The inspiration for this trip comes from a few places - that Top Gear episode, wanting to experience another culture (wishing I was better travelled), wanting to change career, wanting to be fitter etc. So far the experience has been better than I could imagine! I did a bit of research before we hit the road so, if like me, you stumbled on to this page looking through blogs for others who have cycled Vietnam, then let me tell you what I have learnt so far:
- John and I are not cyclists (I am not fit although John's fitness is quite good) but the terrain in the Mekong Delta is really flat and there are heaps of places to stop for a drink or a relax if the going gets tough. The first couple of days we only made 20-30km, which I guess is pretty shitty by cycling standards but good enough for us and gives plenty of time to slow down and take in the scenery, meet cool people etc. We have done one 50km ride out of Tra Vinh, stopping at a road house before Can Tho and today is shaping up to be 60-70km. I have found that my fitness is increasing every day on the bike.
- Get up early for the big rides. We are here during the wet season and by 9am it is hot! I am not a morning person so its a bit tough getting out of bed but it is so worth it. We left at 6am this morning and are so ahead of time that we can relax in one of the many road houses with hammocks to hide from the hottest part of the day (midday until 2pm).
- You will get rained on if you come to the Delta in the wet season so buy one of the 5000 vnd raincoats from the side of the road. Its not fun to wear but it will waterproof your pack just fine and the rain comes as a welcome relief from the hot weather. Don't try to cycle in the really heavy rain because the trucks don't slow down and you might get sprayed if they find a pothole near you.
- Even when you are exhausted from the heat, cycling, communicating and everything else that comes from travelling, always say hello to people being friendly. We realised that we were not going to make it to Can Tho so we pulled off the road into a small guest house (they are not always on Google but there are heaps of guest houses, especially on main roads). It was so weird and I guess the power had gone out but one of the guests came out of his room when he heard us trying so speak Vietnamese to the landlord and helped translate for us. I was exhausted and my first instinct was to thank him for his help and then retreat to our room never to speak to him again. Instead, when it was time for dinner, we knocked on his door and invited him to come to dinner with us. We discovered that his name is Hieu, he is Vietnamese, went to uni in Sydney and that he works for an organisation that supports rural communities to become sustainable and to deal with climate change. He showed us his favorite place to eat and taught us about customs we should know about. Basically he made what was going to be a fairly tame night, amazingly memorable AND he called us when we got to Can Tho and took us out with his work colleagues that night. Awesome!
- Wear cotton under garments - imagine what it feels like wearing a plastic bag in a steam room and you are pretty close to how nylon knickers feel.
- Vietnamese made bikes (at least the 3 million vnd ones) need a bit of work as you go and even if you don't skimp and get a decent bike (which I would do if I had my time again) bring a set of Allen keys, two adjustable wrenches (one should be small for tight spots), a Phillips head screw driver, tube repair kit and bike pump. Remember: if it moves and it shouldn't you need duct tape, if it doesn't move and it should you need WD40. This will help for small repairs until you can get to a Rau Xe (motor cycle repair guy) and comfort adjustments. Check that the handlebars, seats etc. are the right height.
- Buy a gel seat cover. They are like $20 from Kmart - maybe cheaper here but I haven't seen any and I wouldn't risk it because these things are worth their weight in gold. Your butt is gonna hurt regardless but it is a whole lot better with the gel than without. You can get all sorts of other devices in this vein, like the shorts with inbuilt padding but we aren't that hardcore - you might like to be though - go for a long cycle before you get here and you will see what I am talking about (or type "sore butt from cycling" into Google and see what comes up.
- Your definition of a 'road' and Google Maps' definition of a road may be slightly different in Vietnam but try not to worry if it looks like a dirt track because you can normally get through. We only had to walk through a swamp once.
- The traffic isn't as nuts as it first appears, in fact the method to the madness becomes clear after a bit. Stay as far to the Right as possible unless there is someone coming the wrong way, someone is pulling their restaurant on the road or you are worried that the pothole will swallow you and your bike (go around those). Don't panic about the beeping, they are just letting you know that they are there - the louder the horn, the less likely they are going to slow down for you. Give way to anything bigger than you (so basically everything)
Lastly, have fun, this place is incredibly beautiful and you will meet some incredibly friendly people. They may not see many foreigners but they are generally very warm towards us when we are warm towards them. I would also recommend finding, wherever possible, hotel owners who speak English - local knowledge is invaluable and takes some of the stress out of finding your way around.