Vietnam. Known for it’s stunning scenery and cities that never sleep, it’s a place where backpackers and holiday-makers alike can delve into many an adventure and experience authentic Asian culture in all it’s glory.
One city in the south of Vietnam which will be on the trip itinerary of almost every traveller is Ho Chi Minh (also known as Saigon). Whether it’s the fascinating history, the bustling markets or just the chance to see the city with one of the highest concentrations of motorcycles in the world, it can’t be missed during your visit to Vietnam.
If you are wanting to get away from the hectic traffic and city aroma however, a popular excursion from the city is to the famous Mekong Delta, which lies South-West of Saigon. Locally known as Sông Tiên Giang, the Mekong river meanders it’s way through 6 countries and is the longest in South-East Asia.
The Delta’s myriad of waterways, islands and wetlands, which spread over approximately 15,000 square miles, make up a labyrinth that’s just waiting to be explored. And what better way to do this than on the back of a Vietnamese local’s vehicle of choice – the motorcycle!
This is where Flipside comes in. Owned by seasoned Kiwi backpackers, Flipside Hostel is located right in the heart of the action of Bui Vien Walking Street in HCMC. Complete with pool, rooftop bar and all-round great vibes, the hostel is the perfect place to start your Vietnam backpacking adventure.
They also offer a multitude of exciting tours to some of Vietnam’s most popular destinations – and it was on one of these that we’d be exploring the lesser trodden path of the Mekong Delta!
Cue Mekong Madness: a 2 day 1 night motorbike tour run by Flipside. We were a team of two backpackers and two backpacker’s parents, which made for an interesting trip complete with many terrible dad jokes! This adventure took us right off the tourist trail and threw us into the winding back roads, luscious jungles, complex canals and sprawling villages of the Mekong Delta, and here’s what we got up to!
Book your Mekong Madness Bike Tour Here!
The Tour – Day Number 1
Day 1 saw us at Flipside for 6.15am (the early bird catches the worm!). Here we met our guide Jacob – a cool Canadian who’s switched backpacking for tour guiding at Flipside. Normally he’s up in Hanoi running Flipside’s tour of the Ha Giang loop, but his motorcycle expertise were needed down south! After a breakfast of fried eggs and toast we were in a taxi to the bus station, where we caught the 7.45am bus.
Two hours later and we had arrived in the riverside town of Bến Tre and sat down for a much needed Cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee – so so good!). Feeling far more awake, at 10.30am we jumped on our motorbikes and were on our way.
After a quick pitstop at the petrol station, we were soon zipping alongside the Mekong, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves getting lost down roads lined with coconut palms, not forgetting the odd wrong turn into someone’s driveway (all in the name of adventure, right?)!
Coconuts, River Crossings, Spiders and Watermelons
We were right in the heart of the Mekong’s thriving coconut plantations, and by mid- morning we found ourselves surrounded by piles upon piles of coconut husks right on the side of the river. Locals use the river to transport the fibrous husks, and we saw them being flipped up onto the side with the combination of a stick and years of practice. The coarse brown fibres are eventually used to make items like rope, nets, door mats and decorative handicrafts.
Just around the corner from the coconut store was a tiny ferry boat crossing, and this meant it was time to make our way over the river. Ten minutes later and all 3 bikes were safely loaded on the rickety little boat and we were on our way across the chocolate coloured water; exactly how the locals do it.
In no time at all we were back twisting our way through the lanes, passing women riding bicycles wearing Nón Lá Hats and motorcycle trailers piled high with sugar cane branches. A few miles down the road and we came to a stop at a sight none of us had ever seen before – tens of ABSOLUTELY HUMUNGOUS spiders hanging from the telephone lines! If you don’t like spiders, it was like a scene from a horror movie, but if these critters don’t really scare you, then this was an incredible thing to see (although still a little daunting having them hanging directly above our heads!).
When we left that spot I think we were all pretty glad! After 30 more minutes of driving down well worn dirt tracks and over bridges flanked by banana trees, we turned a corner and stumbled upon a tiny wooden fruit stall. This was a great opportunity to rest for a moment, so we hopped off the bikes and bought a watermelon from the lady and her two children.
The juicy fruit was the ideal refreshment in the midday sun, although some of us didn’t like the pips, which led to a game of “who can spit the pip the furthest”! We got a whole watermelon for 20,000 Vietnamese đồng (about 65p!), and at that price you can’t go wrong, even when you drive 100m down the road and find a watermelon on sale for nearly a quarter of the price!
Lunch and Beansprout Disasters!
The next thing we knew we were back on a busy highway! That’s the wonderful thing about this tour – one minute you’re driving down a curvy narrow dirt track and the next you’re back on relatively smooth tarmac and driving into a bustling city; you never know what’s around the next corner! It just so happened that this was the perfect time to find a town – because even after a slice of watermelon, we were all feeling a bit peckish!
But we had a bit of a dilemma – the lady at the normal lunch stop had texted Jacob to say that she was closed that day. Luckily, having spent 9 months in Vietnam, he can speak the language, and after chatting with a few locals who pointed us in various directions, we came across a little place with some friendly ladies and settled down for lunch. Not long after, we had a tiny table full of fried rice platters, vegetable soup and iced teas and were tucking in like we’d be driving all day!
Being our guide, Jacob had been using maps on his phone for the majority of the day, just to make sure we were roughly going in the right direction. This meant that his phone was in desperate need of more battery life, so he plugged it in whilst we were all eating.
Little did he know that the socket was loose, and when he went to collect his phone, disaster struck – it fell from it’s balancing place (half way up the wall), and as he went to catch it, he knocked over a bowl of soggy beansprouts, into which his phone fell! This might have been ok if it weren’t for the giant crack already in his screen – beansprout juice and cracked phone screens are never a good combination. It went blank and then started buzzing – not a happy phone.
We quickly asked for dried rice to put the phone into and hopefully get some of the water soaked out, but Jacob didn’t know the Vietnamese for this! Good old google translate was on hand to solve our problems, and a few minutes later, the ladies brought out… a hairdryer. At least they understood what had happened! Jacob gave it a go and surprisingly, it did the trick! Phone once again alive, we continued on our journey.
Crazy Bridges and Sugar Cane Juice
The afternoon’s antics were similar to the morning’s, except that instead of whizzing along lanes lined with coconut palms and little shops, the roadsides were now taken up by plant nurseries full to the brim with rows of leafy green trees, flowers and bushes. It was becoming clear that the communities around the Mekong are loosely divided into different districts, and this was the place where you come to buy greenery – it’s Vietnam’s answer to the local garden centre, just on a much bigger scale!
By this point we had been in the driving seat for a while and our bums were starting to feel it! Add into that the blazing Asian sun and it was probably a good time to stop at a tiny roadside cafe for some much needed sugar cane juice. This yummy drink is very popular in Vietnam and little stalls selling it are dotted everywhere.
It’s made by popping a few stalks into a machine, which then squashes them, releasing a pale yellow juice. They hold way more liquid that you would expect, and it wasn’t long before we all had pint sized glasses full of icy sugar cane. Not only were the drinks refreshing, but the cup full of ice was the best way to cool down our sweaty foreheads!
Back on track and the end of day 1 was in sight, but of course we couldn’t make it to the homestay without a few more bumps in the road! We’d crossed a lot of bridges on our journey so far, but the next bridge we came across was probably the most memorable. Crumbling away, narrow, peppered with holes and, the best part, it was at a right angle!
This was not going to be an easy crossing, but we couldn’t leave without giving it a go. One by one we tackled the bridge. As each of us turned the 90 degree corner things got a bit hairy, but we all made it to the other side in one piece! I would say it was definitely my favourite bridge of the trip but those who were driving had a different opinion!
Thankfully, if you’re not that comfortable with riding a motorbike, then that won’t stop you doing this tour – Flipside hires professional local drivers at no extra cost, so you can still have fun going across adventurous bridges without worrying about ending up in the water below!
After the bridge we were once again speeding along dirt tracks, this time surrounded with swamps and fruit tree groves. These dirt tracks became more and more sandy, making them a little difficult to manoeuvre, but nothing a slower speed can’t handle… or so we thought. The small piles of sand and sharp bends made it hard to keep the bikes steady and maybe one of us might have had taken a tumble – but what happened on tour stays on tour!
Cute Puppies and Rice Wine – Arriving at the Homestay
In the early evening we finally arrived at our destination – Happy Family Homestay – just in time; our bottoms probably couldn’t have been sat on for much longer! We were greeted by the owner and an adorable puppy who ended up following us around for most of our stay – definitely not complaining about that! We all had a quick swim in the homestay’s pool to cool off before watching the sun go down over the Mekong river.
Later for dinner we had a spread of Vietnamese specialities – it was the best meal we’d had since arriving in Vietnam! The dishes included chicken curry, jackfruit hotpot, grilled fish, a fruit platter and, my personal favourite, Bánh Xèo or Vietnamese pancake. To eat these pancakes we cut them up and then put a small piece into some leaves, rolled it up and dipped it in sweet chilli sauce; they were absolutely delicious!
After we’d eaten and our stomachs were full to bursting, it was time for some card games accompanied by a South East Asian classic: Rice Wine. Several shots later and everyone was certainly a little tipsy, and by the end of the night Will’s parents had drunk way more than we had! Maybe they should be the backpackers!
A Morning Boat Ride
At 7am, with slightly fuzzy heads, we were all up for breakfast. Once the omelettes and iced coffees had been devoured, we jumped straight onto a boat and made our way down river. We cruised along taking in the morning on the Mekong, passing tiny fishing boats and big transporter barges carrying sand – one even had a curious dog on!
Not long into our journey, the captain gave the steering wheel to Will’s dad, Ian, and we were all left in the hands of the serial dad joker! Even though he’d never driven a boat before, Ian was a pretty good skipper, and we made it to our destination in one piece.
Our captain docked the boat in a patch of waterlilies just as we were joined by two local women paddling a couple of tiny wooden long-tail boats. We swapped boats – Will and I in one, Ian and Will’s mum, Sally, in the other, and off we went (whilst Jacob got to have a little nap in the hammock back on the boat!).
The women rowed us into a little tributary – it looked like a serious work out – and we made our way steadily along. Through a combination of rowing and propellors, we snaked along watery passageways edged with mangroves and wooden houses on stilts.
Back on the Road for Day Number 2
At 9.15am we arrived back at the homestay. There was time for yet another iced coffee (we had a lot of coffee on this trip!) before we hit the road once again. We were quickly back in the nearby town and this meant going through the local morning market…not walking through it, driving through it!
The street vendors selling their fruit and veg were completely unfazed however, and we even passed a few other people on their bikes driving under the low-hanging makeshift roof – there are no road rules in Asia!
We were keen to see where the roads would take us on our way back to Bến Tre, so we took a few detours and found ourselves passing a whole load of interesting sights. These included: a man carrying a chicken under his arm, a woman setting out some seriously complex fish traps, some waving men who were telling us that we were going the wrong way (we saw them twice as we looped back after hitting a dead end!), and of course the ever-present Mekong, with it’s countless cargo boats and passenger ferries.
Riding the Passenger Ferry with a Few Bike Malfunctions
Soon it was time for us to take one of these passenger ferries, and this one was very different from the one we went on the day before, which gave us yet another experience under our belts. This boat was ten times bigger than the ramshackle ferry we had taken the previous day; it not only took bikes but it also took cars and lorries. On arrival at the port we were told it would be a 20 minute wait, so we grabbed a few ice creams and stood by the bikes (standing was the best way to regain feeling in our numb bottoms!).
When it was time to go we realised we had a slight problem: Jacob and Ian’s bikes weren’t starting! Although Ian’s was a quick fix (he forgot to push the start button; “I forgot I was on a moped, I thought I was in my van!”), Jacob’s was a little more troublesome, so much so that he had to wheel it down the ramp onto the ferry before it left without him! He wasn’t having that much luck with machines on this trip, but at least we were a good source of entertainment for the local villagers on the ferry that morning!
For the entire journey across the water he was trying to get the bike started again, and it wasn’t until the last minute that he managed to kick it into life – a stroke of luck considering the ramp on the other side was a pretty steep incline! We sang celebration songs down the road for the next few hundred metres.
On the Home Straight
Our lunch was recommended to us by a lovely chap who spoke very good english. He said he thought we looked like we were searching for something, and when we told him we were trying to find a place to eat, he pointed us in the direction of a little cafe which seemed very popular with the locals.
There we had a pork and seafood noodle soup, and he was right in saying that it was yummy! Thankfully, lunch passed without any phone dramas.
We were coming to the end of our journey, and the last few hours of the trip wouldn’t have been complete without a few more detours down roads that couldn’t really be called roads, some tasty sugar cane juice and several loud lorry horns beeping at us to get out of their way!
Before long we were back on the bus to Ho Chi Minh after an epic motorbiking adventure! We’d experienced all the sights, sounds and smells of the Mekong Delta, and even though we couldn’t really feel our bum cheeks any more, it was definitely worth it. We arrived back at Flipside at 6.30pm and then it was time for a few beers to celebrate a successful trip!
Mekong Madness – All You Need to Know
So, are you interested in some madness in the Mekong? Well here’s what you need to know!
The Mekong Madness Tour run by Flipside is a 2 day 1 night motorcycling adventure off the tourist trail of the Mekong Delta. You can either self-drive your bike or sit on the back of a bike driven by a professional Vietnamese driver.
Will and Ellie are the UK travel bloggers behind Tapp and Bear Travel. Originally from Devon and The Cotswolds, they both graduated from Falmouth University with degrees in Marine and Natural History Photography and set off on the adventure of a lifetime! They are currently writing for South East Asia Backpacker reviewing trips and tours all over the continent. Interested in becoming a writer for us?