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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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