Vietnam Adventure Travel
Mekong Delta by Bike
The rice belt in the south is easily accessed from HCMC. From Vinh Long, travel by boat, sampan, foot around the Delta, through floating markets and dry land markets. Experience a peasant lifestyle that’s laid back and way off the beaten path. Include the city of Can Tho, and excursion to a Khmer village.
Mekong Delta by Bike is an easy seven-day bike trip including the bus trip to and from HCMC. Make sure the company that provides the bikes is reputable and the bikes are in good condition. Bring your own helmet if your plans include biking, and don’t forget a few tools and basic patch kit and spares!
Most tours start with a bus/mini-van trip to My Tho. From here you will use a combination of bike riding and ferries/ boats to get around. Most accommodations will be basic, but should include a single bed rather than mats on the floor.
A possible itinerary is:
Day 1: My Tho to Ben Tre. Ferry to cross the Mekong, then a 12-km/7.5-mile ride to Ben Tre.
Day 2: Ben Tre to Cai Mon to Binh Hoa Phuoc. Cross the Mekong by ferry. A 20-km/12.5-mile bike ride to Cai Mon. Boat ride to Binh Hoa Phuoc Island. Most people stay in a local villager’s home.
Day 3: Ride around Binh Hoa Phuoc – 20-30 km/12.5-20 miles. Most people stay in a local villager’s home.
Day 4: Binh Hoa Phouc to Vinh Long to Can Tho. Travel by boat to Vinh Long. Ride around the town through the local markets and then to Ba Cang. From here you can take a boat to a local Khmer village, and then ride to Can Tho.
Day 5: Can Tho. Take a boat to the local floating markets. Many of these people almost never set foot on land! Ride back to Can Tho (about 18-20 km/11-12.5 miles).
Red River Delta
The rice belt in the north – easy access from Hanoi. Hanoi to Ninh Binh by bus, bike ride (12 km or 7.5 miles) to boat landing, boat to Tam Coc, then bus to Hanoi.
Always book the small (four-eight people max) tours! Otherwise you’ll be in a group of 12-16 or more and spend lots of time fending off hawkers and visiting so-called “factories and craft shops.”
Take a bus (or go with a group) from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Catch the night train to Sapa. Make sure you book a first-class/soft sleeper. A small group tour is really useful here. The next stop could be Can Cau, but you’ll need 4WD to get there. If you can get there on a Saturday, so much the better – there’s a
weekly market you should visit. You can trek about six km/3.6 miles through the villages of Phu La and the Flower Hmong in Ta Chai, and then take a 4WD to Lan Den Thang village.
Be prepared – the roads are rough to nearly non-existent, and the overnights are either in tents (on cots) or villagers’ huts (with your sleeping bag and a woven mat on the floor). The opportunity to see a fast-disappearing way of rural life is more than worth the short periods of discomfort. If you come back in five years you may be too late.
There is another weekly fair – this one is on Sundays in Bac Ha. It’s about an eight-km/five-mile trek through mountains, paddies and vegetable fields. Then you can return by either mini-bus or 4WD to Sa Pa to catch the night train back to Hanoi.
Another option is to base yourself in Sapa, and either have a guide arranged by an agent in Hanoi or arrange one in Sapa, and spend several days trekking out and back to various hill tribe villages (Black Hmong, etc.) in the area, returning to your Sapa hotel each night. That’s what we did – we trekked 10-15 km/six-10 miles each day, and our guide arranged to carry lunch or took us to a local villager’s house for lunch, then back to our hotel and dinner in local restaurants. Pizza after a day of up and down hills was rather nice!
Other towns you can trek to or from (accessing them by mini-bus): Hang Kia (Red Hmong), Xa Linh (Black Hmong), Cun Pheo, Mai Chau, Son La, Lai Chau.
You can climb Mount Sapa, usually done as a two-day, one-night trek. You need to be in excellent condition – you are hiking to an elevation of about 3,000 m (10,000 feet) from a starting elevation of about 1,700 m (one mile). If you have not pre-arranged this, most hotels in Sapa can handle the tour for you. Going solo is not a good idea.
The trip is strenuous but worth every grueling step! The scenery is beyond spectacular – almost as good as the Alps or Rockies.
About one in 10 people experience serious altitude sickness at 3,000 m, and many people experience mild symptoms (headache, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite) at that elevation. The local people really don’t know the symptoms or the treatment. For your information, the serious symptoms of altitude sickness include shortness of breath, dizziness, disorientation, a wet cough, pulmonary edema and heart problems. Be careful. The only treatments are to return immediately to an altitude where the symptoms ease, or take oxygen. Your guides live at altitude, so they rarely have problems. Even if you live at altitude, you have probably been elsewhere in Asia and in Hanoi (and other low-elevation locations) for several days to several weeks or longer. Altitude is something you can usually acclimatize to, but it takes a few days (figure a day or two in Sapa before you head higher).
Suggested Walking Itineraries
Here are some ideas for tours that emphasize walking and biking, with ground or air transportation between the main destinations. Of course, you can always reverse the order. And this may be a good idea depending on the time of year and your flight schedule.
Days 1-4: Hanoi and Ha Long Bay (extension to Sapa – add three days). Explore the tree-lined boulevards and rest up from jet lag. Hanoi is a trove of scattered remnants of French Colonial architecture - perfect for a day’s wanderings. Walk around Ho An Kiem Lake, and stop for pastries or ice cream along the way. Detour to the side streets on the west and north sides of the lake and visit the artisans, galleries, and craft shops.
Make sure you visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the 11th-century Temple of Literature. There is also a great art museum across from the north end of the Temple of Literature – ask the guard to point it out. Allow a full day and night (two days is better) to sail across Ha Long Bay to Cat Ba Island. This will give you time to kayak, swim, and relax in a Vietnamese-style resort. The karst caves and formations in the bay are spectacular, especially at sunrise/set. You can even spend the night on a junk, swaying to the waves.
If you extend to Sapa, see the section on Sapa. You’ll spend two nights on trains, so three to four days is a minimum time to allow.
Fly to Hué.
Days 5-6: Hué is one of the best parts of Vietnam, and ideally suited to explore on foot. You can take a taxi or trishaw to the main tomb areas and walk between several of the tomb complexes, then come back to Hué by boat, along the Perfume River. The Forbidden City is another full day of exploring, and well-worth every minute. Try to climb the main gate at sunset for a great photo opportunity.
You can extend your trip by going (by train or van) to the former DMZ area and walk part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, visit the Vinh Moc tunnels, and climb Hamburger Hill.
Days 7-8: Travel by bus or train to Da Nang. Spend a few days at China Beach and exploring the Marble Mountain area. It’s a fairly reasonable walk from Da Nang to the wonderful riverfront town of Hoi An, with its pastel Chinese shophouses and speedy, quality custom tailors. You can arrange a sail on the nearby South China Sea, or go kayaking or fishing. There are dozens of crafts shops and a great covered market for shopping.
Fly back to Hanoi, on to HCMC, or on to Cambodia.
Suggested Biking Itineraries
Days 1-2: Begin with a few days in HCMC (Saigon) to rest up from jet lag. See the HCMC section for ideas about what to see and do. Biking the old French Quarter can be a relaxing way to spend part of a day, stopping in a boulangerie for baguettes and cheese.
Days 3-4: HCMC to Da Lat. Fly from Saigon to Da Lat. Hire a bicycle (if you didn’t bring one) and ride the narrow, winding roads through peaceful, fragrant pine forests and terraced farmland. If it’s late fall/early winter, stop and smell the coffee beans drying on mats along the roadside. Park (and lock) your bike and spend a few hours strolling around Xuan Huong Lake and former Emperor Bao Dai’s summer palace.
There is supposed to be a nine-hole golf course on the grounds of the palace – let me know if it’s any good. The course used to belong to the emperor. Da Lat has a wonderful climate and is often called the “City of Eternal Spring” – for good reason. Take some time to explore the many surviving buildings from the French Colonial period. Spend a pleasant afternoon exploring the flower and produce market.
Day 5: Travel to Nha Trang. This will take several days by bicycle or most of a day by bus or mini-van. You can also fly with Vietnam Airlines.
Days 6-7: Nha Trang. There are lots of rides along the coast and inland from Nha Trang. You can ride past terraced fields and salt pans to the beautiful sandy beaches – a favorite R&R spot during the American-Vietnamese war years. Spend a day biking through the picturesque countryside, through banana plantations and rice paddies, to the historic city of Khanh Vinh.
Day 8: Travel by bus or mini-van to Da Nang/China Beach. This will take the better part of a day. You can also fly with Vietnam Airlines.
Days 9-11: Da Nang/Marble Mountain/Hoi An area. Lock your bicycle and take a morning to explore the ancient cave temples of Marble Mountain. The next day, bike to the UNESCOWorld Heritage Site of Hoi An, with its Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese architectural styles. This will take most of the afternoon. Join the locals the next morning for a session of Tai Chi at sunrise on spectacular China Beach.
Make sure to spend the afternoon at the Cham Sculpture Museum, home to the largest collection of Cham artifacts in the world. The Chinese shophouses are a riot of pastels. If you can take an extra day or two, make sure to get some silk and wool clothes custom made – you can always ship stuff home!
Day 12: Travel by bus or mini-van to Hué, or consider biking if you’re up to an all-day ride (with more than a few hills en route).
Days 13-15: Hué and the Perfume River. This is one of the best cultural sites in all of Vietnam. The Forbidden City and tombs along the Perfume River are truly wonderful sites. These tombs are so peaceful and relatively uncrowded. It does get a bit expensive to visit them all. A bike is the perfect means of getting from Hué to and from the tombs.
Day 16: Take the night train or fly from Hué to Hanoi. If you’ve got a week to spare you can ride, but make sure you’re in good shape – the ride will be rugged.
Days 17-19: See Colonial Hanoi. Walk or take a cyclo (bike-propelled cart) along tree-lined boulevards, viewing historic architecture and enjoying the capital’s chaotic street life. Navigate the Old Quarter, which has contained Hanoi’s pulsing markets for 1,000 years.
Enjoy a guided visit of the city, from its French Colonial architecture to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Hanoi Hilton Prison. Enjoy a final evening of traditional culture at the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong as a school for the children of Vietnam’s Imperial Mandarins.
See the Hanoi section for other ideas – chill out, explore, and get ready to move on to your next destination or head home.
Vietnam is increasingly popular as a motorcycling destination. Many War veterans are returning as tourists, and a large number are doing so on motorcycles. If you have three weeks to spend you can easily see the highlights of the country from Hanoi to HCMC (or the reverse), with a bit of time in the central and northern highlands.
The roads are generally good, but often narrow and winding, and drivers are rather reckless. Watch out for domestic animals crossing the road, and don’t plow through the coffee drying on the shoulders. Bring your own helmet!
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