Leading on from my earlier overview of the Mekong Delta trip I did a few weeks ago, now that I've escaped the frozen hills of Sydney and am back in a steaming Saigon, here's part two. I've got just about all the listings onto the site now, so for detailed information on particular destinations, please refer to the Mekong Delta part of Travelfish.
Upon arrival at Saigon I got a motorbike from the airport ($2) straight to Cholon bus station where I jumped on a bus straight to My Tho (21,000D). Trip took an hour or so -- while the initial trek out of Ho Chi Minh City is anything but scenic, it wasn't long before before I escaped the hustle and bustle and was into the countryside.
My Tho is an interesting enough town and given its easy access to Saigon it sees a fair volume of tourists -- mostly heading there for the boat trips. A typical boat trip from there visits Unicorn and Tortoise Island and then stops at a couple of places in Ben Tre. Most of the "attractions" are a bit contrived -- coconut candy factories (Ben Tre is famous for its coconut candy), fruit orchards and so on, but if you've never seen that kind of stuff it can be pretty interesting. The part I found most interesting was a short paddle through a back canal on Unicorn Island (didn't see any unicorns though). The trip tends to finish at one of the "homestays" on Ben Tre where you can scoff an elephant ear fish -- the meal is overpriced, but it is delicious -- and if you've already coughed up the dough to do the trip you may as well eat the fish! The trip takes about four to five hours all told. The main issue is price -- the tourism mob in My Tho have set the fares artificially high and you need to use a large boat (can seat a dozen easily) rather than a small sampan like you can take in Can Tho. The set price is $25 for the boat -- very expensive -- particularly if you're travelling alone as I was -- you can bargain it down a little, but not much. You can do an almost identical trip from Ben Tre for 70,000D per hour, so if you're planning on heading to Ben Tre anyway, I'd suggest doing the trip from there. In My Tho I stayed at the Rang Dong Hotel (130,000D), which was adequate -- nothing more nothing less. Also in My Tho there's an oldish cyclo driver who speaks spectacular English -- I forget his name unfortunately, but don't fret, loll about the riverside a bit and he'll find you -- and he's a great source of info. Off the water there's Vinh Trang pagoda -- well worth a look.
From My Tho, I hired a motorbike guy to drive me to Ben Tre town -- the trip takes about 30 minutes, but I hired him for three hours and went the "back way" -- through I don't know how many backroads and a couple of ferry crossings -- just exploring -- and it was brilliant. It was brilliant sunshine on a late afternoon day, people working in the fields, stopping for coffee and noodles here and there, stirring the kids etc -- lots of fun, and while it was more expensive (I paid him $6) than the minibus, it was well worth it.
Ben Tre is a sleepy spot, with a small museum and a great riverfront stretch. Aside from the museum, there isn't that much going on in the town, but as I already mentioned it is a good alternative spot for boat-trips. The large wet market here I thought was particularly good. I stayed at the Dong Khoi Hotel (170,000D) -- the day manager here is an absolute European football nut and speaks good English, but nobody else spoke a word.
From Ben Tre, you need to backtrack to My Tho to get further into the Delta, but as I was planning on going to Vinh Long, I jumped on a minibus to Ca Mau and they dropped me off on a main road just outside the centre of Vinh Long. Vinh Long is popular mainly for its homestays and the Cai Be floating market, both of which can be arranged through the tourist office or on the sly for a little less money via a boatman (just stand around the riverside for 2.2 nanoseconds and one will approach you). I paid a freelancer $10 for a four hour trip -- the tourist office offered the same trip for $18. As with My Tho, you're in a big 12-seater boat, which is a real pity as it means once you're at the floating market you're stuck on the periphery and can't really get in and amongst it. Compared to the markets you can visit from Can Tho, I thought Cai Be was a dissapointment -- partly because the market is smaller, but more because we couldn't get in and amongst the boats. If you've got time to do just one set of floating markets, go to Can Tho.
The homestays near Vinh Long are set on a collection of lush islands between Vinh Long and Cai Be market. The tourist office will send you out there for around $36 per night for one person -- that struck me as very expensive. My boatman said he could sort it out for a third of the price, but it wasn't clear how "sanctioned" his homestay was. If you want to try out living on the river bank, it could be worth it -- certainly beats a night at another cookie-cutter hotel.
In Vinh Long I stayed at the Van Tram Guesthouse ($12) for a massive room looking over the river (and unfortunatelty the restauarnt/karaoke bar on the riverbank). If I was to stay there again, I'd opt for the Phung Hoang 1 -- more backpacker style and just 130,000D.
As in Ben Tre, I got a motorbike guy to whisk me around the countryside for a few hours -- saw large brick kilns, another thousand shades of green, waving kids, more coffee, more noodles -- you know the drill! I thought Ben Tre was the prettier of the two provinces.
Onwards to Tra Vinh, a province I'd heard a lot of good things about. It is well off the beaten trail, lush and rice cultivated. The town was really pretty and the area around the market reminded me a lot of Tach Mau in Cambodia. There's a bunch of Khmer style pagodas which were pretty good, and I had planned to hit the countryside, but the weather was so appalling -- absolutely torrential rain -- so I cut my losses and left the next day for Can Tho -- Tra Vinh's hinterland will have to wait for another day. In Tra Vinh I stayed at the Phuong Dong (90,000D) in a plain but clean room.
Onwards to Can Tho, where I stayed at the Tay Ho Hotel (on the riverbank, $12 for a back room). I've stayed here before and it's a great little spot -- immaculate rooms. In Can Tho I was just there to look at hotels as I'd done the boat trips on a previous trip, but assuming you're there to do something other than looking at hotels, be sure to do a rivertrip to the floating markets -- outstanding. While you can organise it through your guesthouse, any old lady on the river bank will sort you out, most likely for a buck or two less.
From Can Tho, onwards by early morning bus to Rach Gia. I'd planned to try for the morning boat (08:45) so left Can Tho at 05:00, and while I arrived on time, the boat was cancelled due to bad weather (and were to remain cancelled for the next three days). A boat heading out from Ha Tien a few weeks earlier had sunk with a dozen or so drownings, so perhaps the authorities were more touchy, but given my limited time I decided to fly the next morning from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc -- the fare is 100,000D more than the boat, but takes just 21 minutes -- once I was on Phu Quoc, I was very glad I spent the money, but more on Phu Quoc later.
I liked Rach Gia a lot. There's a fine bunch of hotels (I stayed at the Kim Co - 160,000D) and some good restaurants as well -- all within easy walking distance of the Kim Co -- Tan Hung Phat was excellent, and in the evening sweet stalls set up on the riverbank -- yummo. Food and beds aside, one of the great things was Rach Soi market -- some 7kms east of Rach Gia. This is where the bus station is (motorbike from the market to Rach Gia 15,000D), but the market is this terrific outdoor affair -- early morning with clear light, this is stunning -- very photogenic -- worth dragging yourself out of bed for!
There are two morning flights (270,000D) a day from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc (and at least five a day from Saigon). The island is stunning -- and I mean stunning. I've seen a lot of islands in Asia, and this is absolutely one of the best. I stayed at Beach Club on Long Beach -- very friendly English/Vietnamese mgt -- I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. Bungalows $12/$20 low/high season, rooms $8/15. The bulk of the hotels are on Long Beach, but there's also a trio of places on Ong Lang and one on Bai Sao. Bai Sao beach is breathtakingly beautiful.
You can hire motorbikes on the island for 90,000D to 100,000D a day, and while you can hire a car, you have to hire a driver as well, which makes it a little more pricey. The island is large, Long Beach alone is over 20km long. There's a couple of circuits you can do on the island, and the roads are all either sealed or graded dirt -- a bit rough and ready at times, but mostly fine. Highlights included Bai Sao, seafood scoffing at Ham Ninh, motorbiking through the jungle interior and just hangin out on the beach. There is diving off the southern tip of the island, but mostly just in high season -- there's three dive ops on the island, but only one open year-round, which says a lot about the off-season diving.
Evening wise, there's a German beer garden (no I'm not kidding) which does great German food and (not surprisingly) loads of beer -- the owner opened the first ever German restaurant in Saigon...nice guy, lots of info... Mango Bay has an excellent bar and restaurant -- one guest described it to me as five star food at one star prices. Rainbow Bar has moved to the beach from its old location but had largely washed away -- no doubt will be back in action come high season.
Accommodation wise, backpackers good bets are Beach Club, Coco Beach and Kim Nam Phuong all on Long Beach, Thang Loi on Ong Land and My Lan on Bai Sao. Towards the southern end of the hotels on Long Beach there's a cluster of small spots with rooms under $10 -- Viet Thanh and Nhat Lan were both ok. For flashpackers, Ob Resort and Mango Bay (both on Ong Lang) are outstanding -- Ob is particular has terrific bungalows. For mid range and above, there's the tried and tested Saigon Phu Quoc Island Resort, Mai House and perhaps Tropicana. There is also Veranda which should have opened by now, but they wouldn't even let me into the grounds, so I can't comment on the place, Ancient House is another big resort on the way.
I spent four days on Phu Quoc, but could easily have spend 15 days there. I'm not joking when I say it's a special place -- If you've not already got it on your trip plan, then add it in!
From Phu Quoc I flew back to Rach Gia, then minibus from there direct back to Saifon (82,000D).
Hope that helps!
#1 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,798
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Sounds amazing, especially Pho Quoc. I'm in Vietnam in late october and will definately pay it a visit.
#3 Enrico_Gatti has been a member since 4/5/2006. Posts: 17