The Mekong Delta Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
From its lofty source in the Tibetan Himalayas, the mighty Mekong River Dropdown content tumbles down through China’s Yunnan province, squeezes between Thailand Dropdown content and Laos Dropdown content, then slides through Cambodia Dropdown content before reaching Vietnam. Here, in a flat, comma-shaped delta protruding from the south of the country, the river fragments and spreads out into innumerable tributaries and rivulets, all meandering slowly seawards. It’s in and around the delta’s myriad waterways that you’ll find some of Vietnam’s most iconic images: shimmering emerald paddy fields, endless horizons punctuated by coconut trees, cone-hatted farmers hauling fruit and sugar cane from the ground, and markets run from colourfully painted boats. It is no surprise that the delta was voted as one of the 10 most beautiful places in Vietnam Dropdown content. Keep an eye out and you’ll also see children riding on the backs of water buffalo, bright yellow incense sticks drying at the roadside, and locals scampering over monkey bridges or rowing boats on the delta’s maze of channels. Given the region’s seasonal flooding, the best time to visit the Mekong Delta is, predictably enough, in the dry season, which runs from December to May. Plan your trip to Vietnam Dropdown content with the Mekong Delta Travel Guide.
We’ve selected seven of the best things to see and do from our Mekong Delta Travel Guide.
Marvel over the rich colours and fancy script of Cambodian-style temples around Tra Vinh.
Take a cheap ferry ride from Vinh Long to this delightfully untouristed island, whose maze of waterways and low-rise housing depict the delta area in miniature.
Spend the night amid rural communities, observing daily aspects of Vietnamese culture and getting to know your hosts.
Visit a Cham village and the fish farms on the river, or explore nearby Sam Mountain.
Drift along a series of narrow canals, visiting the floating markets and fruit orchards around Can Tho.
Unleash your inner child on an odd rail-car system, which runs up a hillside near the charming coastal town of Ha Tien.
Most travellers take a bus to visit the Mekong Delta, usually from
You can cut a fair bit of travel time by taking a flight to or from the delta –
There are plenty of bus services to and around the delta, though journeys can be long, and the scenery samey and uninspiring. Traffic has to stop occasionally at the ferries that make road travel in the delta possible, though completion of some long-awaited bridges has sped up travel times. Futabus is by far the most popular operator in these parts.
With the main roads clogged with traffic, it’s a great idea to get your own pair of wheels – in this way you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in the languid life of the region. Motorbikes and bicycles can be rented at pretty much every major town in the area, and once you’ve got one you’ll soon be out in the fields and rivulets.
Locals used to do much of their travelling on the cargo boats that still crawl around the delta’s waterways, but the increased prevalence of motorbikes has led to many routes being cut, and this is no longer a viable way of getting around for visitors. Bar the hydrofoils to Phu Quoc from Ha Tien and Rach Gia, the only decent route is the delightful backwater passage linking Rach Gia and Ca Mau.
Boat tours are a great way to visit the Mekong Delta. Day-trips can be organized in
If you really want to do the delta in style, sign up for a multi-day trip aboard this operator’s luxury cruise ships, which come with on-board pools, games rooms, restaurants and the like.
Former rice barges have been converted into floating hotels, which offer a cosy cabin and gourmet meals to accompany the classic delta sights. The most popular trip is from Cai Be to Can Tho, stopping off at a few rural villages along the way and joining the throng at Cai Rang’s floating market in the morning.
Offers affordable trips on classy vessels, with stacks of options from day-trips to multi-day adventures.
Named with a nod to the eyes you’ll spot on Vietnam’s traditional wooden boats, this operator offers plenty of routes, including round-trips from
This luxury hotel chain has establishments in Chau and Can Tho, and offers suitably opulent vessels linking the two and heading further around the delta.
To the Vietnamese, this region is known as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, a reference to the nine tributaries of the
Southeast of Chau Doc is Can Tho, the delta’s largest city and yet another popular base for boat-trips and visits to floating markets. From here it’s possible to take a loop-trip around the southern half of the delta area; first up is the Khmer stronghold of Soc Trang, a visit to which is especially rewarding if your journey coincides with the colourful Oc Om Bok festival (November or December), during which the local Khmer community takes to the river to stage spectacular longboat races. Further on, at the foot of the delta, the swampland that surrounds Ca Mau can be explored by boat. A boat-ride north is the charming, unassuming town of Rach Gia, while pressing on northwest to the border will bring you to Ha Tien, a remote frontier town surrounded by Khmer villages, which 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 to
Discover the best places to eat in the Mekong Delta with our travel guide.
Though there’s nowhere to get very excited about in town, tour groups will get taken to one of a couple of places to eat just outside My Tho; if you’ve any leeway over what’s served, ask for the locally famous elephant-ear fish. If you’re staying on in town, make sure you go for a stroll around the night market, which opens up each evening beside the tour boat offices on 30 Thang 4.
Ben Tre’s hitherto dismal culinary scene has improved slightly of late, but there are only a few places worthy of special attention. Dong-pinchers should make a beeline for the grimy market area, where you’ll find a range of cheap noodles and other simple fare.
Can Tho is well endowed with good, affordable restaurants, most serving Vietnamese food, though there are plenty that also offer international dishes – those along Hai Ba Trung target a primarily foreign clientele, while locals tend to patronize places around the market and along Nam Ky Khoi Nghia. A couple of the options listed in the Drinking section are actually decent restaurants too; also make note of the ferry-restaurants that launch from the promenade just before sunset, and the night market that fills Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh each evening.
In the evening, a night market sets up between the river and the main market buildings, some stalls selling souvenirs and others selling seafood, attracting crowds of locals and the odd foreigner.
Chau Doc has more places to eat than most Mekong Delta towns, which cater to diners looking for something tasty and cheap. A snack at one of the food stalls around the market, particularly on Tran Hung Dao, Chi Lang or Le Cong Thanh, is also a good option if you’re in an adventurous mood.
Homestays are a great opportunity to live like a local during your visit to the Mekong 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 homestays are becoming ever more popular, and those located on tranquil islands of the delta, surrounded by acres of orchards, are particularly attractive.
For around $15 per head, plus $10 for the boat, you’ll be transported 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 homestay 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.
Seventy kilometres out of
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, where you’re sure to catch sight of the most characteristic feature of the boats in the delta – staring eyes painted onto 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.
Follow the direction of the canal up along Trung Trac and you’ll soon be gobbled up by My Tho’s vast market, which covers several blocks and is at its busiest early in the morning. As well as the usual piles of fruit, cereals and tobacco, several stalls sell ships’ chandlery, their heaped fishing nets almost indistinguishable from the fresh noodles on sale nearby.
Head west of the town centre on Ly Thuong Kiet for the Cao Dai Temple, which is worth a look for its colourful architecture. It is, in effect, a small-scale replica of the Holy See in Tay Ninh, with an all-seeing Divine Eye above the entrance, dragons writhing up columns and images of the odd mix of characters – such as Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen – that comprise the religion’s pantheon of saints. Note also the herb garden to the right of the temple, which is used to concoct remedies for ailments of the poor.
A worthwhile side-trip if you’re in town is to make the short journey on foot or cyclo up Nguyen Trung Truc to the attractive Vinh Trang Pagoda, with its rajah’s palace-style front facade. Since its construction in 1849 it has been renovated several times, most recently in 2002.
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 is the most reliable, charging 200,000– 350,000đ per person for a tour of around three hours, depending on how many people are in the group. You may be interested in their two-day options, which are more or less the same but include one night in a homestay for an extra 250,000đ. Local boats, which you can find at the small jetty on Trung Trac, are much cheaper, and 350,000đ 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 – you’re far more liable to get ripped off.
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
Thoi Son (Unicorn Island) is the largest of the four islands, and many of the organized tours out of
Con Phung (Phoenix Island) is famed as the home of an offbeat religious sect set up three decades ago by the eccentric Coconut Monk, Ong Dao Dua, although there’s not much left to see from his era, and only the skeleton of the open-air complex he established remains. Amid its mesh of rusting staircases and platforms, you’ll spot the rocket-shaped elevator the monk had built to whisk him up to his private meditation platform. Elsewhere are nine dragon-entwined pillars, said to symbolize the Mekong’s nine tributaries and betraying a Cao Dai influence. The Coconut Monk’s story is told (in Vietnamese) on a magnificent urn, which he is said to have crafted himself out of shards of porcelain from France, Japan and China.
Beyond its chaotic shoreline of stilthouses and boatyards, Tan Long (Dragon Island), the least frequently visited island, boasts bounteous sapodilla, coconut and banana plantations, as well as highly regarded longan orchards. As with the other islands, Tan Long is sparsely inhabited, by small communities of farmers and boat-builders.
Con Qui (Turtle Island) is the newest of the group, having been formed by sediment in the river then stabilized by planting mangroves, and is overflowing with longans, dragon fruit, mango, papaya, pineapple and jackfruit. There is a small, family-run coconut candy factory, just opposite here along the Ben Tre coastline, where you can watch the coconut being pressed and the extracted juice being mixed with sugar and heated, then dried and cut into bite-size pieces. You can buy a box to take home.
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. Ben Tre itself is a pleasant and industrious town displaying none of the wounds of its past (apart from a heavily populated cemetery and proud war memorial), and makes an agreeable contrast to the tourist bustle of nearby My Tho. 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 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.
Tra Vinh is an outback market town whose 800-metre-square grid of broad, tree-lined streets and smattering of colonial piles have yet to see tourists in any numbers. Most visitors come here to watch the storks at nearby Hang Pagoda, although the town’s low-key charm makes it a pleasant place to spend a day or two. At the very least, Tra Vinh is worth a half-day detour from Vinh Long, especially since the area between the two towns is a real delta rarity. Largely devoid of roadside clutter or heavy traffic, you can actually see plenty of countryside from the bus here: vivid green rice paddies, fringed by coconut and water palms. This 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.
Just south of the market, at the junction of Pham Thai Buong and Tran Quoc Tuan, the Chinese Ong Pagoda is well 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, sporting a distinctive 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.
Ba Om Pond is beloved of Tra Vinh picnickers and courting couples. Around the pond, drinks and snack vendors lie in wait for visitors, but although it can get crowded at weekends, on weekdays it is usually restful. Bordered by grassy banks, and shaded by towering, aged trees whose roots clutch at the ground, Ba Om is cloaked with plants that attract flocks of birds in the late afternoon. The area across the far side of the pond has been a Khmer place of worship since the eleventh century, and today it’s occupied by Ang Pagoda.
The sight of the hundreds of storks that nest in the grounds of this Khmer pagoda is one that will linger in the memory. Timing, however, is all-important, and you should aim to catch these magnificent creatures before dusk, when they wheel and hover over the treetops, their snowy wings catching the evening’s sunlight. It’s a stirring sight, though you might find yourself distracted by the saffron-robed monks who clamour to practise their English. They may also show you their woodcarving workshop, where there’s usually someone at work on a wooden tiger.
Ringed by water and besieged by boats and tumbledown stilthouses, the island that forms the heart of the town 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 letdown; 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 – the Cai Be floating market, coconut candy workshops, fruit orchards and a variety of homestays are all within reach.
Of Vinh Long’s few specific sights, the Vinh Long Museum, facing the waterfront, is worth a look if you haven’t already visited war museums elsewhere. Displays in various buildings include historical finds from the region, farming implements and musical instruments, as well as a gruesome photographic catalogue of the province’s pummelling during the American War. In the gardens are tanks, a helicopter and planes from the war, as well as a guillotine from French colonial times.
West of the Vinh Long Museum stands the impressive French colonial building Cau Lac Bo Huu Tri. This oddly shaped mansion, with its red-tiled roof and shuttered windows topped by mouldings of garlands, conjures the ghosts of French colons and rice merchants. The place is now run by the government as a social club for retirees, and they won’t mind you peeking in through the front door at the fancy furnishings – look out for the mother-of-pearl inlay and the bust of Uncle Ho.
The Van Thanh Mieu Temple sits 2km south of the centre, down the road that runs parallel to the Rach Long Canal. If you wander into the tiny lanes that back onto the river along the way, you can watch tiles and coffins being made in the simplest of surroundings, and you might even be invited to take tea with the friendly locals.
Sometimes called Minh Island, An Binh Island is a jigsaw of bite-sized pockets of land, skeined by a fine web of channels and gullies that eventually merge, to the east, with the province of Ben Tre. This idyllic landscape is crisscrossed by a network of dirt paths, which makes it ideal for a morning’s rambling or cycling, though you’ll need to take your own refreshments. You’re best advised to take the minor road heading west just as you hit Chua Tien Chau, the first temple from the jetty; this is a pleasingly calm stretch with very little traffic, and plenty of curious locals.
Cai Be Floating Market has long been one of the most popular in the delta, and also the most distinctive because of its backdrop of a slender cathedral spire. However, it’s in danger of becoming yet another victim of the area’s burgeoning bridges and bikes – the boats, which once filled the waters of the Tien Giang each morning, are now very few in number. For now it’s still an enjoyable experience, but you shouldn’t go in expecting much more than a simple, charming view of trade being conducted from a sparse array of small boats.
The cheapest and simplest way to cruise 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. However, most people fork out for a day or half-day boat trip to take in the colourful tapestry of everyday delta life, organized through Cuu Long Tourist, or through local boatmen on the lookout for customers near the tourist jetty. These tours often include the option of overnighting in a homestay in a totally rural environment, though some have started to resemble guesthouses as they’ve increased in popularity, with visitors put up in custom-built bamboo huts separated from the family home.
A cluster of brick and tile kilns on the riverbank announces your arrival in the dusty 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. Elements of such whimsy remain, but in general Sa Dec feels little different to most other delta towns – and it’s far from beautiful.
Sa Dec’s best place for a wander is Nguyen Hue, whose umbrella-choked lanes hide an extensive riverside market. Waterfront comings and goings are observed by rheumy old men playing chequers, while women squat on their haunches, selling fruit from wicker baskets.
Nestled among the tumbledown riverside houses stands the former home of Huynh Thuy Le, who became the lover of Marguerite Duras in the 1930s. The old family home, now administered by Dong Thap Tourism, features some elaborate carved panels and lashings of gold lacquerwork, as well as some photos of the couple in question, though interestingly none of them together.
A few kilometres north of town by the river, Sa Dec’s famed flower nurseries consist of more than a hundred farms cultivating a host of ferns, fruit trees, shrubs and flowers. The expansive grounds of Tu Ton Rose Garden get the lion’s share of tourists visiting the area. In addition to the varieties of rose cultivated here, over 580 species of plant are grown, ranging from orchids, carnations and chrysanthemums, through to medicinal herbs and pines grown for export around Asia.
Modest Cao Lanh is one potential stop – or, given the distances involved, an overnight base – for those heading to or from Chau Doc. The town is far from an oil painting, and offers little unless you’re charmed by wading birds; its location beside the western edge of the Plain of Reeds makes it an ideal launching pad for trips out to the storks and cranes that nest in the nearby swamplands. Coming from
On the southwestern outskirts of town, a landscaped park contains a monument, shaped like an open clam, which marks the burial place of Ho Chi Minh’s father, Nguyen Sinh Sac. The park’s area has recently been expanded to include several examples of stilted houses typical of the south, as well as a replica of Ho Chi Minh’s house in
While in town, it’s worth having a look around the Dong Thap Museum. Though there are no English signs, this place has a well-organized display of fossils, skulls, farming tools, fishtraps, basketware and textiles, as well as the inevitable paintings of heroic Vietnamese forces repelling French and American troops.
Of the 220 species of bird nesting at Tram Chim National Park (previously Tam Nong Bird Sanctuary), it’s the sarus cranes, with their distinctive red heads, which most visitors come to see. In flight above the marshland of the sanctuary, the slender grey birds reveal spectacular black-tipped wings. Cranes feed from the land, so when the spate season (July to November) waterlogs the delta, they migrate to
Visiting the park can be quite expensive, 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. Most people do the rounds of the park by boat, though there’s not much to be seen outside the months of December to May.
You’ll most likely need to go through the local tourist office if you want to take a trip out to Xeo Quyt Relic Area, which conceals former Viet Cong bunkers deep in the cajeput forest 30km southeast of Cao Lanh. The district’s dense cover provided the perfect bolthole for Viet Cong guerrillas during the American War, and from 1960 to 1975 the struggle against America and the ARVN was masterminded from here. The boggy nature of the terrain made a tunnel system similar to that of Cu Chi unfeasible, so they made do with six submerged metal chambers sealed with tar and resin.
Sitting merrily on the languid banks of the Hau Giang, Chau Doc is the only delta town bar Can Tho in which you are likely to see foreigners in any significant numbers. Since the opening of the border to
As with many delta towns, there’s little of sightseeing interest here bar a market and a couple of temples. Around said market, stalls are crammed into narrow alleyways that run towards the river, where you’ll be greeted by a multitude of bobbing boats and waterside activities. If you wander south from here, you’ll find a narrow park bordering the river; featuring a tall statue celebrating the local catfish, it makes a pleasant place for a breezy morning or evening stroll.
There are several places of interest to visit in the surrounding area, including a thriving Cham community and the brooding Sam Mountain with its kitsch pagodas. Further afield you’ll find a bird sanctuary, a battlefield from the American War and the harrowing scene of a Khmer Rouge massacre.
The obvious place to begin an exploration of Chau Doc is at its covered market, where the overspill of stalls and street vendors spreads from Quang Trung to Tran Hung Dao, and from Dong Du to Nguyen Van Thoai. This is one of the delta’s biggest markets and is packed with a phenomenal range of produce, much of which is unfamiliar to Western eyes. Even if you have explored other markets in the region, it’s well worth picking your way through the rows of neatly stacked stalls of fresh produce, household goods, fish and flowers.
A four-tiered gateway deep in the belly of the open market announces Quan Cong Temple. Beyond the courtyard, two rooftop dragons oversee its entrance and the outer walls’ vivid murals. Inside the temple is the red visage of Quan Cong, sporting a green robe and bejewelled crown, and surrounded by a sequin-studded red velvet canopy.
A few steps southeast through the covered market stalls along Tran Hung Dao, the lofty chambers of Chau Phu Temple offer a cool respite from the heat outside, and fans of gilt woodwork will find much to divert them. It was built in 1926 to honour Thoai Ngoc Hau (1761–1829), a local hero whose elaborate tomb is located at the base of Sam Mountain.
Since this floating market was established relatively 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. Tours to the market also often stop at a cluster of fish farms floating on the river next to Con Tien Island, above cages of catfish that are fed through a hatch in the floor.
The Chau Giang District and its Cham community can be visited independently by ferry. Amid the traditional wooden houses, you’ll notice the influence of Islam in the sarongs, the white prayer caps and the twin domes and pretty white minaret of the Mubarak Mosque.
Arid, brooding Sam Mountain rises dramatically from an ocean of paddy fields just west of Chau Doc. 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 to the summit 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 even a Tyrannosaurus rex near the top. From the top, the view of the surrounding, pancake-flat terrain is breathtaking, though the “mountain” 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 marginally less inspiring. There’s a tiny military outpost at the summit, from which you can gaze into
At the foot of Sam Mountain, the first temple you’ll see is kitsch Tay An Pagoda, built in 1847. It’s the pick of the bunch, its frontage awash with portrait photographers, beggars, incense-stick vendors and bird-sellers.
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.
The Tra Su Bird Sanctuary consists of a protected forest of cajeput trees and wetlands, which attract a great variety of birds including storks, egrets, cormorants, peafowl and water cocks. Once here, you’ll be able to take a boat ride around the sanctuary, combined with a walk to a viewing tower. 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.
A sweep of staggeringly beautiful countryside southwest of Chau Doc conceals a far from peaceful history. Refugees fleeing Pol Pot’s
The large, spread-out town of Long Xuyen attracts few foreign visitors, though the unusual cathedral, the well-organized museum, Tiger Island and the nearby stork garden are all worth a look if you’re passing through – however, with Chau Doc and Can Tho so close, there’s precious little reason to stay here. You’ll be able to get your bearings from the cathedral, whose distinctive spire is shaped in the form of two upstretched arms whose hands clasp a cross.
Near the eastern end of Nguyen Hue, the dragon-stalked roofs of the grandest building in town, the My Phuoc Communal Hall, shelter carved pillars and embroidered banners in the temple-like interior. Nearby is a very large statue of a meek-looking Ton Duc Thang: born locally, he was successor to Ho Chi Minh as president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, giving the town its main claim to fame.
You can visit Ton Duc Thang’s birthplace and childhood home at My Hoa Hung village on Tiger Island. Here you will find the Ton Duc Thang Exhibition House, which displays well-presented photos and memorabilia such as the leg irons he wore in Con Dao prison, the prime-ministerial bicycle and the plane that took him from
Also worth a look, particularly for its display of Oc Eo relics, is the An Giang Museum, housed in a grand edifice in the northern part of town. On the first floor the focus is on the different religions practised in the region – Catholicism, Buddhism and Hoa Hao. On the second floor is a treasure-trove of remnants of Oc Eo culture.
South of Long Xuyen is one of the Mekong Delta’s best stork sanctuaries, the Bang Lang Stork Garden, where you can watch thousands of birds wheeling, swooping and squabbling over nesting places at dusk. The most obvious birds here are, in fact, egrets, but there are indeed plenty of Asian openbill storks, along with a few adjutants and black-necked storks; you’ll also likely see herons and pelicans. Turn up an hour before sunset to witness the memorable sight – wearing a hat might be wise, since the site is smothered with their droppings.
Excavations at the site of the vanished port of Oc Eo during the late 1990s uncovered gold jewellery, bowls and skeletons in vases, all dating back over a thousand years to the Funan Empire – though, as these precious objects have now been shifted to museums around the country, you’d need to be pretty keen about history to get much from the modest building foundations that remain on-site.
At the confluence of the Can Tho and Hau Giang rivers, there’s a lot to like about Can Tho. Though the delta’s largest city by some way, with a population of just over one million, its riverside centre is refreshingly urbane – not to mention something of a surprise, after you’ve navigated your way through the urban sprawl encasing the town. 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. The former US air base opened up in 2011 to commercial flights, the year after the giant Can Tho bridge was completed, and both of these major projects have enabled the city to become the de facto capital of the delta.
As with so many settlements in the area, Can Tho is a little short on actual sights, although it does boast some of the region’s best restaurants, and the bridges to the north and east of the centre provide access to some fantastic walks. In addition, abundant rice fields 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. All in all, it’s perhaps the delta’s best place in which to take a boat trip.
Broad Hoa Binh is the city’s backbone and is the site of the impressive Can Tho Museum, which presents “the history of the resistance against foreign aggression of Can Tho people” as well as local economic and social achievements. Despite the enormity of the place and the extensive signs in English, it’s all a bit drab apart from a few highlights like models of a teahouse and a herbalist treating patients. The whole place was under renovation at the time of research – here’s hoping for some more interesting exhibits.
Southwest of the Can Tho Museum, the 1946-built Munirangsyaram Pagoda warrants examination only if the more impressive Khmer pagodas around Tra Vinh or Soc Trang aren’t on your itinerary. Entrance into the pagoda compound is through a top-heavy stone gate weighed down with masonry reminiscent of Angkor Wat, but there is little to see inside apart from a few plaster Buddha images.
Just north of the Uncle Ho statue on the river promenade, Ong Pagoda is a colourful place built in the late nineteenth century by wealthy Chinese townsman Huynh An Thai. Inside, a ruddy-faced Quan Cong presides, flaunting Rio Carnival-style headgear. On his left is Than Tai, to whom a string of families come on the first day of every month, asking for money and good fortune. On his right is Thien Hau, the protector of sailors. There’s also a small chamber dedicated to Quan Am to the left of the main hall.
Down a sidestreet opposite Binh Thuy Temple is the beautiful Duong Home, which was used in the 1992 filming of The Lover. A classic example of French colonial architecture, and completed in 1870, its shuttered windows and elaborate stucco decorations conceal a spacious living room featuring period furnishings with mother-of-pearl inlay. Note the intricately carved panels beside the pillars, where a bat sits at the summit of a menagerie of animals; unlike in the West, where bats symbolize vampires, in the East they are seen as a portent of good luck. The current residents are often on hand to show visitors round, and the adjacent orchid garden contains what is thought to be the tallest cactus in the country.
Along the road to Long Xuyen, the Binh Thuy Temple began life in the nineteenth century as a dinh, or communal house for travellers to rest in. The present building dates back to 1909, and immediately catches the eye with its green-tiled eaves framed by frangipani trees. Though it appears small from outside, the cool interior runs very deep, and the walls are decorated with images of Chinese gods and Vietnamese heroes. Between the sturdy wooden pillars are several altars, with some ghoulish characters guarding one of them with axes raised.
Straddling an oily branch of the Mekong, Soc Trang lacks the panache of other delta towns – but as it has a sizeable population of ethnic Khmer, a visit here is almost like getting a free, short-term Cambodian visa. A waterway running roughly west to east splits Soc Trang in two, though most of the town nestles on the south bank. Hai Ba Trung is the town’s backbone, and it runs across the water before morphing into Tran Hung Dao on the southern outskirts.
On the fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month (between November and December), Soc Trang springs into life as thousands converge to see traditional Khmer boats (thuyen dua) racing each other during the Oc Om Boc festival.
Khmer pagodas are ten-a-penny in this region, but the Khleang Pagoda, located in the heart of Soc Trang, is one of the most impressive. A two-tiered terrace surrounds it, and its doors and windows are adorned with traditional Khmer motifs in greens, reds and golds. Inside is a wonderful golden Sakyamuni statue, though unfortunately the doors are often locked.
Directly opposite the Khleang Pagoda, the Khmer Museum houses some low-key exhibits, including stringed instruments made of snakeskin and coconut husks, and some wonderfully colourful food covers, shaped like conical hats but with a stippled surface.
Head north from the Khleang Pagoda along Mau Than 68 for a few minutes, and you’ll eventually come across the Dat Set Pagoda on the right. Also known as the Buu Son Tu Pagoda, it is constructed almost entirely from clay, save for a smart sheet-metal roof to keep the rain off. Dat Set makes a welcome change from the more numerous Khmer pagodas in this region of the delta. Chinese visitors flock here to see the pagoda’s impressive and highly colourful collection of clay statues; many are life-size, with animals and figures from Chinese mythology the most popular subjects. The pagoda is also home to some truly gargantuan candles that look like pillars, weigh around 200kg each and are said to last for seventy years of continuous burning.
Mahatup Pagoda, aka the Bat Pagoda, is famed for its vast community of golden- bodied fruit bats, which spectacularly take to the skies at dusk. A fire in 2007 destroyed much of the main building, but reconstruction proceeded smoothly and a large pond has now been added behind the temple. Plan to get here around 5.30pm – as the drop in temperature wakes the bats, you’ll see them spinning, preening and flapping their black wings, which can span as much as 1.5m.
Khmer monks have worshipped at this site for four hundred years, and it is often busy with Vietnamese visitors. Inside, bright murals bearing the names of the Khmer communities around the world that financed them recount the life of the Buddha. Outside, look out for the graves of four pigs behind the large hall to the right opposite the pagoda, each of which had five toenails (pigs usually have four). Since such animals are believed to bring bad luck, they are honoured with well-tended resting places to ward off any evil tendencies. The tombstones are painted with their likenesses and the dates of their passing on.
Beyond Soc Trang the landscape becomes progressively more waterlogged, and palms hug the banks of the canals that crisscross it. A little over 40km southwest of Soc Trang, Highway 1 dips south towards the town of Bac Lieu, before veering off west to Ca Mau. It may be the back end of nowhere, but even so Bac Lieu’s prosperity is evident in the new shopping complexes and upmarket homes around its 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 has the only accommodation between Soc Trang and Ca Mau, and is in good proximity to the nearby Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary.
Well worth the visit, the Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary is 6km southwest of Bac Lieu, towards the coast. There is an observation tower and a number of paths that crisscross the cajeput forest, along which local guides can lead you. Lots of birds can be seen here from July to December, including herons, egrets and, just possibly, endangered painted storks, but there is little to see from January to June. Guides are necessary and will appreciate a tip, even though their English skills are limited.
A pancake-flat region composed of silt deposited by the Mekong, the Ca Mau Peninsula constitutes not only the end of mainland Vietnam, but of former Indochina as well. Ca Mau itself, Vietnam’s southernmost town of any size, has a frontier feel to it, though rapid development has brought many changes 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 here and there. 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 speedboats that cover the journey to and from Rach Gia in less than three hours, while improvements to Highway 63 have made the journey by road less arduous. Incorporating Ca Mau in a circular tour of the area is now a tempting possibility, as it takes you off the tourist trail and through some classic delta scenes.
The marshes encircling Ca Mau form one of the largest areas of swampland in the world, covering about 1500 square kilometres and home to a variety of wading birds. As you might expect, the waterways are the most efficient means of travel in this part of the country – a point pressed home by the slender ferries moored in all the villages the road passes. The Ca Mau Peninsula was once 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 resilient pockets of mangrove and cajeput forests remain, inhabited by sea birds, wading birds, waterfowl and also honey bees, attracted by the mangrove blossoms.
Along the north bank of the Phung Hiep Canal, which divides the town, is the rag-tag squall of the market that lurks on the banks of the canal. A shantytown of corrugated iron and canvas, it is a bustling centre for packing fish for sale and shipment. As such, it doesn’t have the photogenic appeal of most delta markets – though it doesn’t have the tourists, either.
Worth a look for its ornate towers, Ca Mau’s Cao Dai Temple is evidence of how deeply rooted the religion is in the Mekong Delta; these temples are a distinctive feature of many delta towns and add a playful splash of colour with their Disneyesque decorations. This particular one isn’t great, to be honest – it scores high for concrete and low for atmosphere, and if you’ve made it as far as Ca Mau you’ll doubtless have seen better examples. However, a couple of parks opposite the temple offer shady areas to escape the bustle of town near the canal.
This is one of the town’s most intriguing attractions, at least during the rainy season (July to November), though its name is something of a misnomer. It is, in fact, a bird sanctuary teeming with storks and many other birds that nest in the trees in easily observed fenced-off areas. The huge park also has a mini-zoo featuring elephants, monkeys, deer and other animals, as well as lots of pavilions and picnic spots. Arrive about 4pm to explore the park, then watch the birds arriving to roost.
The two-kilometre journey to Ca Mau’s floating market gives a taste of riverine life, passing factories, a fish market and warehouses, plus lots of flotsam and jetsam, on the way to see a string of boats advertising their produce by suspending a sample from sticks above their bows. A definite risk on this trip is getting splashed in the wake of huge ferries speeding by.
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
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. If you don’t have your own transport, take a bus from Ca Mau to Rach Gia to follow this highway.
At Vinh Tuan it crosses a wide canal, allowing great views of river life, though parking on the bridge is illegal so you will need to park nearby and walk onto 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 (hence 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.
There’s something a little special about Rach Gia, a thriving port community of around two hundred thousand people, teetering precariously over the Gulf of Thailand. For most foreign visitors it is simply a place to overnight en route to
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. 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.
Rach Gia’s museum is the single worthwhile sight in the town centre, and even that probably won’t distract you for more than half an hour. The exterior will likely tempt you to take a few pictures – it’s a charming old mansion painted a fetching shade of colonial lemon. Inside, exhibitions include wartime photos and souvenirs, and some relics from nearby Oc Eo – shards of pottery, coins and bones, and the skeleton of a whale in a mesh-fronted shed to the right of the main building. The place has been given a recent refurb, and is now attractively decorated with lacquered panels, though there’s still little English-language signage.
Of Rach Gia’s handful of pagodas, only the Nguyen Trung Truc Temple is really worth making an effort to see. It’s also conveniently located right next to the jetty from which hydrofoils leave for Phu Quoc, so if you enter or leave Rach Gia in this manner, it’s quite possible to take a quick look on your way.
Inside, a portrait of Nguyen in a black robe and hat provides the main chamber with its centrepiece. Up at the altar, a brass urn flanked by slender storks standing on turtles is said to hold the ashes of local hero Nguyen Trung Truc. In front of the temple is a statue of Trung Truc drawing his sword; there’s a similar one in the very centre of town.
Small, breezy and extremely likeable, Ha Tien is not your typical delta town – here it’s the sea, rather than an assortment of rivers and rivulets, that shapes the place. It’s now buzzing with Western travellers for two reasons – one, the hydrofoil services to
Central Ha Tien still has a few quaint, shuttered colonial buildings in its backstreets, though recent beautifications include the new market buildings (which still smell like the old ones), a pleasant boulevard area where the old market once stood, and a fountain and walking paths along the so-called East Lake (Dong Ho). The “lake” is, in fact, a large inlet where the To Chau River flows out to the sea, and its banks now make for an enjoyable place to stroll as you can watch the fishing boats unloading on the opposite bank, and (if you’re in luck) enjoy an agreeable breeze.
The colourful Tam Bao Pagoda is set in tree-lined grounds dominated by an attractive lotus pond, a thirteen-storey tower and a large reclining Buddha. Out the back of the pagoda, said to have been founded by Mac Cuu himself, is a pretty garden tended by the resident nuns, its colourful flowers interspersed with tombs. In the rear chamber of the pagoda, a statue of the goddess with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes sits on a lurid pink lotus, while behind her are photos and funerary tablets remembering the local dead.
Mac Cuu lies buried on a hillside rising from a road named after him, just northwest of the centre. Before ascending the hill, check out his temple at the base; here, electric candles flicker constantly before Mac Cuu’s funerary tablet, keeping the memory of Ha Tien’s founding father alive. His actual grave is further up the hill, guarded by two swordsmen and statues of a white tiger and a blue dragon; you’ll be able to ascend further for partial views over the mop-tops of the coconut trees below and down to the sea.
A pleasant – if not idyllic – 400m-long 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. 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.
Head away from the beach to the hill rising from its north end, and you’ll soon find yourself at the base of a highly enjoyable rail ride. Pulleys tug your go-kart-like vehicle (which sits one or two passengers) up the hillside, and you’re ushered off at the top to take in some superlative views all the way into Cambodia. The way back down is even more fun, since you can control the braking with odd hand-levers – build up some space between yourself and the kart in front, and you can really let yourself fly.
You’ll see the 48m-high granite outcrop housing Thach Dong, or Stone Cave, long before you reach it. A monument shaped like a defiant clenched fist stands by the roadside, a memorial to 130 people killed by Khmer Rouge forces near here in 1978. From here, 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 can peer into
A string of offshore isles has earned the Hon Chong Peninsula 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, 30km south of Ha Tien, is blighted by unsightly cement factories belching out clouds of smoke, but head further along and you’ll find calm beaches fringed with palms and casuarinas, which remain among the most attractive in the delta. Right at the southern tip of the peninsula, the main area of note is fairly compact (a bay-like stretch of around 6km); with your own wheels it’s easy to scoot between the various sights and beaches.
The most picturesque stretch of sand on the peninsula is right at the end of the main road – Bai Duong beach, named after the casuarina trees that line it. After passing pandanus, tamarind and sugar-palm trees, the coastal track ends at a towering cliff, in front of which stands Sea and Mountain Pagoda (Chua Hai Son) and a cluster of souvenir and food stalls. Go into the temple grounds, and look for an opening in the rock that leads into Cave Pagoda (Chua Hong). A low doorway leads from its outer chamber to a grotto in the cliff’s belly, where statues of Quan Am and several Buddhas are lit by coloured lights. The cramped stone corridor that runs on from here makes as romantic an approach to a beach as you could imagine, though the stench of the resident bats somewhat spoils the atmosphere.
With its soft-sand beaches, swaying palms and limpid waters, it is no surprise that
Top image: Mekong delta, Vietnam © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock