Flying to Phu Quoc Island is cheap and easy, but if you want a real adventure, riding there by motorbike from Saigon is much more fun. This road trip takes you from Vietnam’s biggest city to some its best beaches, via the waterways, highways, and back-roads of the country’s rice basket, the Mekong Delta.
At the end of Road DT10 turn left at the junction onto DT824 for a few minutes before bearing right on a short stretch of dirt road, which links up with Highway QL N2 heading due southwest to the Mekong Delta. (Again, the turning for the dirt road is easy to miss: look out for it just before Road DT824 turns southwards.) If you’ve timed your departure from Saigon correctly, the eye of dawn should be opening to the east by the time you hit the bridge across the Vam Co Dong River, with the sun rising behind tropical foliage, making silhouettes of the coconut palms lining the riverbank. Saigon and its suburbs are behind you and now the real road trip begins.
This is what the Mekong Delta is all about; the bounty of the rich alluvial soils: Welcome to the grocery basket of Vietnam. After the long slog out of Saigon, it’s a relief to find yourself, very suddenly, in the lush, fertile, farmed, and watery world of the Mekong Delta. Road N2 ploughs straight and true across mile after mile of fruit plantations and fields – pineapple, papaya, jack fruit, coconut, sugarcane and, of course, rice – over Mekong tributaries and canals, past palm-thatched street stalls selling agricultural produce – jams, sauces, fruits, steamed corn.
At Thanh Hoa, take a right after the bridge and pass through the large market before continuing along the canal to Tan Thanh. A likable little canalside town with cafes and snack shacks along the waterside promenade, Tan Thanh is a good place for a breakfast pit stop while watching the rice barges glide by.
From Tan Thanh take Road DT829 west out of town, following a canal lined with banana plants. Under the clear blue sky and bright early sunshine of a dry season day, the colours on this section of road are electrifying. It’s fascinating to watch canal life from the road: wooden row boats – the water taxis of the Mekong. couple of kilometres before reaching the end of DT829 there’s a very inviting-looking rest stop with hammocks swaying in the shade next to a lotus pond: take a break from riding and recharge for 10 minutes here with a cà phê đá (iced back coffee).
Tram Chim National Park
Bear right onto Road DT844 and continue west towards the wetlands and forests of Tram Chim National Park. This is a dyke road raised a couple of metres above the fields so as not to get flooded during the rainy season. The landscape here is characterized by vast open spaces and empty skies: it’s enough to induce mild agoraphobia. The fields stretching into the distance on either side of the dyke will either be green, flooded, or fallow depending on what stage the current harvest is at (there are sometimes as many as four rice harvests a year in this part of Vietnam).
Before hitting Highway QL30, look out for the interesting-looking and highly decorated wooden homes along this road (which, I think, belong to the local ethnic Khmer population) – you’ll continue to see them all the way to Chau Doc. Turn right onto QL30 and follow the Mekong River north for an uninspiring and fairly bumpy 10km to the busy city of Hong Ngu. Close to the Cambodian border, Hong Ngu has all the qualities a Delta city should: a large bustling market, lots of street food, immense heat, and constant activity.
Head due west out of Hong Ngu on Road DT841, which leads over a bridge (a good vantage point from which to view the floating homes and fish farms around Hong Ngu) to the ferry crossing to Tan Chau. As river crossings go, this is a nice, quiet and scenic boat ride over the wide, muddy waters of the Upper Mekong River.
Chau Doc and Ha Tien
Make a left out of Tan Chau on Road DT953 heading southwest towards Chau Doc. A large Cham population live on this island between the two main branches of the Mekong River. The Cham were once a powerful kingdom, ruling most of what is now Central Vietnam. It’s definitely worth stopping at one of the soup carts and trying the delicious noodles.
Another ferry at the end of Road DT953 takes you across the Lower Mekong River to the sprawling city of Chau Doc. With a good market and riverside location, Chau Doc is a scruffy but intriguing and energetic Delta town. If you need somewhere to stay for a night, Chau Doc has a good range of accommodation.
At Tinh Bien join Road N1, which traces the Vietnam-Cambodia border for almost 100km southwest to Ha Tien on the Gulf of Thailand. Running alongside a canal, which essentially marks the border, this is a very pretty stretch of road. On the Cambodian side, a carpet of green rice fields stretches into the distance, where mysterious ‘foreign’ mountains rise in a heat haze on the horizon.
After passing through a mangrove forest, Road N1 ends at the Gulf of Thailand, where it hits Highway QL80. Turn right and head west along a beautiful stretch of coast road to Ha Tien. Ha Tien is located just a few kilometres from the Cambodian border and is fast becoming the main port for boats to Phu Quoc Island.
Food and accommodation is plentiful and good value, and boats to Phu Quoc Island (fast boats and car ferries) leave from Ha Tien ferry pier at least four times daily. Depending on how much time you have, I recommend spending at least two days in Ha Tien to soak up the lazy but attractive ambience of this border town, and recharge your batteries after the long drive through the Mekong from Saigon.
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