705

Rob tries out one of the larger tunnel entrances

That evening back in town, we savour our last meal on an IndoChina junk on the Saigon river, enjoying the warm evening and beautiful skyline of the city. And although the food is good, it’s pretty unanimous that we won’t eat another spring roll for a month or two.

P1050724

Saigon’s skyline from the River looks as modern as any

Day 14: The next day we visit a local museum, where Rob, the collector in our group, continues to find Tin Tin paraphernalia (while Rose rolls her eyes and tries to figure out where each new purchase will reside in their home.) We don’t really understand why Tin Tin is such a big thing here in Vietnam, but Rob is in seventh heaven. We way our goodbyes at the hotel as we catch our ride to the airport for our flight to Sydney. The other four in our party will fly to Cambodia to continue their cycling adventures the next day.

P1050734

Tin Tin and Friend, in Saigon

We’ve had some interesting and varied cycling over the past couple of weeks. All our guides were very different, but each of them was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. We feel they truly enjoyed meeting us and letting us experience a little of their country and customs. We learned as much about the culture as we could have expected, and were very well fed. But it might have been interesting to know what the locals were eating when spring rolls weren’t on the menu!

P1050738

The owner’s youngster has it better than most Vietnamese children

For more information:

Related posts:

P1050744

Ready to go our separate ways – It’s been a great two weeks