Sharon and Robin went on a 13-day long Self-guided ride of the Coast of Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. Their account of the adventure surpassed our expectations completely, and we are proud to share this in-depth, personal account at cycling across Vietnam self-guided.
Sharon and I loved Vietnam.
We visited for a month, starting in the north, then exploring the middle and finally the south; Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta. We thoroughly enjoyed our visits to Ha Long Bay, Ba Bay National Park, Hanoi and HCMC, but our two self-guided rides with Grasshopper Adventures on the ‘Vietnam Ocean Road’ and through the Mekong Delta were the highlight of the trip by far.
Those rides took us way off the beaten track, into places that, surely, few visitors to Vietnam ever see. We are fairly experienced bikers, having done self-guided rides (with and without bag transfer) in Italy, France, UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. The customs there are familiar, and we speak a bit of French and Spanish so we muddled through.
We expected Vietnam to be a whole new ball game, which is one of the reasons we decided to go there, and it certainly was. Now, we can hardly wait to go back there again.
Among many uncertainties, we wondered how we would manage with the language. Vietnamese seems, to us, to be all about intonation, so even when we said it like the travel dictionary said we should, we usually got a puzzled look — always with a smile. Even Google Translate’s pronunciation on our phones provided little help, but it never mattered. In the end we always managed to get what we wanted.
We experienced a few interesting non-verbal interactions. First of all, people notice two mature (?) westerners on bicycles out in the middle of the countryside. We were on a tiny ferry standing in the midst of a throng of about 20 motorbikes. I stand at 194 cm, way up there relative to most Vietnamese. Sharon is tiny, 160 cm and slim. The man next to her grinning held up two hands, one with thumb and forefinger almost touching, the other with them far apart. She looked at him puzzled for a moment then got it. Friendly, laughter rippled through the throng. We realized that without talking, we could still share a joke.
Another instance, a bit more complicated, occurred in a small town on the way to Tam Kai. I ducked into a market to buy some oranges (our favorite riding refreshment). I chose a vendor and selected my oranges. As I always did, I pulled out some notes and held them up for the vendor to point to the correct ones for payment. A woman who had come from behind the stall and stood next to me pointed to a 50K note and held out her hand. I gave her the 50 and she stepped away. The woman behind the stall now held out a 20K note which I assumed was my change, so I took it and put it in my wallet.
Then I heard laughter and looked around to find all the other vendors and customers watching me.
I realized what had happened. The first woman asked me to gift her the 50K and the second held out the 20K to show me the price of the oranges. Once the first woman realized the mistake, she came over and gave me back the 50K. I gave back the 20K, paid for the oranges, and left amid a market full of grins, chatter, and laughter. We had a good few other light and playful moments along these 15 days of self-guided adventure.
A bit of trepidation touched the first day out on our bikes in Hue. While traveling by vehicle, we saw the steady streams of scooters and motorbikes and wondered how we would navigate them. We discovered the secret to just go with the flow and the traffic will flow around you. Heads up — few if any stop signs exist, so unless at a traffic light, intersections are give and take. Once others understand where you want to go, they either speed up or slow down to make space as you proceed. Almost everyone rode on two wheels like us and were very attuned to that mode of transport. Within an hour, we moved comfortably, even in the busy city of Hue. Everything flowed so nicely there, we almost thought we should do away with stop signs here at home.
The two rides are quite different. The Ocean Road boasted more open countryside and longer stretches. Here we cruised along, enjoying open views across rice fields, rivers and lagoons, and all that goes on in them. That said, the ride passes through lots of small communities with shops to buy snacks and water. We skip a meal during the day while riding. We just snack on fruits and bars. But we enjoy a coffee stop or two and found at least one good coffee shop every day, even in out of the way places.
There is nothing like a good strong Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk to rev up the engines.
Leaving Hue and its amazing market, we soon approached the countryside with great views of country and community life all along the way to Vedana Lagoon. We saw it all easily from the bikes: agriculture, fish farming, domestic animals and village life. This low coastal area of Vietnam stretches with many rivers, canals and coastal lagoons, so we often enjoyed water views of one kind or another. We looked with amazement at the extent of fishing and fish and shrimp farming along the way. The fishing village just before the Vedana Lagoon Resort presented interesting and colorful photo ops at every turn.
Even though we ride quite alot, with both of us over 70 we felt a bit anxious about the Hai Van pass that faced us the next day. We opted for our pick-up to arrive at the bottom of the other side of the hill, rather than ride the additional 20 km into Da Nang. An idyllic first part of the day, we rode through scenic countryside with hardly a vehicle going either way and very few motorbikes. The only road traffic that slowed us down amounted to a herd of water buffalo shuffling along.
We rolled into Lang Co along coastal sand dunes with new tourism development springing up and arrived at coffee time much earlier than expected. We found a variety of coffee shops, each filled with tourists. (By then, we no longer thought of ourselves as tourists. Tourists sat in air-conditioned buses and vans, looking out of tinted windows). We downed our coffee with extra condensed milk and headed up the pass.
We conquered the steep climb easily, in low gear. With a meditation mindset we soon found ourselves at the top. There, all the women sellers in the stalls came over to look at my wife and ask her age. Then down the other side, with spectacular views to the sea and out over the bay to the Da Nang skyline gleaming in the sun. I can just see it! The downhill was a glorious long, swooping run, curve after curve descending to our pre-arranged pick up point.
After, we took a rest day in wonderful Hoi An. This place really deserves a week or even a month. Suffice it to say, you won’t get bored or hungry there. Then we delighted in three more outstanding days of riding and reveling in country roads and small towns. Here and there we stopped for a short stretch on a busy road, but these were never a problem. With four lanes, traffic mostly keeps the right lane for two-wheeled traffic, and vehicles stay in the left lane.
There were interesting sights every day. We suggest leaving early for My Son for lots of time to tour the site. On the second day, be sure to tour the heroic mothers monument near Tam Ky (great coffee opposite too). The small museum under the monument should not be rushed. Once again, set out early so you have some time to relax and enjoy La Domaine. This unique, out of the way, laid back resort sits on Tam Hai Island.
We are of the Vietnam War generation.
Not to get political, but one cannot visit Vietnam without being conscious of the role of western countries and their allies had in wreaking havoc in Vietnam. The last day took us to Quảng Ngãi and the memorial at Son My (site of the famous My Lai massacre). Before coming, we watched Ken Burns 2017 10-part documentary ‘The Vietnam War’. I recommend this to anyone visiting the country for a deeper understanding of what they will be seeing as they travel through it.
For us, the Son My memorial seemed more of a pilgrimage than a visit. So we started the day in somewhat of a somber mood. Riding along the coast near Chu Lai Airport, we viewed kilometer after kilometer of failed resort developments on the sea. This reminded us of the fragility of the trajectory that Vietnam was now on. It emerged tentatively from a period of isolation from the rest of the world following the Vietnam War. All of this happened so recently. We wondered what was in store for us at Son My. The sky, blue from corner to corner, lifted the somber mood a bit. The countryside lay carpeted in that luminescent green unique to rice fields.
The Memorial should be taken in slowly. It requires some time to wander around the village site and to visit the museum for an hour at least. There was none of the feeling of anger that we somehow thought should be there in abundance; just a deep sense of sadness about what war does, especially one so misguided. The museum is small but punchy and we were impressed by the prominence given to the US airmen and the reporter who tried to stop the massacre.
Here was a genuine attempt to tell the full story, not to recriminate, and never to forget.
After a couple days of relaxation in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, we were into our sixth day of riding in the Mekong Delta.
What a place! The Mekong Delta ride was intimate, with lots of narrow paths, short turns, sudden bridges, and lazy ferry crossings. There are rivers, canals, and wetlands everywhere. Much of the time is spent riding along dikes with water on both sides and through communities perched alongside the water, on paved and unpaved paths designed for two-wheeled traffic only. Paths were often shaded over by trees with coconut and banana trees predominating.
On dikes many homes fronted onto the path, while the back extended over the water (or possibly the other way around). Often homes and shops had a roof that extended out over the path to the house opposite. Cooking, work, and play took place right next to the path.
At times it felt like we were riding through someone’s house as we tried to avoid beans and spices gingerly laid out to dry in the sun. Then all of a sudden we would burst out of a narrow vegetated path and be in a bustling town.
Riding in the Delta one must go fairly slowly, especially when there are houses. There are a lot of people, many kids close to the riding path, and so much to see. Slowing to peer through the vegetation into the canals, we saw all kinds of interesting activities. We observed fishing, growing stuff, gathering who knows what by digging in the mud, and transportation of all kinds of things by boat. Boats docked everywhere. The size ranged from small boats for getting up narrow canals or fishing close to shore, to large river-going vessels that, for all we knew, might have been headed for Phnom Penh, Cambodia or Vientiane, Laos.
We sat having breakfast at Mekong Lodge, on the deck by the large arm of the Mekong River near Cai Be, and watched the river traffic for ages. There were container ships with 4-6 containers, boats, and barges towed by tugs, loaded with sand and other goods going in both directions. Alongside which moved local ferries carrying people to work and even some boats with tourists for a day out.
Life on the river is fascinating indeed. We are dog lovers and loved seeing the dogs on boats and floating fish farm trotting confidently along narrow walkways. They took their jobs seriously, warning off birds and presumably intruders. Many of the boats were clearly homes, living quarters astern with the wife washing or cooking while the man drove the boat. Maybe a child or two played in the mix. At the end, we got to see this aspect of river life up close when we visited Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho.
So much has been written about this famous floating market that we thought it must be overdone. It's not.
Try to be there when the sun comes up and the colors come alive. The whole scene is fascinating — not just the markets, but the life aboard the boats which is plain to see. If this sort of thing floats your boat (pun intended) have a look at ‘Morphology of water-based housing in Mekong delta, Vietnam’ to learn about housing on and by the water.
Can Tho was like an explosion. After riding all day on small tracks we crossed the river by ferry and were in the middle of a sizable bustling city. We took a deep breath and headed for our hotel by the waterfront. By the time we showered and headed out for dinner it was like stepping into a fireworks display. Bright lights and people everywhere, restaurants, dinner cruise boats, and coffee shops. The riverfront promenade is clearly the place to be after sundown.
What a lively scene and a fitting final night to an amazing ride.
Huge thanks to Sharon and Robin for this contribution.
The full itinerary of Sharon's and Robin's Self-guided adventure along the Coast of Central Vietnam can be found here. If you are interested in a self-guided tour of the Mekong Delta, the second part of their 13-day adventure, then simply reach out to our travel experts.