Short and cheap
Published/Last edited or updated: 22nd August, 2017
The Mekong Delta is the region where the Mekong River empties into the sea through many distributaries, a vast watershed of over 40,000 square kilometres across 12 provinces—how much can you really see in a day?
Anyone and everyone in Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker hub, will be selling a “Mekong Delta day trip”, some as ridiculously low as 160,000 dong. A tour is the most time efficient and cheapest way to get a taste of the Mekong Delta, but considering the size of the region, what exactly does it entail?
The majority of Mekong Delta day trips involve a bus to My Tho, 70 km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, then hopping on a boat on the Mekong to visit several islands where they have turned cottage industries into tourist attractions (or traps, depending on your outlook).
Trips depart early from Pham Ngu Lao. It’s about 90 minutes one-way, with a toilet break in the middle. Usually you’ll be in a group of 20, though sometimes there can be more, especially during the high season. In My Tho, groups hop onto a boat to cross the Mekong.
The boats and the tourism experience here are managed by local authorities and it’s a set, uninspired program. The boat takes visitors to the island of Con Phuong and the first stop is a tasting of local tropical fruits like jackfruit, pomelo, guava (and durian if you dare). There are of course souvenirs stands. Someone may come and perform a traditional song in hopes for a tip.
Next up (and it’s all very hurried) is to the sampan, a row boat piloted by ladies in conical hats. Amazingly they easily navigate down narrow waterways congested with other tourist boats. It is a fun experience with pretty scenery and it really should be the highlight of the trip. However, the women paddle quickly, all too eager to dispose of you in order to queue for the next fare. What should be a leisurely scenic boat trip lasts no more than five minutes. Upon docking, it’s all smiles and a hand held out for tip money.
You are then guided to a table to taste tea and local honey. Naturally, you are then brought honey and sweets for sale.
By this time it is past the lunch hour and you are getting hungry. This is the really evil part, as this is the moment you are taken to a coconut candy factory. 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. Resistance is futile.
There’s a few different ways groups venture to the lunch spot. Cheapie tours will have tourists ride bicycles. More expensive tours include an uncomfortable horse-drawn cart ride, five or six heavy tourists being pulled by sad, skinny little ponies down the road in blazing heat. The quality of the lunch depends on the tour (and likely, how much you paid for it). It can range from basic and bland to decent, featuring a Mekong Delta speciality like elephant fish deep fried whole.
Then it’s back on a big boat to reach the bigger boat, back to the bus for a straight shot to Saigon. Hundreds of people a day are funnelled through the deeply impersonal experience.
A one-day tour should cost somewhere between 160,000 and 300,000 dong, including lunch and a guide, not including drinks and tips. It usually runs from 08:00 to 18:00, back in time to still hit up the nightlife. We wanted to see if spending a little more on a midrange tour (US$25-40) would make a difference in terms of what you see and the service. We tried A Travel Mate (Deluxe Group Tours) and it was a disappointment. It’s the same run of the mill itinerary and mediocre guide. The main difference with their trip was a smaller group size, minibus transport and the stop at My Tho’s Vinh Trang pagoda, timed to be there for the end of morning prayers; it was a highlight for us. Vinh Trang isn’t part of the cheapie tours.
You’ll have to pay significantly more for a different experience. We’ve heard good things about Les Rives (https://lesrivesexperience.com/), a luxury Saigon tour operator. Their differential is their speedboat transfer departing from downtown. At this price point, you should also expect a full service experience. The one day trip is 2,499,000 dong for adults, 1,799,000 dong for children, while the 2-day tour (including one night at The Island Lodge) is 6,999,000 dong per person, based on double occupancy. Clearly this is for someone with a less restrictive budget.
The backpacker tour is undeniably cheap and some would be happy to just sit back and enjoy being shuttled around. This is one way to tick “Mekong Delta” off the list, albeit a mass tourist take on it and only scratching the surface.
If you’ve got more time on your hands, there’s no reason to do a tour other than to save money. Ben Tre and Can Tho are good bases for exploring the Mekong Delta independently, delivering a far superior experience than My Tho. We encourage travellers to stretch their time and budget a little and in lieu of the day tour, see Can Tho’s famous floating market in as little as a two-day, one-night trip from Ho Chi Minh City. It’s easy to do on your own, but it will cost more than a budget tour.
For those who plan to spend time exploring the delta, it’s actually a good idea to “piggyback” on the cheapie tour. At the end of the tour, instead of returning to Ho Chi Minh City, you can remain in My Tho/Ben Tre and continue on independently. The tourist transport departing from Pham Ngu Lao is certainly easier and more comfortable than making your own way to Mien Tay bus station and taking the local bus to My Tho.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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