The Mekong Delta

It is more beautiful and fascinating here than I could have imagined.

Our first glimpse before going in.

Monday: Ben Tre to Tra Vinh, 40 flat miles, overcast, low 80s, afternoon shower
Tuesday: Tra Vinh to Can Tho, 57 miles, sunny, 90s, afternoon shower
Wednesday: Can Tho to Chau Doc, 44 flat miles

Tuesday was not only a lot of miles, they were technical with mud and rough “roads.” There were also bridges out and impassable sections, so our guide seamlessly rerouted us at least three times.

We shared these little roads with two-way motorbike traffic.
My new tour comprises the lovely Mark and Kirsten from the UK, a guide/mechanic, and the van driver.
Sometimes the mud was so deep that we had to walk the bikes.
tributaries and therefore bridges everywhere
A rare wooden house; modern construction is concrete.
taking a break for some homemade sugar palm candy with these adorable entrepreneurs
We rode over hundreds of bridges of all types, usually concrete or wood, but this one was the most fun.
We took at least 10 ferries during 3 days.
I though the bike would shake apart on these rough riprap sections.
The Mekong Delta was previously part of Cambodia, so about one million ethnic Khmers live here. Their Buddhist temple architecture is distinctive.
drying freshly made incense sticks
Did I mention the bridges?
or, the occasional lack thereof
We ended our Vietnam cycling at Sam Mountain.

Agriculture

The delta is teeming with food production.

Coconut is big business, and they use every part of the fruit. Men in the warehouse are dehusking with floor-mounted machetes.
“coconut girl”
Chickens (and dogs) are omnipresent.
water buffalo
drying rice
herding ducks out of the rice fields
empty cargo boat
In keeping with tradition, the boats have “eyes” to scare away crocodiles (now extinct in the wild).
Chau Doc floating wholesale produce market, where the item on the pole lets buyers know what is for sale.
(photo by Mark)

Da Lat down to Saigon

By some apps, we climbed more than 6,000 feet in 44 miles on our way to Da Lat, an area renowned for its temperate climate, great produce, and romantic vibe for Vietnamese tourists. The climbing was only possible as we traded the upper 80s of the lowlands for the 60s of the mountains.

miles of greenhouses, primarily for the commercial flower trade, but also for vegetables
Da Lat, high up in the mountains
The Crazy House is a fun architectural attraction and a whimsical boutique hotel where the owners also live.
I thought this was the best market, by far, in Vietnam.

The next day was 42 miles back down to the coast. An amazing 15 miles of that were downhill through coffee and dragonfruit farms.

This was the second “traffic jam” (or “cow jam?”) of the day. It’s a different kind of rush hour, I suppose.
This is a building for luring swiflets to build their nests, the key ingredient in bird’s nest soup. Loudspeakers play a soundtrack of bird sounds to further the attraction. The nests are primarily sold to China, where a bowl of soup can set you back $30-$100.
photo by Micki
The quiet coastal town of Phu Thuy was a good stop for the night. Granite is plentiful in south Vietnam, so it is used for public spaces where we would use concrete.

It was 36 miles to finish outside of Saigon on Friday; rolling hills along the coast flattening out at the end with strong headwinds. Throughout the tour we dealt with headwinds in pace lines when possible, drafting off each other to ease the strain. I brought a few of us home, several folks jumping on the Jane Train to finish out the ride.

That’s 400 miles complete, with about 400 more to go across Cambodia to Thailand.

Celebratory bia (beer) at 11am. Congratulations!

Saigon

I had a little more than a day to explore this lovely city, which is not enough. View from my hotel rooftop bar.
central post office, constructed 1886-1891
view from Independence Palace roof
I became fascinated by the restrained, modernist interiors (not so much the exterior) of this (south) Vietnam “White House,” 1955-1975.
state dining room
Now THAT is a closet! Note the shoe drawers on the left.
Though technically no longer a communist country, there are still a lot of hammer and sickle images everywhere.
Bitexco Financial Tower is currently Saigon’s tallest building. I’m quite taken with the 52nd floor’s helipad that juts out to the right.
Of course it has a bar! the Heli Bar
Ben Thanh, the central market
“Madame, you buy Prada, Michael Kors, Gucci bag, yes? Good price, good price!”

V-EAT-nam, part 1

Hoppity hop hop! We all tried the crickets at the Mai Chau homestay. The consensus: crunchy and grassy.
Shared dinner platter in Mai Chau: fried chicken, papaya salad, spring roll bites, steamed fish in banana leaf, green beans, and rice.
Com chay: break and dip the rice crackers into the middle bowl of deliciousness.
Excellent chicken pho soup on the right. (Ninh Binh)
Nem lui: in a rice paper, place vegetables and minced pork. Wrap, slide out the lemongrass skewer, and dip in peanut sauce.
Banh beo chen: round steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, pork crackling, and shallots that you fill with sauce and scoop out of their cups.
(Hue)
Banh khoai: crispy rice flour crepe filled with bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp. Depending on the region, can be wrapped in rice paper with vegetables and dipped in a sauce.
Banh xeo in Hoi An is like banh khoai, but with the addition of turmeric in the pancakes. This feast was just over $5 per person and way more than we could eat.
Probably the best sandwich I’ve ever had: Madam Khanh’s in Hoi An. It does not seem to bear any relation to banh mi sandwiches in the US. $20,000 VND, or about $1 USD.
Build a banh mi: start with fresh, crusty French baguette, apply at least 3 sauces and spreads, add some mystery meat and pickled vegetables, and experience a symphony of flavors.
Quy Nhon’s hotel buffet breakfast was the best. So much variety!
Banh hoi: fine rice vermicelli, shrimp powder, scallions, pork cracklings, a pork sausage, carrots, green papaya, and fish sauce. This was one of my favorite meals, found along the street in Nha Trang’s non-tourist area. $20,000 VND, or about $1 USD.
Cashews are plentiful and roasted to a nice, crisp crunch with their skins still on. These are approximatley 40lb bags.

Hoi An to Nha Trang

We had a rest day in quaint and touristy Hoi An to enjoy the history, shopping, and beach. Several folks had clothes made, which required fittings. Hoi An is renowned for its overnight custom clothing trade, and there are hundreds of tailor shops.

along the river
obligatory pic of the 1538 Japanese bridge
Our group perusing patterns at one of the nicest tailor shops in town.
photo by Andy

We had a tolerable 28-mile coastal ride on the way to Quy Nhon. Though the humidity dipped into the 65% range, the heat and sun remained high and demanding.

looking back toward Da Nang and Hoi An

Quy Nhon is a beach town that isn’t a huge tourist resort. It was nice to be somewhere so laid back with wide, sandy shores in a calm bay.

It was a 57-mile ride on the way to Nha Trang. With no turns to navigate on the smooth asphalt, Chi turned us loose. I sped along, enjoying stretching out at my own pace and feeling the miles click by. However, I struggled at the end with the gusty headwinds, hills, and 100+ temps. After lunch, it felt like we were riding in a convection oven. We bused into Nha Trang in a celebratory mood after finishing our longest day.

Rest day in a Russian Riviera

Russians can fly direct from several cities into Nha Trang, where they invest heavily in resort development. There is a large Chinese presence as well. The longest oversea cable car in the world (2+ miles) takes you to Vinpearl Land theme park and resort on a nearby island.

Nha Trang
We experienced the round basket boats, and joked with our Kiwis who pronounced them as “biscuit boats.”
A young girl playing in the cove provided a demonstration of propelling the boats from the front using a figure-8 motion of the paddle.
large collection of floating seafood farms
The wiring here is worse than in Hanoi. Perhaps it is because of the rampant, large-scale development: construction crews work 24 hours a day on towering new hotels. The electrician in our group is beside himself.
Po Nagar towers built by the Cham people, 781-817 A.D. There is ancient Hindu influence evident.
Nearly everything is available in four languages.
Nha Trang beach

Ride Logistics

We’re a group of 15 riders and 4 crew: leader Chi, “mechanist” Linh, bus driver Thanh, and truck driver Cho. They work hard to make sure we are always well taken care of.

Typical day:
-wake up at 6:00am
-hotel breakfast at 7:00am
-ride, or bus to ride start, at 7:30am
-morning – ride 2-4 segments, 10-12 miles each, with breaks in between
-lunch (provided at a local eatery)
-afternoon – ride 1-2 legs, bus 1-2 hours to hotel
-shower
-dinner at 7pm with the group, or head out on your own

Mornings are always a bit of a scramble to fill water bottles, apply sun block, and assemble our various bike bits and bobs.

If our ride segments have turns, Chi leads us at a moderate pace. We stay in a group that ebbs and flows as banter abounds. I’m learning as much about the English-speaking world as I am about Vietnam. For instance, we’ve discovered that we all call a cooler something different:
-English – cooler box
-Irish – ice box
-Australian – esky (a brand that has become the name)
-New Zealand – chili bin (though with Jim’s accent it sounds like “chili bun”)

The bus and truck meet us at breaks with cold water, lemonade, fruit, peanuts, cashews, and peanut brittle. What luxury! We regularly enjoy bananas, pineapple, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangosteens, watermelon, and mangoes.

Chi and Thanh slicing papaya at a break.

If there are no turns, Chi lets everyone spread out and go at their own pace. Occasionally he will race one of the fitter guys at about 30 mph for a bit, then leave the winded Brit or Kiwi in his dust. Back on the bus, he explains local sights, history, food, the evening plan, and the next day’s itinerary.

the joy of setting your own cadence

Though I never went on a band tour, I have the feeling there are a couple of similarities. We each have claimed permanent bus seats, and by now I have my “nest” arranged. Nearly every day is a new hotel, so having very little luggage is a plus. The hotels are mid-range: comfortable, but not luxurious. Occasionally there is a pool, or along the coast we might be ocean front.

The one time we happen to be on the bus at night, we realize it has a distinct party vibe.

One constant throughout has been the children trilling, “Hello!” Many also hold out hands for a palm slap. They are adorable and add cheer to the hot miles.

On the Hue to Hoi An

Our 35 miles around Ninh Binh were thankfully flat, but lacking in shade. We baked as we admired the limestone karst peaks and the temples and gardens of the Dinh Dynasty’s 10th century capital. The town had few food options, so we ate supper together before heading to the station. 

Dinh temple


Night Train
No, not the 1951 Jimmy Forrest classic, but the overnight rail journey to Hue. The train was surprisingly nice and comfortable! Even so, only about half of us rested well. 


Hue
It was an easy 10-12 miles around town to the Citadel, Forbidden City, and a royal tomb. A little less jovial today, we downed water at every chance. Spirits revived in the evening as our hydration finally caught up with the past three days of hot miles, and there were hue too many Hue jokes. 🙂

I’m close to drinking a gallon per day now. I’ve never drank so much in my life, and peed so little (we’re all remarking on this phenomenon). 

an great group of new friends


Hai Van (Sea Clouds) Pass
The easy day in Hue was a great setup for the ride to Hoi An along rice fields, rivers, and elaborate cemeteries. The first 36 miles were flat, cloudy, and flew by. After lunch we headed up Hai Van pass, 6 miles to 1600 feet. The views were amazing, and my ridemates called me “mental” for enjoying the climbing so much. The 6 miles down the other side to Da Nang were quite fun as well! 

view from the top
China Beach in Da Nang


Traffic Safety
To Westerners it seems like chaos: the lack of lines, seemingly few rules, and almost no traffic lights. Yet it is so much safer for cyclists here than in all of our countries. Drivers are alert and on the defensive, never aggressive. Everyone, and everything including cows and dogs, share the road equally. With no lanes, everyone gracefully swerves and weaves as needed to avoid anything in their path. We are rarely on large roads, if ever, so the traffic we encounter is fairly slow-moving, which also helps. 

Aisling and Jane
John having some rambutan fun after the climb.


Xin chao! (Hello!)

Hanoi

Train Street

I made it to Hanoi Saturday just in time to catch the bike tour. Whew! That evening we had the option of a food tour that included some local culture, such as the bizarre attraction of getting up close and personal with the train. Vietnam’s rail lines are very small gauge, so the trains to do not travel very fast, i.e. 48 hours from Hanoi to Saigon by train, or 45 minutes on a plane. However, when you’re standing next to one in motion, it seems fast enough!

Banh cuon (“roll overs”) are tasty thin rice crepes filled with minced pork, shallots, and mushrooms.
Our informative food guide with Hanoi’s “old quarter” architecture in the background. The French were here so long that they’ve had a marked influence on building styles, which continue to this day.
Like Bali, there are few restaurants. Most people seem to eat at tiny places. Unlike Bali, the dining spills out onto the sidewalk via tiny stools.
Sunday we cycled 12 miles around the lake in soaring humidity at 100 degrees.
Hanoi through its very poor air quality.

The Way to Mai Chau

After a bus ride on Monday, we cycled 23 miles along the Red River on relatively quiet and wide main roads with good shoulders. After lunch, the bus took us up into the mountains, which were relatively cooler as temps dipped into the low 90s.
The last 12 miles were on village lanes and single track through the rice paddies. It was an incredible day!
This is the region of the Thai and Hmong minorities, known for their beautiful weaving.

In Mai Chau, our accommodation was a homestay. All 16 of us shared the top floor of a traditional stilt house. I love the way our amazing leader Chi pronounces the insect our nets protect us from: “mosskweeto.” It was hot and a little noisy; most of us didn’t sleep much. Our group of Aussies, Kiwis, Irish, English, and Americans bonded quickly!

We range in age from 20s to 70s, and everyone is warm, funny, and generous.

On to Ninh Binh

53 miles Tuesday at 102 degrees and tropical humidity through rolling terrain
Yes, it was hard. The word “brutal” came to mind on the uphills. All I could think about was ice cold water; it was all I wanted. Yet the scenery was just gorgeous!
I’ve never sweated so much in my life. It is untelling how much water I’ve been drinking.