Bicycle riding around Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is like riding down the hallways of a home – chatty friends and relatives are at each doorway, kids play and leave toys where they are dropped, teenagers linger and whisper, and the scent of the next meal is lingering in the air. Old concrete structures line one side of the bike paths in this area, with the river side of the paths dotted with separate (but related) shanty-style shacks. With all members of the family, including toddlers, flowing freely between these parts of their homes, and across the bike paths, I am very much inside the locals’ world.
After leaving the congestion of Ho Chi Minh City behind, I drive with my family along the mighty Saigon River, then travel inland toward the Mekong Delta. A biological treasure trove, Mekong Delta is the region in southwest Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries.
In the morning, we visit an island in the middle of the Mekong that is well known for its candy making and snake wine, which my stomach later informs me is not such a great combination. We had been invited to morning tea by the occupants of local home on the island to experience the simple way of living ‘communal style’, as Westerners might say, with uncles, cousins and grandparents all in one large room. Their lush gardens, filled with an abundance of fruit trees, clearly demonstrate the subsistence living of these remote ‘river islanders’.
After the return boat trip and another short drive, we stop along the side of the road at the back of some local shops to unload our bikes and get ready for our first ride. The initial set-up of our bikes includes settling my three-year-old into a cane chair – affectionately known as the ‘king’s chair’ – strapped to the back of my bike. Once we are all ready, our guide laces his neck with a high-pitched whistle, and we set off to ride along a small estuary of the Mekong Delta.
We ride for hours on local bitumen and cobbled roads used only by bicycles and motorbikes. No cars or trucks are allowed, which is a pleasant surprise. We ride amongst the community, alongside women traditionally dressed in leaf hats on their way home from a day in the rice fields, and with children racing to keep up with us. Many children ride rickety old adult bikes, choosing to either touch the pedals or sit on the seat – an entertaining encounter for my six-year-old son who laughs with them like they were school-yard pals. As we continue, we ride through local villages, passing through farms and traversing bridges. Hundreds of ‘bridges’, resembling massive concrete pipes cut in half with no railings, enable us to warily crisscross the many Mekong Delta estuaries. The whistle that the guide has strategically given my three-year-old builds our group’s camaraderie. At each rotation of my bicycle wheel the whistle is blown, letting the locals know that we are approaching whilst also encouraging us to keep going.
Our destination that evening is an eco-guesthouse on Binh Hoa Phuoc island. But first we have to navigate the traffic of bustling Cai Be city, which, being in a rural district of the Mekong Delta, is overrun with dirty and noisy trucks. It’s a scary thing to encounter with a six-year-old just six months out of training wheels, and a whistle-blowing three-year-old in his ‘king’s chair’ directing traffic. Red-faced and relieved, we arrive at Cai Be city wharf and are handed an iced washer by our mini van driver who had been waiting dockside for us to arrive. He loads our bikes and bags onto a Sampan boat and we cruise the 1.5 km-wide river to the guesthouse. It is sunset and watching the magical coloured silhouette of my three-year-old sitting on the lap of the boat driver, while we feast on local mangos, is a pretty amazing end to a wonderful ride. It’s dark by the time the boat docks alongside the bridge to the guesthouse, which to our amazement is on stilts over the river’s edge. That night we feast on local Mekong cuisine and sleep under thick mosquito netting listening to the calming sound of the lapping water beneath us.
The next four days are spent exploring the area by bicycle and by boat – we pedal to a ferry crossing where we board a vehicle ferry to cross the wider part of the Mekong before floating along bustling riverside markets on small Sampan boats with a smorgasbord of sounds, colours and smells. We visit fish-farm villages with tons of fish swimming beneath hundreds of connected floating homes, and we cycle alongside many more locals going about their day.
Despite the heat, the long rides on two wheels and the millions of shades of brown dominating the scenery, the Mekong Delta is a kaleidoscope of interconnected vibrant communities, whose entrenched history from existing on the water’s edge pleasantly sparked all my senses in every imaginable way