Imagine a world where everything is afloat, from wooden craft laden with fruit and produce, to restaurants and even gas stations! The Mekong Delta is a magnificent biological treasure trove of wildlife, landscape, and culture, all of which are cultivated by its flat swampy floodplains and riddling waterways. Cruising through this area will feed your every sense, from the eclectic tastes of the street food in the famed floating markets to the soothing sound of Buddhist chants in temples on the riverbanks, to the visual feasts of miry mangroves full of birds and canopied canals teeming with fish. It’s impossible to know where to start, so we’ve provided you with a smattering of essential activities for your trip to the Mekong Delta.
The area is known to locals as ‘Cuu Long’ (Nine Dragons), which refers to the nine tributaries that join the Mekong River, that criss-cross the low-lying southeastern part of Vietnam like life-giving arteries. The water truly is the lifeblood of the country, and as it is Vietnam’s foremost fishing and agricultural region, the life, work, and worship of the locals revolves in and around the canals and waterways. While traveling through you might spot several different fishing techniques, from nets, traps, bamboo fishing rods to simply reaching in and catching fish by hand!
The delta is fraught with a fascinating and tremulous history, flitting between Cambodian, Vietnamese and French rule, with a sobering amount of bloodshed. Although considered a lush idyll of buffalo, rice paddies, mangroves, and softly bustling markets, much of this tempestuous past is etched into the architecture and mentality of the region and its inhabitants. Here are just 13 things that should whizz straight to the top of your Mekong Delta itinerary!
Can Tho is the Mekong Delta’s biggest and most bustling city, and the fourth largest city in Vietnam. Found where the Can Tho and Hau Giang rivers meet, it’s a must for anyone traveling to the area. Lose yourself in the sprawling city streets and kaleidoscopic Cai Rang floating market, wander amid the tropical fruit orchards, and dip into the dynamic Tay Do night market. The city is home to some of the delta’s top restaurants so prepare yourself for a culinary assault on the senses with its intense and varied street food.
For a barrage of smells, colors, and noises, visit one of Vietnam’s iconic floating markets. Here, traders advertise their wares by tying them to long poles above the boats, and river crafts are laden with coconuts, dragon fruits, and other produce. The largest and most popular is Cai Rang in Can Tho, but for a less crowded experience consider the smaller Phong Dien market with fewer motorized boats, or the Cai Be floating market in Tien Giang province. Make sure you’re up early – most of the action takes place between 5 am and 7 am.
Known as the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam’, the Mekong Delta is a honey pot for lovers of street food, and here are a few must-tries. The city of My Tho is known for hu tieu (also called Kuy teav or Kway teow), a popular dish made up of rice noodles in pork stock with various aromatic toppings. Head to Ben Tre province for traditional coconut candies, made by hard-working women with sticky vats of coconut nougat, to be rolled out and cut up. Other local delicacies are rice paper, sticky rice, Banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), Ca loc nuong trui (grilled snakehead fish)… the list is endless. There are tours with local food producers which give an insight into the culinary traditions of the area.
There is nothing more peaceful than the experience of immersing yourself in nature with a boat trip around Tram Chim National Park on the inland wetlands of the Dont Thap province. This protected region covers 7,500 hectares (29 sq mi) and is home to hundreds of endangered birds and other wildlife, including the exceptionally rare Sarus Crane, the tallest flying bird in the world. Breeding season is between June and December, and try to book a solar-powered boat if you can – much quieter and more suited for bird-watching.
Located in the town of Chau Doc near the Vietnam/Cambodia border, Sam Mountain is an unusual geographical anomaly rising 230m from an otherwise flat landscape. Because of this, the views from the top are excellent and provide refreshing relief from the humid low-lying wetlands of the delta. The mountain is peppered with pagodas and temples, including Tay An Pagoda with its 200 statues of Buddhas and deities, and the more modern Chua Xu Temple. If you don’t fancy the hike up the hill, you can always hire a motorbike!
Just off the shore of the Mekong Delta lies the island of Phu Quoq with its magnificent white sand coastline and protected tropical jungle. It’s the perfect place for a spot of lounging on idyllic beaches, coral reef diving and other watersport activities, with a buzzing nightlife scene. You can also explore the cultural side of the island with its traditional villages, Buddhist temples and UNESCO-listed national parkland.
The Ba Chuc Memorial in the centre of Chau Doc pays homage to the 3157 men, women, and children massacred in 1978 at the hands of ruthless Communist leader Khmer Rouge. The memorial site includes an ossuary with skulls grouped according to their age, the Phi Lai Pagoda where bloodstains from the massacre can still be seen, and a gallery with intensely graphic photographs. This site is not for the sensitive heart and stands as a reminder of the country’s turbulent recent history.
My Tho is the capital city of Tien Giang Province, to the southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. A cultural hotspot with a fascinating history, it’s a definite must for your travel checklist. My Tho is a usual tour destination from Saigon and a convenient embarkation point for most Mekong Cruise Boats.
Hop on a traditional sampan (flat-bottomed wooden boat) and explore the network of waterways winding through lush fruit orchards, pagoda-strewn banks, surrounding rice fields, and visit the floating fish farms of the four islands (named Dragon, Phoenix, Tortoise and Unicorn) between Mỹ Tho and Ben Tre. You might get lucky and hear some of the area’s stunning traditional folk songs being sung amid the coconut trees.
If on your trip to Southeast Asia you wish to visit the Buddhist sites, this is one of the places to be! The Vĩnh Trang pagoda is one of the most famous in southern Vietnam. Sitting in two acres of ornate gardens in Mỹ Tho, surrounded by fruit trees and giant Buddha statues, its unusual melting pot of architectural styles make it a source of fascination for culture-vultures. Built in 1849 but damaged and repaired several times, look for evidence of Vietnamese, Khmer, Chinese and European styles in its arches, mosaics, gates, and statues.
To truly immerse yourself in the Mekong Delta, hire a canoe or take to the walking trails and navigate the lush and swampy Xeo Quyt forest to the southeast of Cao Lanh. This magnificent labyrinth of canopied canals hides the remnants of Viet Cong army bunkers which are free to explore. Insect repellent is absolutely essential here!
The city of Soc Trang has the largest Khmer population outside of Cambodia and is a fascinating destination for its series of 89 Khmer pagodas located in and around the city. It is also host to the spectacular Tan Long Stork Garden, where you can witness tens of thousands of white storks carpeting the sky as they return to their nests in the late afternoon. You’ll want to make sure your camera’s ready for this one…
The fruit orchard found in Cai Be in Tien Giang Province is the largest of the Mekong Delta, a region that supplies 70% of Vietnam’s fruit production. Tours can be taken around and throughout the orchards, where you can see, pick and eat mangos, king oranges, durians, plums, apples, longans, jackfruits, dragon fruits, guavas, grapefruits, mandarins and pomelos.
Sited on the side of Sam Mountain in An Giang province, this cave complex and temple is a spectacular sanctuary home to monks. A serene haven with amazing views across the flat countryside, beautiful gardens and impressive statues, the sanctuary follows a natural cavern that leads into the hillside.
These are just a selection of what you can do in the Mekong Delta. For more suggestions and tailored recommendations for activities to suit your preferences get in touch with our local destination specialists to help you plan your vacation to Vietnam.
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