Riding the Mekong Delta: A Road Less Travelled

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.

The show that started it all…

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 time in Vietnam last month. 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 10 days, we’d swap mountains and highways for rice paddies and river ferries in a part of the country that is largely ignored by visitors. What would we find? We didn’t really know … and that was kinda the point.

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, police have apparently recently 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.

Vietnam scooter

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.

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.

Stuart leaving Saigon

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

Rivers, Snakes and My New Favourite Meal

My Tho river cruise

My Tho is the nearest real town south of Saigon, and as a result it’s 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, so by the time we emerged for a coffee, he’d already been to the morning market and down to the docks, found a driver, negotiated a price (400,000 VND for 3-4 hours), and probably then 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.

Snake, near My Tho

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. At least 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, My Tho

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.

Father Xmas on scooters

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

Up next: racing sunset down dirt roads, checking out nine thousand different kinds of seafood at the wet markets, a terrible bird sanctuary and more coffee, weddings and ferries than I ever thought possible…

18 Responses to “Riding the Mekong Delta: A Road Less Travelled

  • 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
    5 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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