Delta discovery

There’s much to see and do in the somewhat overlooked Mekong Delta.

By DON WILLS on May 10,2018 03:34 PM

Delta discovery

Photos: Vu Ngoc Long, Tran Van Thang, Pham Quoc Dan

There are many words to describe the Mekong Delta, but the one I think best fits it is ‘different’. A world away from the bustle and chaos of Hanoi and HCMC, a million miles away from the culture and tradition of Hue, light years away from the rampant commercialism of Halong Bay, it’s … well, it’s just plain different.

A large number of expats in Vietnam tend to know very little about the Delta region because of the sparse media attention it receives. Alternate floods and droughts seem to be the only events there considered newsworthy. This is surprising really, as the Mekong Delta is the world’s largest delta, an ecological treasure trove, Vietnam’s rice basket, and a region of pivotal importance to the wealth and well-being of the country.

Delta discovery

Travelling the Delta independently, while not impossible, is arduous, and most travellers choose to go with a tour. There are plenty to choose from. Unlike other parts of Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta the tourist infrastructure is relatively less developed. On a longer tour you can expect to be passed from carrier to carrier and from tour company to tour company. The road network is patchy and eventually peters out the further south you go. Much of the time you’ll find yourself on the water, whether it be aboard a small cruise vessel, motorboat, sampan, noisy long-tail speedboat, or skiff. Sometimes you’ll have the river to yourself, at other times your boat will be cautiously nosing its way between freighters, barges, sampans, and river vendors. You’ll be expected to hoof it from time to time while transferring from transport A to transport B.

Most tours out of HCMC will take you to some of the following towns and sites. You’ll travel by minibus, you’ll stay at prearranged guesthouses, and eat at prearranged eateries. It will be easy, very cheap, and you’ll mix with fellow travellers. If you do it independently, the journey will take longer, cost more, and won’t be quite so comfortable - but on the plus side you won’t be hemmed in by fellow travellers and you’ll have more opportunities to meet local people.

My Tho, the capital city of Tien Giang province just two hours from HCMC by bus, is among the most accessible Mekong Delta cities, which makes it a favourite with the tour groups that pour into town from mid-morning to late-afternoon. The organised tours disgorge their passengers by the river, from where they take a boat across the Tien River to Thoi Son Island (also called Con Lan Island or Unicorn Island) and Ben Tre, where they can cruise along canals, visit coconut candy factories, wander through fruit orchids and feast on fresh seafood. All of these things can be done independently - either by chartering your own boat, getting the car ferry over to Ben Tre or by getting a boat across the river and just wandering around. Regular buses to My Tho leave from Cho Lon Bus Station and take two hours.

Delta discovery

Compared to My Tho, Ben Tre city is smaller (65.75 sq km compared to 81.55 sq km) and attracts less tourists. To reach Ben Tre, walk along the river out of My Tho to the car ferry pier, step onto a ferry, and once you’ve crossed the river you’ll see the shuttle buses that run across the island to Ben Tre town - a one to two-hour journey. Ben Tre itself is a compact little market town - if you’ve not seen a water market before, it’s well worth a visit. Explore the many little lanes to the east for rewarding glimpses of traditional Delta life. As with My Tho, the main activities are boat trips along the Delta canals. Some of the best are the sampan trips in the late afternoon or early evening that take you into the canals to see the fireflies for which Ben Tre is famed.

Delta discovery

Although it is possible to travel further south from Ben Tre, most regular transport favours backtracking to My Tho and then jumping on a regular bus to Vinh Long. Cai Be floating market is a popular tourist attraction in Tien Giang province, but travellers who are not on a tight schedule are increasingly taking advantage of another attraction in Vinh Long province - the overnight homestays situated on a cluster of islands across the river from town. The homestays are available in a range of styles, from purpose-built guesthouse-style lodgings to small family homes. If you’re looking for an authentic Mekong Delta experience, a homestay in Vinh Long can’t be beaten.

Delta discovery

From Vinh Long, a local bus will take you to Can Tho. This small city, the trading hub of the Delta, is the first taste of sophistication that you’ll get this trip. An economic and transportation hub of the Delta probably doesn’t sound all that enticing, but don’t be deterred - the city has an interesting waterfront area, an excellent range of accommodation and plenty of eating options. It has international restaurants, a nightclub or two, motorbikes for hire, and hotels that will actually exchange your dollars. But the real attraction is the floating markets - the two best are Cai Rang and Phong Dien, both reached by sampan from Can Tho. While you can have your guesthouse arrange the boat ride, it’s just as easily organised on the riverfront directly with the old woman who’ll be paddling you. Arrange it the afternoon beforehand as it’s best to leave Can Tho early next morning - not only to beat the crowds but also to see the market at its best and in the best light. Cai Rang can be visited on a straightforward there-and-back trip, but you’re much better off opting for an expanded trip that takes an extra two to three hours and brings you back via a circuitous route through back-canals.

If by this stage you’ve had your fill of floating markets and river scenery, take a trip to the coast. Catch a bus from Can Tho west to Rach Gia - a substantial fishing town that doubles as the main gateway to Phu Quoc Island. There are lots of places to stay and eat in Rach Gia, the fishing boats are picturesque and there are some excellent dessert stalls by the canal.

Delta discovery

Some 155 km (three-and-a-half hours) west of HCMC, Tram Chim National Park in Tam Nong district, Dong Thap province, is a bird lover’s paradise. It has 250 species of water birds, the most notable of which is the rare red-headed crane. You’ll see them from January to May - in other months they migrate far off shore. Nearby are the Tan Quy Dong Flower Gardens - a spectacle in their own right. Accommodation is no problem hereabouts as there are plenty of homestays on offer.

If you still need convincing that the Delta is incredibly fertile, a visit to U Minh Forest in Ca Mau will dispel any doubts. At 1,000 sq km in size, it is the largest mangrove forest outside the Amazon basin and is home to a number of endangered species, including the hairy-nosed otter and the fishing cat, as well as 187 species of bird. A good souvenir to take home from this district is the locally-made honey - a favourite of all those who taste it.

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