Cycling Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
Mekong (not-so) Confidential—Bikepacking Vietnam’s Delta.
If there’s a better way to see the Mekong Delta than strapping a spare pair of cycling shorts, a dry T-shirt, a couple of pairs of underwear and some decent off-road thongs to your bicycle, City Pass Guide contributor Jon Aspin would like to know.
The Basics of Cycling the Mekong Delta
In truth, you do need a few more items than the above shortlist lets on. A spare tube and puncture repair kit is mandatory on any ride, and a water bottle, sun cream and shades are no-brainers. In addition, as every cyclist already knows, if your ride doesn’t upload to Strava, it may as well not have happened, so a power pack to keep your phone charged should also be considered essential.
Image source: paintedroads.com
At the beginning of June, as my immense number of followers on the above-mentioned ride-sharing app (90) will tell you, something definitely did happen. I spent four days in the saddle getting to know the Mekong Delta as I hadn’t done before and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
High Praise from a Mekong Delta Cycling Enthusiast
Riding alongside me, or for large parts of it, ahead of me, was my ride buddy Jeremy, a native of the Alaskan wilderness, though more latterly of Portland, Oregon, and a veteran of several trips to this incredible part of the world.
“You’re going to love it, Jon”, he told me as we sat in the van we had hired to take ourselves and our bikes—mine a well-worn Cannondale CX, his a recently purchased Giant Roadster—to our first destination, Ben Tre, the Mekong Delta’s unofficial, coconut-flavoured capital.
Skipping the dusty, dangerous highway to arrive there in air-conditioned comfort—leaving only a good night’s sleep in front of us—it was from here that we would begin our first bikepacking trip together, and what better place to do it?
Image source: carbonbrief.org
“I’ve done this trip four times already”, Jeremy offered, “and I can’t wait to do it again”.
Coming from someone who’s ticked off some serious bucket-list rides, including a circumnavigation of the bike-friendly but dramatically beautiful Taiwan, some more extreme bike-kayak-bike rides around his home turf of Juno, Alaska, as well as several other multi-day excursions all over southeast Asia, it’s high praise.
In total, we kept the pace light and in four days of riding completed just under 300 kilometres, give or take a few. Using Jeremy’s saved maps (I told you a charged phone was an essential piece of kit), we avoided anything that resembled a highway and stuck mostly to back roads and quiet lanes, cross-stitching our way through stunning countryside, dense jungle and quaint villages, always with the mighty Mekong in range. It didn’t mean we never got lost, in fact that is part of the joy, but because we weren’t trying to break power or distance records, this was cycling at its absolute best.
Cycling from Bến Tre to Vĩnh Long and Back
For the uninitiated, 300 kilometres might sound a lot, but Strava tells me that our biggest day was day one, when we covered a flat 78 kilometres between our riverside accommodation in Bến Tre (I’m not getting paid to say that Mango Home is well worth staying at next time you’re in the area) and Vĩnh Long, where we lobbed at the charismatic and incredibly good value-for-money Happy Family Guesthouse.
Image source: mangohomeriverside.com
On day two, we returned from whence we came, taking a slightly alternative route from the previous day that involved a number of ferry crossings—adding to the mystique of being there. On all four days we encountered locals who reminded us of the magic that is Vietnam.
Sure, they were giggling at our lycra-clad bellies, funny shoes and weird choice of headgear, but the overwhelming response was to welcome us, pour us tea, bring us fruit and smile—never expecting a cent in exchange.
Of course we did spend money, as there were far too many opportunities to drink delicious nước dừa (ice coconut) and eat the freshest vải (lychees) I’ve ever tasted—though these were also available for free off the trees we rode past. Obviously, you can’t go all the way to the Mekong Delta without getting deep on life while sipping more than your fair share of café sữa đá, so we did this too. There may even have been a few Saigon Specials in the mix as well. It was hot after all.
Image source: buffalotrip.com
During our ride we came across virtually no other foreigners, save for a drunk Russian couple in Bến Tre. The riding itself was excellent (aka flat), across a variety of manageable terrains with limited traffic outside of the regular flow of improvised ‘hoppers’ that carry anything and everything you can imagine. Whether we were traversing multiple series of tiny old bridges, stopping to admire artwork and vestiges of communities we’ll never know, or riding through towns that time had forgotten—all while luxuriating in the fresh air we miss while living in Ho Chi Minh City—every day in the Mekong Delta was a very good day for a bike ride.
Cycling to Gò Công in the Mekong Delta
On day three, we made it to Gò Công, through what can only be described as one of the coconut-processing capital of the world. It was incredible to see the strength of the men and women who take this commodity from raw product and strip it back manually, ready presumably for export.
Also remarkable throughout the trip was the ever-present dichotomy between what we know about the encroaching threat of things like saline intrusion—caused by rising sea levels worldwide—plus the general level of poverty we hear about in the Mekong Delta, and the apparent abundance of life all around us.
Cycling the Mekong Delta in the early morning glow through fields of coconut palms, cashew plantations and lush vegetable and rice paddies, not to mention on residential paths where beaming locals live out what seem like idyllic lives, it was hard not to get a bit dreamy-eyed about it all. I asked Jeremy at one stage, “Wouldn’t you just move down here if you could?”
Image source: paintedroads.com
It was on day three that we also unexpectedly happened upon a prison labour camp in action. Young men paying their dues in fields wearing striped uniforms under the supervision of local officials. Before we knew what was happening, a very cordial police escort had greeted us, making sure we found our way off a property we didn’t know we were on—an interesting and unexpected highlight.
A Better Way to Cycle the Mekong Delta?
On day four, having spent the night in what was essentially a converted warehouse before filling ourselves with yet another nutritious bowl of Vietnamese goodness—bún bò Huế from memory—the dense vegetation and meandering pathways along the tributaries of the Mekong eventually gave way to straight-up commercial cropping and the hint of industry, signalling a transition from where we had been, to where we were going.
Image source: langbun.vn
One ferry crossing and a final bridge climb later, the Mekong Delta was behind us, accompanied by the familiar drone of heavy traffic, and a sense of sadness that the experience was over, but also a satisfaction that we had created new memories, seen things that so many people never will and left no trace of us ever having been there.
Video source: Mr Biker Saigon Thai Hang
Bikepacking the Mekong Delta: is there a better way?
Banner Image source: nomadicmatt.com