Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
First published 14th August, 2008
Every man and his dog runs a travel agent in Saigon offering tours to the Mekong Delta and there are all manner of options available from one-day tasters to week-long extravaganzas. With so many options on offer and the prices often so ridiculously cheap, it's easy to think, hey maybe I should just do a tour too... Before you sign on the dotted line, remember the Mekong Delta is really easy to travel independently -- and inexpensively. So, if you've got more than a couple of days up your sleeve and don't mind spending a little more than the cost of a package tour, read on.
Most tours out of Saigon will take you to some of the following towns. You'll travel by minibus with a bunch of other travellers and tourists, you'll stay at prearranged guesthouses and eat at prearranged eateries. It will be easy, very cheap and you'll probably meet a bunch of other travellers. If you do it yourself, the journey will take longer, it will cost more, and it won't be quiet so comfortable -- but, you won't be travelling in a traveller's bubble throughout the region, and chances are you'll get to meet some real locals -- ie., locals who aren't trying to sell you something!
My Tho, just two hours from Saigon by bus, is the most accessible Mekong Delta town. This proximity makes it a favourite with the tour groups that pile 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 Tuoi Son Island and Ben Tre where they can boat through boat 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. Aim for being on the river by mid afternoon -- say 3pm. That way, you'll still be out when the light is great for pictures and long after the groups have left to return to Saigon. Regular buses to My Tho leave from Saigon's Cho Lon bus station and the trip takes two hours.
Compared to My Tho, Ben Tre is far smaller and attracts almost no tourists. To reach Ben Tre walk along the river out of My Tho to the car ferry pier -- step onto the ferry and once you've crossed the river you'll see the buses that do the milk run across the island to Ben Tre town. Door to door you're looking at between one and two hours from My Tho. Ben Tre itself it a compact little market town -- if you've not seen a wet market before, be sure to check this one out -- but also wander the myriad of little laneways to the east (to your left when looking at the river, back to the market). As with My Tho, the main activities are boat trips along the Delta canals -- in fact you may well be taken to the very same places you'd be taken to from My Tho. However, wander down to the river late afternoon and grab a sampan to take you into the canals very late afternoon or early evening -- if you're in luck you'll have the whole shebang to yourself -- and the fireflies -- which Ben Tre is famed for. Off the water, Ben Tre is also good for general motor biking -- we got a xe-om to take us from Ben Tre town back to the ferry pier by My Tho, but we went the "back way" with the ride taking a good two hours. We were rewarded with stunning rice paddy scenery, seas of smiles, friendly people and not a tourist in sight.
While it is possible to travel further south from Ben Tre, most regular transport favours a backtracking to My Tho, and then jumping on a regular bus to Vinh Long. While Vinh Long has it's own floating attraction -- Cai Be floating market -- the real attraction here are overnight homestays available on a cluster of islands across the river from town. The homestays are available in a range of places, 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 is a very good start. While these can be organised al fresco by the riverbank, the local Tourist Office warned us off those, saying "using an outside operator carries no insurance should very bad things happen" -- we'd say it's pretty unlikely bad things would happen, and would stick with negotiating a deal by the river -- be sure to get an early morning trip to Cai Be thrown into the deal.
From Vinh Long, push on, again by local bus, to the big daddy of the Mekong Delta, Can Tho. The economic and transportation hub of the Delta probably doesn't sound all that enticing, but don't be deterred -- the city has a pleasing waterfront area, an excellent range of accommodation and heaps of eating options. But the real attraction is the floating markets -- the two best ones are Cai Rang and Phong Dien, with the former being a standout. Both are reached by sampan from Can Tho -- while you can organise this through your guesthouse, it's just as easily organised on the riverfront directly with the old woman who'll be paddling you -- cut out those middlemen! Arrange it the afternoon beforehand as you're best to be leaving Can Tho by 05:00 -- not only to beat the crowds, but also to see the market at it's best -- and in the best light. While Cai Rang can be visited on a straightforward there-and-back trip, you're much better off to opt for the expanded trip that takes an extra two to three hours and brings you back via a circuitous route through back-canals. Also from Can Tho, if you're not planning on heading further into the Delta, it's a straightforward bus trip to Chau Doc, from where you can take a boat to Phnom Penh.
Once you've had your fill of floating markets and river scenery, it's time to hit the coast. Grab a bus from Can Tho west to Rach Gia -- a substantial fishing town which doubles as the main gateway to Phu Quoc Island. It gets short shift in most guidebooks, but we really liked it. There's lots of places to stay and eat, the fishing boats make for nice pics and there's some excellent dessert stalls by the canal. Aside from the launching point for Phu Quoc, it's also but a hop skip and a jump from the town of Rach Soi which has a massive market -- so if you've never seen a large market (unlikely if you've already made it this far) -- then take a xe om the 7km out to take a poke through Rach Soi's. There's also the beaches around Hon Chong -- though we've not seen them with our own eyes -- so check them out and tell us what you find!
Phu Quoc Island
Last but not least, leave the mainland by air or boat to the glistening beaches of Phu Quoc Island. We're a great wrap on this place and while it's one of the premier locations for sunning and swimming in Vietnam, there's more to it than that. With a road running all the way round its edge, there's ample scope for exploring by motorbike and there's a handful of easily accessible small fishing villages. There's also diving (in season), fish sauce factories and enough eating and drinking to content even the most demanding of traveller. Best of all it's connected to Saigon by flight so you can round off your exploration of the Delta here -- or return to the coast and head to Ha Tien and the border, to cross over into Kep in Cambodia.
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