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Mekong Delta boat trip

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The most common reason to visit My Tho is for the Mekong Delta boat trip, a tour on and around a few islands in the Mekong river.

At first glance the destination has terrific potential as it’s just two hours from Saigon—imagine rural scenery and photogenic waterways within easy reach of the big city. On the downside, the tourist boat-trips are controlled by the Tien Giang Tourist Office who funnel all visitors through a set, uninspired program, one tourist stop (or trap, depending on your outlook) after the other.

The reality. Photo taken in or around Mekong Delta boat trip, My Tho, Vietnam by Cindy Fan.

The reality. Photo: Cindy Fan

Whether you choose to do the Mekong Delta boat trip arranged from Ho Chi Minh City or locally at the pier, the official boat takes visitors to the Dragon (Con Tan Long), Tortoise (Con Quy) and Unicorn (Con Thoi Son) islands to see the cottage industries, which can be interesting if you’ve never seen a tropical fruit orchard or coconut candy being made before.

In a typical itinerary, the first stop is a tasting of local fruits like jackfruit, pomelo, guava or perhaps some tea, local honey or banana liquor. Next up (and it’s all very hurried) is a quick ride in a sampan—a row boat piloted by ladies in conical hats— and, hats off to them, they navigate with ease down narrow waterways congested with other tourist boats. The women paddle quickly however, all too eager to dispose of you in order to queue for the next fare.

Paddling with a smile. Photo taken in or around Mekong Delta boat trip, My Tho, Vietnam by Cindy Fan.

Paddling with a smile. Photo: Cindy Fan

The Mekong Delta is famed for its abundance of coconut trees and coconut milk is an ingredient in the toffee-like candy. Buy a box at the candy factory (your next stop)—resistance is futile. Then it is time for lunch, which will vary depending on the tour you booked—it can range from basic and bland to decent, perhaps featuring a Mekong Delta speciality like elephant ear fish deep fried whole.

Then it’s back on a big boat to reach the bigger boat back to the mainland and you’re done.

A second on the lips ... Photo taken in or around Mekong Delta boat trip, My Tho, Vietnam by Cindy Fan.

A second on the lips ... Photo: Cindy Fan

There are several points worth noting. First, with all the infrastructure set up only for day trippers, counter to backpacker instincts, getting to My Tho independently and arranging locally isn’t cheaper, nor will it necessarily get you an up-close experience. Boats still must be booked through the tourist pier/Tien Giang Tourist Office. The price of the tour is artificially high and you’ll still be put on a large boat of ten to twenty seats. Organised privately, a standard My Tho boat trip for 3-4 hours costs around 400,000 to 500,000 for the boat.

If you plan on visiting the area around My Tho but venturing no further into the Mekong Delta, then organising your trip from Ho Chi Minh City is the cheapest option. Backpacker day tours offered from agencies in Pham Ngu Lao can cost less than 200,000 dong. Pricier tours may translate to smaller group size, faster minivan transfer instead of coach bus and a stop at Vinh Trang Pagoda.

Tea with honey? Photo taken in or around Mekong Delta boat trip, My Tho, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Tea with honey? Photo: Stuart McDonald

You don’t have to reach the islands by boat. Unicorn (Con Thoi Son) and Phoenix Island (Con Phung) are accessible by the bridge that connects My Tho to Ben Tre. Sure, boating around the Mekong is part of the experience but if you’re travelling by motorbike or bicycle, you’ll still be able to see the general Delta scenery by road. You can visit those tourist stops, or avoid them altogether.

For Dragon island (Con Tan Long), a cheap local passenger/motorbike ferry departs from the pier in My Tho (on Trung Trac along the Bao Dinh Canal, a block north of where it meets the Mekong). On the other side of the Mekong, Ben Tre is also excellent to ride around for scenery and a less crowded place for on-water exploration.

Bridges are useful. Photo taken in or around Mekong Delta boat trip, My Tho, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Bridges are useful. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Unless My Tho removes the monopoly or improves their tourism infrastructure and product, in our opinion, it pales in comparison to the boat trips from Can Tho, where travellers can get an up close experience which can only really be garnered in a small sampan. A Can Tho trip can be done independently with an overnight: arrive to Can Tho and the hotel can arrange for a morning sampan ride to see the floating market and explore the waterways. The hotel takes a commission and the rest goes to the boat driver.

For those who don’t even have one night to spare and really want to get a taste of the Mekong Delta, My Tho is the ticket then. Just be aware of what you will be getting, at the very least, beautiful photos, some pleasant boating around and a belly full of addictive coconut candy.

Just DIY! Photo taken in or around Mekong Delta boat trip, My Tho, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Just DIY! Photo: Stuart McDonald

Want to try and bypass the official boats? Everyone in town will be pushing you to them and signs at their office warn of using freelancers. Our previous research suggested walking along the river front east, to the junction with the Bao Dinh canal, to find sampans moored along here. In our most recent research trip in 2017, we didn’t find any body around nor did any one approach us. Perhaps it was just a glitch in the matrix, or the authorities have tightened their hold. It’s worth a try if you’re keen.

If you find one in the morning kick off, try for 100,000 dong per hour, suggested trip length being 3-4 hours. In the afternoon, once all the tour groups have bailed, you may be able a three hour trip for around 200,000 depending on your bargaining ability and ability to feign lack of interest. Be clear on the price and itinerary before getting into the boat and don’t pay until you’ve returned to My Tho. If you are also being accompanied by a guide, clarify if the fee is included in the overall price. Communicating all this will be a challenge since English remains limited in My Tho.

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