With its left shoulder braced against the Bac Lieu Canal, Highway 1 heads westwards from Bac Lieu towards the Ca Mau Peninsula, which constitutes not only the end of mainland Vietnam but of Southeast Asia as well. In this part of the country, waterways are the most efficient means of travel – a point pressed home by the slender ferries moored in all the villages the road passes. Much of this pancake-flat region of the delta is composed of silt deposited by the Mekong, and the swamplands covering portions of it are home to a variety of wading birds. In addition to rice cultivation, shrimp farming is a major local concern – along the way you’re sure to spot shrimp ponds, demarcated by mud banks that have been baked and cracked crazily by the sun.
CA MAU itself, Vietnam’s southernmost town of any size, has a frontier feel to it, though rapid development is changing that fast. Things have changed since 1989 when travel writer Justin Wintle described it as a “scrappy clutter…a backyard town in a backyard province”, though there are still pockets of squalor between the glitzy new buildings. Ca Mau sprawls across a vast area, with broad boulevards connected by potholed lanes and a couple of busy bridges spanning the Phung Hiep Canal that splits the town in two. To the west, the town is bordered by the Ganh Hao River, which snakes past as though trying to wriggle free before the encroaching stilthouses squeeze the life from it.
Although few Western travellers currently visit Ca Mau, there are now speedboats to Rach Gia that cover the journey in less than three hours, and improvements to Highway 63 make the journey by road less arduous, so incorporating Ca Mau in a circular tour of the delta is now a tempting possibility, as it takes you off the tourist trail and through classic delta scenes.