Biking through the Mekong Delta
Motorbikes whizzed past me so close I could feel my nose hairs tingle, most of them carrying loads 5 times the size of a human, on paths wide enough for 1 bicycle. I looked at my friend with raised eyebrows, silently questioning her sanity pondering my decision to ride a bicycle on these paths for the next 4 days.
I readjusted my bike shorts, briefly wondering if this is what life in Adult Diapers would feel like; threw one leg over my GT Hybrid and set off into the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
“BIG BIKE” shouted Tan, our guide. Big Bike meant motorcycle and to move to the farthest sliver of the bike path, even if that meant teetering on the edge of the river. “LITTLE BIKE” meant, pedal bike and to just move over a little so we could pass each other safely. “BIG BIG BIKE” meant motorcycle overloaded with Durian or some other fruit meant get to the edge and stop moving unless you want to suddenly be missing a limb or two. Tan would also frequently shout out “HEAD” indicating low hanging branches and fruit up ahead, and the other warning heard frequently was ‘BRIDGE’. The bridges were usually narrow concrete arcs crisscrossing the river and tributaries. The first time we came to one of these bridges, neither my friend or I felt brave enough to ride over it so we dismounted and walked across like a couple of newbies. Once we adjusted to our surroundings and realized that there would be many, many more bridges in our future, we took a deep breath and flew over the next bridge. Like ripping off a band-aid except less painful, more cold sweat inducing, panic stricken, and altogether nerve wracking as you pedal up the arc, summit and then careen down to the other side. Once safely over the bridge little pleasure pops of endorphins rush through you making each subsequent bridge child’s play.
That first day was like a crash course about life in the Mekong Delta. We rode along mostly concrete bike paths that snake their way through rice paddies, along and over the murky river, through villages, farms, and jungle. Frequently the sweetest little “HELLO’S” were heard as children would pop up out of nowhere to wave and say hi. The bike paths we were on are less for tourists and leisurely bike riders as they are for interconnecting various points of the delta by bicycle and motorbike, transporting fruit and all sorts of random goods throughout the countryside. In fact, Tan explained that many Vietnemese people thought the bike tourists were a bit nuts, like why do we choose to go bike riding for days, why not take a car, if we can afford to travel we can afford to drive.
Halfway through our first day, we reached a ferry crossing point and boarded a small boat with our bikes. There was a hammock in the back which I promptly stretched out in and swayed as the boat rocked it’s way along to the landing point. We were only about 12 km in that day but already I could feel my sit bones getting sore, despite the bike shorts butt padding and a gel seat I had brought along. My wide leather cruiser seat at home had clearly not prepared me for a 4-day bike trip. We rode about 30 km that first day from the side of a dusty highway, into the Delta, over the river, eventually ending at the most idyllic and peaceful little homestay. The wooden cottages had open air windows, the perfect place to hang our hand washed bike clothes to dry.
We were treated to an introductory course in open flame Vietnamese cooking; demonstrating how to make papaya salad and spring rolls. The papaya salad involved a lot of shredding and I suspect they choose this for us to make so as to avoid the tedious task themselves. The spring rolls are made with a delicate lace like rice paper that you wrap your ingredients in and then drop into a large wok. To remove the rolls, you have to be a Mr. Miyogi chopstick master; these are not your average chopsticks, they are as long as your arm and thick as a finger you need to manoeuver these behemoth chopsticks in the bubbling oil, plucking out one roll at a time without splattering searing hot oil on your skin…It would have been foolhardy for me to attempt such a task so I contented myself by observing and snapping a few photos.
Dinner was an extravagant affair, the food itself was simple and delicious, but the presentation was fantastic! The first course of which was the papaya salad and spring rolls. I hate papaya but the salad version is delicious because the papaya is not totally ripe yet. Afterwards we ate fish served whole, complete with the same glassy eyed expression the fish had when it realized it bit the wrong corn niblet that day. Rather than explain why the presentation of our dinner was so delightful, I will simply show you in images:
A solo biker sat at our table and we struck up a conversation, she confided in me that her ass bones were so sore she was worried about the 70 bumpy km’s we had to ride the next day. Relieved at not being the only one, I told her that I’d had an ice block wedged between my butt cheeks throughout pre-dinner drinks and dinner, and would continue to sit on the ice block through post-dinner beers until I went to bed. She too asked the staff for an ice block much to their amusement and we talked over a few Saigon Bia’s.
Later that night, lying in bed I watched the shadows of Gecko’s flit around the room in that completely blissed out state that comes after a solid day of outdoor exercise followed by a refreshing shower and a few cold beers in the lingering heat of the day. As I sit in my classroom, waiting for the Canadian winter to end, reminiscing about that day is nearly an act of masochism.
The next 3 days were a whirlwind of pedaling through the Mekong Delta maze, stopping at a farmer’s hut for fresh mango, watermelon or sugar cane juice. Anticipating what we’d have for lunch; every time something new (ordered by our guide) and so delicious I declared Vietnam my new favourite food country. The title was previously held by South Korea but to be honest, in retrospect, it’s really a tie between the two countries . Even though on the 3rdday of biking I ended up having an allergic reaction to the pineapple that had made its way into my soup and had to sit out for the last 20km or so, I didn’t mind because the soup was so good and I had the pleasure of hanging out with our van driver drinking the magical concoction known as Vietnamese coffee. Oh my stars, Vietnamese coffee could cure the most melancholic soul; each time they brought out that tall glass layered with sweet condensed milk and ice accompanied by a divine little cup of thick and creamy espresso, my heart very nearly exploded with happiness. Do beware though; courtesy of a friend of mine who also visited Vietnam and fell a little too hard in love with their coffee; in particular, before boarding a train with only the most rudimentary of bathroom facilities, it will help things move swiftly so it’s best not to overindulge.
Our last night was spent in a grass river hut reminiscent of the Louisiana Bayou. We took a shower in the tiniest little bathroom, wondering where the water was coming from; both my friend and I were at that point in the bike trip where ample Butt butter was needed to soothe the angry ass chap that one experiences after 120-ish humid kilometres; despite religiously applying Body Glide throughout the day. The dining hall was filled with random backpackers and bikers but for some reason the host took a liking to Cat and I and decided to sit down with us for the evening. After hearing that we were from Canada he proceeded to tell us that his sister apparently owns the most popular Banh Mi restaurant in Calgary. He also told us how she came to be in Calgary by way of Indonesia, she had escaped Vietnam on a small boat but due to a storm they ended up in Thai waters. If the Thailand authorities had caught them they would have been arrested and returned to Vietnam, instead the people who found them adrift, set them on the right course and they became refugees in Indonesia and eventually were resettled in Calgary, Canada. This brought forth the harsh reality of Vietnam as a country with a recent enough history of war and human rights violations so great, most of us cannot even begin to comprehend. I felt privileged that this man would share his family’s story with us and was happy to know that my home country was able to play a positive role in their safety and success.
Our final day of cycling, we were taxied down the Mekong through the Can Tho floating market in a narrow boat. The floating market is a traditional market where people sell mainly produce from their boats. There were small boats laden with piles of watermelons and pineapples so large it was a wonder the boats didn’t sink or capsize under the weight. It was utterly fascinating to watch the goings on as people stood on precarious little outboards, steering their way through the chaos to pick up a load of onions or papaya. The whole time I kept anticipating some kind of accident like a wave upending someone into the water but nothing happened and eventually it was time to get back on the road to Ho Chi Minh.
Our guide Tan needs a paragraph here, he was nothing but courteous and helpful but more than that, he was extremely knowledgeable and incredibly passionate about cycling. On our second day of cycling we stopped at his parent’s house for tea and snacks, and on the last day he invited us to his home to meet his family, have dinner, and take a shower before our night flight to Hoi An. I’ve been blessed in my travels with exceptional guides, 90% of the time I’ve booked them on the fly and went on instinct but Tan was assigned to us by a company (don’t remember the name) and we could not have asked for a more generous, and positive person to lead us through the Mekong maze. If you’re in the market for a bike guide in Vietnam, send me a PM and I’ll put you in touch with him directly. His wife made the best Pho of my life and his adorable children and mother took us for a walk around the neighbourhood and down to the river to watch the sunset. These are moments in travel that I remember the most fondly, that are more than just anecdotes at dinner parties, or art on the walls of your home; they are the little gifts that only you can truly appreciate.