At the end of its 4,800kms winding journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River splits into nine arms that create a shifting wonderland of earth and water known to the Vietnamese as cuu long, or nine dragons. This immensely fertile region is densely populated yet the people still live in very traditional ways, making it one of the best destinations in which to discover the real Vietnam.
Because of its proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, many people sign up for a day trip, which gives a glimpse of the region’s lush gardens and bustling floating markets. Yet there are over a dozen small towns in the Delta, all worth visiting for different reasons, making this a fascinating area to spend a few days or even a week. Following are just a few of the attractions that await adventurers in the Delta.
The nearest Delta town to Saigon is My Tho, less than a couple of hours’ drive along Highway 1. Boat trips from My Tho typically visit a few islands in the large Tien Giang, the upper arm of the Mekong. These include Unicorn Island, Dragon Island and Tortoise Island, as well as Phoenix Island, where you can visit the bizarre temple once run by ‘the coconut monk’, who consumed nothing but coconuts. A massive new bridge now connects My Tho with Ben Tre, a beautiful region of orchards and narrow canals, where some tour companies run cycling and kayaking trips.
Those day-trippers who don’t visit My Tho usually get taken a little further upstream to Cai Be, where the big attraction is the floating market. While these trips are great for getting a perspective of the country outside Saigon, you’ll likely spend the day surrounded by hundreds of tourists and suspect rightly that you’re not seeing the real Delta.
The biggest town in the Delta is Can Tho, located more or less in its geographic centre, at the confluence of the Can Tho and Hau Giang Rivers. This is the only place in the Delta you’ll find a five-star hotel, and there are always clusters of foreigners on its streets who are spending a few days in the area. Floating markets are the big attraction here, as well as some atmospheric restaurants on the riverfront that serve up some gastronomic treats.
Northwest of Can Tho, Chau Doc near the Cambodian border has become a popular stop-off in recent years among travellers going upriver to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The local market is certainly worth a wander, and local tours visit fish farms and a Moslem community on a nearby island. A few kilometres west of Chau Doc stands Sam Mountain. At 230 metres high, it’s more a hill than a mountain, but it’s one of the few variations on the skyline in the pancake-flat surrounds.
About 50kms southwest of Chau Doc, also near the Cambodian border, Ba Chuc is one of Vietnam’s most chilling war memorials, and there’s certainly lots of competition. For a change this is not a battlefield from the American War, but scene of a rampage by Khmer Rouge troops in 1978 when virtually the entire village was wiped out. A gruesome memorial displays the victims’ skulls, grouped by size, while black and white images of the aftermath of the attack leave nothing to the imagination.
The Mekong Delta doesn’t have any beaches to write home about, apart from those on Phu Quoc (see here). However, there are a few half-decent spots to lie on the sand near Ha Tien and on the Hon Chong Peninsula, both of which look out over the Gulf of Thailand. The only other town of any size on the west-facing coast of the Delta is Rach Gia, which has little of interest for tourists, though it is a jumping-off point for planes and boats to Phu Quoc Island.
Perhaps the least-visited part of the Delta, by foreigners at least, is the south coast, where Khmer-style temples make you think you are in Cambodia. Towns like Tra Vinh, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu and Ca Mau see few visitors but boast attractions such as ancient temples and bird sanctuaries. Like most Delta towns, they are also surrounded by coconut groves and rice paddies.
From Ca Mau, it’s possible to hop on one of the many river buses that ply the Delta and make a visit to the southernmost point in Vietnam – Ca Mau Cape. Alluvial deposits from the Mekong are constantly extending the coastline here, stretching the length of Vietnam by a few metres each year.
Where to sleep and eat in the Mekong Delta
Victoria Hotel: Located on the northern fringe of the city in a gorgeous French colonial villa, this is the place to savour the laid-back pace of life in the Delta. Rooms from US$114; Cai Khe Ward, Cai Khe, Can Tho… more details and booking
Phong Nha: Situated just south of the town centre, this mini-hotel has spotless rooms with air con at rock-bottom prices. Rooms from US$12; tel: +84 710 382 1615.
More on Mekong Delta hotels and guesthouses.
Getting to the Mekong Delta
The great majority of people who visit the Mekong Delta do so on a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City; they are picked up and dropped off at their hotel, so transport is not an issue. For a longer experience in this watery wonderland, check out tours of several days on board boats organized by companies such as Delta Adventure Tours.
The local bus system is very slow and uncomfortable, so if you’d rather make an independent tour of the region, your best bet is to hire either a motorbike or a car with driver in Saigon, and get hold of a good map before setting out.