Cycling in Vietnam

written by Kerry Boyne

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In Vietnam, if there’s one thing that marks you as a foreigner more than your Australian passport or your bulky SLR camera, it’s wearing a crash helmet on a bicycle. It’s like a big, bright, plastic beacon that heralds the approach of a big-nosed Westerner, bringing children running outside their open-fronted houses to shout, “Hello, hellooo!” “Where you from?”

Though it’s law to wear helmets on the scooters and motorbikes that swarm every inch of road and alley in the towns and cities, no one except a nanny-state national wears one on a bicycle, which was until not so long ago the only rolling transport for Vietnam’s 88 million people. It seems inconsistent given the bicycles mix it with the scooters and cars and go at almost the same speed. But, let’s face it, those elegant girls in their white au dais would look just wrong in plastic pie-tops.

I wondered whether our guide Nguyen Van Anh felt self-conscious or pleased to be riding a geared mountain bike and wearing a helmet like the four middle-aged Australians entrusted to his care for two days’ cycling in the Mekong Delta. With his athletic good looks and sporty clothing, it made him look more like a viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) than a local.

Anh had been quite formal, even a little stiff, when he and our driver picked us up at our Saigon hotel to take us down to the delta, where we would spend two days on bikes and boats to visit points of interest along the river. Maybe it was our age — Vietnamese often ask your age before your name to determine how they should address you (“Mum”, “Aunty”, “Sister” and so forth). Though only in his 30s, Anh soon relaxed, the formality melting away, and he later confessed a liking for Australians and New Zealanders because of our sense of fun and easy camaraderie with anyone and everyone.

 

River life

At its widest point, the mighty Mekong, which rises in Tibet and flows through China’s Yunnan province, meandering through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, spans 7km. By the time it reaches southwestern Vietnam, it breaks up into a series of distributaries that make this region the most fertile in southeast Asia, the “rice basket” of Vietnam, producing more than half of the country’s rice output.

So the Mekong Delta is an enormous area with many small rivers, islands and islets, but what characterises it most is the water-based lifestyle: the milk-coffee-brown river is the region’s lifeblood and source of everyone’s livelihood, whether it’s through primary production, fishing or tourism. People live along its very edge, the water lapping into their lives and their houses, which are open for boat traffic to look into; they bathe and wash their clothes in the river, travel by boat and do much of their buying and selling at the floating markets.

When we decided to spend the last couple of days of a Vietnam holiday cycling in the delta (rather than shopping in Saigon), we knew it would be hot and humid – it always is. But we figured that, since it’s a delta, it would be flat; the only rises in the roads are over the multitude of little bridges. That doesn’t mean it was all smooth, easy going, though, as it turned out.

We’d had a little riding practice in the insanely chaotic Vietnamese traffic while in Hoi An, also quite flat. We’d hired the dollar-a-day basic bicycles (no helmets) the locals use and, once we were acclimatised to the chaos and realised that, even though the scooters and cars swarming all around us might come close enough to lightly brush against us on occasion, they were unlikely to actually hit unless we did something silly or unpredictable. In Vietnam, you go with the flow. Zen in action.

To our surprise, in Hoi An we’d become confident and relaxed enough to get out on the main road and ride to a few other towns and villages, becoming happily lost in the labyrinth of concrete lanes so small that many of them can’t fit cars, only scooters and bicycles. It had been a lovely experience because the people whose homes we passed were very friendly, calling out greetings as we went by.

So when we pulled into a supermarket carpark in Tan An and Anh proceeded to unload our shiny mountain bikes and brightly coloured helmets, we realised this might be rather different. People stopped in their tracks and watched with bemused expressions, giggling as we did a few circuits of the car park to try out the bikes. (Were they laughing with us or at us?) Then, suddenly, we were following Anh out into the traffic, soon turning off the hectic highway into the quieter secondary roads.

Again, it was a matter of getting used to it and gaining confidence and soon we relaxed into our ride. It’s a wonderful way to experience a foreign landscape: not only are you going slower than you would in a vehicle and so taking in much more of the scenery, but you pick up all the scents of places (pleasant and otherwise) and receive a lot more friendly smiles and greetings from people as they go about the ordinary things of their day. Vietnamese homes tend to have large openings at the front, so you get fleeting glimpses into people’s lives.

Our first pause other than brief water stops was at a cashew nut processing place in the small rural town of Tam Vu, where we were shown how the nuts are hand-peeled, sorted and packed. A little further on, we stopped to look at a dragonfruit packing place — such an exotically beautiful fruit from a rather homely looking plant. This area has miles of dragonfruit farms, which are strung with tiny lights to fool the plants into growing at night. The unintended result is an evening fairyland.

After these stops, we turned off into the concreted lanes that are perfect for cycling, not least because there’s very little traffic, just scooters and the occasional tiny farm truck. These wound through ever smaller villages until even they petered out and we found ourselves on a very narrow gravelly track with rice paddies both sides as far as we could see. One wrong move here and we’d be over and into the murky paddy. This part was harder going — and hot. At least we were finally glad of the fat tyres of the mountain bikes.

Eventually, somewhat to our relief (mine, at least), we were back on the road, pulling up at a servo where our van awaited us with wet towels, cold water and snacks. We had ridden 40 kilometres and felt pretty sweaty, ready I unashamedly admit for a brief respite in the van’s air-conditioning (did I mention how hot it was?), followed by a boat trip to An Binh island and a superb seafood lunch at the serene Mai Quoc Nam restaurant and homestay, where we were the only guests, as it happened.

This homestay is one of the alternatives to the hotel we’d reluctantly opted for when we booked with Buffalo Tours, and it was so charming in its exotic location overhanging the river, surrounded by thick fields of water hyacinth on the water side and fruit orchards on the land side, that we immediately regretted our choice. Oh well, next time …

Embarking again after our leisurely lunch, we cruised further along the river, taking in the scenery and passing snapshots of riverbank life on the small islands that break up the river. Eventually, we pulled up to a wharf outside a gracious old house where we were treated to tea and a musical performance. Afterwards, we had a little time to wander around the villa and its vast gardens before our boat would take us back to meet our road transport.

Back in the van, Anh and our driver were anxious to get to the ferry in time for the next departure. To miss it would mean a few hours’ wait in a congested four-lane queue of vehicles. It would all depend on how bad the traffic was; our worst fears were realised when we got within a few kilometres of the ferry and saw it was at a standstill. A worried Anh got out and spoke to some police and suddenly we were being ushered through and onto the ferry. He’d told them he had an injured tourist and needed to get her some first aid, which was kind of true as one of our group had had a few spills and gashed her leg.

 

Deep in the delta

The ferry took us across to Can Tho, the largest city in the delta, and we went straight to our hotel. With all the dust and sweat washed off and clean clothes on, we met to have a drink at the riverside open-air bar. The choices were tea, coffee or beer. Once you get out of the big cities and tourist areas, it’s hard to get a glass of wine. We discovered that, like many hotels, this one was government-owned (Vietnam is a communist country), which explained why a three-star hotel wasn’t exploiting such an atmospheric setting by gouging tourists with over-priced wine and cocktails.

It also explained the absolute lack of contrition or even concern when the riverview rooms we’d been promised on our booking weren’t available. No apology, just blankness. Occasionally, in this wonderful country, you feel like you are the unreasonable one for expecting things to be whatever was agreed to and that it would be very bad form to express your frustration … more Zen.

That evening, Anh took us to a local restaurant, Hoa Cau, where we were the only Westerners. Ravenous after an action-packed day, we feasted royally on the excellent food and felt ecstatic that we’d chosen to end what had been a fantastic holiday this way.

The next day, we rose early to go by boat to the Cai Rang floating market. The most famous and largest floating market in the Mekong Delta, it’s a colourful, bustling affair, with hundreds of boats jostling for position, both buying and selling. The larger boats arrive early and form lanes, which the smaller vessels travel up and down. Sellers tie their goods to a tall pole so it’s easy to find what you are looking for. Little runabouts zip around selling beer and cold drinks as well as cigarettes and snacks.

After the markets we motored upriver to Cai Be, where we stopped off at a riverbank factory to see candy being made from popped rice and coconut — all natural ingredients — and were treated to a tasting. We also watched a woman handmaking ricepaper sheets, something I might have expected to be made by machines these days, but not in Vietnam. We were in awe of her skill and speed in shaping the filmy sheets from a wet slurry of rice and tapioca flour.

Here, we also finally tried the lethal-tasting “snake wine” from a large bottle with a whole dead snake coiled in the rice spirit. We’d seen it everywhere in Vietnam but had been quite able to resist; now, with an amused Anh urging us on, it seemed the right time to give it a go. Not as scary as it looked, but definitely an acquired taste.

From there we met up with our van again to get our bikes and do some more cycling, this time for about 30km along local roads through village after village, past paddies and lotus ponds where women collected snails. In the fields, pigs and cows grazed freely — in fact, most things free-range in Vietnam and it’s not unusual to pass someone with their fresh catch for tonight’s dinner.

Now, accustomed to dousing ourselves in water every so often to keep the heat down, we really savoured the cycling experience, riding among the local schoolkids, or side by side with Anh answering our many questions about delta life and Vietnam in general.

Too soon, it was time to rejoin the van and head back to Saigon, but Anh had one more fantastic food experience in store for us at Tai Co in ???, a tiny family-run eatery specialising in three different types of rice noodle dishes. Their pho, a northern dish that’s ubiquitous in Vietnam, was served with beef or chicken. Bun bo hue, a beef soup almost as famous as pho, is from central Vietnam, and hu tieu, from the south, was served with pork, prawns and egg.

It was possibly the freshest, tastiest and most fragrant meal we’d had in our entire trip. And, again, we were the only Westerners, which meant royal treatment and non-stop friendly smiles. Sometimes, it’s not so bad being a tourist.

 


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Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne loves good food and is the managing editor of WellBeing.