For the whole of my life, I’ve always dreamed of the Mekong Delta. Originating from the Tibet Plateau, the mighty Mekong flows through China’s Yunnan Province, runs between Thailand and Laos, then sweeps through Cambodia before reaching Vietnam. Here, in the vast delta in the country's south, the river separates into innumerable canals and creeks. It’s in and around the waterways that we’ll find a world that moves to the rhythms of the Mekong.
For me, Mekong Delta is always a mysterious land I never stop questioning myself about its enchanting beauty.
Culture and civilization have developed around rivers throughout history, and the Mekong is no exception. The river forms a big part of the geography and lifestyle of the people living on it’s both sides. Chances are if you are traveling through Asia, you’ll come across the river more than just a few times.
Even though the river itself winds around 6 countries, Vietnam is the best place to see the river. It’s home to the Mekong Delta where the river ends. This rich land of biodiversity plays an important role in producing more than one-third of the country’s food crops. The opportunity to discover the beautiful natural landscape, tradition and authentic local life is what makes a trip to the Mekong Delta one of Vietnam’s most worthwhile journeys. While a Mekong river cruise is the most epic adventure, a day trip or two-day trip is enough to gain insight into this lush area.
If you don’t know where to start or if you want to have a glimpse of how the trip would be, follow me on my recent trip to the Mekong Delta.
Encompassing 40,500 square kilometers of southwestern Vietnam, and over 12 provinces of the country, the Mekong boasts a rich history, authentic culture, and laid-back vibe that's best experienced on the water. We started from Saigon. You may want to start early because we can never say anything about traffic in Saigon. After two and a half hours, we arrived at a small house in Phong Nam, Ben Tre where we walked through a garden to the river’s bank. There are a few piers around here but if you start from Phong Nam, you will have a longer boat journey. It means, more interesting.
Our boat trip started from here. The river was slow and calm, which was also the life of the Mekong. Everything was very different from what you can feel in other cities. No modern buildings, no crowded roads, no shops, and absolutely no honking. This was a kind of snapshot of daily life that was unique on its own.
People use the river to deliver many kinds of products to Saigon as well as other provinces in the South, but most of them are sand, rice, and fruit. Can you guess how many coconuts are packed on this boat?
Scattered along the flow were local workshops such as coconut products, bricks, and carpet weaving. They weren’t a kind of big ones with hundreds of workers. Small and intimate, these workshops were much like household businesses where people in a family worked together while waiting for new crops. I stopped at some workshops along the way. You will find them at the end of this post. Now, we will let the river continue to take us along in its flow and rhythm.
From the boat, we went ashore and cycled for about 30 minutes through small villages and rural landscapes to a local restaurant. The narrow lanes were ideal for two-wheeled exploration.
There were only us on the lance on that day. The rural life in Ben Tre is peaceful and quiet as if the only sound you can hear is the breezes blowing through the coconut foliage. We saw coconut trees everywhere in Ben Tre. Sweet and fresh, I've never tired of drinking coconut water.
We stopped for lunch which was served at a thatched roof open-air house, in a lush tranquil garden. The area was large and airy. The atmosphere was peaceful, very typical of the countryside of the Mekong Delta.
A delicious lunch was waiting for hungry bikers with a lot of green. All the dishes were local specialties: pumpkin flowers coated by flour, deep-fried “elephant-ear fish” and freshwater shrimps.
After lunch, we took a leisurely stroll under the shade of the trees to a small canal where a traditional wooden sampan was waiting for us. A woman rowed our sampan through the lush coconut mangrove forests. The journey was around 30 minutes but you might want it lasts forever. The route, that Exotic Voyages designed, allowed us to travel by boat - the popular transportation in the Mekong Delta - for a longer time than other routes.
I enjoyed so much the cool breezes and the peaceful feeling when cruising down the calm water. That's where you find out the true meaning of the enjoyment of the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future.
Dolce Far Niente is a common Italian saying which means "the sweetness of doing nothing". It was what I thought of as I was sailing idly on the narrow canal. Sometimes, simple idleness, peaceful feeling, and a little reflection are excellent therapy for the soul.
We drove further from Ben Tre to Can Tho city where we stayed overnight and explore a floating market the next day. Unlike busy Damnoen Saduak floating markets in Bangkok that's more commercial recently, floating markets on the Mekong still keep it quite local
There are local boats offering a trip to the floating market, but if you want a better experience and service, you can go with Bassac Cruise - one of the best cruises on the Mekong.
The cruise picked us up at Ninh Kieu Pier. Appetizing breakfast was served onboard. We found two daybeds on the sundeck to lounge on. 4 miles from the pier, there was Cai Rang Floating Market, the most popular floating market in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
Cai Rang Floating Market starts around 5:00 AM and runs until mid-day. The market conveys all the characteristics of local’s life in the western region. All the goods are transported to the market by boats: vegetables and fruits.
Most of the fruit and vegetables are farm products and specialties of Cai Rang Town, Chau Thanh District, and neighboring areas. Depending on the time of year, you can see different kinds of fruits as grapefruit, kiwi kumquat, pineapple, or durian. There are foods and drinks cooked on small boats to serve hungry sellers and buyers.
Pay a little attention, you will see wooden boats here are easily noticeable: Their bows are painted in red and decorated with two eyes on both sides and an anchor in the middle. The eyes are painted lively because they are considered the soul of the boat that will keep the boat away from the devils living under the water. Boats here also operate like “taxis,” very convenient for tourists.
From the boat, I saw stilt houses built on both sides of the river and the small boats they use to commute on the water. I could also see the life behind an opened door: women cooking lunch and washing clothes on the river, children running and playing on the boat that they call home. For many, boats are not only a means of transportation but a business place, kitchen, and shelter that their family lives relies on.
As I mentioned above, we went ashore sometimes along the way to visit local workshops. Coconut candies, bricks, broom weaving, fishing net making, there are uncountable local workshops on the Mekong Delta. People used to make handicrafts for their own subsistence first and sell their products to neighbors and to other villages. Even though these household businesses are reducing in number due to the development of the economy, there are still many.
Our first stop was a brick factory when we cruised the Tien Giang River. Seasonal workers who are farmers still use traditional methods to make bricks. They use a mold to create the brick then let them dry for 2 to 3 days under the sun. After that, they pile the bricks into the brickyard and use rice husks to heat the bricks for 3 to 4 weeks, depending on the weather. 1,500 bricks are lined up in the furnace each time.
A few steps from the brick workshop is a coconut workshop. Many coconut workshops are lined along the waterway as Ben Tre is the coconut capital. Same to the brick factory, workers still use their hands in every procedure.
It’s surprising to know that nothing of coconut fruit is useless. Coconut meat is to make coconut milk and coconut candy. Coir, or coconut fiber, is used to make floor mats, and mattresses and to custom the soil to plant orchids. There are other factories that send boats to collect the shells and then produce them into activated high-quality charcoal. And the coconut water, you know what it is for!
Another workshop we visited on our trip was a noodle workshop, after the floating market. The family makes make round thin rice cakes, dry them naturally under the sun, then cut them into long strands that later will be used to make Hu Tieu noodles – a popular breakfast in South Vietnam. We found a small stall selling Hu Tieu just near the workshop. Mekong Delta is the biggest rice-producing region in Vietnam so its rice noodle is considered the best in Vietnam.
You can make a day tour of the Mekong by traveling to Ben Tre or Cai Be then drive back to Saigon in a day. You can also make a 2 or 3-day tour just like I did by adding Can Tho to your itinerary. Anyone who has more time can go further and make it a 5 or 7 days trip or even longer. Mekong is a vast area and many of them are unexplored. You will never be disappointed with your decision.
Mekong Delta in Vietnam, or the west, plays an important role in the country’s economy. Its farmers contribute 95% of rice exports, 65% of aquatic products, and 70% of the country’s fruits, but the investment in infrastructure isn’t enough compared to other places in the country. The region is not developing to its potential, and many people live in the poor condition, so tourism can be a solution that helps when we can contribute to the Mekong while we explore its authentic life and beautiful nature.