Having booked a 3 day/2 night private tour on a previous holiday and had the worst experiences of our lives (see review on here!), it was with some trepidation that we booked the SBL8 tour with Sinhbalo. It was quite expensive (USD 290 x 2) but the reviews here on TripAdvisor were all universally good and they were quick and helpful in responding to email queries, so we booked it and are so glad that we did.
We were happy to share the tour, but pre-planned travel dates meant that we couldn't share with any existing tours. That would have saved some money, as well as bringing more of a social dimension to the trip, but then you can have bad travel companions as well as good, so it was fine to do it on our own too. (There was a Dutch family on virtually the same trip as us but perhaps they had elected not to share with others. It is to both the guides' credit that we never really felt that we were following each other too much - we ended up in the same place for lunch and dinner, but didn't see each other at all apart from that.)
Having paid a deposit by credit card when booking, everything was set up and ready to go. We were picked up by our guide, Phuc, and his driver (whose name I have forgotten again - sorry!) at 8am from our hotel. (This particular bus had no seatbelts, by the way, if that bothers you.) First stop to the Sinhbalo office, where we paid the outstanding balance (3% extra if you use a credit card, as is common) and we were on the road by 8.30am, with a 2 hour drive (stopping off at one of the many tourist bus stops for drinks and snacks half way - this one was actually quite a good place).
You can take whatever you want with you on the trip, as your big bag will stay in the van all the time. It's good to have a small rucksack/bumbag for things like suncream, glasses, water, camera etc. Do note that on the second night hotel stay, you can take your big bag with you, but on the first night homestay, you can't because you cycle and boat to the island, so it's good to have a day bag/rucksack with really just the absolute minimum in it for a night away - change of underwear, shirt, minimal washbag, perhaps phone charger (it's fun to be able to see where you are on GPS!).
I won't repeat the whole itinerary here, as it was pretty much as detailed on Sinhbalo's web site but will just focus on the subjective aspects of the trip.
GUIDE AND DRIVER
Phuc (27 I think he said he was) was an excellent guide (and the driver was good at his job too), his English was excellent (well, compared with many other guides we spoke to on the holiday) and he had certainly learned plenty of vocabulary to be able to explain things we saw or asked him about. He was really friendly and personable and was easy to chat to and made the effort to do so. Obviously, his role is 100% key to whether you have a good trip or not and we are so glad to have got someone who appeared passionate about what he is doing.
STOPS EN ROUTE
As well as the scheduled stops in the itinerary (e.g. tasting fruit at the tropical plantations, coconut candy factory), we also did occasional stops elsewhere on the route, for example to look in on a house where they were making roofing materials, watch farmers harvesting rambutans (and yes they do taste nicer minutes off the tree!), farmers harvesting peanuts, the unexpected Khmer village with its pagoda under renovation, stopping at a market to buy fruit, etc. Phuc would also explain things about the houses and trees and other things we just happened to go past. His knowing lots of the English words for things like trees and plants and technical terms for things was really helpful. These ad hoc stops were really nice and just as interesting as the scheduled ones.
Some of the stops (e.g. coconut candy factory, puffed rice factory) were of a slightly touristy nature but not in a bad way - they weren't really busy and there was never really any hard sell. (Some of them were a little pricy and we might have been more tempted to buy if they weren't so blatantly tourist prices but then they were actually no worse than tourist prices elsewhere in Vietnam.)
FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION
The fruit stop in the middle of the plantation was nice and refreshing and fun and it was interesting to see they even have beehives there to make the honey for their tea. I guess some tourists may not have seen a dragon fruit or a rambutan or a jackfruit before before, as they were explained to us as we ate them.
The first day's lunch was at a place called "??? ??? Mien Tay" (can't remember the first bit of the name) and was about six different small main courses with rice and fruit. All the meals we had were the same structure - lots and lots of food, more than you can eat, all food included, drinks separate. I think one reason for always serving about six different dishes was to make sure that everyone would like something, so it probably makes sense. After all, if you spent this amount of money and didn't like what you were served, it could be diaappointing. Soft drinks were pretty much always a standard 20,000 dong which is common enough unless you seek out the real cheap places. The food here was nice enough (including a baked elephant ear fish, which is exciting looking when served), though wasn't anything too special.
The first night's stay was in a homestay called "Mai Quoc Nam 2" (you can Google it) and was described as basic, which it certainly was but for one night it was fine, and it was actually a really nice thing to do for one night anyway after being in proper hotels for a week previously. It's basically a sort of open-sided house on stilts, just off the edge of the island with several "rooms", including a dining room/lounge, a couple of small dormitory type rooms (us and the other group mentioned above were the only ones staying there and we were in separate rooms), a shared bathroom (with several shower and toilet cubicles - and the cold water was plenty warm enough due to the weather!), as well as other rooms such as the kitchen and living quarters for the people who run it and the guides.
Because the sides of the house are mostly open, there is a mosquito net over the bed and once you get over the sound of cockerels and rain, after a hard and long day, it was easy enough to fall asleep. The evening meal was the same format as lunch, though perhaps a little more basic, as you might expect.
Breakfast was simple but sufficient - omelette, baguette, juice, Vietnamese coffee, fruit. As long as you are ready to scale down your expectations if you have been in a hotel until now, it's great fun and does make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere (albeit with great 3G reception wherever you go!).
Day 2 lunch (I'm focussing on food and sleep first!) wasn't at a cafe or restaurant, but seemed to be a place that sold a lot of bottled gas and perhaps provided other services to the village they were in. I think Phuc told us that they just used it because they know the people and the woman there is a great cook. She really is a great cook - the meal was pretty much the same layout as preivous meals, but boy was this tasty stuff! Maybe it was all the cycling making us ravenous but this was one of the tastiest meals I had in my whole 2 week holiday.
That evening, we checked into the Tay Do hotel. You can read the reviews for this place yourself. I believe they are beginning to refurbish some rooms but ours wasn't one of them. We were in a room that could hear the nearby karaoke but we were tired enough to fall asleep soon enough. It was quite a basic room (though could perhaps feel like luxury after the homestay, mind you!), though it had aircon and an OK bed and to be honest I've stayed in worse branches of Travelodge in central London. The place is a little overpriced for what you get I think. I don't think Sinhbalo should necessarily use somewhere more expensive - I just think they could probably find somewhere the same price which is better.
Dinner that evening wasn't at the Tay Do but was at the Nam Bo hotel (which looks REALLY nice but is twice the price of the Tay Do). Again, we were not eating off the restaurant menu but off a set meal of the same format as before. This was really nice (not quite up to the amazing flavours of the home cooking of lunchtime for my tastes but still really good) and the ambience and staff were both really good.
Breakfast the next day was back at Tay Do, which has an odd mixed clientele (travellers on Mekong Delta tours and businessmen on conferences mainly), and wasn't bad at all - was quite a big buffet selection of a reasonable standard.
Lunch on this third and final day was at an outdoor restaurant on the quayside back in Can Tho. My wife had mentioned during the day how she really wanted to try one particular dish (Canh Chua Ca, a sour fish soup with pineapple, okra and tamarind) local to the region, and Phuc went out of his way to ask the staff if they could replace the one boring item on the menu with this specially for her. They did this, it seemed to be exactly what she had asked for, and it was lovely. Just this little effort of arranging this was a perfect example of why we enjoyed this trip so much and it was good of Phuc to even think of this, and great of the restaurant to agree to it.
After lunch, it was the drive back to Ho Chi Minh City (this time three hours rather than two, again with a short stop at a slightly more basic place for drinks and snacks).
TRAVEL ON THE TOUR
Because of all the waterways in the area, this wasn't a purely cycling tour and I think bits of the cycling can be added or taken away, cycle routes can be shortened or lengthened according to how the participants are coping and this is another advantage of a good guide who can read you, and is also the advantage of a private tour. (I think the other family did a little less cycling than us.) Over the three days, I think we did about 30km, then about 55km, then about 30km again. The weather was grey and overcast with some rain in the morning which always finished just as we set off, so was actually perfect for cycling.
All of it is really flat and easy, though lots of little humpback bridges to cross the irrigation channels are fun, especially if you wobble half way across! Most of the cycling was small paths under a green canopy alongside water, so mostly shared with just pedestrians, other cyclists and scooters. Some of the cycling was on bigger (but not especially busy) roads which was fine too. There were a couple of short stretches on busier roads (just to get from A to B) but we had done a few days' practice cycle elsewhere in Vietnam so we knew what to expect and found it fine. One long ride late morning on Day 2 was quite a long and not very exciting stretch of road, and we had a crosswind most of the way, so that hour was maybe a little bit boring compared with the rest, but it was a good decent cycle!
The bikes themselves were pretty good - certainly the best bike I've ever rented on a holiday - fairly new and well looked after Trek bikes with lots of gears that worked, as did the brakes, and they asked our height in advance to make sure we had a suitable size bike. (Helmets were offered if we wanted them.)
There were several trips on sampans and boats over the three days (presumably the driver was furiously racing round over the bridges to come and meet us with the bikes) and they were all really good, with the boat staff always being quite friendly. We did an early morning boat trip on Day 3 to visit Can Tho floating market while it was still busy, which was good.
We also took a ferry (car, scooter, cycles and pedestrians) at one point so we really did feel we had used quite a wide range of transport types over the three days.
One thing that's funny when you are cycling along the smaller paths is that every single child will scream "hello!" at you. It's fun to shout back though maybe not after doing it every ten seconds for two hours... Some of the older kids may have been shouting other things but I'll just be glad not to have understood :-)
All in all an excellent trip and we are totally glad that we booked it, not to mention that our guide was excellent and made it what it was.
If I was going to make some constructive observations/suggestions, they would be as follows:
1) If they Tay Do hotel could be swapped for a different hotel of the same price, I think it would be good. (Sinhbalo do offer a more expensive option, but I just think Tay Do is not quite good enough for the price they ask.)
2) Sometimes we felt we didn't need a six course banquet for every meal. However, I do totally appreciate that not everyone will like everything and when people are paying USD 290 for a tour, there does need to be food they can eat and enjoy, so this isn't really a complaint at all - I'm just saying that quite often I am happy with a big bowl of noodles at the roadside but I know lots of people might not be.
3) Sometimes, I don't want to be treated too special and just want to blend in. For example, at the last drink stop on the way home, lots of the Vietnamese drivers were drinking interesting looking cold drinks, while we were just pointed to the fridge with the usual Pepsi and Coke. I didn't want to try the former drinks because they were cheaper (though of course they would be), I wanted to try them because they were different and interesting and I can drink Diet Coke at home. Likewise, at the same stop, the driver who was having a ten minute rest gave up his hammock to my wife (as it was the last hammock) and no matter how much he insisted we have it, we couldn't make him return to it. Obviously, he was being really generous and polite and trying to keep us happy but we were just trying to be nice back to him. Again, some people paying a fair amount for this sort of trip may expect VIP treatment and I can see why the staff would err on the side of caution.
4) Tipping is really difficult in Vietnam. Everything you read tells you that there isn't really a tipping culture, but it is starting to be expected in places because of increasing tourism. In a country with such a wide disparity of salaries, a tip of 20,000 dong can be a huge amount or a small amount depending on who you are giving it to. Given that the tour covers so many places to eat, different boats, places you call in at on the cycle rides, it can be hard to know when to start tipping and when to stop. Also, with more expensive places, you do feel a tip is more expected than in the cheap places, even though the people in the latter could obviously use the money more! So in the end, anywhere we stopped briefly, or anyone who just took us quickly from A to B, we didn't, but anywhere we spent longer or provided more than they were tasked to do (two of the boats we were on for quite a long time, the restaurant that changed the menu for us), we did leave a modest tip. We probably got it wrong once or twice and perhaps didn't leave a tip where we should (Nam Bo restaurant, for one) but then it's not worth fretting over too much, and it's probably better not to tip than to swan about throwing cash around everywhere.
5) It was great to pop into the Khmer pagoda and it might be good to put a couple more of these kinds of historical sites on the route, rather than just the fruit/candy/corn tourist attractions. I am not saying the trip was too touristy (it wasn't) but it could be balanced out with a couple more things of that type. (The Ong Temple opposite the Uncle Ho statue in Can Tho which we found ourselves is lovely and a great example of something to include.)
I'd just like to thank Phuc, the driver, Sinhbalo and all their team for a great three days. Given that they have to keep a wide range of people happy, I can see why they run it as they do and we were generally really, really happy with the trip as a whole.
If you are thinking about booking with them, I would not hesitate to recommend, but I'm me and this long review is just to give you an idea as to whether it's the right thing for you.
Own or manage this property? Claim your listing for free to respond to reviews, update your profile and much more.