Ho Chi Minh – a day trip to the Mekong Delta

Picking how to get to the Delta

On Monday morning I had no choice but to get up at the crack of dawn. In fact I think it may even have still been dark when I pulled back the curtains in my hotel room.

My alarm had gone off at 6am and I clambered out of bed, struggled into the shower and was downstairs in reception by quarter to seven.

During my trip to Vietnam, I’d been really keen to get out of Ho Chi Minh for at least one day – to see a bit more of the country. I had had two good options for a day trip out of the city. One was a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels – a network of tunnels which had been used by the the Viet Cong.

The other notable option was a trip to the Mekong Delta – or the “rice bowl” of Vietnam – an intricate maze of rivers, swamps and islands which are home to floating markets, pagodas and rice paddies. I decided the second option would mean I’d get more out of the day and started researching tours.

Pretty quickly I realised that there was a lot of competition for tours to the delta. And they all seemed to offer pretty much the same thing – a trip to a floating market, a trip to a bee farm, a trip to a coconut candy factory and dancing displays from locals. They all seemed highly organised and… well… a bit touristy. I could just imagine being shepherded around different attractions and not actually seeing much of the real countryside.

So I started to look a bit deeper and came across an option on Airbnb, in their still relatively new experiences section. A trip which guaranteed a lack of tourist traps, showing the real side of the delta and which was carried out on bikes, with a bit of kayaking thrown in. I quickly decided that sounded like the best bet – though it wasn’t exactly cheap at £73 for the day!

This was also – as it turned out – the trip that Orlando who I’d met on my walking tour of Ho Chi Minh two days earlier had been on. He’d said it had been pretty gruelling, and that he’d slept for 13 hours afterwards, pointing out there was a 3km kayak ride and a total of 15 or so kilometres cycling required. I’d asked if there were hills and he’d just replied there were lots of bridges (uphill ones).

So it was with slight nerves and trepidation that I found myself standing in my hotel’s reception at quarter to seven on Monday morning. How would the day turn out? Well… let’s just say not ideally, but more on that little incident later! 🤣

Getting to the Delta

Bang on 7am, a slightly battered looking mini bus pulled up while a very athletic looking older man dressed from head to toe in cycling gear arrived on a bike which quickly went in to the back of the bus.

That rang slight alarm bells as I was in no way dressed in professional cycling gear! Quang introduced himself with a smile and a handshake – he (who later turned out to be 60) would be our host for a day. He had a cheeky smile and a bit of a glint in his eye. We both climbed into the van and trundled off on our way to pick up the other participants.

Rain was falling constantly from the sky as we pulled up in front of Ho Chi Minh’s opera house. Far from ideal cycling weather! The mini van’s window wipers seemed to be going as fast as they could as Quang ran for cover under the opera house’s entrance.

We sat there for ten minutes, while Quang smoked a fag and then decided to call it quits. Jumping back in the van we drove round to Ben Thanh Market. I’ll admit it. At this point, given the weather, and what Orlando had told me about the trip, I was secretly hoping no-one would turn up there either and the whole thing would be called off.

But I was out of luck – two Australians and two Americans clambered aboard the bus. It was on! We returned back to the opera house where we picked up another lady who had been running late, and we started a two hours plus drive out of Ho Chi Minh and into the Vietnamese countryside.

We’d literally be touching the edge of the Mekong Delta – it’s a massive area. Our minivan chundered down the highway towards the town of Caí Bè as rain continued to fall from the sky. Quang kept us entertained by telling us fairly dirty jokes and telling us a bit about the delta and what we’d be doing, while some of my fellow trip goers slept. I eventually nodded off for about ten minutes.

After about an hour and a half we pulled into a deserted service station – or “rest stop & farming resort”.

I nipped to the loo and bought a coffee before sitting down with the two Americans who had ordered a bowl of hot soup. I wasn’t really hungry, but before I knew it I was tucking into one too. It was pretty lacklustre – in fact I didn’t even take a photo of it – a rarity for me!

Soon we were back on the road towards Caí Bè – and thankfully eventually the rain stopped. The sky was still a light shade of grey, but at least it was dry!

And we’re off

At about 10.10 we pulled in to the small town, and parked up in a garage.

As we all jumped out the van, Quang disappeared, and returned with some bikes and helmets. He directed people next door if they needed to visit the “happy place” which was what he called the bathroom. Previously he’d advised us that if men needed to visit once we hit the road on our bikes, we could go anywhere. For the ladies, he’d direct them to a nearby house.

When I came back from visiting the cafe next door to use the loo, everyone had a green scarf – but I didn’t notice until much later on that they’d all been given one! Helmets on, we all made a fairly shaky start on our bikes before pedalling down the road.

Quang went easy on us to begin with – our first stop came after only about ten minutes when we parked up at a building behind a row of market stalls. Quang lit up a cigarette and let us go off and explore the market for ten minutes. And there was plenty to see!

Plates of frogs…

And baskets full of chickens – who all looked pretty happy despite, I suspect, not being long for this world. 😔

There were also loads of vegetables which I had no idea about.

Returning back to our bikes, Quang introduced us to a lady who was selling fresh pineapple on a stick – skilfully carving them with a very dangerous looking knife.

With a smile, she handed me one.

It was delicious. Although I was somewhat mystified by the fact that some of the other people on the tour seemed to eat the core of the pineapple as well. Surely you’re not meant to do that!

Wiping my hands free of the fruit’s sticky residue on my t-shirt, we got back on our bikes for a couple of minutes before pulling up at a rather grotty looking part of the river.

Two minutes later a ferry pulled up, and we loaded our bikes on board.

A couple of minutes later we were on the other side of the river, and back on our saddles, cycling along thankfully smooth paths past houses and lots of greenery.

It was warm, but thankfully not too warm, and still dry, and a light breeze as we cycled kept us nice and cool. It was really relaxing just pedalling along. And the going was easy too. Quang warned us of any bridges that were coming up as they could be steep. After one warning, I began to pick up pace and was halfway up the bridge when the lady in front of me came to a stop and got off her bike. The bridge was so narrow – I had to do the same, so I’ll never know if I would have made it without stopping or not!

Our next stop came after half an hour – we pulled up in what looked like a tiny village and took a breather in a cafe – which basically was an outdoor area attached to a family’s house. A young child sat in a hammock while his older brother and Mum got up to attend to us and say hi to Quang.

A dish of this was placed in front of us…. any ideas?

It is jackfruit – a relatively new fruit for us in the UK increasing in popularity as a veggie meat substitute. I picked up a bit and tasted it – it was firm but soft at the same time, and tasted slightly like chewing gum – which one of the Americans agreed with me on.

Glasses of iced coconut water were also placed in front of us – but for me it was just a bit too sweet, so I sipped on mine as we all chatted.

Quang then beckoned for me and the two American guys to get up and follow him next door.

Here groups of men stood around loads of jackfruit – I imagine it’s where they were all collated after harvesting.

They were massive – and heavy! He got us to pose with them, before we returned next door and sent the other three people round to do the same.

Back at the cafe, the lady was busy doing something to the jackfruit – I’m not sure actually what – maybe husking them – while her youngest boy smiled a toothless grin at us. When Quang returned he sat the boy on his lap and told us he could speak English. Straight away, the boy turned his head away shyly – and eventually after encouragement from Quang and me, he counted from one to ten in English, pride bursting out on his face when he finished.

It was a really nice experience just sitting there in a tiny cafe like that, and feeling the family’s genuine hospitality.

Back on our bikes, we cycled through along roads with houses scattered on either side – some of them looked pretty posh and impressive.

A vegetarian lunch

Quang had asked earlier if there were any vegetarians – and it turned out the other solo traveller – an American lady was. He suggested she could just have a meat free meal where we were headed before changing tack and suggesting we have a meal at a local pagoda instead. Two times a month – on the first day of the lunar month and the day of the full month – they put on a vegetarian banquet. And as it was one of those days, he suggested we eat there which was fine by the rest of us.

At half past twelve, we cycled into Kim Phuoc Pagoda’s grounds and kicked down the stands on our bikes.

Quang advised us to take any valuables with us which I thought was a bit weird – surely people visiting a Pagoda wouldn’t steal anything?

We followed Quang into a large open air dining room, busy with other customers.

Behind us seemed to be the kitchen.

We sat down and very quickly, food was placed down on the table by smiling old men and ladies. Then more food came, and more until there was hardly any room left on the table.

There were big colanders full of herbs and salad leaves, tofu dishes, a very sweet coconut based dish with what I think was sweet potato, steamed rice and massive egg pancakes. Quang showed us how to fold a bit of pancake up in a lettuce leave, before filling it with beansprouts and shredded vegetables.

Pretty quickly I was absolutely stuffed. Everyone else seemed to continue eating for a good while, so I just sat and watched. Then I tried an attractive looking sweet and soft rice cake for dessert.

If I had any room I definitely would have had two! They were delicious. In fact everything was – it all just had a very fresh taste about it.

At the next table, a couple of ladies got up to leave and Quang asked us if we recognised them. “The pineapple lady from the market!” I shouted, and she gave me a big grin before waving bye to us all. Then we had time just to look around the pagoda.

It was really colourful, and what struck me was it seemed pretty big to be in the middle of what seemed to be the countryside. Maybe it wasn’t so remote though if the pineapple lady had made it there so quickly!

I wandered around taking photos…

Before climbing the stairs of the main building to take a look inside.

Turning around, I got a good view of the enormous statue just inside the pagoda’s gates.

Round the side of the building excited children chattered away – one thing I noticed when cycling along was how many kids seemed excited to see us. Almost all of them shouted “hi!” and gave us a cheerful wave when we passed. I always made sure to say “hi” back – and to give a wave if I was feeling steady enough on my bike! When we cycled past schools, kids dressed in very neat uniforms waved at us from their playground.

After exploring the pagoda, it was time to remount our bikes and pedal on.

An erm incident

I was having a great time – everyone was friendly, and we chatted as we cycled along. It was just really relaxing, so obviously something was about to go wrong!

The land surrounding us was a luscious green as cycled down towards the river. We were all riding in single file, when we came across a tiny bit of water, upon which two slabs of concrete had been laid as a makeshift bridge. In between the two was a gap which just looked the right size for a tyre to get stuck in.

As I approached it, one of the American guys wavered, and came to a stop before carrying on, with his mate asking what the hell was he thinking of as he nearly smacked into the back of him.

I approached feeling confident, but for a split second suddenly wavered. A fatal decision, as with that I lost my balance. I tilted to one side and fell into the water – which turned out not to be water but a deep pool of grey sludge. Quang and the solo lady riding behind me – to their credit – didn’t laugh, and with one foot stuck fast in between what felt like two pipes – each offered me a hand to pull me out which took about thirty seconds.

My shorts and my legs were covered in that gloopy, dark sludge. God only knows what was in that!

Thankfully (or not for me) Quang captured the action – which did make me lols. At least I’ll never forget it!

A man and lady from a nearby house rushed out on hearing the commotion and the lady took me in to her garden and pointed to a hose to wash myself down which I gratefully accepted, nodding my head in thanks. The couple meanwhile set about adjusting the concrete slabs to narrow the gap, and seemed genuinely apologetic. It was my fault though!

Slightly wet and even more embarrassed, I made light of the matter in front of the others saying I’d simply fancied a dip to cool off, hiding my slightly dented pride. Soon we were at the riverfront, and boarding another boat with a cheery driver.

Kayaking action

Chugging up the river, Quang advised us we were passing the floating market, but it really didn’t look like that much! A couple of boats were scattered about, and all I could see was some clothes hanging from some of them, and some sacks on others.

It wasn’t what I had in mind when I heard about a floating market, but then it certainly wasn’t the tourist version we were seeing. I also think we’d have had to be there much earlier to catch everything in action.

Soon the river widened, and we headed towards one of the banks. ‘Is this it?’ I thought – the dreaded kayaking bit? I had visions of me struggling to control my craft as we battled white water rapids. As some local ladies watched on….

Quang and the boat driver pulled kayaks into the water, and helped us board them. Thankfully I did not fall in at this point!

Soon, in my Vietnamese starred boat I was gently rowing my boat down a stream. Or an inlet of the river. And also thankfully, I seemed to be pretty good at steering – deftly adjusting my stroke as required to avoid overhanging branches and other boats coming in the other direction.

Every now and then a strong current would send us towards a bank, which some of us managed to avoid better than others, but there were no white water or white knuckle moments on our journey. At one point I did get involved in a bit of a traffic jam with two locals….

But thankfully I made it out of that!

Yet again, it was very chilled just going down the river, and while my arms did begin to ache towards the end, the journey wasn’t too strenuous! Soon we arrived at what I’m going to describe as a clearing, where locals in their boats had stopped to chat.

After a while, the boat that had dropped us off came into view, and we all clambered aboard before helping pull our kayaks in. Yet again I managed to avoid falling into the water!

Pushing off, we rounded a corner and the river widened again. Quang got us all up to the front of the boat for a picture, and I got one with him too.

By now the sky was brightening, and we could feel the sun shining. We also all got offered a chance at the boat’s wheel. Woohoo!

There did seem to be something up with the steering – every time I turned the wheel the boat nudged in the opposite direction that I expected, but I did manage to navigate the craft without incident.

Before we knew it, we were taking our bikes off the boat and waving a fond farewell to its cheery driver.

Just ten minutes later we were back at the garage we’d left some five or so hours earlier. How time had flown!

At this point I did ask Quang about my scarf – and got one, which I’m going to hang on to as a souvenir.

We clambered back on to the bus and soon were driving back through the streets of Caí Bè on our way back to Ho Chi Minh.

Quang was soon out for the count, as were probably some others who were sitting behind me, but as far as I can remember I managed to keep my eyes open all the way! Our driver peeped his horn what seemed like every twenty seconds. But our vehicle had an unusual horn – maybe a Vietnamese style one as I heard other vehicles with it too. Instead of a ‘PEEP!’ or a ‘PARP!’ it was more of a soft “hee-haw-hee-haw-hee-haw” which was a bit more gentle on the ears considering it was going off so often!

Once back in the city, we said our farewells as everyone got dropped off. I was last, arriving back at my hotel at just after half past five. I grabbed a quick selfie with Quang…

…and thanked him before waving him off. I’d had a really great day – even with the mud incident – and would thoroughly recommend taking the tour or a similar one when in Ho Chi Minh. I think an overnight stay or two would give you more of a feel for the Mekong Delta, there’s no doubt, but if you have to do it in a day, I think this is probably the best way to do it. You can book the tour I did here.

A Western style dinner

Back upstairs in my room I had a very long and beautiful shower before deciding to head out for dinner. Given my traditional lunch, I fancied something a bit more well… Western for dinner, and had read about a great pizza joint which Kim from the walking tour had also said was her favourite local spot for pizza.

And there was a branch of Pizza 4P’s just around the corner from my hotel. Result!

Walking down a dimly lit lane I came across a really modern space…

and climbed the stairway up to the restaurant – which was absolutely buzzing with a young Vietnamese crowd.

It was sleek and stylish and I loved the design of the place. Pizza Express (not that there’s anything wrong with there!) this was not.

While there was a queue for tables, I accepted a counter spot, and was soon perusing the menu. I’d read about the owner of the chain’s passion for quality and I loved the sound of the unusual toppings on the pizzas too.

I ordered a Coca Cola Light and sat for a while deciding on what to order. Eventually I went for a starter of Sweetcorn Soup with Ricotta and Parma Ham, but they had sold out! So I had to have clam chowder instead. Which I didn’t mind as it is one of my favourites!

I couldn’t quite make up my mind when it came to a topping for my pizza, but the waitress pointed out it was possible to have a ‘half and half’ – which solved my dilemma. I chose Tandoori Chicken Curry for one half, and Saba Miso Herbs – Mackerel with Japanese miso and mayonnaise for the other side. I know that many sound revolting reading it back, but it was absolutely amazing…. and given me some topping ideas for homemade pizzas when I get home!

I scoffed the lot. It was absolutely delicious and I’d really recommend Pizza 4P’s if you find yourself in Vietnam. My meal with a soft drink came to just £11. Great value too!

Walking back to the hotel, I was beginning to feel slightly exhausted but at the same time I was tempted buy a glass of wine. I also realised I hadn’t yet made it up to the hotel’s rooftop bar. So I decided to head up for a look.

A rooftop pool is never a bad thing! The view of the city wasn’t bad either…

But in the end, feelings of tiredness got the better of me, and I decided by far the best option would be for me to climb into bed. Which is exactly what I did. The next day would see me leave Vietnam’s biggest city behind – swapping it for an island where I planned to get some real R&R.

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