Asia | South East Asia | Vietnam – Speeding to the Mekong Delta
After spending two months in dusty, bumpy but beautiful Kampuchea it is hard to leave this amazing country. But a new adventure is coming up: Vietnam.
Route: Chau Doc – Long Xuyen – Can To – Vinh Long – Ben Tre – MyTho – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Rivers and canals
To be sure to find a boat to the border at Chau Doc I buy a bus-boat ticket at my guesthouse in Phnom Penh. At 6.30 in the morning I am ready and waiting but no bus is coming. Some phonecalls and 2 hours later I am in a taxi, my bike in the back, on my way to Neak Luong, a quiet nice road between green surroundings. They are waiting for me anxious to go, there are 8 more tourists. Before I know it I am with my luggage in a boat, seperated from my bike and off we go. I am very suspicious with boats but this one is the worst. As soon as we set off I realise this is a speedboat! I watch my panniers, afraid they will fall overboard but I am more afraid for my bike. I hold myself tight to the boat and after more then an hour bumping on the waves of the Mekong we all make it savely to the border, my bike however is missing it’s beautiful small mirror.
After some stops, exit and entry stamps I am in Vietnam. This time on a small riverboat with only the driver, my bike and luggage safe next to me. All the others booked at a different company and go on an ugly big one.
Slowly Vietnam is opening up to me, from the mighty Mekong we change into smaller rivers and canals, people wave at me from there little junkboats and stilthouses and it is green everywhere! We go as far as Chau Doc. At the ferry a whole crowd of people is crossing the river to and from their homes. It is an amazing change: streets filled with motorbikes, busy people, coffeeshops, streetkitchens,shoeshops and noise all around me.
That night I have my first experience with ‘an chay’, vietnamese vegetarian food. In a small streetkitchen people sit down at long tables and I am invited to join them. Surprised and happy that I would like to eat in their place they serve me in the best way and everyone sees to it that I will be satisfied. The food is different, cold but lovely dishes and hot steaming rice. No forks and spoons but chopsticks so I finally can practice my skills.
“I have to talk to you”
The next morning just as I am ready to leave an old man is coming to me saying “I have to talk to you”. “Well, what’s up then?” He points at one of the coffeetables and we sit down. And again, almost whispering, he repetes his words as if he has some secret to share. Then he unfolds a piece of paper on which several routes are drawn and he explains how bad the road from here to Long Xuyen is and that it’s impossible to cycle. Coming from Cambodia I think it cannot get any worse but he made me curious. He shows me several ways into the mekongdelta and I decide to take his advice although the distance is twice as long.
I am happy to follow this alternative, it is beautiful! Along rivers and canals, through green paddyfields dotted with gravetombs, small houses with redtiled roofs at the horizon, crossing many many bridges, with the smell of incense and ricewine I peddle from one village to the other.When I make a stop at one of the many cafes the lady will come sit next to me and together we try to make some conversation with the help of my little dictionary. The road however is not as quiet as Cambodia and the kids are yelling too loud their “hello’s”.
After 80km I arrive on the main road, the one I was not supposed to take from Chau Doc. Suddenly Cambodia relives on a bumpy stony road.13km later I bump into Long Xuyen, my face not only coverd with dust but black from the pollution of the trucks.
Long Xuyen is a big city and it’s difficult to find my way. When I finally find the hotel it is full and so are all the others listed in the guidebook. It is almost dark, I am tired and desperate. A motorbikeguy comes to my rescue, while I wait he cruises around but comes back with a sad face, no rooms available. He tries again and again and finally we find a small damp room on the 5th floor of a cheap hotel.
The next days I cycle through ever green paddyfields, cross numerous high bridges, pass markets with a variety of fruits and vegetables of which many kinds I have never seen before. The people are friendly, wave from their houses and riverboats, invite me at their homes, talk with me when I stop for a cafe or they ride next to me on their old bicycles without any gears or brakes.
The Mekong Delta belonged to Cambodia until the French decided to ‘give’ it to Vietnam. Since then many Vietnamese came down to this fertile land where the Cambodians had developed a good irrigationsystem. Still today there are a lot of Cambodians living their own lifestyle, wearing the blocked scarfs and using their own way of transport.I feel very happy to hear Khmer language, their laughing and singing, oh my do I miss Cambodia!
After a couple of days I seriously doubt if cycling in Vietnam is what I want. The roads are crowded with dirty trucks and buses, so many motorbikes, cyclists dwarfing from right to left, horsecarts, buffoloes, rice and incense drying on the sides and so many nearly-accidents. Someone tells me 350 people get killed in roadaccidents per month!
Finally I decide to take it day by day.
Suddenly, as if the gods had heard me and thanks to the local people I find small quiet roads. I cross so many rivers on small and big ferries that I almost loose my direction.
With the help of the hotelstaff in Vinh Long I find a beautiful road, as quiet as in Laos. The small ferry is tucked away in a village and on the other side I peddle right through paddyfields, fruitgardens and backyards of the local people, on little bumpy paths, over wooden bridges that hardly hold a motorbike. This is it, this is the real delta. When I come in the next village they admire my bicycle and me but mainly try to stop me from going any further to MoCay. Soon I find out why. First the road is okay, gravel but smooth but then there is sand, deep soft sand, my rims just disappear.There is no way to avoid it, I hate sand but there is no such thing as going back. So I pull and push my bike one kilometer after the other and slowly we make progress. Sometimes the surface changes into gravel only to change into sand again a few kilometers later.It gets worse when a truck is spraying water on the sand which forms small pools. It means they are constructing a road! It’s hot, the sun burns on my back. Exhausted I find a small stall that only serves hot and sweet drinks and I start using ice to cool off a bit.
Suddenly, after many km of pushing and pulling my heavy loaded bike I come on the asphalt again, beautiful smooth brandnew asphalt surrounded by coconut plantations. I stop again at the first cafe on the main road, the girl comes sit next to me and says: ‘ you are number one!’.
In Cambodia the brandname of the condom is ‘number one’ and you can find painted billboards everywhere with funny pictures. Also if a girl in Cambodia calls you number one it means she has more than the usual interest in you. So I am a bit surprised this girl is calling me number one. But I decide to think the best of it and take it as a welcoming compliment. Besides, in Vietnam number one is a very sweet local drink.
On relatively quiet roads I make my way to Saigon. I get used to the motorbikes and cyclists but not to the nearly-accidents. With daily temperatures of 40 degrees and more I make numerous stops and enjoy nuoc mia, the lovely sugercanejuice, sweet with a little lemon and lots of ice. I can recognize the stalls from the big wheel they use to press the long sugarcanestalks. Sometimes I drink a whole coconut and scrape the coco from the inside for new energy. Each village or little town has his market and I eat loads of fresh fruit like pineapple, mango’s, dragonfruit, longans and waterapples. And every village has his little harbours, junkboats and sampans come together, prepare a meal of fish at the boulevards on firestoves. Ladies sell fresh baguettes right from the big baskets and with some tomatoes and cheese they taste wonderful.
On a lazy day I sit on the back of a honda-om and the driver follows beautifull backroads, with a happy smile on his face when I hold him tightly. Around CanTho are some very touristy floating markets but we manage to find a quiet one and no tourist I have seen there. Once on a sampan an old lady rows the boat and jumps into a crowd of other sampans. Then she sits in the front and works her way through the mass, pulling and pushing the others. Sampans filled with fruit and vegetables are passing by, some are ‘boatkitchens’, selling noodlesoup, tea and sandwiches.
After a long day with lots of nuoc mia I arrive in Saigon on a dirtroad. Other cyclists, following the Lonely Planet cycling guidebook envy me. But my timing is not the best. At 5.30 p.m. I am in the middle of the rush hour, streets are just full with motorbikes. Slowly I manage to find my way to the hotel.
First impressions and info
My first impression is of a rich country. People are dressed very well, look healthier, there is food everywhere and it seems they are eating all day. They can afford a motorbike, there are buses, they relax in coffeeshops, houses are built of stone and electricity everywhere. There are three ricecrops a year and after the harvest they send in the ducks instead of whole families to find what is left. I see more children going to school then in the villages and naked kids are rare.
This is all very relatively thinking because I am just coming from Cambodia, one of the poorest countries.
The people are very friendly and helpful. Sometimes they have a bad day I presume and only answer my questions with a no, probably afraid because they don’t know any english. The vietnamese language however is the only one in the area you can read but the most difficult to pronounce. I am used to making gestures to explain what I need but the vietnamese seem to have problems to understand my gestures. There is a little book full of pictures and that helps.
The food is dirtcheap and lovely, you find vegetarian streetkitchens and markets everywhere and I love the baguettes. Hotels are quite expensive and you are not always allowed to stay, they need a special permit to host foreigners. There is always a thermos with hot water, good for lots of tea and my noodles in the morning.
In the long period of wars most roads where destroyed but now they are good most of the time, here and there still under reconstructiong.
The traffic seems to be the only real problem. Too many dirty trucks and buses and far too many motorbikes. It is hard to find some silence, there isn’t any and I cannot without my earplugs. In the morning I wake up by the sound of horning trucks and motorbikes instead of chickens and hens. Still, Vietnam is very different and I have only seen so little.