An Epic 11-Day Scooter Trip Through the Mekong Delta

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I blame Top Gear.

That episode where Clarkson, May and Hammond buy clapped-out scooters and ride from Saigon to Hanoi has made the whole ‘riding a motorbike in Vietnam’ thing a bit passé.

I mean, sure, there’s stunning scenery, beautiful people, amazing food, and a fairly high chance of being wiped out by an oncoming truck every five minutes, but… well… it’s just that since that show came out, it seems like everyone’s doing it.

Although perhaps not always in flamboyant suits with a model sailing ship on the back.

 

I rode the section of road between Hoi An and Hue a couple of years ago (yeah, the bit including the gorgeous Hai Van pass shown in that video above) and it was truly incredible — but even back then I came across several other travellers taking the same route.

After seeing few other Westerners during our Thailand road trip at the start of the year, Stuart, Lauren and I were hoping to find something similar for our next trip to Vietnam. The main highway north was unlikely to provide it, not to mention there being a good chance of rain and flooding in the centre of the country that time of year.

So, instead, we decided to head south. For a week and a half we’d swap mountains and highways for rice paddies and river ferries, in a part of the country largely ignored by visitors. What would we find? We didn’t really know… and that was kinda the point.

Note that this trip was taken at the end of 2012, so prices and accommodation details will have changed. The enjoyment, however, almost certainly won’t have.

Day 1: Leaving Saigon … Eventually

After coming up with what looked like a plan, it almost fell apart in the first five minutes. You need a local license to legally ride a scooter in Vietnam — typically not a problem, except that rather than accepting an “on the spot fine” from unlicensed riders like they used to, police have apparently taken to confiscating their scooters instead.

As a result, most rental companies balked at the suggestion that we’d be riding around the Mekong Delta for several days. When we finally found one that was happy for us to take a bike out of Saigon, they insisted on either a several hundred dollar deposit in cash, or to keep my passport.

Now again, that’s typically not such a big deal — except you need your passport to check into any hotel in Vietnam.

I have two passports, but only one had a valid visa in it — and everybody wants to see the visa. In the end I took the only available option, leaving my visa-filled passport in the hands of the wily old woman at the bike company, and hoping to talk my way out of any hotel problems.

That strategy proved (mostly) sound, but without two passports it probably wouldn’t have — something to bear in mind if you’re planning a similar trip yourself.

And then, finally, we left.

Scooter trip - leaving Saigon

I had been secretly dreading the ride out of Saigon, a city renowned for having motorbike traffic that is totally insane on a good day. Fortunately, early afternoon on a random Monday in December, it wasn’t so bad.

After only a couple of interesting moments, we found ourselves on a remarkably-quiet Route 50 heading south, and it took no more than twenty minutes for the built-up city to give away to rural goodness.

Rattling metal bridges, water buffalo beside the road, small children waving from doorways, that kind of thing.

Mekong Delta scooter trip - Stuart on bridge

If this was what the rest of the trip had in store, it was going to be something special.

Other than our first couple of ferry crossings, the first day was largely uneventful. It should have been a warning, however, that it took nearly three hours to get to My Tho, a distance of less than 100km.

Sure that was the scenic route, but it was obvious that even on good roads this was not going to be a fast trip. And there weren’t many good roads in our future…

Distance covered: 95km

Ferries taken: 2

Stayed at: Rang Dong Hotel, My Tho – 200,000 VND (~$10) for a run-down double with uncomfortable beds, a/c, and hot shower. You can find less back-destroying alternatives here.

Hassle with passport: Significant

Day 2: Rivers, Snakes, and My New Favourite Meal

Muddy Mekong

My Tho is the nearest real town south of Saigon, and is very popular with tour groups wanting to taste the Delta in a day. Getting an early start before the buses rolled in was vital.

Luckily Stuart seems to have a masochistic love of early mornings. By the time we emerged for a coffee, he’d already been to the morning market, down to the docks, found a driver, negotiated a price (400,000 VND for 3-4 hours), and probably written his first novel while he waited. Nice.

By far the best part of the trip was the first hour or so, slowly puttering through the river’s back channels. With jungle on both sides, birds screeching and insects buzzing, I couldn’t help but have Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries running through my head.

We had asked for an abridged version of the tour, hoping it would reduce the number of land-based “activities” that inevitably accompany a trip like this. It did, but not by much.

Still, the toffee-making-and-random-crap-souvenir shop was more interesting than expected, even if our guide was most upset that none of us had any interesting in cuddling his python. No, that’s not a metaphor.

Cuddle my python

On our way out of town, Stuart remembered a good spring roll shop down by the waterfront from his last visit. Due to our ineptitude with the language, we then somehow managed to screw up our order in what was one of the most fortuitous menu mistakes in history.

Crispy batter surrounded a fragrant ensemble of pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts, with an accompanying table full of leaves, herbs, sauces, rice paper, and beer. We knew what to do with the beer. The rest, not so much.

The sight of three incompetent foreigners trying to eat was apparently the funniest thing that our chef had seen in weeks, so between giggles, snorts, and outright wails of laughter, she showed us how it was done.

And then, her banh xeo changed my life.

Seriously, it was that good.

So good, in fact, that we had to make a special visit on the way back ten days later just to have some more.

Banh xeo

We only rode as far as Ben Tre, less than 30km away over an impressively large bridge that recently replaced the inevitable ferry crossings.

This nondescript town had few obvious restaurants, bars or other entertainment … but what it did have was a scooter-based Father Christmas flash mob that sped past us through the night market.

As you do.

Scooter Santas

Distance covered: 28km

Ferries taken: 0

Stayed at: Khach San Dong, Ben Tre – 180,000 VND for a shabby twin with loud yet ineffective a/c, hot water, and inedible breakfast included.

Hassle with passport: Minimal

Even after the first couple of days, I was already noticing some differences between this trip in the Mekong Delta and our ride in northern Thailand earlier in the year. We were generally travelling less than half the distance each day, for instance, yet didn’t seem to be getting to our destinations any faster.

Why?  A combination of bad roads, low speed limits, and great coffee available at roadside stalls every ten minutes. The geography of the area didn’t help much either — roads regularly gave way to river ferries, often several times per day.

Those crumbling vessels made for pretty photos and fun interactions with locals, but were not a recipe for doing anything in a hurry. Most of the time that didn’t matter in the slightest … but occasionally, well, it did.

Day 3: It’s a Long Way Back from Here

Just for something different, we were a bit late leaving Ben Tre. It didn’t help that the restaurant forgot to serve my lunch, but even so, we should have been on the road at least an hour earlier than we were. It gets dark early in Southeast Asia — if you’re riding much after 6pm, you’ll be doing it with your headlight on — and we were again taking the smallest roads we could find.

Still, it was well under 100km on the map.  How long could it possibly take?

Well, when there are two ferry crossings involved and some of the roads look like this, the answer is apparently: quite a while.

Rutted road, Mekong Delta

The scenery outside Ben Tre was some of the best we’d seen so far, and the route we chose is obviously not often frequented by foreigners.  The stares that greeted us as we rode by were always curious rather than malicious, though, faces creasing in huge smiles as soon as we lifted a hand in greeting.

We didn’t have to wait long for the first ferry to take us across a narrow stretch of river, but even as we navigated our way through the markets and children afterward, we couldn’t help but notice that the sun was rapidly dropping through the clouds.

Scattering the chickens as we pulled in for gas, we exchanged nervous glances. This was going to be tight … and we weren’t at all certain that the boat we were aiming for even existed.

Still, assuming the vessel wasn’t imaginary, we’d be fine as long as the road wasn’t completely terrible.

The road, of course, was completely terrible.

With the light fading fast, we swerved and bounced along a track that would have made most mountain goats give up in disgust. If there wasn’t a ferry at the end of it, I didn’t fancy our chances of making it back in the dark without incident.

As we rounded the corner and rode towards the jetty, though, the sudden oncoming stream of scooters told us that our fears were unfounded. I’ve never been so happy to see a rusty little boat in my life. Kicking the bike stand down and brushing the worst of the road dust from my face, I finally had a chance to pay attention to something other than the rutted dirt a few feet ahead.

Taking photos of the sunset, Mekong Delta

I guess it wasn’t a bad reward.

Distance covered: 77km

Ferries taken: 2

Stayed at: Cuu Long Hotel, Tra Vinh – at 580,000 VND for a double with a/c and hot shower, easily the most expensive and generic hotel of the trip.  The room was clean and well maintained, though, and as an added bonus the price included the worst buffet breakfast of my life.

Hassle with passport: For a change, none

Day 4: Temples, Markets, and Very Few Storks

The back-breaking ride of the previous day still fresh in our minds, it didn’t take much to decide to stay in town an extra day. With the lure of Khmer-style temples, interesting wet markets, and the piece de resistence, stork-spotting at dusk, the attractions of Tra Vinh were apparently many and varied.

Oh, and there seemed to be far more coffee shops than you might expect for a town of its size. I was definitely in no danger of having to give up my rapidly-developing condensed milk addiction.

The temple I visited was indeed worth going to, an assortment of styles with an over-arching Khmer theme and friendly monks more than willing to practice their English with the sweaty wandering foreigner.

Temple grounds, Tra Vinh

The real highlight, though, was the wet market. I’ve long loved Vietnamese markets — they’re noticeably different to those elsewhere in the region, with enough colourful fruit, squirming seafood, and random animal heads (complete with eyeballs, obviously) to keep you amused for hours.

Especially if you’re walking in flip-flops.

Fruits, Tra Vinh

Crabs, Tra Vinh

Eyeballs, Tra Vinh

The final, much-anticipated attraction was watching the storks fly in to roost at dusk at a temple just out of town. Big things were expected. You could cut the tension with a knife as we neared our destination, our heads corkscrewing excitedly in the search for bird life.

And then, we saw them. Right there in front of us in the dusty temple grounds, shepherding their offspring away from us with a loud, indignant cluck.

Yes, a cluck.

Chickens at the temple, Tra Vinh

These chickens were the closest we got to the much-heralded bird spotting, although as the sun set we did finally see several silhouettes circling above the trees. Were they storks?  I can only assume so, but if so, they weren’t much of an attraction.

Still, not all was lost. As the chickens made a fuss nearby and those few maybe-storks soared overhead, the unmistakable tones of the Birdy Song emerged from a nearby window.

Do the monks play that tune every evening, we wondered, or just when the tourists turn up? Was there a novice stifling his giggles as he hit play on the temple iPod? Had we stumbled on a little-known Buddhist calisthenics routine, practiced only on these balmy Tra Vinh evenings?

We pondered our discovery over a lukewarm beer that night, but came up with no good answers. I guess some things in life are just destined to remain a mystery…

Distance covered: 22km

Ferries taken: 0

Stayed at: Cuu Long Hotel once again.  The breakfast was no better the second time round.

Hassle with passport: Still none

Day 5: Bring on the Bats

Bats, Mekong Delta

It was now official, we were well and truly out of the tourist zone. Until we got to Can Tho a week later, I didn’t see any other white faces. If we had been looking for somewhere off the beaten trail on this trip, I think we’d found it.

For the first time so far we took what was possibly the most direct route between two points on the map, following Route 60 — the biggest road — almost the entire way to Soc Trang. Of course “biggest” is a very subjective term in this part of the world, especially when it came to the little island that lay in our path.

This was the road that ran between the ferry to the north of the island and the ferry to the south. It was incredibly scenic, but a major highway it was not.

Island road, Mekong Delta

Soc Trang is an attractively-busy town, with plenty of shopfronts and little coffee places to wander around and explore. It’s deceptive, though — the downtown area isn’t all that large, but the outskirts seem to go on forever.

That probably explained the approximately 950 scooters per square metre during rush hour as we tried to navigate our way out of town towards the evening’s entertainment.

Soc Trang traffic

Yes, having not learned our lesson with the storks the night before, we were off to another temple to spot some different winged creatures. Bring on those bats… right?

While not quite as absent as their feathered friends in Tra Vinh, the bats were still generally missing in action. A few turned up every time we decided to leave, mind you, probably just to mock us for having made the trip out there in the first place. We could hear hundreds of them screeching in the trees, but that’s largely where they stayed.

So, we went to commiserate with a beer in the fanciest place we could find — only to find the one cafe in Vietnam that just serves coffee and nothing else.

And that, I think, summed up our evening.

Stupid bats.

Distance covered: 69km

Ferries taken: 2

Stayed at: Phu Qui hotel, Soc Trang.  300,000 VND/night for a large, clean triple room with a/c and hot water.  Friendly staff thrown in at no extra cost.

Hassle with passport: None

Day 6: Weddings, Weddings, and More Weddings

Sad stork

After the disappointing lack of airborne activity over the previous two days, you’d think we’d have known better than to head out to a bird park weeks after most of the wildlife had migrated.

Still, when you’re in Bac Lieu, your entertainment options are limited. It seems you have two options: get married, or visit the bird sanctuary.  Stuart and I had formed a close bond over the previous week, but not quite that close, so marriage was off the cards.

Not that we could have found a spare timeslot for the ceremony anyway, between the eleven weddings that were being held at our hotel that weekend.

No joke. Eleven. Probably more, actually, since we didn’t arrive until lunchtime. There’d probably been another half-dozen since breakfast.

We’d spent three hours in the morning getting sunburnt on a slow ride through the rice paddies south of Soc Trang, and I was ready for something different. The bellowing karaoke from the wedding downstairs wasn’t enough to keep me in my hotel room, and neither was the confused man in his underwear outside our door as we left. We were off to see Bac Lieu’s main attraction.

The bird sanctuary was, at best, dilapidated. A less charitable person may have called it dire, a few bored storks and flea-bitten monkeys the only remnants of whatever the place used to contain.

A creaking metal tower gave commanding views over the surrounding forest, but a padlocked gate prevented any further exploration. The entrance fee was less than a dollar, and it wasn’t even worth that.

Still, not all was lost. Returning to town, we drowned our sorrows at a nearby bar before returning to… this.

All the scooters

Three simultaneous weddings, people. Three simultaneous weddings. The choreography required to park maybe 1000 scooters in that space, then reunite them all with their owners a couple of hours later, was impressive.

Unlike the karaoke and large, awkward posters of the happy couples, which definitely weren’t.

Other than a surprisingly large night market, and a pretty decent banh xeo to go with it, that was largely the end of the excitement in Bac Lieu. Like pretty much everywhere we saw for the next several days, this place wasn’t a tourist town.

There wasn’t much in the way of “attractions”, and I got the impression that for many of the kids we came across, this could well have been the first time they’d seen a westerner outside TV ads and billboards. To say that people were friendly here would be an understatement — in Bac Lieu as in the rest of the southern Delta, they were incredibly warm and welcoming.

Vietnam and its people often seem to get a reputation for being unfriendly, full of apathy at best and scams at worst. Like many other places, that side of things does exist in the tourist hotspots — but making even the smallest effort to go elsewhere reaps rich rewards.

Oh, and before we left the next morning, I picked a random spot for breakfast and had the best pho of my life. Fact. In a country where that award was being fiercely contested every day, this was no mean feat.

Pho closeup

Distance covered: 82km

Ferries taken: None – a first for the trip.

Stayed at: Bac Lieu Hotel, 350,000 VND/night for a comfortable double room with a/c and hot water, screaming kids at 6am, screaming parents at 6.05am, karaoke to wake the dead, and a free breakfast that stopped at 8am. I cannot report on its quality.

Hassle with passport: Surprisingly, none.

Day 7: Google Translate, the Comedy King

Looking at the map, I expected Ca Mau to be a fairly small regional town. It wasn’t. Instead, after a few hours of mediocre riding on mediocre roads, we came to what can only be described as a good-sized city.

Unfortunately, the size is pretty much the only thing good about it — it’s the last stop before things get decidedly rural in that part of the Delta, with plenty of trade and boat traffic going on, but highlights for visitors were few and far between.

Except for the menu translations at the Nha Hang restaurant, that is. They were a reason to go to Ca Mau by themselves.

Menu, Ca Mau

Once the literal tears of laugher had subsided a little, we had to decide what to have for lunch. Would it be the Siamese duck cooking spray, we wondered, or was the pork sausage fried coconut improvement program a better choice? Surely there was no way we could go past a double helping of raw beef cows penetrating massage?

And yet somehow we avoided the bovine penetration option and went for a far more sedate plate of ribs and bucket of cold beers. Both of which were so remarkably good that we placed a second order of… a plate of ribs and bucket of cold beers.

The more beers we drank, the funnier the translations became. Who would have thought?

Distance covered: 75km

Ferries taken: None.

Stayed at: Song Ngoc hotel, 250,000 VND for a decent double with a/c and hot water.

Hassle with passport: Lots, accompanied by mild hand waving and confusion at 9.30pm.  I somehow avoided being evicted, but not by much.

Day 8: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination…

Crowded boat, Mekong Delta

When researching things to do in Ca Mau (short answer: nothing), a couple of isolated blog posts had mentioned the possibility of getting to the southernmost point of Vietnam. It was theoretically possibly to ride there, but the somewhat faster, potentially easier option was taking a boat.

Yes, a boat. A small, full, decidedly cramped speedboat, complete with random livestock in boxes underneath my feet, mail delivery stops, and a whole lot of gazing out the window at nothing in particular.

Most of the route wasn’t particularly scenic, but the last half hour or so had plenty of narrow river channels to navigate that were entirely flanked by thick, green jungle. By that stage the pain in my butt from the vibrations had been replaced with numbness from the waist down, which was a distinct improvement.

Close to three hours later, we finally arrived at Rach Tau, a small collection of shacks sprawling along both sides of the river as it rushed towards the sea. A moto driver quickly descended on us, assuming that we were heading to the monument a couple of kilometres away. To be fair, there were precisely no other reasons to be there.

End of the land, Vietnam

As with many such ‘furthest points’, there wasn’t really much there.  Another rickety metal tower to admire the view out over the muddy ocean, a couple of weather-beaten sculptures, and a pier that wandered out into the water and abruptly stopped. We stretched out the entertainment as long as we could, but twenty minutes was as much as we could manage.

Was it worth spending an entire day to get to the southernmost point of Vietnam, I hear you ask? Well, perhaps not. I certainly won’t be rushing to do it again.

Still, as the saying goes, life is all about the journey, not the destination.

Or something.

Distance covered: ~175km (boat), 2km (scooter)

Ferries taken: 2

Stayed at: The ever-lovely Song Ngoc hotel once more.

Hassle with passport: None this time, although I studiously avoided eye contact as much as possible just in case.

Day 9: Wetlands and Sunburn

Longtails at U Minh Thuong national park

We were nearing the end of the trip, with only three days until we arrived back in Saigon. The riding so far had been good but not great, and I wasn’t sure we’d get anything better as we turned and headed north.

I needn’t have worried.

We had little choice but to take the main road between Ca Mau and Rach Gia — there were very few other options. Thankfully even that was narrow, scenic, and about as devoid of traffic as anywhere in Vietnam seems to get.

At around the halfway mark, we headed into U Ming Thuong national park. Knowing little about the place, it turned out to be a protected wetland area teeming with life. We quickly hired a small boat and driver and headed down one of the thick, peat-black rivers, birds continually erupting from the reeds and circling overhead as we passed.

That part of the tour ended at — surprise — yet another rickety metal tower. Perhaps there was a special deal on them in the Mekong Delta many years ago or something, since those things are everywhere.  Still, with a view like this, it seemed churlish to complain about a few minor health and safety issues.

Wetlands, Longtails at U Minh Thuong national park

As scenic as the park and first half of the day had been, the rest of the ride seemed to drag on forever. We’d initially hoped to make it to Can Tho that day, but several hours in the beating sunlight had very different ideas.

Almost toppling off our bikes when we stopped in Rach Gia, a shake of the head was all it took: today we would go no further.

Sunburned, dusty and exhausted, we tracked down a hotel that Stuart had stayed at years ago and promptly collapsed in a heap. I couldn’t decide whether to first have a shower or a beer, so took the high ground and opted for both simultaneously. Yes, I’m classy like that.

Rach Gia is a popular place to catch the ferry to Phu Quoc island, but it seemed that most of the backpackers didn’t venture much beyond the budget guesthouses near the port. Shame for them, really, as the bars dotted along the river were a great spot to enjoy a few cold beers and soak up the evening entertainment.

Even if that did consist of two guys with a crackling sound system dancing to Michael Jackson numbers in the street.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Distance covered: 145km

Ferries taken: 1

Stayed at: Kim Co Hotel, Rach Gia.  350,000 VND/night for a remarkably good twin with a/c, hot water, and a comprehensive selection of cold beers in the minibar that may all have been consumed inside an hour.

Hassle with passport: None.

Day 10: Saving the Best Til (Nearly) Last

Rickety bridge, Mekong Delta

In our never-ending quest to avoid taking the obvious route to anywhere, we sat down in the morning to take a look at how we could get to Can Tho.

“Well, we could take Route 80, or Route 61.”

“We could… but they both look a bit… well… direct.”

“I think I’ve found a different way. Those roads look pretty small though.”

“Perfect, let’s do it.”

And so we did.

The few hours we spent traversing tiny wiggling lines on the map were easily the best of the entire trip. With roads that varied only in the height of the ruts, it was slow going — and for once we didn’t mind a bit. There was no room for cars on tracks like these, and that was just how we liked it.

The scenery was stunning, with seemingly every turn leading to something photogenic. A new section of dense jungle, or another small canal with boat traffic coughing past. Bright green rice paddies stretched to the horizon, and we couldn’t keep the smiles from our faces as we rode through them.

Every time we stopped for a drink or to check the map, kids would emerge from nowhere to giggle at our unexpected intrusion. Their parents were only slightly more subdued with the laughter when we wobbled across the rickety wooden bridges beside their houses, although they were more than happy to lend a hand if it looked like we weren’t going to make it across…

During the previous week, I thought I’d seen just about everything when it came to transportation in this part of the world. Doors, panes of glass, watermelons, televisions, an entire feather duster collection… you name it, it was being moved from somewhere to somewhere else on an inappropriate vehicle.

And then I saw this.

Water buffalo on boat, Mekong Delta

Why yes, that is indeed a water buffalo.

Can Tho was much as I remembered it from last time I was there, albeit with less rain.  The tour groups and dozens of backpackers were a shock after the towns further south, and as we sat enjoying a sundowner beside the river, I could feel the adventure rapidly coming to an end.

Only one more day to go, with a straightforward ride back to Saigon to meet some friends for dinner. How much excitement could possibly be left, I wondered?

Quite a bit, as it happened.

Distance covered: 102km

Ferries taken: 0

Stayed at: Number 1 Hotel, Can Tho – an absolute bargain at 180,000 VND for a double with a/c and hot water. The Wi-fi was terrible, but at nine bucks a night, it’s hard to complain.

Hassle with passport: None.

Day 11: The Road That Never Ends

Busy highway, Mekong Delta

“How long does it take to get to Saigon?”, we asked our hotel manager.

“About four hours” came the reply.  “Two hours to My Tho, two hours to Saigon.”

Now we knew that it would take us longer. We knew we weren’t going to take the highway, we knew the secondary roads would be bad, we knew we weren’t going to drive like maniacs, and most of all, we knew that nothing would go to plan.

Even knowing all that, we didn’t quite predict that it was going to take us nearly twelve hours to travel less than 200 kilometres back to where we had started the trip eleven days earlier.

Missing the turn-off to get out of town didn’t help. It’s never a good sign when you can’t even find the gargantuan bridge that’s visible from pretty much anywhere in Can Tho. Once we’d finally crossed it and turned off the highway, the amount of traffic declined dramatically.

Unfortunately, so did the quality of the roads and with it, our speed. Bouncing slowly along from pothole to pothole for hours wasn’t exactly how I’d hoped to spend my day on the bike.

Every milestone that we set ourselves slipped past. Where we’d had a run of good luck with riding straight onto ferries in the past, this time every wait seemed interminable. We finally hit My Tho mid-afternoon, after an hour-long slog along one of the worst roads of the trip.  Recent roadworks had left a thin layer of gravel for around twenty kilometres, making the ride even slower and more dangerous than usual.

Covered in white dust, with clothes destined only for the garbage, we were a sorry sight. Even our favourite banh xeo did little to cheer us up, knowing we had several hours still to ride. The chances of a daytime arrival in Saigon were declining rapidly… and that was before Stuart’s bike got a puncture.

Fixing a flat tyre, Mekong Delta

Fortunately, in Vietnam as in most of Southeast Asia, finding someone to fix a motorbike isn’t hard. Even on a little road far from the nearest town, a little repair shop stood waiting for our business. The inner tube was completely shot, but after half an hour, a few dollars, and plenty of brute force, it was replaced and we were on our way once more.

And then it got dark.

With two more ferry crossings and about 50km still to ride, the sun disappeared below the horizon. I didn’t enjoy the last time I was caught out by nightfall on a roadtrip, and this wasn’t much better. Bugs in the eyes, avoiding cars in the darkness, being blinded by oncoming headlights — and that was just the first five minutes.

Finally arriving in Saigon, the fun was far from over. The light traffic that we had enjoyed on our way out of town had been replaced by a frantic, honking crush of motorcycle madness. Neon lights glowed on the sidewalk as taxis, scooters, and pickups vied for space half an inch from my leg. With a deep breath, we plunged into the maelstrom — to hesitate was a recipe for disaster.

Blurry scooters in Saigon

As we neared our final destination, the traffic unbelievably got even heavier. With absolutely no space to maneuver, even the locals were struggling — my back tyre got several gentle nudges as the endless metal convoy jerked slowly along the road. After so long on the bike, exhausted, beaten and barely able to see due to the insect splatter on my eyeballs, it was all I could do to keep the thing upright.

Using a taxi as a safety barrier we turned onto Pham Ngu Lau, pulled up on the sidewalk beside the rental shop, and collapsed at the owner’s feet.

“Did you have a good ride?”, she asked.

Unsteady on my feet and covered in dirt, with shaking hands and weeping eyes, I collected my clothes from under the seat.

“Wonderful”, I said.  “Simply wonderful.”

It really was.

Distance covered: 194km

Ferries taken: 6 (yes, seriously)

Stayed at: Truong Thang Hotel, District 1 – 350,000 VND for a large double with a/c, hot water, and the occasional cockroach, in a good location just far enough from the backpacker strip to be quiet at night.

Hassle with passport: None.

 

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11 day scooter trip through Mekong Delta

18 Responses to “An Epic 11-Day Scooter Trip Through the Mekong Delta

  • im happy to know u love to travel in my country 🙂 thanks so much ! ( a vietnamese girl )

    • I really do love it … and I’ll be back again in the next few months for sure. 🙂

  • my home town is in Hochiminh city,u got a nice trip to my city ,right ? haha.watever i m looking forward to see more information about ur packing trip around my country ,hope u wl get more new experience, next time is Lunar New year in our country on 10th of February,come to our Hochiminh city on Nguyen Hue Street,Ben Nha Rong (Dragon home),Nguyen Du St,Duc Ba Church… our Center u shoud enjoy more new funny and amazing times with too much activities from us to ceblerate my Traditional New year there !good luck ,[email protected]

  • Do tell. Directions, please, for eating that delicious banh xeo. I’d like to be prepared.

    • It’s one of those places that I’m not really going to be able to give precise directions to, but basically if you head south along the main road beside the river (the one where all the tourist buses park up, with two lanes each side) all the way to the end, then turn left (still beside the water), it’s about 150m along on the left hand side. A small shopfront like many others, with maybe 8 or 10 tables inside. Good luck finding it with those directions. 😉

  • I love bank xeo. Looking forward to the rest of your trip.

  • Wow, what an adventure.I saw that Top Gear episode-completely over the top as usual, but deep down I wished I was there with them. I looooove banh xeo. Never had it in Vietnam, but was introduced to it in a tiny village restaurant in Kratie (Cambodia) and now I found a Vietnamese restaurant in Phnom Penh that does it, so I go all the time. I just love the whole concept of wrapping it up like a present and then dipping it into the delicious peanut sauce. Yum!

    • It really has become one of my all time favourite dishes. Seriously, I adore it! 🙂

  • Sorry but becauz u re foreigners so everywere u ate Banh xeo u felt it s nice wen u liked it.But in 2011 wen i took part in Mekong Delta Tour also same like u and tried Banh Xeo there i think it s too simply cooked!u know allmost Vietnamese families we know how to cook that traditional food as well and it will be better if u can eat Banh Xeo in some Vietnamese families or some foodshores better than this:) My mom can cook Banh Xeo very well and i do love it !now in Cairo,too much fast food every were i cant eat well.miss Vietnamese food and looking forward to back our howntown in February this Traditional new year i can eat too much nice food as well !:) haha

  • u need a prochure,a Map with list of all the streets wen u travel in our coutry by backpacking.Becauz u don know the way to go exactly wen u re foreigners and the traffic s crowed it s hard for u.the best way s finding some Vietnamese friends haha.There re Vietnamese people that u will see on the Street but i think becauz of our Culture in the City they will not friendly with people they don know to help u even they ve good mind or not guy.good luck !

    • Vietnamese friends would be great … until I’ve got some who can travel around the country with me, I’ll just have to stick with Google Maps I guess. 🙂

  • Travelling through Vietnam on a scooter must take nerves of steel! You are very brave! What a thrilling experience though!

  • The Vietnam motorbike trip is my favorite episode from Top Gear, really inspired me to want to do something similar, and great to see you’re doing it!

  • Taking a motorbike trip is very nice i love too !but u have to know the high way to run as well ,try to not inside traffic jame too much,it s so bad in Vietnam,u can ride espeacially in Phu Mi Hung area or suburbs u can run the best but wat a pity all most foreigners u cant know that way exactly there.

  • HA! I have obviously been reading your blogs on the Mekong Delta, out of sequence, as I was confused at why you were having problems with your passport…now I see! LMAO

  • Trevor Gale
    6 years ago

    Hi Dave
    Great trip through the Mekong Delta on the bike,Loved the blog.

    I am headed there in 6 weeks time to do the same thing with my Girlfriend.
    I did the road loop right up in the North from Hanoi to Sapa with a few mates a couple of years back…great experience and yes the Banxe Xeo thing is awesome….

    You mentioned you need to leave your passport to rent a bike ? Can you see any way of getting round this ? I was hoping to try and get a one way rental and head out of Saigon through the Delta and head across to the Cambodian border.

    Can you reccomend the bike hire place you used ?
    Thanks, Trev.

    • Hey Trevor,

      Yup, you can get around it – by way of a large cash deposit left with the rental agency. Credit cards don’t cut it, although I guess you could try to arrange something through a higher-end hotel, perhaps.

      The one way rental thing will make it difficult too – unless you happened to have someone who could ride it back for, or the bike owner did, you’d have to get it back to Saigon yourself somehow. Trains are an option (although not from the Delta), as are pickups etc, but no matter what, it’s unlikely you’d just be able to drop the bike off at a shop near the border and walk away.

      Damn, I just threw out the card from the bike rental company the other day, on the basis that I know roughly where it is and will recognise it when I am back in Saigon in a couple of months! It’s on Pham Ngu Lao, but that doesn’t help much……

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