Touring the orchards, paddy fields and swamplands of the Mekong Delta, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into the pages of a geography textbook. A comma-shaped flatland stretching from Ho Chi Minh’s city limits southwest to the Gulf of Thailand, the delta is Vietnam’s rice bowl, an agricultural miracle that pumps out more than a third of the country’s annual food crop from just ten percent of its total land mass. Rice may be the delta’s staple crop, but coconut palms, fruit orchards and sugar-cane groves also thrive in its nutrient-rich soil, and the sight of conical-hatted farmers tending their land is one of Vietnam’s most enduring images. To the Vietnamese, the region is known as Cuu Long, “Nine Dragons”, a reference to the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, which dovetail across plains fashioned by millennia of flood-borne alluvial sediment.
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Brief history of the Mekong Delta
Surprisingly, agriculture gripped the delta only relatively recently. Under Cambodian sway until the close of the seventeenth century, the region was sparsely inhabited by the Khmer krom, or “downstream Khmer”, whose settlements were framed by swathes of marshland. The eighteenth century saw the Viet Nguyen lords steadily broaden their sphere of influence to encompass the delta, though by the 1860s France had taken over the reins of government. Sensing the huge profits to be gleaned from such fertile land, French colons spurred Vietnamese peasants to tame and till tracts of the boggy delta; the peasants, realizing their colonial governors would pay well for rice harvests, were quick to comply. Ironically, the same landscape that had served the French so well also provided valuable cover for the Viet Minh resistance fighters who sought to overthrow them; later it did the same for the Viet Cong, who had well-hidden cells here – inciting the Americans to strafe the area with bombs and defoliants.
What to expect
A visit to the Mekong Delta is so memorable because of the region’s diversity. Everyday scenes include children riding on the backs of water buffalo or cycling to school through country lanes clad in white ao dai; rice workers stooping in a sea of emerald; market vendors grinning behind stacks of fruit; bright yellow incense sticks drying at the roadside; flocks of storks circling over a sanctuary at dusk; Khmer monks walking mindfully in the shadow of pastel pagodas; locals scampering over monkey bridges or rowing boats on the delta’s maze of channels.
There are over a dozen towns in the delta with facilities for tourists, though some are rarely visited as they are not on the way to anywhere. My Tho is well geared up for boat trips, and near enough to Ho Chi Minh City to be seen on a day-trip: it affords an appetizing glimpse of the delta’s northernmost tributary, the Tien Giang. From My Tho, laidback Ben Tre and the bounteous fruit orchards besieging it are only a hop and a skip away. Cao Lanh is strictly for bird enthusiasts, but Sa Dec, with its timeless river scenes and riotously colourful flower nurseries, has a more universal appeal, while just down the road, Vinh Long is another jumping-off point for boat trips.
Planning your trip
Many visitors spend a day or two in Can Tho, the delta’s biggest settlement, to take advantage of its decent hotels and restaurants and to recharge batteries before venturing out to the floating markets nearby. From Can Tho, there’s something to be said for dropping down to the foot of the delta, where the swampland that surrounds Ca Mau can be explored by boat, and Mui Ca Mau signals journey’s end in Vietnam. Pulling up, en route, at the Khmer stronghold of Soc Trang is especially rewarding if your trip coincides with the colourful Oc Om Bok festival (Nov or Dec), during which the local Khmer community takes to the river to stage spectacular longboat races. Northwest of Can Tho meanwhile, and a stone’s throw from the Cambodian border, is the ebullient town of Chau Doc, south of which Sam Mountain provides a welcome undulation in the surrounding plains. The opening of the border here has brought a steady stream of travellers going on to Phnom Penh by boat, and several of them rest up a few days here before leaving the country.
Ha Tien, a remote border town surrounded by Khmer villages, is the best place to hop on a boat to Phu Quoc. The town has also become popular for its international border crossing, which allows beach bums to slide along the coast from Phu Quoc Island to Sihanoukville in Cambodia or vice versa.
Best time to visit
Given the Mekong Delta's seasonal flooding, the best time to visit the delta is, predictably enough, in the dry season, which runs from December to May.
Several companies offer boat trips from the tourist boat centre (6–8, 30 Thang 4) to the islands in the Mekong; most tours head for Thoi Son, Phung and Qui islands. Tien Giang Tourist Company, and Ben Tre Tourist Company are the most reliable. Both charge $18–35 per person for a tour of about three hours, depending on how many people are in the group. Local boats, which you can find at the small jetty on Trung Trac, are much cheaper, and $20 should get you an entire boat for a two- to three-hour trip. However, bear in mind that the owners of these boats are not licensed or insured to carry tourists, so it’s a bit of a risky business.
Ong Dao Dua, the Coconut Monk
Ong Dao Dua, the Coconut Monk, was born Nguyen Thanh Nam in the Mekong Delta, in 1909. Aged 19, he travelled to France where he studied chemistry until 1935, when he returned home, married and fathered a child. During a lengthy period of meditation at Chau Doc’s Sam Mountain he devised a new religion, a fusion of Buddhism and Christianity known as Tinh Do Cu Si. By the 1960s, this new sect had established a community on Phung Island, where the monk lorded it over his followers from a throne set into a man-made grotto modelled on Sam Mountain. The monk became as famous for his idiosyncrasies as for his doctrine: his name, for instance, was coined after it was alleged he spent three years meditating and eating nothing but coconuts.
Unfortunately, the Coconut Monk never got to enjoy his "kingdom" for long: his belief in a peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam (symbolized by the map of the country behind his grotto, on which pillars representing Hanoi and Saigon are joined by a bridge) landed him in the jails of successive South Vietnamese governments, and the Communists were no more sympathetic to his beliefs after 1975. Ong Dao Dua died in 1990.
Home-stays in the delta
While the Vietnamese are generally gregarious people, it’s unusual for foreigners to be invited into their homes. However, most visitors are curious about local culture, so it’s not surprising that home-stays are becoming ever more popular and widely available. Though there are home-stays all around the country, those located on tranquil islands of the delta, surrounded by acres of orchards, are particularly attractive.
For around $25 a head, you are transported by boat to your host’s (usually isolated) abode, shown around the gardens, given a tasty dinner (most likely including the delicious elephant-ear fish – a delta speciality) and lodgings for the night, either in a bed or hammock in a spare room. Bathroom facilities are basic, sometimes with squat toilets and bucket baths, but generally clean. If you book your home-stay with a tour operator like Sinhbalo Adventures, you can also spend the day kayaking between water palms along narrow canals, or cycling along narrow lanes between coconut, mango and papaya trees.
Southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, buses emerge from the city’s unkempt urban sprawl and into the pastoral surrounds of the Mekong Delta’s upper plains. The delta is too modest to flaunt its full beauty so soon, but glimpses of rice fields hint at things to come, their burnished golds and brilliant greens interspersed with the occasional white ancestral grave. Seventy kilometres out of Ho Chi Minh City lies My Tho, an amiable market town that nestles on the north bank of the Mekong River’s northernmost strand, the Tien Giang, or Upper River.
My Tho’s proximity to Ho Chi Minh City means that it receives the lion’s share of day-trippers to the delta, resulting in a scrum of pushy vendors crowding round each tour bus that arrives. Nevertheless, the town comes as a great relief after the onslaught of Ho Chi Minh City, its uncrowded boulevards belying a population of around 220,000, and you can easily escape the melee by hopping onto a boat or wandering into the backstreets.
Brief history of My Tho
This daily influx of visitors seems appropriate, given the town’s history. Chinese immigrants fleeing Formosa (modern-day Taiwan) after the collapse of the Ming dynasty established the town in the late seventeenth century, along with a Vietnamese population keen to make inroads into this traditionally Khmer-dominated region. Two centuries later the French, wooed by the district’s abundant rice and fruit crops, rated it highly enough to post a garrison here and to lay a (now-defunct) rail line to Saigon; while the American War saw a consistent military presence in town. Today My Tho’s commercial importance is as pronounced as ever, something a walk through the busy town market amply illustrates.
Lac Hong Park
The river’s traffic – which ranges from elegant sampans to vast, lumbering cargo boats, unpainted and crude – is best viewed from Lac Hong Park at the eastern end of 30 Thang 4 street, where you’re sure to catch sight of the most characteristic feature of the boats in the delta – feline eyes painted on their prows. In the evenings, especially at weekends, this corner of town is packed as families stroll up and down, interspersed with sellers of balloons, popcorn and even tropical fish. At night, young lovers huddle on their motorbikes, while men play shuttlecock football on the street under the intent gaze of a statue of nineteenth-century anti-French hero Nguyen Huu Huan, who studied in My Tho.
Around My Tho
Day-trippers tend to see little of My Tho as they disgorge from tour buses and embark on a boat trip round two or three of the islands in the Tien Giang branch of the Mekong River. Upstream at Cai Be it’s a similar story, with fleets of buses from Ho Chi Minh City descending on the village at around 11am for boat tours of the floating market. Arranging trips locally tends to lead to a more relaxed and enjoyable experience, but you’d probably need to sleep over at least one night. In contrast to Cai Be, the quirky snake farm at Dong Tham sees few foreign visitors.
Ben Tre Province
The few travellers who push on beyond My Tho into Ben Tre Province are rewarded with some of the Mekong Delta’s most breathtaking scenery. Until recently this province was isolated by the Mekong’s wide arms around it, but the new Rach Mieu Bridge from My Tho (opened in 2009) is starting to bring a rush of visitors. Famed for its fruit orchards and coconut groves (Vietnamese call it the “coconut island”), the province has proved just as fertile a breeding ground for revolutionaries, first plotting against the French, and later against the Americans, and was one of the areas seized by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Ben Tre, the provincial capital in the Mekong Delta area in Southern Vietnam, is a pleasant and industrious town that makes an agreeable contrast to the tourist bustle of nearby My Tho. Ben Tre is fairly untouched by tourism, enabling it to be a raw and authentic Vietnamese town. Though short on specific sights, the surrounding countryside is lush and photogenic. It’s a relaxing and friendly place to hole up for a couple of days, with a buzzing town market and a new riverside promenade, which makes a pleasant place to stroll in the morning or evening. With a bicycle or motorbike, you can explore the maze of trails on both sides of the river. For more of an adventure, head out of town on a boat trip along the Ben Tre coastline, where labyrinthine creeks afford marvellous scope for exploring, and sometimes include stops at apiaries, rice-wine and sugar-processing workshops.
History of Ben Tre
Ben Tre played a significant part in the Vietnam War, although none of the wounds of its past are displayed today (apart from a heavily populated cemetery and proud war memorial). Many argue that Ben Tre was the initial birthplace of the war, as in 1959, a female Viet Cong general led an uprising against US-backed Saigon from this exact place. The town is virtually famous for a controversial line that a US Major quoted when questioned about the 1,000 civilian deaths and numerous casualties in the area, "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it" referring to making the disastrous decision to kill the citizens of Ben Tre rather than let them be led by communists.
Cao Lanh and Around
West of My Tho, and Cai Be, Highway 1 crosses the My Thuan Bridge on its way to Vinh Long and Can Tho. Just before the bridge, however, at An Huu, Highway 30 branches north, rolling into modest Cao Lanh 34km later. The town is no oil painting and offers little unless you’re charmed by wading birds; its location beside the western edge of the Plain of Reeds makes Cao Lanh an ideal launching pad for trips out to the storks and cranes that nest in the nearby swamplands. Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll pass the two great concrete tusks (intended to resemble lotus petals) of the war memorial as you veer onto the main drag, Nguyen Hué. One tusk bears a hammer and sickle, the other a Vietnamese red star.
Tram Chim National Park
Of the 220 species of birds nesting at Tram Chim National Park (previously called the Tam Nong Bird Sanctuary), it’s the sarus cranes, with their distinctive red heads, that most visitors come to see, though numbers have sadly declined drastically in recent years, and there’s not much to be seen outside the months of December to May. In flight above the marshland of the sanctuary, the slender grey birds reveal spectacular black-tipped wings. Cranes feed not from the water but from the land, so when the spate season (July–Nov) waterlogs the delta, they migrate to Cambodia. Visiting the park, however, can be very expensive (over $100 per day for a small group), so this is a trip for committed bird enthusiasts only: if you’re keen, ask at the office of Dong Thap Tourist in Cao Lanh for details.
Ringed by water and besieged by boats and tumbledown stilthouses, the island that forms the heart of Vinh Long has the feel of a medieval fortress. However, if you find yourself yearning for a peaceful backwater, first impressions will be a let-down; central Vinh Long is hectic and noisy, its streets a blur of buses and motorbikes. Make for the waterfront, though, and it’s a different story, with hotels, restaurants and cafés conjuring up something of a riviera atmosphere. From here you can watch the Co Chien River roll by, dotted with sampans, houseboats and the odd raft of river-weed. Though there’s little to see or do in town, Vinh Long offers some of the most interesting boat trips in the delta – to the Cai Be floating market, coconut candy workshops, fruit orchards or even overnighting in home-stays.
Phan Thanh Gian
Born in Vinh Long Province in 1796, the mandarin diplomat Phan Thanh Gian was destined to be involved in a chain of events that was to shape over a century of Vietnamese history.
On August 31, 1858, French naval forces attacked Da Nang, citing persecution of Catholic missionaries as their justification. The French colonial land-grab that would culminate in 1885 in the total conquest of Vietnam, had begun. By 1861, the three eastern provinces of Cochinchina had been conquered by the French Expeditionary Corps, and although there were popular anti-French uprisings Emperor Tu Duc sold out the following year, when the three provinces were formally ceded to the French by the Treaty of Saigon, which was signed by Phan Thanh Gian. A year later he had the opportunity to redress the situation, when he journeyed to Paris as ambassador to Emperor Napoleon III, to thrash out a long-term peace – the first Vietnamese ambassador ever to be despatched to Europe.
However, efforts to reclaim territory given up under the terms of the treaty failed, and by 1867 France moved to take over the rest of Cochinchina. Unable to persuade the spineless Tu Duc to sanction popular uprisings, Phan Thanh Gian embarked on a hunger strike in protest at French incursions and Hué’s ineffectuality. When, after fifteen days, he had still not died, he swallowed poison, and his place among the massed ranks of Vietnamese heroes was assured.
Boat trips from Vinh Long
The cheapest and simplest way to see the river is to hop on the An Binh Ferry on Phan Boi Chau, and cross the Co Chien River to reach An Binh Island. Sometimes called Minh Island, it’s a jigsaw of bite-sized pockets of land, skeined by a fine web of channels and gullies, eventually merging, to the east, with the province of Ben Tre. This idyllic landscape is crisscrossed by a network of dirt paths, making it ideal for a morning’s rambling or cycling, though you’ll need to take your own refreshments.
However, most people fork out for a day or half-day boat trip to see several aspects of delta life, organized either through Cuu Long Tourist or Mekong Travel, or through local boatmen always on the look-out for customers near the tourist jetty. These tours often include the option of overnighting in a home-stay in a totally rural environment, though as they increase in popularity, some start to resemble guest houses rather than home-stays, with visitors put up in custom-built bamboo huts separated from the family home.
Most tour itineraries head upriver to the floating market at Cai Be, stopping to visit fruit orchards, and rice-paper and candy factories en route; some tours also stop for a fish lunch at a rural outpost. Watching the river traffic, from the tiny rowing boats to huge sampans loaded with rice husks (fuel for the nearby brick kilns), is fascinating, and stepping ashore from time to time reveals insights into the lifestyles of the locals.
It’s only another 65km southeast through some classic delta scenery – vivid green rice paddies, backed by coconut and water palms – to Tra Vinh, an outback market town whose broad, tree-lined streets and smattering of colonial piles have yet to see tourists in any numbers. Even if you don’t plan to stay here, it makes an interesting day out from Vinh Long. This region of the delta is Khmer country; as you get nearer to Tra Vinh, distinctive pagodas begin to appear beside the road, painted in rich pastel shades of lilac, orange and turquoise, their steep horned roofs puncturing the sky. Altogether there are over 140 Khmer pagodas scattered around the province.
Most visitors come here to visit the storks at nearby Hang Pagoda, although the town’s low-key charm makes it an intriguing place to spend a day or two. Unusually, Tra Vinh isn’t ostensibly dominated by a branch of the Mekong – you’ll have to journey a couple of hundred metres east of the 800-metre-square grid forming the town centre to find the river. A hike through the market to riverside Bach Dang makes the most engaging approach. The bridge 100m north of the fish market commands great views of the Tra Vinh River, whose eddying waters run canal-straight to the north. In places the river is almost corked by boats moored seven or eight deep.
Just south of the market, at the junction of Pham Thai Buong and Tran Quoc Tuan, the Chinese Ong Pagoda is worth a visit as it’s a very active place of worship and there’s always something interesting going on. North of the town centre up Le Loi, the Ong Met Pagoda is very different, with a Khmer-style roof above colonial arches and shutters: you’re assured of a friendly reception here from the monks studying at its English school. Immediately north is the pretty Tra Vinh Church, an imposing buttressed construction, fronted by a statue of Christ above the entrance, with waves of stonework rippling up its spire.
A cluster of brick and tile kilns on the riverbank announces your arrival in the charming town of Sa Dec, a little over 20km upriver of Vinh Long. French novelist Marguerite Duras lived here as a child, and decades later the town’s stuccoed shophouse terraces, riverside mansions and remarkably busy stretch of the rumbling Mekong provided the backdrop for the movie adaptation of her novel The Lover.
It’s worth wandering along Nguyen Hué, whose umbrella-choked lanes hide Sa Dec’s extensive riverside market as well as the former home of Dumas’ lover. Waterfront comings and goings are observed by rheumy old men playing chequers, and women squat on their haunches, selling fruit from wicker baskets.
Marguerite Duras (1914–96) was born to French parents in a suburb of Saigon, and lived in various locations in Vietnam and Cambodia before going, aged 18, to study at the Sorbonne in France. She wrote many novels, plays and film scripts including the autobiographical novel The Lover (1984), which sold over three million copies and was translated into forty languages. Its subject is an interracial affair between a 15-year-old French girl and her middle-aged Chinese lover, set in 1930s’ Indochina. Duras had little sympathy for her peers, of whom she wrote "I look at the (French) women in the streets of Saigon. They don’t do anything, just save themselves up... Some of them go mad... some are deserted for a young maid." Duras clearly had no intention of letting life pass her by in this way, even if it meant becoming the subject of the town’s gossip.
Though her novels are principally about the inner thoughts of her characters, she also describes the landscape around Sa Dec as it still appears today: "In the surrounding flatness, stretching as far as the eye can see, the rivers flow as if the earth slopes downward."
If you visit Sa Dec with a tour guide, they will almost inevitably take you to look at her former house beside the river – an old colonial villa that now belongs to the People’s Committee.
A population of around a million makes Can Tho the delta’s biggest city, and losing yourself in its commercial thrum for a few days is the perfect antidote to time spent in the quiet backwaters of the delta. However, first impressions are rather less than encouraging: Can Tho is a hefty settlement but, once the oppressive urban sprawl encasing the town has been negotiated, its breezy waterfront comes as a pleasant surprise.
At the confluence of the Can Tho and Hau Giang rivers, the city is a major mercantile centre and transport interchange. The recent re-opening of the former US air base for commercial flights, as well as the enormous effort of completing the biggest bridge in the delta, shows that this city features large in government plans for future development.
But Can Tho is no mere staging post. Some of the best restaurants in the delta are located here; what’s more, the abundant rice fields of Can Tho Province are never far away, and at the intersections of the canals and rivers that thread between them are some of the delta’s best-known floating markets. Can Tho was the last city to succumb to the North Vietnamese Army, a day after the fall of Saigon, on May 1, 1975 – the date that has come to represent the reunification of the country.
Though its boat trips are the main reason for visiting Can Tho, a handful of lesser diversions on dry land will help keep you amused in the meantime.
Boat trips and floating markets
Every morning an armada of boats takes to the web of waterways spun across Can Tho Province and makes for one of its floating markets. Everything your average villager could ever need is on sale, from haircuts to coffins, though predictably fruit and vegetables make up most of what’s on offer. Each boat’s produce is identifiable by a sample hanging off a bamboo mast in its bow, but it’s difficult to get colourful pictures as the produce is stored below.
Of the two major nearby markets, the most commonly visited, 7km out of Can Tho, is Cai Rang, but you’ll have to be prepared to queue up with all the other tourist boats before you can weave among the fervent waterborne activity, with drinks vendors clamouring to make a sale. Nevertheless it’s a fun experience, especially if you can get there between 7–8am. This market is particularly active on Sundays.
Another 10km west and you’re at modest Phong Dien, whose appeal is that it sees relatively few tourists and so the locals are correspondingly friendly. If you wish to stay longer here, the purpose-built My Khanh Village, is nearby at 335 Lo Vong Cung, with wooden bungalows in a shady setting and a good-sized pool. Its attractions (geared mostly to domestic visitors) include an ancient house, a pond full of crocodiles, caged monkeys and a pig-racing track, plus a pony and trap to take visitors around the site. Animal-rights activists might not enjoy it, but the conditions here are better than at most such places in Vietnam. There are also demonstrations on making rice cakes and brewing wine, and traditional musicians perform in the evenings. Few Western visitors stay here so it’s a good way to meet some Vietnamese.
Visiting the markets
Most organized tours take you to Cai Rang or Phong Dien early in the morning, then make a leisurely return to the city, via the maze of picturesque canals and orchards that surround it, usually stopping to sample star fruit and sapodilla, longan and rambutan along the way. Can Tho Tourist charges between 200,000 and 250,000đ per person for such a tour, depending on the itinerary and type of boat. As usual, unofficial boat operators are cheaper, charging about 80,000đ per hour for a simple sampan: women prowl for customers along Hai Ba Trung, and some can be friendly and informative, but be on the lookout for scams, and check out the boat as some have no shelter from sun or rain. Phong Dien is more easily reached by hiring a xe om (about 60,000đ), then renting a sampan for an hour’s rowing (about 60,000–80,000đ) among the buyers and sellers.
Bridging the delta
The Mekong River deposits tons of fertile earth on the delta each year, making the region’s produce so abundant, but it also provides a barrier to swift travel, forcing drivers to queue for hours to cross its countless channels by slow, lumbering ferries. In the late 1990s a plan was hatched to build huge bridges at three key points in the delta – My Thuan, My Tho and Can Tho – in order to cut down journey times. The first of these, at My Thuan, crossing the Tien Giang, opened in 2000 and immediately slashed hours off journey times. The second, linking My Tho and Ben Tre, suffered delays but finally opened in early 2009. The third and biggest project, crossing the widest of the Mekong’s nine arms (the Hau Giang) at Can Tho, was the scene of a tragic accident in September 2007 when a 90-metre section of an approach ramp collapsed, killing more than fifty workers. Construction was delayed for a while but was finally completed in 2010, and now visitors arriving by land pass over the longest cable-stayed bridge in Southeast Asia as they approach Can Tho.
Straddled across an oily branch of the Mekong, Soc Trang lacks the panache of other delta towns, though on the fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month (Nov–Dec) the town springs to life as thousands converge to see traditional Khmer boats (thuyen dua) racing each other during the Oc Om Boc festival.
Beyond Soc Trang the landscape becomes progressively more waterlogged and water palms hug the banks of the waterways that crisscross it. A little over 40km southwest of Soc Trang, Highway 1 dips south towards the crown of Bac Lieu, before veering off west to Ca Mau. It may be the back end of nowhere, but Bac Lieu’s prosperity is evident in new shopping complexes and upmarket homes around the centre. The source of this prosperity is overseas Vietnamese, many of whom hail from this region. Although there are few sights to set the pulse racing, the town’s got the only accommodation between Soc Trang and Ca Mau and is in good proximity to the nearby Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary.
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.
Around Ca Mau
The marshes circling Ca Mau form one of the largest areas of swampland in the world, covering about 150,000 hectares. The Ca Mau Peninsula was a stronghold of resistance against France and America, and for this it paid a heavy price, as US planes dumped millions of gallons of Agent Orange over it to rob guerrillas of jungle cover. Further damage has been done by the shrimp-farm industry, but pockets of mangrove and cajeput forests remain, inhabited by sea birds, wading birds, waterfowl and also honey bees, attracted by the mangrove blossoms.
Mui Ca Mau National Park
This voyage to the end of the earth may not quite be a Jules Verne epic, but it’s a fun and satisfying way to pass a day, as you get to visit not only the southernmost point of Vietnam but also the end of mainland Southeast Asia. The speedboats that take you through the throng of life in the delta can get pretty crowded, but if you’re lucky you might get a window seat to look out on the houses, shacks and boats that line the river.
Once inside the national park, you can take a photo of yourself standing beside a boat-shaped monument marking the latitude (8 degrees north) and longitude (104 degrees east) of this remote location, then gaze out over the endless ocean and the mountainous Khoai Island just off the coast. There’s even a look-out tower from where you can get good views over the mangrove forests, and a restaurant on stilts over the water.
U Minh Forest and National Park
U Minh is famous for its cajeput forests. Lining the nearby canals are water palms, modest groves of cajeput and fish traps consisting of triangles of bamboo sticks driven into the riverbed. The slender white trunks of the cajeput thrive in U Minh’s marshy, coffee-coloured waters, and gliding through them in a boat would be a truly tranquil experience if it were not for the racket of the boat engine. Along the way, you may spot bright blue birds flitting over the water, or, depending on the season, apiarists collecting honeycombs from the trees, which attract bees in huge numbers when they are in flower.
Get your kicks on highway 63
Of all the roads that crisscross the Mekong Delta, few have such a strong sense of what this watery world is all about as Highway 63, which zigzags north from Ca Mau to Minh Luong, just south of Rach Gia – a distance of a little over 100 kilometres. The road is sealed all the way, though it’s often no wider than a single track road, and for most of its journey it follows narrow canals that carry a real hotchpotch of vessels going about their business. At Vinh Tuan it crosses a wide canal, allowing great views of river life, though parking on the bridge is illegal, so park near and walk on to it. There are also several monkey bridges across the canals – fragile structures consisting of narrow tree trunks, which require the assured balance of a monkey to cross them (thus the name). Like many other aspects of local culture, monkey bridges are disappearing fast, but Highway 63 still offers a fascinating glimpse of traditional life in the delta. Near the end of the highway, you need to cross a wide river by ferry at Tac Cau, where you’ll see huge fishing ships loading ice to freeze their catch. If you don’t have your own transport, take a bus from Ca Mau to Rach Gia to follow this highway.
Some 60km (an hour’s drive) northwest of Can Tho, Long Xuyen attracts few foreign visitors, though the unusual cathedral, the well-organized museum, Tiger Island and the nearby stork garden and crocodile farm are all worth a look.
Bang Lang Stork Garden
South of Long Xuyen is one of the Mekong Delta’s best stork sanctuaries, the Bang Lang Stork Garden, with thousands of birds wheeling, swooping and squabbling over nesting places at dusk. Turn up an hour before sunset to witness the memorable sight. Wearing a hat might help as the site is smothered with their droppings.
Since the opening of the border to Cambodia a few kilometres north of town, Chau Doc has boomed in popularity, and is the only place apart from Can Tho where you are likely to see foreigners in any numbers. Snuggled against the west bank of the Hau Giang River, the town came under Cambodian rule until it was awarded to the Nguyen lords in the mid-eighteenth century for their help in putting down a localized rebellion. The area sustains a large Khmer community, which combines with local Cham and Chinese to form a diverse social melting pot. Just as diverse is Chau Doc’s religious make-up: as well as Buddhists, Catholics and Muslims, the region supports an estimated 1.5 million devotees of the indigenous Hoa Hao religion. Forays by Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge into this corner of the delta led to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978.
On Doc Phu Thu and a few other streets in town, colonial relics are still evident, but their grand shophouse terraces, flaunting arched upper-floor windows and awnings propped up by decorous wrought-iron struts, are interspersed with characterless new edifices.
Around Chau Doc
There are several places of interest to visit in the area around Chau Doc, including a Cham community and the brooding Sam Mountain with its kitsch pagodas. Further afield are a bird sanctuary, a battlefield from the American War and the scene of a Khmer Rouge massacre. If you’re making the journey up to Chau Doc from Long Xuyen on Highway 91, look out for the incense factories, where the sticks are spread out to dry along the roadside, often arranged in photogenic circles.
Chau Doc Floating Market
Since this floating market was only established recently, you have to wonder whether it’s more for the benefit of tourists than locals. Nevertheless, if you’ve managed to get this far through the delta without visiting any of the other floating markets along the way, it’s certainly worth a look. As usual, boats advertise their products by hanging a sample from a stick on the deck.
Con Tien Island and Chau Giang District
Two settlements a stone’s throw away from Chau Doc across the Hau Giang River are worth venturing out to, and most people visit both on a half-day tour. One is the cluster of fish-farm houses floating on the river next to Con Tien Island, above cages of catfish that are fed through a hatch in the floor. Fish farming is big business in the delta, and some of these cages can be over 1000 cubic metres in size.
The other settlement is a Cham community in Chau Giang District, which you can visit independently via a ferry from a jetty south of the tourist jetty on Le Loi. Here you’ll discover kampung-style wooden houses, sarongs and white prayer caps that betray the influence of Islam, as do the twin domes and pretty white minaret of the Mubarak Mosque.
Arid, brooding Sam Mountain rises dramatically from an ocean of paddy fields. It’s known as Nui Sam to Vietnamese tourists, who flock here in their thousands to worship at its clutch of pagodas and shrines. Even if the temples don’t appeal, the journey up the hill is good fun. As you climb, you’ll pass massive boulders that seem embedded in the hillside, as well as some plaster statues of rhinos, elephants, zebras and a Tyrannosaurus rex near the top. From the top, the view of the surrounding, pancake-flat terrain is breathtaking, though the hill is, in fact, only 230m high. In the rainy season, the view is particularly spectacular, with lush paddy fields scored by hundreds of waterways, though in the dry season the barren landscape is hazy and less inspiring. There’s a tiny military outpost at the summit, from which you can gaze into Cambodia on one side, Chau Doc on the other.
Tay An Pagoda
At the foot of Sam Mountain the first pagoda you’ll see is kitsch, 1847-built Tay An Pagoda, the pick of the bunch, its frontage awash with portrait photographers, beggars, incense-stick vendors and bird-sellers (releasing one from captivity accrues merit, though some clever vendors train the birds to fly back later). Guarding the pagoda are two elephants, one black, one white, and a shaven-headed Quan Am Thi Kinh. The number of gaudy statues inside exceeds two hundred: most are of deities and Buddhas, but an alarmingly lifelike rendering of an honoured monk sits at one of the highly varnished tables in the rear chamber. To the right of this room an annexe houses a goddess with a thousand eyes and a thousand hands, on whose mound of heads teeters a tiny Quan Am.
Chua Xu Temple
Fifty metres west of Tay An, Chua Xu Temple honours Her Holiness Lady of the Country, a stone statue said to have been found on Sam’s slopes in the early nineteenth century, though the present building, with its four-tiered, glazed green-tile roof, dates only from 1972. Inside, the Lady sits in state in a marbled chamber, resplendent in colourful gown and headdress. Glass cases in corridors either side of her are crammed to bursting with splendid garb and other offerings from worshippers, who flood here between the 23rd and 25th of the fourth lunar month, to see her ceremonially bathed and dressed. Shops in front of the temple sell colourful baskets of fruit that locals buy to offer to Her Holiness.
A few hundred metres west and then south around the base of Sam Mountain, the multi-storey Chua Hang (Cave Pagoda), is a popular stopping-off point for local tourists, although the tiny grotto after which the pagoda is named is rather a let-down after the sweaty ascent.
Tra Su Bird Sanctuary
Beyond Sam Mountain, the varied attractions at Tra Su, Tup Duc and Ba Chuc could all be covered in a busy day’s travelling, though this remote area is not a place for hurrying. This bird sanctuary is located about 23km from Chau Doc and consists of a protected forest of cajuput trees and wetlands that attract a great variety of birds including storks, egrets, cormorants, peafowl and water cocks. A boat ride around the sanctuary combined with a walk to a viewing tower takes a couple of hours and costs around $7 per person depending on how many in the group. Even if you’re not a dedicated birder, you’d probably enjoy floating around this watery wonderland with its huge lily pads and moss-shrouded trees.
During the American war, Tup Duc gained the rather ignominious moniker "Two Million Dollar Hill", a reference to the amount the US military is said to have spent trying to dislodge the Viet Cong from its slopes.
Now the Vietnamese government has ploughed in money of its own in an attempt to turn it into a tourist resort, by installing pedal boats on a lake, an ostrich-breeding farm, a flower garden, a shooting range, a restaurant and refreshment kiosks at the foot of the hill. There is also a small museum here, an electronic mock-up of the battle and dummies in a cave on the hill, re-creating a Viet Cong briefing scene. Kids will probably latch onto you and lead you up a stairway past the huge boulders that provided such effective cover to the Viet Cong. Squeezing through the narrow passageways formed by the jumble of boulders, it is easy to see how it made such a perfect hide-out.
Both Tup Duc and Ba Chuc are located in a sweep of staggeringly beautiful countryside southwest of Chau Doc, though their significance is far from peaceful. Refugees fleeing Pol Pot’s Cambodia boosted the Khmer population here in the late 1970s, and pursuit by the Khmer Rouge ended in numerous indiscriminate massacres; a grisly memorial to the worst of these, at the village of Ba Chuc, stands as a testament to that horrific era.
Ba Chuc Memorial and Phi Lai Pagoda
The memorial in the centre of the village pays homage to the 3157 villagers massacred, most of them clubbed to death, in two weeks in April 1978. Only two villagers survived the tragedy. An unattractive concrete canopy fails to lessen the impact of the eight-sided memorial: behind its glass enclosure, the bleached skulls of the dead of Vietnam’s own "killing fields" are piled in ghoulish heaps, grouped according to age to highlight the youth and innocence of many of the dead.
Many of the victims were killed in the adjacent Phi Lai Pagoda, where bloodstains on the walls and floor can still be easily seen. A signboard in Vietnamese beside a tiny door below the altar notes that forty villagers perished here when a grenade was thrown into the cramped space.
Between the memorial and the pagoda is a small room, where a horrific set of black-and-white photos taken just after the massacre shows buckled, abused corpses scattered around the countryside. Some of the images on display are extremely disturbing and you should not enter if you are a sensitive type. There are also a few cafés and food stalls set up to cater to visitors to the site.
The Hoa Hao religion
Sited 20km east of Chau Doc, the diminutive village of Hoa Hao lent its name to a unique religious movement at the end of the 1930s. The Hoa Hao Buddhist sect was founded by the village’s most famous son, Huynh Phu So. A sickly child, Huynh was placed in the care of a hermitic monk under whom he explored both conventional Buddhism and more arcane spiritual disciplines. In 1939, at the age of 20, a new brand of Buddhism was revealed to him in a trance. Upon waking, Huynh found he was cured of his congenital illness, and began publicly to expound his breakaway theories, which advocated purging worship of all the clutter of votives, priests and pagodas, and paring it down to simple unmediated communication between the individual and the Supreme Being. The faith has a fairly strong ascetic element, with alcohol, drugs and gambling all discouraged. Peasants were drawn to the simplicity of the sect, and by rumours that Huynh was a faith healer in possession of prophetic powers.
Almost immediately, the Hoa Hao developed a political agenda, and established a militia to uphold its fervently nationalist, anti-French and anti-Communist beliefs. The Japanese army of occupation, happy to keep the puppet French administration it had allowed to remain nominally in charge of Vietnam on its toes, provided the sect with arms. For themselves, the French regarded the Hoa Hao with suspicion: Huynh they labelled the "Mad Monk", imprisoning him in 1941 and subsequently confining him to a psychiatric hospital – where he promptly converted his doctor. By the time of his eventual release in 1945, the sect’s uneasy alliance with the Viet Minh, which had been forged during World War II in recognition of their common anti-colonial objectives, was souring, and two years later Viet Minh agents assassinated him. The sect battled on until the mid-Fifties when Diem’s purge of dissident groups took hold; its guerrilla commander, Ba Cut, was captured and beheaded in 1956, and by the end of the decade most members had been driven underground. Though in the early Sixties some of these resurfaced in the Viet Cong, the Hoa Hao never regained its early dynamism, and any lingering military or political presence was erased by the Communists after 1975.
Today there are thought to be somewhere around two million Hoa Hao worshippers in Vietnam, concentrated mostly around Chau Doc and Long Xuyen. Some male devotees still sport the distinctive long beards and hair tied in a bun that traditionally distinguished a Hoa Hao adherent.
Of all Delta towns, Ha Tien, at the extreme northwest on the border with Cambodia, has been changing the fastest in recent years: where once it received only a trickle of visitors, it now buzzes with Western travellers. Two major factors have caused this: first, the opening of the border to foreigners at Xa Xia, just north of Ha Tien, meaning that it’s now possible to head directly to Cambodia’s coastal towns of Kep and Sihanoukville without passing through Phnom Penh; and the second factor is the beginning of hydrofoil services to Phu Quoc, offering a shorter and cheaper route to the island than from Rach Gia. Thus this town, which until recently had an end-of-the-line feel, is coming to terms with its newfound popularity.
A brief history of Ha Tien
Founded by Chinese immigrant Mac Cuu in 1674, with the permission of the local Cambodian lords, Ha Tien thrived thanks to its position facing the Gulf of Thailand and astride the trade route between India and China. By the close of the seventeenth century, Siam (later Thailand) had begun to eye the settlement covetously, and Mac Cuu was forced to petition Hué for support. The resulting alliance, forged with Emperor Minh Vuong in 1708, ensured Vietnamese military backup, and the town continued to prosper. Mac Cuu died in 1735, but the familial fiefdom continued for seven generations, until the French took over in 1867. Subsequently, the town became a resistance flash-point, with Viet Minh holing up in the surrounding hills, and even sniping at French troops from the To Chau Mountain, to the south.
The Mui Nai Loop
A pleasant half or full day can be spent exploring the countryside around Ha Tien, with a convenient circular route northwest of town meaning you won’t need to backtrack. This makes an ideal bike ride when the weather is good.
Strike off west along Lam Son. At the end of the road, turn left and continue straight at a small roundabout. A war cemetery serves as a landmark on the right 2.5km from town, and where the road forks, branch left, signposted Nui Den (lighthouse). Follow this road to the coast and along a winding stretch of road with some beautiful views until you reach the entrance to Mui Nai beach (5000đ per person, 1000đ per bike).
A pleasant – if not idyllic – four-hundred-metre curve of sand, shaded by coconut palms and backed by lush green hills, Mui Nai beach offers reasonable swimming in clean, shallow waters. The beach is very popular among Vietnamese, and there are several resorts here, though they’re all overpriced and poorly maintained. The best of the bunch is the Hong Phat, with reasonable air-conditioned rooms and a restaurant too.
There are a few other restaurants and beachside cafés, so you can kick back and crack open a few crabs while enjoying a fresh coconut juice or a refreshing slice of watermelon.
Leave the beach at the far end and turn left on to the coast road, weaving your way between rice fields, shrimp farms, water buffalo wallowing in ponds and signs reading 'Frontier Area’. You’ll see the 48m-high granite outcrop housing Thach Dong, or Stone Cave, long before you reach it; 3–4km past Mui Nai the road reaches a junction, where a left turn leads to the Cambodian border.
Turn right at this junction and very shortly the road passes a cluster of food stalls that mark the entrance to Thach Dong (daily 6.30am–6pm; 5000đ per person, 1000đ per bike). A monument shaped like a defiant clenched fist stands as a memorial to 130 people killed by Khmer Rouge forces near here in 1978. Beyond this, steps lead up to a cave pagoda that’s home to a colony of bats. Its shrines to Quan Am and Buddha are unremarkable, but balconies hewn from the side of the rock afford great views over the hills, paddy fields and sea below. Look to your right and you’re peering into Cambodia.
From here, continue along the circular road that will bring you after a few kilometres back into Ha Tien.
Hon Chong Peninsula
Just 30km south of Ha Tien lies the Hon Chong Peninsula. A string of offshore isles has earned this region the moniker “mini-Ha Long”, but it’s as a coastal resort that it draws throngs of Vietnamese and a smattering of foreigners. The approach to the peninsula is blighted by unsightly cement factories belching out clouds of smoke, and while Hon Chong has yet to suffer any significant environmental degradation as a result of these factories, their ugly presence looms over the area and certainly detracts from its appeal. For the moment, Hon Chong’s calm waters and beaches fringed with palms and casuarinas remain among the most attractive in the delta, though they cannot compare with the beaches on Phu Quoc.
Boat trips around the islands
For a small fee (15,000đ) you can join a 45-minute boat tour out to Hon Phu Tu and the nearby Hang Tien Grotto, which has some attractive stalactites and stalagmites. Nguyen Anh (later to become Gia Long) hid here while on the run after the Tay Son Rebellion, and locals have dubbed its stone plateaux as his throne, sofa, bed and so on. If there’s no one else around, you can rent the entire boat for about 300,000đ for this short trip.
For a more luxurious boat trip around local islands, the Hon Trem Resort can organize a full day-trip, including fishing and lunch as well as a visit to Nghe Island and the Ba Lua Archipelago, for about $150 per person. It may also be worth speaking to Hung at Tan Phat restaurant as they have boats for rent and are sometimes amenable to negotiating the price, so it should work out cheaper than a day out with the Hon Trem Resort.
About 100km southwest of Ha Tien, though also easily accessible from Long Xuyen, Can Tho or Ca Mau, the thriving port of Rach Gia teeters precariously over the Gulf of Thailand. The capital of Kien Giang Province, it’s home to a community of around two hundred thousand people, many of whom live in new housing on reclaimed land on the coast just south of the centre. A small islet in the mouth of the Cai Lon River forms the hub of the town, but the urban sprawl spills over bridges to the north and south of it and onto the mainland. The town has little in the way of historical and cultural attractions, and for most foreign visitors it is simply a place to overnight en route to Phu Quoc Island.
It’s worth taking a walk along Bach Dang or Tran Hung Dao to watch the activity on the boats of all sizes that clutter the port. Men and women darn and fold nets, charcoal-sellers hawk their wares to ships’ captains and roadside cafés heave with fishermen – many of whom have seen the bottoms of a few beer bottles – awaiting the next tide.
The heroics of Nguyen Trung Truc
From 1861 to 1868, Nguyen Trung Truc spearheaded anti-French guerrilla activities in the western region of the delta: statues in the centre of Rach Gia and at the temple dedicated to him depict him preparing to unsheathe his sword and harvest a French head. In 1861, he masterminded the attack that culminated in the firing of the French warship Esperance; as a wanted man, he was forced to retreat to Phu Quoc, from where he continued to oversee the campaign. Only after the French took his mother hostage in 1868 did he turn himself in and in October of the same year he was executed by a firing squad in the centre of Rach Gia. Defiant to the last, his final words could have been lifted from a Ho Chi Minh speech: "So long as grass still grows on the soil of this land, people will continue to resist the invaders."