Biking in the Mekong Delta – Day 1

This is the first entry of a three day bike tour of the Mekong Delta with SinhBalo Adventure Travel.

4:00AM still suffering from jet lag I sit in the dark of our Mekong Delta home-stay trying not to wake my fellow tour companions sleeping in the adjoining rooms.

The home-stay’s open-air rooms and boardwalks with lavender railings, all on stilts, sit on Binh Hoa Phuc island along the banks of the Mekong. A horizontal version of the Swiss family Robinson tree house. We sleep on raised platform beds draped with mosquito netting. No sheets, just a satiny cloth covering the spring mattress and a thin blanket. A thin mesh curtain can be drawn for privacy between the rooms and over the windows.

The Mekong Delta, a series of waterways and islands along the Mekong River, is about a two hour drive from HCMC. Our guide, a small, wiry friendly young man picked us up at our hotel for a 3-day 2-night sightseeing and bike riding trip through the Delta. We are a group of six travelers, including two 30 something women from Denmark and a French couple also in their 30s.

Arriving in My Tho we take what our guide called a “big” boat (a long wooden vessel with eight rattan lounge chairs in rows of two along the deck) to our first stop on a nearby island to visit a traditional home. Along the way we pass fish farms where the farmers live in small corrugated iron structures floating above their fish pen. Yellow flowers decorate the porches.

The traditional house is set in a garden of fruit bearing trees – coconut palms and bananas, as well as the more exotic jack fruit, pomelo, the pear shaped rose apple, longan fruit, dragon fruit etc. More of a functional garden than esthetic, no grass or manicured beds, just trees and shrubs randomly growing along a dirt path. The house itself is a long open air structure. We entered the house through the kitchen where they cook over a wood burning stove. The bedroom has four wooded platform beds with just a thin woven mat for comfort. The main room is dominated by two alters, one with photos of the deceased (all men) to honor the ancestors and the other a Taoist shrine. Three large doorways open up on a porch where we are served a selection of fruit, honey lemon tea and rice paper (a large thin somewhat sweet cracker).

After our snack we board the “small” boat and float down a narrow canal lined with water coconut palms. Tiny mud fish about 1 1/2 inches long jump along the muddy banks. Yes, they have legs.

We meet the big boat and head to another island for lunch. As we approach the dock, we are greeted with blaring disco music. A boardwalk through water hyacinth leads to a series of large and small huts along a canal. To the right is a crocodile pit with a stage and the source of the music just beyond. The audience is filled with Vietnamese families staring in fascination at a fire-baton twirler in ultra skimpy shorts and a bra top doing a sexy dance. Well, this is a slice.

They served us lunch in one of the small huts. And I do mean serve. Each dish is portioned out equally among the six of us, one peeled shrimp and two fried spring rolls are placed in turn in our bowls. A fried fish, elephant ear fish, like the one the Japanese couple ordered the previous night, is brought out. The server tears the flesh from the bones by hand and rolls up each portion of fish in rice paper along with some greens and rice noodles. The last dish, a vegetable soup, is portioned out in small bowls over rice with a small piece of fish placed on top. It’s a meager lunch, just enough to stave off hunger.

For the biking portion of our itinerary we take the big boat back to the main dock and drive about 45 minutes. The bikes are pulled out and we find our bike by the height in centimeters written on the seat. Not the best quality mountain bikes but serviceable. At first the traffic of motor bikes, other bicycles and the occasional car is quite heavy along the tree-lined lanes. Children cry out “hello” and people wave.

We stop to take pictures of a group harvesting rice along the road. The stalks are cut by hand but at least they have a machine that separates the grain and spits the stalks back into the field.

As we continue the lanes become narrower and the traffic diminishes. We pass through what feel like alleyways. Houses and shops line each side of the narrow road, just big enough for two bicycles to pass. Most of the way is lined with trees and shrubs, some in full bloom. Never really manicured and on the shabby side, but pretty none the less. We make one more stop at a cathedral with a queer, sad zoo of monkeys and a porcupine in dirty cages in the courtyard.

After about two hours of leisurely riding we reach Cai Be where we board another boat that will take us to the home stay island. People live along this section of the river. Small dirty houses and shops crammed together along both sides of the river. We pass a small floating market of sampan type houseboats selling assorted vegetables and fruits. This time of year there are lots of watermelons. As we reach our destination for the night we pass boats loaded with goods returning to their village outlined against the last glare of the setting sun.

Dinner is served at 6:30. Similar to lunch but without the “fancy” service. This time we are shown how to make the fish rolls and after being served one are expected to roll our own. The main part of the meal consists of meager portions of a stir-fried pork dish, a braised beef dish, rice and a vegetable soup, nothing remarkable or all that tasty, but we won’t go hungry.

After dinner the six of us chat for a while. For the other four this is the end of their trip having started their journeys in the North of Vietnam and headed South. Lots of advice and descriptions of what lies ahead. All travelers seem to take about the same route, with the difference being in which direction you head, north or south.

I go to bed early hoping to get some sleep before our day of biking on the island.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Vietnam page.