Vietnam was the fourth country on my 101-day trip around the world. I spent my first day in Ho Chi Minh before joining a multi-day bike tour through the Mekong River Delta.
I loved getting to see the city before venturing to places where few tourists go. So many people recommended Hanoi and northern Vietnam, but doing a bike tour has been on my mind for a while and I liked the idea of starting in Ho Chi Minh and making my way to Cambodia.
What I did in Ho Chi Minh:
Ho Chi Minh, still called Saigon by the locals, is a big city of 13.5 million people. I wouldn’t say it is a destination that requires more than a couple days of your time in Vietnam, but it’s worth seeing. A week in Saigon would probably feel like too much, while 2 days would be just right.
War Remnants Museum
Steve, who had been my guide for the day trip I did out of Sydney recommended that I go to the War Remnants Museum, so that was my first stop. The museum has a series of exhibitions which tell a thorough history of the war, starting with the French colonization and continuing with Vietnamese independence, American interference with the government, and then the war and its long term impact. There were exhibits displaying the work of war photographers who had died during the war, and an examination into Agent Orange and its multi-generational impact. It’s an honest look at a dark part of history, and visiting the museum is something you should do if you visit Ho Chi Minh.
Ben Thanh Street Food Market
Despite the 95-degree heat, I wanted to walk around the city. I think that walking is the best way to see a city. I walked through parks buzzing with cicadas and I found my way to the Ben Thanh Street Food Market, a covered market with various stands selling a wide variety of foods and drinks. The abundance of open flames made the space even hotter than the 95-degree temperature.
I was hungry, but I wanted to choose lunch carefully to reduce the risk of food poisoning. I avoid foods that are sitting out, I always want something that is made fresh. For that reason, I found a Thai food stand which was serving up incredible Pad Thai – I picked it because I saw others eating it and it looked the best. I did get messages from people saying that the market is a little touristy and more expensive than other food options, but still, it was only about $5 for Pad Thai and an ice cold beer.
Ben Thanh Market
The street food market is beside another market that sells both food and clothing other goods. There were a lot of people asking me to buy their touristy tees, so I kept my visit brief.
Food and Drink Tour
I’m a big fan of Airbnb Experiences after booking tours through the website in New Zealand and Australia. I wanted to try local food and check out some of the cocktail bars but wasn’t sure where to start so I booked an experience with Annie. We met at a coffee shop and then we made our way to a very nice restaurant down a tiny alleyway called Banh da Cua Di Ly, which is named for its signature dish, a brown rice noodle soup with morning glory, crab meat, beef, and pork. She wanted me to try it since she knew that I would be spending my time in southern Vietnam, and this dish is one of the most popular foods of northern Vietnam and this would be my only chance to taste it.
After dinner, it was time for cocktails. We went to both a trendy rooftop spot known for having some of the best drinks in the city and then to a small place called The Alley. It was just me and Annie, so I got to learn a lot about Vietnamese food and culture from her. Plus! She was one of the producers for the Vietnamese version of The Bachelor, which shockingly only lasted one season. It made headlines when two women professed their love for each other during a rose ceremony and left the show. According to Annie, the Vietnamese public thought that the producers crafted the whole thing and distrusted the show after that. It shocked the producers just as much as everyone else.
My stay in Saigon was brief, but given the extreme heat, I was happy to get out of the city and to begin my bike tour the next day.
Biking Through the Mekong River Delta:
Biking through the Mekong Delta, the part of Vietnam where the Mekong River divides into nine smaller rivers, and further separates into a series of tributaries and canals, was a way to experience the natural beauty of the country while getting a glimpse into local life in small villages.
Throughout the trip, it was just me, my guide Tien, and Mr. Dung the driver. It’s low season in Vietnam so no one else signed up for the tour. Tien and I did the biking, while Mr. Dung drove us to our hotel at the end of the day and transported my luggage.
We biked 25-40 miles a day for four days as we made our way to the Cambodia border. We would bike for about half a day, making several stops along the way. Stops included visiting Buddhist temples, drinking delicious iced Vietnamese coffee in tiny coffee shops, buying rambutan at a local fruit stand and snacking on it, and visiting a workshop where a variety of products (including cobra sake) are made.
On our first night, we brought just backpacks with our essentials since we were staying at what Tien called a homestay, but it was more like a simple guesthouse that you can only access by bike, scooter, or boat.
Since it was low season, we were the only guests. One employee was there to look after us and she cooked us a feast of fresh rolls, fried pork spring rolls, sour soup, pork, lemongrass chicken, and fried rice noodles with beef and vegetables. The hospitality was exceptional, and the food was some of the best I had in Vietnam.
The first day of the tour was all about getting us out of the city. The next days were about enjoying our time biking through small villages and farmland. As we biked through towns everyone would say hello. Most homes face the road and people would call out “hello!” as we passed.
There were times when we were surrounded by children biking home from school for lunch all waving and saying “hello”. They all looked at me curiously, most tourists don’t make it to these villages, and the Vietnamese bike only to get from place to place, so the sight of someone biking for enjoyment is unusual in Vietnam.
We stayed in a series of hotels after the first night. Our routine became departing at 8 am, taking the van out of whichever city we stayed in, and then biking for about 90 minutes, stopping at a cafe for a rest and a coffee, and then biking about another 90 minutes or 2 hours until we stopped for lunch.
Usually, by the time we had finished lunch a big rain would be coming in so we would load into the van and drive the rest of the way to the next hotel. Throughout the trip, I ate well and got a good amount of exercise and sleep.
The biking itself wasn’t too difficult or strenuous. I didn’t train for the trip, but I do regularly go to spin class when I am home, and I have been very active throughout this trip. Most roads were closed to traffic from cars and we kept our eyes out for scooters which are the main method of transportation in Vietnam.
Sometimes we stopped to admire the newly constructed homes. Tien explained that the Vietnamese have more money than they used to, so they are building nice new homes. Even in tiny villages, we saw some mini-mansions. Most people have humbler homes, but they still looked comfortable and very clean. Tien said that people who have less money and don’t own land live in houseboats and often they work as the intermediaries to buy produce at the river market and to then sell it to the people who run stands at the markets in the villages.
One of my favorite excursions was to visit a river market, which is a large wholesale market on a tributary of the Mekong River. A couple of dozen large boats are each loaded with one or two varieties of fruits or vegetables. They hang a sample of their wares on a tall bamboo pole so that the merchants in smaller boats who are shopping can see what they are selling.
The merchants in the smaller boats buy produce and then they, in turn, sell it to people who will sell it at the markets in the villages.
The markets are at the center of life in Vietnam. People go there every day to buy what they need to make their meals. As we would ride our bikes we often rode past markets busy with people shopping.
I really loved my time in Vietnam. The bike tour ended at a town where I took a small ferry to Phnom Penh the next morning. Not only was the bike tour fun, but it also went in the direction I was trying to go which made it convenient.
I booked my bike tour through World Expeditions (not sponsored, I paid for it). The tour included hotels, transportation, and use of a mountain bike (note: mountain bikes were necessary because it wasn’t smooth paved terrain). You can also contact my guide, Tien, to book a tour through him directly. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Things to Know Before You Go:
You will need a visa. You can either send your passport away in advance to get the visa, or you can simply pre-register online and have the visa stamped into your passport upon arrival. Once you have pre-registered, you will receive an email with two documents that you will need to print. Have US dollars to pay for the visa stamp, it’s $25 per person. And have two passport photos. As always, make sure your passport is valid for at least another six months after your trip ends.
Depending on where you will be going and what you will be doing you might need vaccinations and you might want to take the anti-malaria pill. It’s best to visit a travel clinic before your trip and don’t wait until the last minute – you might need multiple rounds of some vaccinations and/or they might need to order the vaccines. I recommend going to a travel clinic before your trip.