Cycling in Vietnam is quite different to the other countries we’ve pedalled through. It’s much busier … with millions of motor scooters buzzing in all directions.
Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most people still call it) is Scooter City. There are 8 million scooters for 14 million people! They’re used as family vehicles, often carrying four people from three generations … everyone wearing helmets except for young children!
And they’re the best way to get around narrow village roads in the countryside.
Surprised and a little horrified to hear we were cycling around Vietnam, some friendly young people we met in Saigon insisted that we learn the local rules of the road. Size matters, they said. Buses and trucks are the top dogs they said. Bicycles are right at the bottom so you must know what to do.
The golden rule is to keep your speed and direction constant, so that everyone else knows roughly where you’re going.
Never stop. Never hesitate. Never turn suddenly.
Always keep moving.
And there are more …
Traffic lights and roadsigns are only suggestions.
Don’t bother looking when you pull out of a parking space or turn onto a busy road.
Take every opportunity to overtake – even if there’s no space, even if you’re only 20 metres from your destination.
Honk your horn a lot. It’s then up to the vehicle in front of you to get out of the way.
If you’re on the wrong side of the road it’s always your right of way. You can stay next to the kerb where it’s nice and safe.
Always cut a corner, especially at a busy junction.
When crossing the road, simply walk out into the traffic and let it move around you.
It’s up to you to get out of the way if something big comes anywhere near you. Especially if you’re stupid enough to be on transport as old-fashioned as a bicycle!
But if you do see two crazy foreigners on bikes, always shout out a cheery hello!
It was good advice. When you get used to the rules, being surrounded by buzzing scooters becomes surprisingly good fun. A bit like being on a busy ski slope. Or the dodgems at a fairground.
And we were lucky. It was the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday, so the traffic was much lighter than normal.
We’ve enjoyed getting to know a few Tet traditions, starting with flowers, lots and lots of them.
We’d barely got going before we came across a huge flower market in a town called Tan An. It was a colourful and busy scene, everyone piling impossible quantities of flowers onto their scooters as gifts for their families. All in red, orange and yellow to bring luck, joy and prosperity for the year ahead.
Every few kilometres we cycled past stallholders selling gift hampers of special New Year food and huge crates of beer. And outside each house stood offerings of five different fruits (one for each of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth) bringing ‘harmony to the universe’.
Then as the party got going in the afternoon, the karaoke systems were cranked up with drunken love songs competing with each other from amongst the coconut groves. Apparently they only work properly at maximum volume!
As a smiley lady said to us … “it’s nice for you to be in Vietnam at this time … everybody happy!”
We were a bit surprised to be peddling through coconut groves rather than paddy fields. From Tan An, we cycled to Ben Tre and then onto a small village called Ap Don, resting both nights in homestays.
It was blazing hot, with the sun especially fierce in the middle of the day. Mad dogs and English cyclists out in the midday sun!
Taking back roads from Ap Don towards Can Tho, we suddenly emerged into a picture perfect carpet of rice that stretched towards the horizon. Fringed by palm tress it was a tapestry of every shade of green.
This was the Mekong Delta we’d come to see.
Following the back roads is something of a navigational challenge, as several of the paths are not marked on Google maps nor on our trusty ViewRanger. After some debate, we decided to follow them anyway … as long as they were paved and heading in roughly the right direction.
It was a somewhat risky approach but amazingly, it paid off. Each time, we managed to get to the next bridge or the next road that was marked on our map.
The surface became a bit rough at times. But it was good to get away from the scooters. And all the kids were so surprised to see us, they would often charge out of their houses just to shout “Hellooooo” or “How are yooouuu?” Their enthusiasm was infectious and uplifting.
Meandering through the Mekong Delta took us across lots of little bridges. And one old ferry that shuffled across a muddy tributary.
We also braved four huge, daunting bridges across the wide rivers that drain the Mekong, each 2 to 3 kilometres long.
Our last leg across the delta turned out to be over 120km on a busy road, so we chickened out and took the bus. This worked out fairly well, although it was not without the sort of challenges we’re now learning to expect when we try and load our bikes on buses during a busy holiday.
It doesn’t matter how many times you check that the bikes will be OK on the phone. It’s the staff at the bus station that make the call. At first they refused to let us board, but eventually relented and let us change our tickets to a bigger bus … departing 3 hours later.
In Châu Doc we rode out to Nui Sam (Sam Mountain), a granite outcrop some 284m high and full of pagodas and monasteries. As they zoomed by on their scooters, everyone else thought it was hilarious to see us struggling up the 10-12 degree climb.
But the views at the top were well worth the sweat.
We’re now in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, having cheated again by taking a boat all the way from Châu Doc up the Mekong River. This turned out to be a lovely trip … boats are definitely our favourite alternative transport!
Overall, our journey through the Mekong Delta was not quite what we’d imagined … meandering through a gentle landscape of rice paddies and waterways.
It is much nosier and much busier … with those pesky motor scooters buzzing past us most of the time. Each road or path is lined with houses and Vietnamese flags. People are everywhere.
But it’s the people who have made it such a wonderful experience. Smiles and laughter all the way as they enjoyed their holiday. And each one greeting us with a few words of perfect Queen’s English.
Not “Hi” or “How yer doing?”
but “Hello, how are you?”
And our favourite … “It’s very nice to meet you!”
Well, it was very nice to meet you too.
Clare and Andy
If you’d like to see a video of one days ride through the Mekong, we have posted it on our Facebook and Instagram pages together with some other photos.
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