The Mekong is a great place to cycle. Being a massive river delta, it is flat in profile. This river has its source in the highlands of China spreads out into several major outlets across the Vietnamese countryside south of Saigon. These are interlinked by a number of canals and ferry crossings, making for riding that is full of event and it is possible to get away from traffic on many occasions.
Our ride descriptions give an account of the ride that we completed. As part of the description we also provide links to Wikiloc or Google maps and elevation profiles based on mapping data available through the internet. The ride profiles are smoothed to give what in our opinion is a more beneficial view of the profile. We use paper maps, GPS and on line data to plan and conduct our rides. We are happy for you to use our descriptions, but be aware that we do not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided as situations surrounding any ride change over time.
Before cycling through the Mekong delta, we had decided to visit the holiday island of Phu Quoc. The car ferry left from a quay just over the river from the guesthouse at 8.20am. The riverside market was colourful and busy at 7am and we brought bananas and oranges for breakfast.
On the ferry we made ourselves comfortable in the uncrowded passenger
area and watched a comedy stage play, in Vietnamese, on the television
which made us laugh even though we couldn't understand a word. After
three hours the boat docked on the north west coast of Phu Quoc island.
This confused us as we had assumed it would go to the main port which
was in the south. Our intention was to stay at Long Beach which is
close to Duong Dong on the east coast.
With no Internet connection we only had the Garmin map on the phone and this did not show a single road on the island. First we headed north on the unsurfaced road which was muddy and rutted. The north of the island is the mountainous part, with steep jungle covered slopes. Our sketchy memory of the geography was that there was no road around the north coast onto the east side and we couldn't imagine a road running across the mountains.
So although we'd already gone 4km we turned round to head south. Back at the junction for the ferry terminal we took the road signed to Ham Ninh but immediately it was obvious this road was not well used. The wide dirt track was overgrown with just a single pathway ridden by a few motorbikes. But the kilometer markers at the side gave distances to Duong Dong so surely it must go there?
After 3km and a puncture repair we breasted the top of a gentle hill and the road in front just disappeared, bisected by a deep canyon, washed out by a storm. As we stood there looking forlornly over the gorge, a motorcycle approached on the other side. He pointed to the left and there was a track through the trees.
Over the deep sand they had built a wooden causeway consisting of narrow tree branches nailed across two side rails. This descended steeply to the bottom of the valley, formed a bridge over the water, and ascended equally steeply on the far bank. This was repeated for the next six valleys before widening back into a normal dirt road. Having only had fruit for breakfast and now 2pm we were ravenous but everywhere we asked they had none. At last there was a sign pointing to a small house on the beach 'Food and Drink'. Sitting in the shade of the palm trees on the beach we had green coconut juice and fried noodles.
It was only about 10km from there to the next town, Ham Ninh and the
wonderful sight of a wide smooth tarmac road with a hard shoulder! From
here it was 20km to Duong Dong. But after 4km the smooth surface stopped
where roadworks to widen it into a dual carriageway began. All they
seemed to have achieved so far was to ruin the old road and reduce the
tarmac width to single width on a very busy road.
Duong Dong lies at the northern end of the reported best beach on the island and is developing into a busy tourist town with a new airport just opened. We collapsed into a bar next to a motorbike wash station and had the grungy bikes washed while we drank a beer. By now the sun was setting so we had to find somewhere to stay fast. Riding down the road parallel to the beach we say lots of new hotels and resorts being built. About 3km from the town there are a number of older, bungalow type, resorts and we tried one of these but there was so much building going on that there would be constant noise during the day. In desperation we booked into a place which, in the dark, looked OK called Charm resort.
They gave us a room on the ground floor with a double glass entrance door which didn't close properly, not good for security. There was just one, low energy light bulb in the ceiling and horrible dirty curtains. When we went for a beer we realised that we were the only guests and all of the staff were lounging around with nothing to do. At the bar were six staff, the chef was asleep on a billiard table and the seven spa staff were sat waiting in hope of customers.
We escaped down the road to a French bistro and a glass of wine.
We were woken at 6am by loud piped music coming from the dining area which went on till 7.30am. The included breakfast was a choice of three Vietnamese noodle dishes but one of them was not available. We had coffee but were then asked to pay extra for this which we refused. After a walk down the beach we found a small resort called Paris where we booked a bungalow for the next four nights.
Except for regular swims, walks along the beach and lying on the sun bed with our adopted pussy, we did absolutely nothing. The resort is listed with Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and was full most of the time, mainly with European backpackers and Silver Surfers like us. The best thing was the restaurant, right at the water's edge, with some delicious food, Viet and Western so we ate lots.
Today we were heading back to the Mekong. Not fancying the idea of cycling back to the car ferry port we looked
into alternatives. There was a passenger ferry from Ham Ninh to Rach Gia on the south coast of the Mekong, which left
at 8.30am. This meant a 6.30am departure to return to Ham Ninh along
the rough, pot-holed road. It was somewhat quieter at 7am.
After buying tickets we rode down the long jetty to the ferry. The bikes were lifted onto the roof and lashed to the life raft canisters.
Overnight a stiff easterly wind had started and the sea was quite rough. All of the westerners were looking a little apprehensive and clutching their vomit bags. To make it worse the windows were high above the seats so it was impossible to see out of them. We both sat and concentrated on the Jackie Chan film on the TV and despite some serious cork screwing and bouncing survived the 2 hour journey, as did the bikes.
Arriving at lunchtime it was too hot to continue cycling to the Mekong so we booked back into the same guesthouse that we had stayed in five nights earlier. That evening we ate one of the best and cheapest meals at the night market in front of the guesthouse: $3 for two meals and four bottles of beer.
We reviewed our map of the Mekong and before leaving town we breakfasted on the market by the river - tasty deep fried sticky rice and shrimp cakes and pancakes filled with vegetables. The road east follows the coast at first, passing fishing hamlets where the fish is landed and sold at the beach side. The road is shady with plenty of palms but the beaches suffer terribly from plastic pollution as all non-recyclable waste is dumped on there. There are many prawn and shellfish farms but little other agriculture.
The traffic was quiet, just a few buses and the usual motorbikes. At Kien Lurong we turned right to go to Hon Chong, a place recommended to us by a British ex-pat in Ha-Tien. The road passes through some amazing karst outcrops, sculpted centuries ago by the sea. Unfortunately their monetary value is greater than their aesthetic value and they are being blasted to pieces to feed the cement and building material demands.
The small resort of Hon Chong is on a karst headland with some pretty yellow sand beaches lined with palms. It is all very low key and local and as it is low season, very quiet.
There is a tourist market next to the Hang Pagoda and cave temple but otherwise it is just traditional food shacks and local houses with just a few hotels and guesthouses.
The swankiest place was a big resort where we got a room with breakfast for $40 a night. The only other guests were a few business men so we had the swimming pool completely to ourselves with comfortable sun-loungers and fluffy pool towels. The restaurant was at the top of a small hill overlooking the sea with views of the amazing sunset.
It was 16km back to the main road at Kien Lurong where we start our ride into the Mekong delta. From here the road runs parallel with one of the multitude of man-made waterways making up the Mekong in this part of Vietnam. The canal was just as busy as the road, with barges carrying cement, sand and bricks as well as fishing boats. Most of the canal bank had houses and small businesses fabricating wood and metal. On the opposite side of the road were some larger factories and manufacturing industries.
The road was busier with lots of motorbike, buses and small lorries and
it took a lot of concentration to avoid all the potential problems as
well as regular waving and returning 'hellos'. By lunchtime there was
thick cloud which gave relief from the sun but not from the heat. Along
the road were lots of "Cafe Vongs", cafes with lots of hammocks and very
few chairs. The waitresses though we were very odd not wanting to have a
nap every time we stopped for a drink.
Rach Gia is a bustling city dissected by two of the Mekong rivers. We struggled to find any hotels in the centre of town, having passed several new ones on the outskirts. We booked into one that was listed in our LP and than set off in search of the traditional end of day beer. This proved more difficult than expected as there were lots of cafes, serving coffee and soft drinks, but none of them had beer. At last we found a small bar with tables on the pavement and drank a couple of cans with a plate of small stuffed squid.
Finding a restaurant proved just as frustrating. After walking around for about an hour we sat at a popular looking pavement food stall. The saving grace for this place was that we came across a little shop with freshly baked coconut tarts which were divine.
A search for breakfast was just as unfruitful as last night's search for
dinner. We stopped at one food stall but couldn't fancy any of the
slightly grey, overcooked bits of fish on offer. So we had rice,
barbecued pork and pickled cucumber further down the road- same as lunch
and dinner yesterday.
Today's ride was pretty much a repeat of yesterday and not very enjoyable. The road continued along the side of the canal, with continuous building on both sides. The traffic was even busier and the road surface worse. Because there is not good mapping of Vietnam it is not easy to avoid the main roads. We realised that we could have taken a small ferry across to the other side of the canal just outside Rach Gia and ridden along what looked like a pleasant quiet track which runs on the opposite bank of the canal. There were several of these small motorbike ferries as well as a couple of small motorbike bridges.
Along the way we came across a funeral procession with brass band accompaniment. The people in the van in front throw imitation bank notes onto the road. the hearse follows with loud, traditional Vietnamese music.
About lunchtime we arrived at a main road junction just close the Mekong river and had a choice of
three restaurants. Choosing the busiest, we found it was one of the
'hotpot' type. The menu was in Vietnamese so we just pointed at the next
table and asked for the same. It was a sour, Mekong river fish broth with some
white fish steaks and eels. To add to it was a big dish of different
flowers and leaves. One of the waitresses looked after us, putting
various things in the pot and serving it up for us. We found it all a
bit bitter and strangely flavoured but it had to be eaten.
The road from the junction was slightly less busy and we were now away from the canal. We decided to stop at the first decent hotel we could find, which was at Thot Not. This is a busy little town on the banks of one of the major branches of the Mekong. After a shower we set off in search of a beer. We wandered along the still busy market on the banks of the river and down through some narrow cobbled alleys with all manner of stalls and shops, but no beer. A little coffee shop on the main street gave us a temporary respite with cappuccino coffee and muffins.
The poor of Vietnam have given up begging. Instead they all sell lottery tickets. So everywhere the very young, the very old and the disabled are ranging around with a handful of get rich quick tickets. As soon as you sit down at a cafe there will be one of these people either standing or sitting at your side waiting for a sale.
Eventually we were directed to a small bar/restaurant on the banks of the Mekong river. Here we sat at the waters edge watching the fascinating spectacle of the activity on the river, boats of all shapes and sizes carrying different cargoes and passengers.
The road continued along the banks of a much smaller Mekong waterway through a
market gardening area. The fertile alluvial soil here is utilised for
many varieties of leafy vegetables and even the road verges were filled
with seedlings in trays.Closer to Can Tho, which is a major meeting point on the Mekong the roads were busier, but much
better surfaced. Riding along the roads the number of traffic accidents
is obvious as every couple of kilometers there are ominous police paint
marks on the road, almost always including a bicycle or motorbike.Today
we saw two accidents within 30 minutes.
Stopping for a drink on the outskirts of Can Tho and to get out the map to find a hotel we were accosted by a tout on a motorbike but decided to let him guide us to some hotels and booked in to the third one for two nights.
Just along the Mekong river bank was an Italian/Vietnamese restaurant serving
very authentic pasta dishes and pizzas, a treat after weeks of rice.
While we ate we noticed that most of the ladies here pedal their bikes
sitting on the rear rack, instead of the nice soft seat. Maybe their
legs are too short or the seats too high.
There is a large night market here with food stalls along the riverside and clothes, jewellery and shoes on the side streets. The problem is that the locals all come and do their shopping on their motorbikes. They drive right up to the stalls to make their purchases. It is quite difficult to enjoy walking around having to be constantly watching for vehicles.
After reading about a place called 'Hung's Homestay' on Trip Advisor we
planned to have a couple of nights there. It is a group of small
traditional style thatch houses on the banks of a tributary of the
Mekong owned by an English speaking Vietnamese man, Hung.
Although we read a lot about it we couldn't find out where it was exactly and having received no reply from Hung via e-mail we trawled through all the blog entries on Google until we found one with a sketch map. Transposing this onto the Google map we thought we knew where we were going.
It wasn't far from Can Tho, about 10km. We rode along the side of the Mekong river, through the market, along a quiet street of residential houses, over a rough bridge and straight into someones back yard, to the great amusement of a group of gents sitting outside. Re-routing on the main road we followed the sat nav to find a narrow, cemented road along the side of a canal with small houses on either side.
Having reached our destination according to the sat nav there was no sign of the place so we continued down the canal, asking at intervals but no-one understood. A large group of helpers gathered and eventually a critical mass was reached so that one guy actually knew where we needed to be. He smelt slightly drunk and set off at speed on his motorbike, back the way we had come, with us following breathlessly behind. After about a km he stopped and pointed across to the other side of the canal where there was a row of thatched houses.
Day off or not we had to be up at 5.30am to go on a morning Mekong river boat trip.
We had breakfast on the boat and arrived at the Cai Rang floating market on the Mekong.
This is a wholesale market with boats travelling from up to 100km away to sell mostly fruit and vegetables.
It was a hectic place with selling boats laden with water melons, pineapples, vegetables, garlic and rice and buyers transferring cargoes to their own boats, small boats selling drinks and refreshments, and masses of tourist boats weaving in between.
After that we spent the rest of the morning cruising along the network of canals that interlink the main rivers of the Mekong, visiting a rice processing factory, a rice noodle factory, a plant nursery and a water melon farm.
Hung was a good tour guide, passionate about his homeland, explaining the problems faced by the very poor people who live there.
Now we knew about the motorbike tracks along banks of the the canals we decided to try to ride on them as much as possible today. Using the Google maps and satellite images we tracked a route from Thuong Thang to the main road and then along the side of the canal running parallel to the road all the way to Soc Trang.
It was wonderful, riding along past all the local houses, watching the locals fishing and driving their boats. Everyone was surprised to see two westerners riding bikes but very welcoming. After about 7km we passed some building works. It was a new and very grand looking temple with a dragon rail staircase leading up to a big Buddha statue. As we paused to get a better look, one of the builders came out and invited us inside. Round the back was a small Buddhist monastery with five monks and a couple of sisters.
We were invited to take tea and fruit with them and then given a tour of the new temple. Upstairs were two men making intricate clay mouldings for decorating the ceilings.
The canal side tracks varied between smooth concrete and rough unsurfaced tracks and we spent about half of the distance on the 1A road which was fairly quiet and very well surfaced. Halfway was a place called Nga Bay where we decided to turn off the ring road and see the centre of the old town. On the Mekong riverside was the usual market heaving with sellers and buyers. A lady on a bicycle caused chaos as the catfish she had just purchased decided to make a bid for freedom and jumped out of the carrier bag on her handlebars onto the road. People were leaping off their motorbikes to retrieve the flapping creatures and ensure the family got their tea.
By 1pm we were in Soc Trang and were quickly adopted by a lovely old gent on a bicycle who guided us to a place to eat some lunch and a hotel for the price of a drink. The hotel was a big, government run, place about 20 years old and showing its age and the lack of maintenance. But it was OK for one night. It was built next to a big public park where all the local children gathered in the evening to play football, very skilfully. Along the pavement was a road safety exhibition, aimed at encouraging helmet wearing and taking driving lessons. The graphic photographs of serious accidents on the roads were horrific, with dead babies and children and decapitated corpses.
The ride took us along quiet roads to Tra Vinh. After a few kilometers there was a group of motorbikes coming towards us, all carrying flags and wearing uniforms. They were followed by several other groups of motorbikes and a convoy of vehicles. Then another motorcyclist gestured to us to get off the road and suddenly there was a sprinting pack of road cyclists racing towards us. It took quite a while for all the competitors and the melee of support vehicles to pass before we could continue. It was a surprise to realise that Viet drivers could be controlled sufficiently to allow this sort of a race.
The road continued through rice fields to the town of Dai Ngai on the banks of one of the major Mekong delta channels. Stopping at a cafe on the edge of the market we were immediately approached by yet another lottery ticket saleswoman. Despite our refusal to purchase, she sat down at our table and conversed with us in sign language. She was fascinated by Steve's 'big' nose and hairy arms.
On the Mekong river bank we found the small ferry jetty and waited in the queue for the ferry to arrive. It was difficult to know whether it was the ferry we wanted but several people assured us it went to An Thon, the small island in the middle of the river. It was just a small boat, carrying passengers, some freight and motorbikes. It didn't leave until every square inch of the deck was filled with people, bags, boxes and motorbikes. but then the engine wouldn't start. We had visions of being carried down the river with no means of steering. One of the crew, with difficulty, cleared enough space to open the hatch in the deck over the engine and tweaked a few bits to get it going.
Arriving at the island of An Thom in the middle of the Mekong there was a short 2km ride on a concrete motorbike path through palm orchards to the east side to catch the next ferry to Cau Quan. In the afternoon we left the rice fields behind and rode through palm and fruit orchards.
Tra Vinh is a bustling city on the side of the Mekong with few Western tourists. We booked into a hotel near the market and went off in search of beer. There are many cafes but none of them are licensed. The only places with alcohol are restaurants and although we found many street food places we just couldn't find a restaurant although we walked for miles. In desperation we sought out the only white face in town, a young lady on a motorbike and asked her. Following her directions we walked another 2 km to a place with good food but no English menu so we had to take pot luck. Beer is the same in any language so no problem getting that.
After 20km we had to catch another ferry, a large vehicle one this time, crossing one of the wider arms of the Mekong. The loading and unloading here was very slick with about five ferries constantly filling and emptying their cargoes on each side. The road on the other side of the Mekong was sheltered and had some shade and we completed the next 40km in two more hours, arriving in Ben Tre for lunch.
After a tasty lunch of Pho (noodles) on the market we checked into the to the best hotel in town, called' Viet UC' on the Mekong riverbank. It cost 100,000 dong a night but even with a full days food we were still well below our 1,500,000 dong daily budget and it was the quietest, cleanest best appointed room yet with by far the comfiest bed.
The bed was so comfortable it was difficult to get up before 9am for
breakfast. This was also one of the best breakfasts we have eaten in
Vietnam so far, with lots of fresh fruit and omelets cooked to order.
The direct distance to My Tho on the road was only 10km so it would be a short, easy ride. The road out of Ben Tre was well surfaced and mostly dual carriageway with a wide hard shoulder. It was quite busy but wide enough to feel relaxed.
Approaching My Tho we could see the massive new bridge over the Mekong. From a distance it looked like a small mountain of ascent. After crossing the first river channel we turned off to look at Thoi Son, a river island, riding along the first bit of peaceful road for several days . Winding through orchards, palms and a small village it ended at a little ferry.
We put the bikes on and sat for a while with couple of other people. Just before it was due to leave, a group of six young adults on motorbikes got on. They all wanted to have their photos taken with us and then one of them, Ngiah, started chatting to us in reasonable English. He told us he was going home with his friends to attend his twin sister's wedding. His family lived very close to the ferry landing and he invited us to his parents house for lunch.
At the house we met his parents, grandmother and brother and shared a lovely meal with them before continuing into My Tho.
This is a popular tourist place, being close to Ho Chi Minh, with hundreds of boats taking tourists round the river islands. The Mekong river bank was a long line of parked buses. The accommodation prices reflected its popularity but we had to try four places before we found a decent one that didn't smell of cigarettes or mildew. Even then to keep the price reasonable we had to go for a room with no window.
Today's ride was short but a strong headwind made it very tiring. The
prevailing wind here is a south-easterly so it would be better to ride
west. Coming out of the town the road was good but further on it was
covered in a thin layer of grit, like the sort used with tar as a top
dressing. But without the tar under it it created a dust cloud every
time a vehicle drove over it. the stiff wind blew it all into our eyes
and noses. It was Sunday so the road was busy with lots of people out on
Arriving in Go Trang at 11.30am we were amazed to find the first neat and tidy town, with proper pavements not all full of parked motorbikes and no rubbish.We searched for the hotel we had found on Google, the only one listed here. Finding the right road was easy, but the numbering of the houses was impossible to comprehend. Odd and even numbers on same side of road, lots of a, b and c's so we couldn't find 24. Saw sign down side road to 'Hoang Kim Mini Hotel'. It was a bit like a motel, built in what looked like a small warehouse. The room was cheap enough but had only a tiny window of glass bricks high in the wall.
That evening we went out in search of food. Everywhere seemed to be serving pho but we'd had that for lunch. At a little roadside place there was tasty roast chicken with fried rice. Then we moved on to a cafe by the small lake in the centre of town and had ice cream. Walking back to hotel we found a cafe that served beer (not as easy as it sounds in this part of Vietnam). We sat and enjoyed a couple of cans and the friendly owners switched on the only English language TV they could find, the Disney channel showing a film called 'Truth'.
We both slept badly as the night receptionist had the TV on loudly in the reception area.
After a poor night we were woken at dawn by the noise in the hallway so
were up before 7am. The first 10km was easy, heading north west on a
quiet road through rice fields, with the wind behind us to reach the
first ferry of the day to cross the Mekong.
On the far bank we had a further 20 km to get to the second ferry, turning down a quiet back road with very little traffic to Tan Tep. This took us through an area where the main industry is making incense sticks, and we were invited into one of them to see how it is done.
We arrived at a jetty with no signs or other indications that this was the right place. There were numerous boats moored there, all traditional fishing boat types. We weren't quite sure which of boats was the ferry so sat in the little cafe with a can of Coke to spy it out. Some motorbikes arrived and were loaded onto one of the boats.
Deciding this must be the ferry we pushed the bikes on and sat with the
few other passengers. The boat set off and started going up the Mekong, not
across it. After a few minutes of anxiety that we were on the wrong boat
we realised it was just going to pick up another passenger on a ship
Arriving at Vam Sat on the other side at lunchtime we were hungry, but this was just a little village with no food and nothing for the next 10km. At the junction there was a cafe but it only had crisps and drinks.
From here it was 22km to the resort along a massive six lane highway with hardly any traffic.It could have been a nice ride but the headwind was stronger than ever and the road long and straight, through mangrove forest with no views and the only excitement the regular bridges over the many tributaries of the Mekong.
At the end of the peninsular the mangrove forest ends and there is a brown sand beach with a few resorts. It is still low season so very few tourists around. We booked a room at the 'Can Gio Resort' and had the place almost to ourselves, including the large swimming pool.
Further along the road towards Can Thanh there was a large war cemetery and memorial. As we wandered round the grounds we saw a beautiful 1 meter long golden snake and innocently pointed it out to the two gardeners who were working there. Within seconds they had grabbed a spade to kill it for their tea.
Riding back up the six lane highway was much more enjoyable with a
following wind and at times we topped 26kph on the flat road. We
stopped for coffee and checked the map. It showed an impossibly long
road bridge over the Mekong, about 1.7km long. We expected something
Humber Bridge. Arriving on the river bank it was obvious there was no
big bridge, just another car ferry, the last one of our Mekong Delta
Once over the river the ride into Saigon was amazingly straightforward. The road was not too busy as we followed the Saigon river north into the city and found our pre-booked hotel without a problem. We planned to spend four days in the city to do some sight seeing and decide how to spent the last two weeks here before our flight to the Philippines.
Read about the next part of our Vietnam journey up into the Vietnam Highlands
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