The 06:00 flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City was cheaper than the day-long train. Although train journeys in Vietnam are a wonderful way to see more of the countryside, we decided to pass up this particular one. We had to catch a bus to Cambodia the next day and I refused to compromise one particular outing in the south of Vietnam.
It wasn’t the Cu Chi Tunnels, the war history or the city life of the capital. It was a sentence I found, somewhere deep into a string of blog posts and travel articles about the region. It read: Cycle the backroads of the Mekong Delta.
The day started with a quick stop at a tiny baguette shop in Ho Chi Minh City for a cheap, on-the-go breakfast (apparently the French didn’t take their recipes with them when they departed). The van headed to Tan An town on the city’s outskirts. We parked along a nondescript dirt road. Three boys were happily playing marbles in the sand.
We mounted our bikes and peddled after Van, our guide, who grew up in these parts. The road ended and a narrow, cement pathway lead in between single storey houses flanked by farmland.
This is the Mekong River Basin, an extensive region that crosses into both Cambodia and Thailand. According to the Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development, the agriculture here provides food security and livelihoods for approximately 60% of the Mekong River Basin’s population. Although there is a definite trend toward commercial agriculture, especially here in Vietnam, currently subsistence and small scale farms dominate. The people here are poor and live simple lives, close to the earth.
Most visitors to this area head straight to the nearby Mekong Delta, known for its floating markets, islands, and boat-based transportation. The farmlands don’t see a lot of visitors and the only way to get around is to walk, take a scooter, or cycle along the web of single track paths that connect these farming communities.
Learning the lingo is important. When you’re passing someone from behind and you don’t have something to honk, you shout “Wah-wah, wah-wah!” so they can get out the way.
Up until now, Vietnam involved many bus rides, an overnight train and two days on a junk boat, so powering forward using our legs is both a relief and a treat. Behind the handlebars there isn’t any glass, wood or metal separating you from your surroundings. We are able to tread considerably lighter in discovering it.
The farms are devoid of noisy industrial or mechanised equipment. Life is quiet and slow. Clusters of farming families have grouped themselves together in communes, announced by archways over the road decorated with colourful flags. Each commune starts with a tight group of houses, a garage doubling as a general store, and open fields thereafter. Ornate Buddhist tombstones contrast the predominantly flat, green landscape.
The different communes farm different types of produce. We cycle through the fruit commune with its abundance of sweet watermelon before heading past rice paddies so bright we take off our sunglasses to make sure it really is this green. We wave at shy children and friendly women, standing behind hip-height gates.
We could smell the herb commune before we saw it. By now the sun is blazing, but interspersed with blots of shade and mediated by the steady, warm air on us as we cycle. The sky is thick with humidity and infused with the fragrant, spicy smell of coriander and chives. So simple, yet such an all encompassing delight found in a single foreign moment.
It seems idyllic, but these farmers don’t have it easy. Vice news reports that, although the Mekong River Basin supports Vietnam’s massive rice export business, prolonged dry seasons and sea-level rise brought about by climate change, is pushing saltwater from the South China Sea deeper inland, compromising farmers’ irrigation channels. Some farmers have already given up. I only saw the rose coloured version of the countryside, but I’m happy I was able to experience at least that.
When I think back to the Vietnam trip, I don’t think first of the sandstone islands of Halong Bay or the Japanese merchant houses of Hoi An. I think of us and Van on our bicycles, taking a peek at a rural farming community going about its day-to-day life. Cities around the world are starting to move back to a culture of conscious eating and traceability. We care about the origin of our food. Vietnam is so famed for its local food and all I had to do was hop on a bicycle to see the source of those endless buckets of rice, ginger, bok choy and water spinach.
I booked this day trip through Vietnam Backroads. This story only tells of the first half of the day. The second was spent exploring the Mekong Delta. Visit www.vietnambackroads.com for more.