Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 9 & 10 November 2018
When I’d visited Saigon last year with Ak, we’d contemplated taking what sounded like a great bike tour down in the Mekong Delta with Grasshopper Adventures. However, the weather was iffy and the prospect of driving in a minivan for two hours only to ride around on bikes in the rain sounded less than ideal.
So, I was determined to make the trip this time, not least because the weather had been delightful and not too hot (by southern Vietnam standards). Of course, the fly in the ointment was my traveling solo – there needed to be at least one other person signed up for the trip if it was going to take place.
I’d submitted a request a month prior to my trip and there were no tours available during my stay. Amazingly, though, two days into my trip, I got an email from Grasshopper Adventures that a tour was available for Friday. Hooray!
I showed up at the designated meeting point and met, Dat, our guide for the day and two fellows from So Cal, Albert and George, friends since high school and regular travel buddies. We piled into our minivan and made it to our starting point in about 90 minutes.
Well! I’d not really known what to expect, especially after my friend Vu had warned me to be prepared for a super touristy experience. I suspect this may be true at the floating market or some other destinations in the area, but we really spent the entire visit as the only foreigners around, pedaling our way through gorgeously lush countryside and narrow paths shaded by banana and palm trees. It was really one of the best bike riding tours I’ve been on.
One of our first stops was at a local home factory where they made straw mats that Vietnamese use for sleeping and sitting. I was a little leery at first, since so often stops like these on tours are really about the gift shop. Not this time! This was a genuine local workshop and we got to see the folks producing the mats while Dat explained to us the economics of the product and the history of this particular workshop. We met the 82-year-old matriarch (with whom I foolishly neglected to take a photo!), who’d only just recently retired from running the show and handed the reins over to her son-in-law. She was pleased to meet us and Dat interpreted for us as she thanked us for coming to visit. Her grandson (or maybe great grandson?) was also there and practiced his very-good English with Albert. Everyone we met there was delightful and welcoming and it was wonderful.
Rode some more, passing by duck farms, herb farms and the occasional cow. Our next stop was a cocoa bean farm. Dat walked us through the whole tree-to-bean process, as we ambled through a grove of cocoa trees before visiting the main part of the farm where the beans were harvested and prepped. The cocoa pods contain white-fleshed lobes of fruit, each with a bean inside. We tasted the fresh fruit and saw the various stages of the beans as they are dried and peeled. The smell of the place was like a strong dark chocolate along with a fermented edge. We tasted the dried beans which was as expected, a sharp bitter chocolate.
We met the farm owner, who shared a shot of chocolate booze with us – it was very similar to sherry or port. The farmer works directly with Maison Marou, a Vietnamese chocolatier started by a French company. The maison produces chocolates all sourced from several regions in Vietnam, making both bars and fancy boxed chocolates.
It was a wonderful visit – and again, it was really focused on learning a bit about this farmer, his work and his crop rather than an opportunity to hard sell some gewgaws to tourists. Obviously I’ll be making a trip to Maison Marou once I’m back in Saigon to pick up some of the single-source chocolate bars made from the beans on this very farm.
We continued our ride and the countryside remained glorious. Since we we were all three keeping a good pace with Dat, he took us on a little roundabout route to our lunch destination so we could get some more time in the saddle.
Lunch was at a private home that was also a small farm. Our meal was prepared from ingredients harvested locally and it was delicious. I mean, it was delicious in and of itself – but after a long ride, we were all pretty famished and wolfed down just about everything in sight: fried rolls, stir-fried beef, greens, pork and vegetable soup, fruit and plenty of rice.
We also met some adorable baby boars frolicking near their parent’s sty – and I just pretended that I hadn’t eaten their siblings for lunch. Awkward… but still delicious.
Next we needed to board a boat – but our captain was apparently a bit behind schedule, so we wandered a local wholesale fruit market nearby. As happens frequently, my beard was a source of mirth and fascination for some of the locals. According to Dat, one of the ladies selling oranges thought I was quite the handsome devil! A woman of good taste clearly.
Soon enough, our long boat arrived and we spent a little bit of time on the Mekong. Initially we were one of the several tributaries in this region, but shortly we made our way out into the main artery. It’s huge! Really amazing sight.
Another great part of this trip was that the boat ride was a reasonable length – about half an hour, I’d say. It was enough time to see the river and enjoy the breeze but didn’t even approach the “OMG, when are we ever getting off this boat?” territory.
Piled into the van and headed back to HCMC. What an amazing day! It was such a great ride and Dat was a really excellent guide – plus Albert and George were great touring companions and we were all keeping up the pace with each other. I really lucked out with this
Had dinner at a relatively unmemorable place down the road from my hotel. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Another early evening and slept like a baby, thanks to today’s ride.
Saturday, I was tempted to try to head back to District 4 for my favorite pho – but Pho Minh is right next door to my hotel and serves very tasty pho plus pate chaud! Convenience won out and I am OK with that.
The rest of the day was dedicated to treating myself and a little shopping. I checked out Mayhem, a vintage shop that’s apparently all the rage. Looked like the women’s section was fairly well-stocked – but the men’s was a little ho-hum for my tastes.
Next stop: Maison Marou, the chocolate shop that sells the bars of chocolates made from the cocoa beans of the farmer I met during my tour of the Mekong Delta. Wow! The shop and cafe is delightful. Besides the single-source bars, they also have fancy boxed chocolates with fillings like Vietnamese coffee and coconut. The prices were also amazingly reasonable, so I stocked up on treats to bring back home with me.
Wrapped up my time in HCMC with a Sunday morning visit to Unification Palace. I’d explored the entire place last year, but I still think this is one of the most gorgeous examples of modern architecture, so I had another wander about, taking photos inside and out. And before I knew it, it was time to get back to the hotel and head to the airport. Next stop: Phnom Penh!