A woman navigates the trails of the Mekong Delta. By Aaron Joel Santos
Whether firmly on land or floating with the river current, the Mekong Delta is flush with an array of local wildlife, a range of historical sights and countless incredible landscapes. From the quiet towns of My Tho and Ben Tre to the floating markets of Can Tho, the flower farms of Sa Dec or the stunning, waterlogged landscapes of Chau Doc, there is plenty to keep travellers occupied in the Delta.
From Ho Chi Minh City, single-day travellers are likely to visit either the islands near My Tho, Ben Tre or Vinh Long. Head to My Tho or Ben Tre and you'll find several verdant islands on the Tien River containing everything from fruit orchards and coconut candy factories to the sanctuary of Vietnam’s Coconut Monk, a man who devoted his life to the worship of –you guessed it– coconuts.
Veer west toward Vinh Long instead and you'll pass Cai Be, whose French colonial cathedral stands in view of the town's famed floating market. The provincial capital of Vinh Long, too, boasts a massive island on the Co Chien River that remains pleasantly undeveloped.
Those who venture further into the Delta will likely make their first stop in Can Tho, the region's largest city. Fast developing into a proper city, this laid-back riverside hub boasts its own collection of cultural sights, such as Cai Rang floating market, the most famous of its kind in the Mekong. Other attractions include the Binh Thuy ancient house, a prime example of French colonial architecture, as well as various temples and pagodas.
Deeper into the region, each small town provides a taste of the Delta's laid-back way of life but with its own unique flair. Tra Vinh is occupied by Khmer pagodas and orange-robed monks, while Sa Dec houses the former residence of Huynh Thuy Le, a wealthy Chinese businessman with whom Saigon-born French novelist Marguerite Duras had an affair. Their relationship later served as the inspiration for Duras' novel L'Amant (The Lover) and its 1992 film adaptation. A series of local pagodas and the town's popular flower farms also draw day visitors who are passing between larger Mekong destinations.
Nature lovers will appreciate the Delta's collection of wildlife sanctuaries, particularly the beautifully green Tram Chim National Park, home to a quarter of all bird species found in Vietnam, including the sarus crane, the world's tallest flying bird. Just a stone's throw from the Cambodian border, Tra Su Bird Sanctuary is also a popular sport among birders, with plenty of winged wildlife in its flooded forests.
In addition to bird-watching, visitors to nearby Chau Doc are free to explore Sam Mountain, a local religious sight and the area’s highest point. The views from its 754-foot peak encompass all the vibrant wildlife and fertile fields of the Mekong region.
Scores of tour operators in Ho Chi Minh City offer single-day trips into the Mekong Delta. Most trips ferry visitors from the southern hub to either My Tho, Ben Tre or Vinh Long. Each of these tours has their own pros and cons—those who opt for the My Tho and Ben Tre route will find it quite touristy and a little more pre-packaged than Vinh Long; however, travelers who choose the latter tour should note that the floating market at Cai Be is often wrapping up by the time you arrive. In the end, it's a matter of preference: either a laid-back boat excursion to fruit orchards, a coconut candy factory and the former sanctuary of a local religious figure in My Tho or Ben Tre, or Cai Be's floating market and sleepy river island in Vinh Long.
Those who can spare at least two days for the Mekong Delta would do best to visit Can Tho, the region's hub. Arrive on your first day and take some time to explore the town, stopping by the charming riverfront Ong Pagoda and taking a wander around Ninh Kieu Pier before paying a visit to the Can Tho Museum as well as the local Wat Pitukhosarangsay, Can Tho's local Khmer pagoda. Make a point of booking an early morning boat for the following day so you can venture out to the city's famous floating market. In the evening, unwind by the riverside, where a small night market takes place before turning in early to prepare for the next day.
In the early morning, hop on a boat out to Cai Rang floating market, where you can see firsthand the bustle of an on-the-water trading post. Depending upon your arrangement with the local boat driver, you can spend as little as a couple hours or as long as a full day exploring the many nearby tributaries. If you arrive back to the pier in time, pay a visit to the Binh Thuy ancient house before returning to the city in the late afternoon.
The best time to travel through this region is during the dry season between October/November and April/May.
While there is an airport in Can Tho and a handful of small hangars in various Delta towns, the primary mode of transportation in this region is bus. In some cases, boats are available –a few tour operators offer Mekong river cruises from HCMC to Cambodia– however, whether you're using over-land or water transport, you'll need to set aside extra travel time here.
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