The Mekong Delta is the culmination of the great Mekong river’s journey through south east Asia from the mountains of Tibet. The river is the world’s 12th largest in terms of length and 10th largest by volume draining an area of 795,000 km². From its source in the Jifu Mountains of Tibet it runs 4909 km through China’s Yunnan province (where it is called the Lancang River), Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Between Cambodia and the Vietnamese border near Chau Doc the Mekong splits into two and the Bassac River runs parallel to the main river as they enter Vietnam.
Once into the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam the river splits further into a complex series of small canals and rivers where sediment from the river has been deposited and turned the region into an extremely fertile agricultural zone. This area is heavily cultivated and the rich soil enables enough rice to be produced to feed the whole country. The colourful villages and floating markets are one of Vietnam’s most important tourist attractions.
Historically the region was part of the Khmer kingdom and to this day is still called ‘Lower Cambodia’ by neighbouring Cambodians. Following attempts by the Khmer Rouge to take control of the region the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and ejected the Khmer Rouge from power.
Geographically, the Mekong Delta is the result of the build up of silt deposited by the Mekong river which extends the shoreline at the mouth of the river by around 80 meters per year. The result is a highly fertile area where intensive farming produces vast quantities of rice, sugarcane and fruits. Thanks to this fertility Vietnam is not only self-sufficient in rice production, the nation’s staple food, but is also the world’s 2nd largest exporter after Thailand.
Getting to the Mekong Delta
Most visitors to the Mekong Delta arrive on scheduled tours from Ho Chi Minh City. Some such tours are just for one day which barely scratches the surface of this vast area whilst others include overnight stays which allow you to go deeper into the region.
Travelling independently of these scheduled tours is the only way to really get deep into the Mekong Delta and really experience daily life off the tourist circuit. Options include renting a motorbike to get around or hiring a private vehicle with guide from HCMC.
A popular route these days is to spend a few days travelling around the Mekong Delta then continue on into Cambodia via the river border crossing at Vinh Xuong near Chau Doc.
Day Trips from HCMC
There are two popular one day Mekong Delta Tours from Ho Chi Minh City, the second of which provides the basis for other longer tours:
- Mytho and Ben Tre:
After the early morning departure you will arrive in My Tho which is the closest Mekong Delta city to HCMC. Here you visit a floating fish market then take a boat to Con Phung where you have a typical Vietnamese lunch before visiting select cottage industries such as handicrafts, honey and coconut candy producers. On the way home you’ll normally stop at a bonsai garden.
- Cai Be & Vinh Long:
You travel by coach to to Cai Be where you join a boat that takes you to the Cai Be floating market where you’ll see local people trading their produce from boats and you’ll visit the tropical fruit orchards and maybe a rice paper making business.
After lunch you’ll visit the market at Vinh Long and probably stop at the same bonsai garden in My Tho before returning to HCMC.
These one day tours only give you a small taste of the area because there simply isn’t time to delve any deeper in one day. They usually depart around 8.15am and are scheduled to return by 7pm. It’s well worthwhile staying longer if time permits. Details of the tour will vary slightly according to which company you travel with.
Extended Tours from HCMC
On the two day (one night) Mekong Delta tours you will normally be offered the Cai Be and Vinh Long trip then you stay overnight in Can Tho.
On the second day you visit the Cai Rang floating market and visit more interesting small businesses such as a vermicelli making shop and a rice husking mill then have lunch in Can Tho before enjoying more rural scenery and heading back to HCMC.
The three day (two night) tour then takes you deeper into the Mekong Delta with a visit to Chau Doc where you can climb Sam Mountain for spectacular views over the Cambodian border.
Four and five day tours are also readily available with each additional day taking you to more and more interesting places to visit. The majority of companies also offer the option to continue on from the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, rather than returning to HCMC. Be sure to arrange your Cambodia Visa in HCMC before choosing this option.
Arriving in Can Tho
Independent travellers will most likely arrive at the Can Tho bus station which is only 1km outside the town centre. We, on the other hand, arrived from Chau Doc (3 hours for $5 via Long Xuyen) on a bus with no other passengers that went to another bus station some 6km from the centre. From here we took a Xe Loi (motorbike with trailor) back to the town centre.
Where to Stay
We made our way to the Hoa Binh Hotel which was very run down with unfriendly staff and heavily overpriced at $30 a night. Our Xe Loi driver then took us to Hotel Restaurant 31 where the really friendy owner gave us a huge room on the top floor for just $10. This also proved to be a popular spot for locals in the evening with the restaurant always full and plenty beer drinking going on late into the night. Unusual specialities on the menu include snake and frog which you can select from the glass cabinet next to the reception.
The Ninh Kieu Hotel is right on the river and is a great deal at $25 a night. The Golf Hotel also looks very attractive as does the upmarket Victoria Can Tho Hotel across the river which has a regular shuttle boat service back and to across the river. A great choice if you’re not on a budget is to stay at this hotel and their other one in Chau Doc and they’ll provide a boat transfer between them.
There’s no shortage of accommodation in this very pleasant and seemingly wealthy town. Strangely nobody hassles you to buy anything as you wander along the waterfront which adds to its appeal.
Eating & Drinking
I’d certainly recommend the Hotel Restaurant 31 for good local dishes in the company of plenty locals. Down on the main stretch overlooking the river there’s a good selection of bars and restaurants. The Mekong Bar was a good spot from which to watch the world go by with a beer and some Vietnamese spring rolls.
The Nam Bo Restaurant is a superb place for an evening meal. Get a table on the terrace of this converted French villa and choose from a great selection of local and French dishes as well as plenty other western options. Had a great steak and chips for $3.50.
Boat Trip to the Floating Markets
Can Tho is the best place to see real floating markets and get amongst them. By staying here you can be on the river before first light and visit these markets before the tour groups from HCMC arrive destroying the authenticity of the moment. It’s a really fabulous experience and one of our highlights of Vietnam.
We met our boat driver at 5.30am at the hotel then walked in the dark down to his longtail boat at the riverside. The town was already busy as we set off and the sun was rising as we headed for the first of the floating markets at Cai Rang. A handful of other tourists were also there meandering in and out of the merchants’ boats as they did their business.
Further down the river we arrived at the Phong Dien floating market which was even more fascinating as most of the crafts are rowing boats with only a few having motors. We were the only foreigners here and were able to float around the heart of the market amongst the traders.
We then headed off around various canals which was interesting for a while but soon became rather repetitive (“same, same, but different” as the locals say). The trip could easily be four or five hours long instead of the eight that it took. The longer the better was the idea. Lunch was certainly novel when the driver took us to his riverside house where his wife had prepared lovely food for us and we had a game of billiards with a glass of rice wine on his terrace. That was unexpected.
Can Tho was my favourite place in the Mekong Delta thanks to its laid back ambience, its friendly people, the absence of any sort of hassle from street sellers, the good bars and restaurants and this day excursion to see the floating markets really was the icing on the cake. If you’re only staying in two places between Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia I’d suggest Can Tho and Chau Doc.
Arriving in Chau Doc
Chau Doc on the edge of the Mekong Delta is the stepping stone to Vietnam for travellers arriving from Cambodia. We arrived on the back of motorbikes that had collected us at the Cambodia/Vietnam border near the town of Tinh Bien which is 30km from Chau Doc.
They dropped us at the very nice Trung Nguyen Hotel which overlooks the main market in the town centre. Nice, clean rooms with very helpful receptionist at just $10 a night. Another good budget option is the Thuan Loi Hotel which is right on the river where the ferry from Phnom Penh docks. The Song Sao Hotel is a good mid-range option located almost next to a small bookshop called ‘the English Bookstore’. The charming owner loves to practice his English and will take you on private tours of the river.
The town is a busy, lively place with few tourists so not much hassle other than cyclos wanting to take you to Sam Mountain. It was good to be back in Vietnam again and a spicy lunch at Bay Bong restaurant was a nice change for the many coconut based dishes on the Cambodian menu.
Chau Doc Boat Trips
As you walk along the Bassac River towards the grandiose Victoria hotel you’ll find no end of people trying to get you to hire their little boat to go out and see the fish farms which are common here. At around $2 an hour this isn’t a bad way to experience river life but go early in the morning so that you can catch the river market.
Instead we chose to take a tour with the owner of the ‘English Bookstore’. We met at his shop at 7am and walked down to the river where his friend’s boat was waiting for us. First of all we headed south east along the river beyond the Victoria Hotel and met up with the approaching floating market. Our boat got right into the action and we were able to step onto one of the trader’s boats as they sold all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables.
From here we crossed the river and went to see the floating fish farm houses which have fish cages under the living area. We then visited a Cham village and its mosque before returning to Chau Doc. This 2.5 hour private tour cost us just $7 for the two of us.
Cyclo Trip to Sam Mountain
The other main tourist attraction of Chau Doc is Sam Mountain which is 6km from town so you’ll need some transport. On our first night we were ‘stalked’ by one of the cyclo riders who seemed to pop up no matter which street we were on. He wanted $5 to take us to the mountain so we agreed to meet him the next afternoon and head there for sunset.
The cyclo rider picked us up at 3.30pm arriving with his wife and Downs syndrome daughter. The poor bloke works 24 hours a day to support his family as as his wife has to stay at home to look after their child. They could put her in a government school but then they’d never see her again. The cyclo man just puts his situation down to Lord Buddha and just gets on with it with a big smile on his face. A lesson to us all!
A couple of moped riders gave us a push on the way to the base of Sam Mountain then our man showed us around Tay An Pagoda, the Temple of Lady Xu and the Tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau. The moped drivers then took us to the top of Sam Mountain (for a small fee) then waited for us so that we could watch the sunset over the endless padi fields with Cambodia in the distance.
It was a hard cycle back in the dark without the help of the mopeds, even more so when we got a puncture. When we paid the rider more than he’d asked for and paid for his puncture to be repaired ($7.50 in total) he seemed quite concerned and informed us that we’d given him more than we’d agreed and wanted to be sure that we were aware of it!