Visiting the Mekong Delta by bike

Visiting the Mekong Delta by bike

If you'd like to get close to Vietnam's landscapes while visiting this incredibly diverse nation, then travelling by bicycle is to be recommended. In a country where travelling by bicycle is universally accepted, you will find ample support if you wish to use this as your preferred method of sightseeing. In fact, as well as simply travelling through the tourist sites, there are also opportunities for you to raise money as you do so.

One such fundraising exercise is known as the ‘challenge of the nine dragons'. Originally arranged as a charity event to raise money for underprivileged children, this takes full advantage of the tracks and trails running through the verdant Mekong Delta. The name ‘nine dragons', or Cuu Long in local parlance, is a reference to the nine main tributaries of the Mekong River as it flows into its verdant delta in southern Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia.

The first of these dragon's tails breaks away from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penj, when the Mekong is actually known as the Bassac. As the nine dragons unfold, you will find yourself on a fantastic cycle track that criss-crosses the landscape across minor roads and trails, bypassing the beautiful waterways of the Mekong Delta.

For the most part, due to the relatively flat terrain, the cycle race is reasonably straight. However, in parts the tracks do become somewhat overgrown, or involve traversing rickety bridges that do provide something of a challenge. But it only seems fair that any activity aimed at raising funds for underprivileged children should at least involve a modicum of effort on the fundraisers part!

The nine dragons cycle ride is the first of its kind that takes full advantage of a recently-opened border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia. This narrow point occurs at a position on the Gulf of Thailand coast known as Ha Tien. Cycling here will take you into Kep, once known as Cambodia's Riviera. The next point in the trail is the former French colonial town of Kampot. As you gaze over the mish-mash of colonial architecture and modern buildings, you might find it hard to picture this sleepy backwater as it was during its heyday – Kampot was actually Cambodia's main seaport.

Following on from this pleasant jaunt into Cambodia's past, the cycle track begins to demand something more of an effort from its charges. Bokor Mountain looms before you, presenting a challenging climb up above the encroaching treeline. Once you climb up towards the summit you'll be rewarded with views of the long-abandoned casino that broods over a dramatic escarpment. As you rest before your next leg of the nine dragons, you'll be rewarded with fabulous panoramic views across Cambodia's rural landscape.

The good news about this cycle tour of Vietnam and Cambodia is the fact the holiday can be tailor-made according to your wishes. The actual dates and preferences can be individually tailored to meet your own needs. This flexibility can prove to be particularly useful if you wish to balance your cycle tour of the Mekong Delta with other activities during your visit to Vietnam.

Welcome to Hanoi

Welcome to Hanoi

Hanoi offers visitors a diverse range of attractions. Depending on whether your interests are cultural and historic, or are satisfied by restaurants and shopping malls, there is guaranteed to be something to suit every taste.

Temple of Literature

Vietnam is a country that is steeped in religious heritage. Over the centuries it has been settled by a variety of different civilizations, from indigenous peoples, to colonial Europeans (the French), each of whom have left their mark on the landscape in terms of traditions and well-preserved architecture. If you travel about two kilometres west of Hoan Kiem Lake, you'll come across the Temple of Literature. This building is not just well-preserved, it is an rare example of traditional Vietnamese architecture that has stood the test of time. Dating back to 1070 when it was founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, it is dedicated to Confucius, honouring Vietnam's finest scholars and literary heavyweights.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Falling on in the traditions of those great communist leaders who died before him - Lenin and Stalin - and then Mao afterwards, Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is a vast marble edifice that forms a suitable memorial to someone who had such a big impact on Vietnam's historical development. Although the leader himself expressed the desire for a simple cremation, his death has been marked by this magnificent marble structure. It was constructed from materials that were gathered from all over his native land between 1973 and 1975.

West Lake

Westlake, or Tay Ho, is the largest lake in Hanoi. Measuring almost 13 km in circumference, it is ringed by fairly upmarket suburbs, providing a pleasant backdrop to residential areas. The other shore of the lake, Thuy Khue, borders a line of popular seafood restaurants. Its eastern perimeter is marked by the Xuan Dieu strip, with numerous restaurants, boutiques, cafes and luxury hotels. There are also two temples overlooking its tranquil waters – the Tay Ho and Tran Quoc pagodas.

Fine Arts Museum

This institute is a particular jewel in the cultural crown of Hanoi. The Fine Arts Museum is housed in two buildings that were formerly the headquarters of the French Ministry of Information back in the colonial period. The museum is renowned for its art collections, which include superb examples of furniture, ceramics and textiles. There are also temporary exhibitions that showcase a range of artistic talent.

Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House

Located immediately behind his mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh's stilt house. This is the humble dwelling where he lived, on and off, between 1958 and 1969. This abode is based on a traditional rural dwelling, and it has been preserved just as the great Vietnamese leader left it in 1969. The house is set amongst carefully a cultivated garden and also includes a pond that is abundant with chubby carp.

Hoa Lo Prison

Vietnam is a prosperous and vibrant country that is doing its very best to shake off an often unsavoury history. This building is a classic example of something that can be looked upon within the context of the triumph of the country's present-day prosperity. The site of a former prison, it was ironically known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton' by the American POWs were stationed there during last century's American War. Although it was originally intended to house around 450 inmates when it was first built by the French in the 19th century, records indicate the truer figure was almost double that!

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels

It is one thing to visit Vietnam and wallow in its atmosphere of bustling street markets, beautiful temples and fabulous landscapes. But some visitors relish the opportunity to immerse themselves in the region's history – literally!

Ho Chi Minh City offers a unique experience for the more intrepid visitor to Vietnam – the chance to delve into the complex tunnel system engineered by guerillas during the various phases of Indochina conflict.

Hidden beneath today's unassuming vistas there is a remarkably well-preserved labyrinth of tunnels, once used as a hideaway by Viet Cong fighters, close enough to the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to take military action, then melt into the countryside. These underground lairs stretched for an incredible 200 kilometres, comprising a main artery system, with numerous branches connecting to shelters and hideouts,

Far from being basic underground corridors, the Cu Chi tunnels contained hospitals, operating theatres, schools, kitchens, mess halls and general accommodation. Constructed over several levels, they were also built with complex ventilation grilles, and were sunk so deep underground that neither carpet-bombing nor tanks travelling overhead could do the slightest bit of damage.

Around 75 kilometres of the maze have been preserved as a historical attraction by the Vietnamese government. This highly unusual tourist spot lies one hour's drive from Ho Chi Minh city, to its north west. Open all year round, visitors to this unique and highly interesting cultural experience can undergo the variety of activities. As well as exploring the tunnels themselves (perhaps not so highly recommended for those of a claustrophobic nature!) you can let off some steam by squeezing the trigger of an M16 assault rifle at a shooting range. You can also sample the type of basic meal those intrepid subterranean dwellers would have endured all those years ago.

Along the way there are also displays of Viet Cong volunteers (well, very lifelike mannequins) to illustrate how they operated various weapons. After stooping along long stretches of winding corridors you might find yourself entering a vast room, where a table stretches before you containing authentic battle plans. Many of the narrower tunnels have been more fully excavated to allow for western visitors, with the welcome addition of low-powered overhead lights.

As well as the fascinating tunnel complex there are souvenir shops, and a restaurant serving more contemporary cuisine. Nearby there is also a mini hotel.

The Cu Chi tunnel experience last around 5-6 hours, with daily outings picking up from the front entrance of the Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City. All languages are catered for by the experienced tour guides.

Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

While Hanoi is Vietnam's administrative capital, its largest city and commercial hub is Ho Chi Minh City. Lying on the banks of the Saigon River (and still commonly referred to as Saigon by its eight million inhabitants) this is one metropolis that has undergone dramatic changes in recent years.

The city received widespread damage during the Vietnam War years. But in the several decades that have passed since the ceasefire, it has gone from strength to strength. In the eighties there were sweeping economic reforms, meaning that this part of Vietnam is now thriving – indeed Ho Chi Minh City is now challenging its fellow Far Eastern powerhouses of Bangkok and Singapore in terms of financial clout.

As with anywhere else in this beautiful country, visiting Ho Chi Minh City offers an incredible diversity of attractions. All the trappings of economic success are here to be enjoyed – sumptuous restaurants, lively bars and clubs, luxurious hotels and retail outlets stocked with luxury imports.

Strolling around Ho Chi Minh City you'll find yourself immersed in an exciting hotch-potch of architectural styles. There are sedate pagodas, weatherworn buildings dating from the French colonial era, austere Soviet-eta housing blocks, and dazzling contemporary designs.

For all the economic success, many of the streets remain the domain of a miniature army of kids hawking books, lottery tickets and postcards to visitors. While Hanoi is often viewed as a romantic and charming location, Ho Chi Minh City is the larger, boisterous, cousin, its thoroughfares alive with colour and noise. To some first-time tourists this can be slightly disconcerting. But many others love this aspect, relishing the experience of roaming the tree-lined boulevards, taking in the bandana-clad women shoppers buzzing on motorbikes, the teenagers flaunting the latest in designer-ware, and the state-of-the-art Honda SUVs increasingly clogging the streets. The best way to observe this manic way of life is to book a cyclo trip, or simply take refuge in a roadside cafe to enjoy a bowl of spicy noodles while Ho Chi Minh flashes by.

The city itself is split into districts, 24 in total, although visitors tend to stick to One, Three and Five. Expats gravitate to District 7's Phu My Hung, an affluent suburb quite at odds with the rest of the surrounding bustle.

As far as places to visit are concerned, you are spoilt for choice with shopping areas, galleries, museums and temples. There are grandiose reminders of the time when the French tricolour flew from government offices – the Hotel de Ville or Notre Dame Cathedral. There are much older buildings, such as the Quan Am Padoga or the Jade Emperor Pagoda. There are also Botanical Gardens, museums crammed with cultural artifacts dating back millennia, and also paddy fields beaches and forests teeming with exotic birdcall.