Mekong Delta primer

Mekong Delta primer

Every man and his dog runs a travel agent in Ho Chi Minh City offering tours to the Mekong Delta. There are all manner of options available from one-day tasters to week-long extravaganzas. With so many options on offer and rockbottom prices, it’s easy to think, “Hey, maybe I should just do a tour too.”

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Before you sign up though, remember the Delta is easy to travel through as an independent traveller. While you will struggle to do it for as little money as the tours, it need not cost you the earth.

Travelling solo allows you to adopt a more relaxing pace, and the Delta is best savoured slowly. Also, by travelling under your own steam, you’re in a better position to put your money into local hands. Supporting local businesses matters, and this is preferable to using a travel agent.

Maybe eat a little bit... Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Maybe eat a little bit... Photo: Stuart McDonald

So, if you’ve got more than a couple of days up your sleeve and don’t mind spending a little more money, do it solo. If not, do your travel agent shopping with care—you will get what you pay for!

Most tours out of Ho Chi Minh City will take you to some of the following towns. In most cases the transport will be in minibus full of other tourists. You will stay at prearranged guesthouses and eat at prearranged eateries. It will be easy, cheap and you’ll meet a bunch of other travellers. Quite a bit of beer could be involved.

Getting around

If you do it yourself, the journey will take longer, it will cost more, and it might be a bit more fiddly. That said, you won’t be travelling in a traveller bubble throughout the region. Chances are you might even get to meet some real locals—ie., locals who aren’t trying to sell you something—you might even end up having beers with them!

The inter-provincial bus system is affordable and quite comprehensive, with Futa Bus Lines being a good and reliable operator. If you’re travelling under your own steam—particularly if by motorbike—the back roads and Google Maps are your friend. Avoid the main highways whenever possible and the small ferries linking up the many islands can be fun and interesting—if time-consuming.

A few highlights

Mỹ Tho
Mỹ Tho, the Delta’s most accessible town, sits just an hour and a half by bus to the southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

No need to paddle yourself. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
No need to paddle yourself. Photo: Cindy Fan

This proximity makes it a favourite with tour groups that pile into town throughout the day. The tours disgorge their passengers by the river from where they take a boat across the Mekong to Thới Sơn Island and Bến Tre. There, they boat through small canals, visit coconut candy factories, wander fruit orchids and may have a seafood lunch.

There is no need to do an organised tour to do these activities in Mỹ Tho, though getting a guide is a good idea. If you want to do it this way, chartering your own boat—with a guide—is the preferable option. An alternative would be to make your way across the river and wander or bicycle the countryside. Again, we would recommend having a guide with you. Your accommodation should be able to assist in arranging a guide.

Don’t miss the market. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Don’t miss the market. Photo: Cindy Fan

Aim for being on the river either in the early morning or late afternoon. This will get you the best light for your photos and avoid the heat of the middle of the day. If you go early, you’ll also avoid the worst of the crowds when the tours from Ho Chi Minh City arrive. The same goes for the late afternoon—most of the groups have gone by 4pm.

Buses run between Mỹ Tho and Ho Chi Minh City roughly on the hour throughout the day.

Bến Tre
Compared to Mỹ Tho, Bến Tre is smaller and attracts fewer tourists. The centre of town is a compact little market affair. If you’ve not seen a wet market before, be sure to check out this one, especially the flower section. As with Mỹ Tho, the main activity is boat trips—you may well end up in the same area many trips visit from Mỹ Tho. Bến Tre also has an excellent selection of homestays, though bear in mind if you choose to stay in one, you may be out of walking range of town.

No shortage of rice in Ben Tre. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
No shortage of rice in Ben Tre. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Aside from river trips, the museum is well worth a look, and a wander down to the river late afternoon always works. If you take a sampan onto the canals in the early evening keep your eyes peeled for fireflies. They’re a bit of a Bến Tre speciality. Off the water, Bến Tre is also good for general motor biking. There is plenty of stunning rice paddy scenery and few tourists in sight.

The easiest way to reach Bến Tre from Mỹ Tho is to catch the bus. If you have your own wheels, avoid the main road and do you best to get lost finding your way to the provincial capital.

Vĩnh Long
While Vĩnh Long has a floating market—Cái Bè—it’s on its last legs and not worth visiting. Vĩnh Long’s real attraction are its homestays, which lie across the river from the provincial capital. These are available in a range of places, from purpose-built guesthouse style lodgings to small family homes. If you're looking for a Mekong Delta experience, a homestay in Vĩnh Long is not a bad option. Bear in mind that while the homestays often supply bicycles, An Binh island is big and the roads poor. Many simply pass their time here hanging out enjoying the scenery—it is a great option for families.

Did we mention the food? Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Did we mention the food? Photo: Stuart McDonald

You can book Vĩnh Long homestays online or organise them al fresco by the riverbank. If you go with the latter, you can bargain for everything if you with, and may be able to wangle a great rate. The market is no great shakes, but if you like wheeling and dealing, see how you go.

By bus, the best way between Bến Tre and Vĩnh Long is via Mỹ Tho. If you have your own wheels cobble together a ferry and island hopping route with Google Maps.

Cần Thơ
From Vĩnh Long, push on, again by local bus, to the big daddy of the Mekong Delta, Cần Thơ. The economic and transportation hub of the Delta. This may not sound all that enticing, but don’t let this deter you—the city has a pleasing waterfront, excellent accommodation, and great eating.

Meet Cai Rang floating market. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Meet Cai Rang floating market. Photo: Cindy Fan

For years, its main attraction has been the floating market—Cái Răng—which can be reached with ease by sampan from Cần Thơ city. The market has been fading for a few years, and there are concerns about how long it will remain in action, but for now, it is still in business. While you can organise a trip with your guesthouse, it’s easily organised on the riverfront with the old woman who’ll paddle you there. If time allows, arrange it the afternoon beforehand as you’re best to be on the sampan by 5am. Not only to beat the crowds, but also to see the market at its best—and in the best light.

The standard Cái Răng trip is a there-and-back affair. Our advice: Opt for a longer trip that takes an extra few hours and returns via a circuitous route on back-canals. If you have more time, consider Ong Pagoda or a bit of agrotourism with a trip to an cacao farm.

Swing by Ong Pagoda. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Swing by Ong Pagoda. Photo: Cindy Fan

If you’re not planning on heading further into the Delta from Can Tho, it’s a straightforward bus trip to Châu Đốc, from where you can take a boat to Phnom Penh.

Rạch Giá
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 Rạch Giá—a port town that doubles as the gateway to Phú Quốc. It gets short shift in most guidebooks, but we like it—for a night at least. There’s plenty of places to stay and eat, the fishing boats make for nice pics and there’s some excellent dessert stalls by the canal.

Late light, Rach Gia harbour. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Late light, Rach Gia harbour. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Aside from the launching point for Phú Quốc, it’s also but a hop skip and a jump from the town of Rạch Sỏi which has a massive wet market. If you’ve never seen a large market (unlikely if you’ve already made it this far)—then grab a xe om for the the 7 km out to take a poke through Rạch Sỏi’s.

Phú Quốc isn’t the unspoilt gem it once was, and much of the island is horrendously over-developed with unsightly gargantuan resorts. If you’re after something more low key, consider Hòn Sơn or Nam Du—if they are open to foreign visitors.

Nam Du isn't all that busy. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Nam Du isn't all that busy. Photo: Cindy Fan

To reach Rạch Giá from Cần Thơ it is a straightforward three-hour bus trip.

Phú Quốc Island
Last but not least, catch a ferry from Rạch Giá for Phú Quốc.

We were once a great wrap on this place, but now, not so much. Much of the island is woefully over-developed with what were once vast stretches of undeveloped beaches lost to enormous—and often awful—resorts. How bad is it? Pretty bad. As mentioned above, if you’re after something more low key, consider Hòn Sơn or Nam Du (if they are open to foreign visitors). If you’re heading to Phú Quốc expecting some a blissful paradise, prepare to be disappointed.

Enjoy Phu Quoc’s unspoiled beaches … (that is a joke) Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Enjoy Phu Quoc’s unspoiled beaches … (that is a joke) Photo: Cindy Fan

Idiotic development aside, there remains ample scope for exploring by motorbike and there’s a handful of accessible fishing villages. There’s also diving (in season), fish sauce factories and enough eating and drinking to content even the most demanding of traveller.

The island has its own airport, so if you want to round off your exploration of the Delta here, you can. Otherwise, return to the coast and head to Hà Tiên. From there, it is a simple trip to Kep in Cambodia.

Some views remain unspoiled. Photo by: Cindy Fan.
Some views remain unspoiled. Photo: Cindy Fan

There are daily ferries from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc which take around two and a half hours. Flights are also available.

Reviewed by

Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

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