The rather romantically named ‘Nine Dragon river delta’, aka the Mekong Delta, is the antithesis of bustling Ho Chi Minh City: its laidback nature, coupled with its rich landscape offers a different take on Vietnam.
The very tip of Southwestern Vietnam is comprised of the Mekong Delta, which is fed by the mighty Mekong Rover, which flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam. The fertile lowlands area spans some 39,000 sq. km. (15,000 sq. miles) and is often dubbed Vietnam’s ‘rice basket’ thanks to the abundance of rice fields which dominate the landscape. In addition to vast rice paddies, there are also orchards, fish farms and sugarcane plantations which all take advantage of the fertile land. In fact, over two thirds of the country’s fresh fruit and vegetables are grown in the Mekong Delta! The rich landscape is also rich in biological wonders: the unique conditions supporting many species of animals, birds and reptiles.
Just a few hours away from the humidity and full-on pace of life in Saigon, the Mekong Delta is easily reached via car or bus, although travelling here by boat is far more scenic! Villages have sprung up around the banks and local dwellings line the Mekong and are located within the waterway itself, perched atop stilts. Many Vietnamese also live aboard floating homes, going with the flow of the waters.
The city of Can Tho is the fourth largest in the country and sits alongside the Mekong. It’s a great base to explore the area, with plenty going on. The city is known for its waterway tourism, with its large and colourful floating markets, although you’ll need to get up early to appreciate the atmosphere. Everything from local fruit, fresh fish and readymade snacks are all sold in the blink of an eye. The main market is Cai Rang which is at its most authentic at around 6am. Travellers can journey along the picturesque canals onboard one of the many traditional wooden boats of the French Indochina period. Join an organised tour or hire a boat by the hour to get into the more rural areas.
Can Tho, aka the ‘river of poems’ is also known for its abundance of Buddhist pagodas and delicious Vietnamese cuisine. The most notable pagoda is the delightful Quang Duc Pagoda, located on the main Mau Than Street, which is the most active within Can Tho. Stop by the Khmer Pagoda of Munirangsyaram and the Buu Tri Pagoda for a change of pace. There is also a pretty church which was built by the French: Tham Tuong Church is a little further along Mau Than Street.
Walk the central Xuan Khanh Quarter which still contains remnants of its 18th century heyday, in the architecture and monuments. Much of the fascinating local heritage is located along the mighty Mau Than Street which runs for 20km in total. Monks wearing their traditional saffron robes pass along this street to attend the local pagodas.
A good starting point for a tour of the waterways is within the Hai Ba Trung area which backs onto the Mekong and offers a handy setting-off point for tours of the rural canals and floating markets.
The city of My Tho is closest to Ho Chi Minh City and is a popular day trip location. This makes the city pretty busy all year round, with tourist boats lining the waterways. The city has its own floating markets, although they have become more touristy in recent years. There are a couple of interesting cultural sights within My Tho, such as the sprawling 19th century Buddhist monument of Vinh Trang Temple and the smaller Cao Dai Temple.
A little further into the Mekong Delta is the city of Vinh Long, which was established in the 18th century. The highlights here are the cultural legacies of both the French and Chinese. Well-maintained French colonial buildings are dotted around the city, now used as government buildings. And Chinese temples, as well as traditional Chinese food are also common within Vinh Long. Don’t miss the Chua Thien Hau Chinese temple, located on An Binh Island, which is something of a national landmark. And head out to the ornate Temple of Literature (Van Thanh Mieu).
A little further off the well-worn tourist trail is the town of Cai Be, whose highlight is undoubtedly the handsome French Gothic Cathedral that stands at the center. As with all town, cities and villages within the Mekong Delta, Cai Be has its very own floating market, which remains authentic. Again you’ll have to get up early as the colourful spectacle packs up around midday. Don’t miss the traditional Vietnamese architecture which is unique to this region, in particular the Dong Hoa Hiep Old House, which are now undergoing restoration.
If you’re travelling over from Cambodia (or indeed travelling into) your first stop is likely to be at Chau Doc. The town itself is pretty diverse, with influences from the Vietnamese, Champa and Khmer. Spend a few hours on a boat tour along the Hau River and enjoy the atmosphere along the Vinh Te canal. Tourism tends to be rather low-key here but there are a few heritage sights, such as the official historic monument of the Phuoc Dien Temple.
So finally if you’re longing for the security of dry land and want to stretch your legs a bit, why not hike Sam Mountain? Close to the town of Chau Doc (see above), Sam Mountain is something of a Buddhist pilgrimage site. And ‘hike’ may be too strong a word as Sam only reaches the dizzy height of 230 meters and the traffic-free trail is actually lined with steps (as well as numerous cafes) to the peak. Nonetheless it makes for a superb day out and at the top you’re greeted with a colorful array of temples and pagodas, many built within caves. As you’d expect from the only mountain in the area, Sam offers commanding views over the rich patchwork of rice paddies below. You can also peek over into Cambodia and the old military outpost remains on the peak, a legacy of days gone by.