The Charm of Vietnam Mekong Delta (Guides and Downloadable Itinerary)

13 Sep, 2023 | A-> Z Guide

Women wearing Nón Lá, rowing small boats; Large vessels with loads of rice; wooden boats with eyes painted on each side of the prow and family laundry flapping along the boatside introducing a life on the river. Mekong is simply a magical charm.

Mekong, the 12th longest river in the world, originates from the Tibet Plateau down through China’s Yunnan Province, runs between Thailand and Laos, and sweeps through Cambodia before reaching Vietnam. A massive system of innumerable rivers, canals, and creeks has been the lifeblood of Southeast Asia for thousands of years.

The Mekong Delta, located in the southernmost territory bordered by Cambodia, is the most fertile land in Vietnam. Thanks to its wealth and fertility, the river is a vital lifeline so that almost anywhere we see something flowering, fruiting, and being harvested. Lazy rivers meandering slowly seawards; Women wearing Nón Lá row small boats; Large vessels with loads of rice; wooden boats with eyes painted on each side of the prow to protect them from Gods of the sea and family laundry flapping along the boatside introducing a life on the river. Mekong is a magical charm that I have never been able to explain.

Understanding The Mekong River Delta

The Mekong River Delta has 12 provinces and cities, home to 21.5 million of Vietnam's 97.47 million people. In and around the maze of waterways, we find a whole world that moves to the rhythms of the Mekong, the unique ways of life, the fishing villages, lush islands, ancient Khmer temples, and an evocating history.

The Mekong River Delta plays a vital role in the economy. This area is the largest center for agriculture and fishery production in Vietnam. It contributes to 58% of the rice production and 40% of the seafood production in Vietnam. However, in terms of income, this region is still lower than the other parts of the country. Many said that the investment in infrastructure is not commensurate with its economic development potential. 

Must-visit Destinations in The Mekong 

Do you really need a week to travel to the Mekong? My answer is no. You still can understand the Mekong thoughtfully if you choose the right places to go and the right things to do. 

Below are six destinations in Mekong you can save to your bucket list for your Vietnam vacation.

1. Ben Tre. The Coconut Capital

90 kilometers from Saigon, Ben Tre is often considered a weekend getaway to escape the bustle and hustle of the city. This place is also known as the coconut capital thanks to the rich alluvium accredited by the four rivers: Tien River, Ba Lai River, Ham Luong River, and Co Chien River. Two-thirds of the total number of households grow coconuts. Therefore, you see that tree everywhere. In Ben Tre, the most delicious drink is fresh coconut water; the most famous candy is coconut candy, and the most popular craft is carpets woven from coconut fibre.       

Coconut workshops and brick kilns are still working on both sides of the river. Most of the tours will allow you to go ashore to visit and learn about the daily work of the locals. Cycling and walking are pleasant activities, but nothing can beat a rowing boat cruise on a small canal where your boat drifts slowly into luxurious water coconut forests in silence. 

Rate: 7/10

2. Cai Be, Tien Giang. The Paradise of Tropical Fruits

If this is your first time in the Mekong, Cai Be is the place to start. Only 110 kilometers from Saigon, equivalent to a 2-hour drive, it’s possible to make a day tour to Cai Be. 

The orchard with exotic, tropical fruits might be the most famous thing in Cai Be. So come in summer to cycle through orchards of yellow mangoes, light brown longans, red rambutans, and dragon fruits. You can have fresh fruits any time of the day, literally. Sweetest mangoes sell at $1 per kilogram. Other fruits are the same price and taste just as delicious. 

The Cai Be River confluence area used to be a busy floating market where people came to trade local agricultural products. Since land roads have developed, transportation between provinces has become easier. The market gradually disappeared. But you still can embark on a boat and cruise the river to recall the old charm and witness Cai Be beautiful church from the waterway.

Rate: 7/10

3. Tra Vinh. The Land of Khmer Culture

Only 130km from Saigon, Tra Vinh is as beautiful and peaceful as a sunny day. Still, not many travelers know about this place. I only met a few tourists in the three days I was there. Unlike the winding roads in the mountain trip, the road in the Mekong region is really smooth, making three-hour driving enjoyable. Local people in Tra Vinh love to decorate their homeland and keep it clean. Colorful flowers are planted along the roadsides and trash bins are placed almost every 100 meters.

There are nearly 300,000 Khmer people in Tra Vinh’s population of 1 million, accounting for 27.6% of the Khmer population of the whole country. The Khmer culture is easy to notice no matter where you are in Tra Vinh. You’ll find it in the language, the food, the dark skin and big eyes of the locals, and the outstanding architecture of 142 large and small Khmer-style pagodas and monasteries painted in rich shades of lilac, orange, and turquoise. 

I cycled through immense rice fields about to ripen and orange groves laden with fruits and fragrances. I stopped at a 700-year-old monastery where I had a talk with a monk who anointed me with water from a silver chalice and blessed me in Khmer. There was a middle-aged woman waiting to ask the monk if she could ever find her lost earring. There were also children who came to the monastery in summer break to learn Khmer script that isn’t taught in their school. There, I knew, with the Khmer people, that the pagoda was where they came to entrust their faith, where children came to learn to be proud and preserve their culture by preserving their language. The pagoda isn’t only a religious site. It’s an integral part of their lives.

Rate: 9/10

4. Can Tho. The Mekong Delta’s Capital City

3.5 to 4-hour drive from Saigon, Can Tho is the largest and most developed city in the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam. You can make the travel less boring by stopping at Cai Be or Ben Tre. 

Can Tho is undeniably the most famous destination, thanks to photos of its Cai Rang Floating Market seen in many postcards and magazines introducing Vietnam. That market used to be the busiest floating market in the Mekong. However, like Cai Be Market, it lost its original beauty with the development of the road network. Most of the boats you find on the river sell breakfast, coffee, and fruits for visitors. Only a few of them are for trading products. Not as beautiful as it was, but it’s still OK to visit. Board a local boat selling pineapples to see how skillful Vietnamese people are when they peel the pineapple before tasing its tropical flavor. 

Fruit orchards are abundant in Can Tho so visit in summer. Can Tho Night Market is pretty big, with many stalls selling food, clothing, and souvenirs. However, in the past few years, Can Tho has been a favorite destination. So, the market is quite touristic and noisy.

Rate: 6.5/10

5. Chau Doc, An Giang. The Heyday of Catfish Kingdom

In addition to being the capital of rice and fruits, the Mekong Delta is also the source of seafood in Vietnam. The popular name is Chau Doc, An Giang which is 190 kilometers from Saigon.

The heyday was in the years 1990 - 2000. The number of catfish rafts in Chau Doc increased from 560 to 4,200. Many farmers became billionaires. In 2003, after the lawsuit in the US market, fishery in Chau Doc suffered heavy losses. Visiting Chau Doc rafting village these days, I no longer hear the bustling sound of fish kicking and catching bait echoing all along the river like it was before, but stories retelling about the glorious times. 

We sailed the Vinh Te canal, which runs parallel to the Vietnam-Cambodia border. It was dug 200 years ago, from 1819 to 1824. This canal was crucial in border strategy and economic development, showing the wise view of King Gia Long, the first King of the Nguyen dynasty, in the early 19th century. From the boat, I could see Cambodia far away on one side. On the other side, floating houses lay neatly, showing a peaceful life along the waterway. 

Another noticeable feature in Chau Doc is the image of toddy palm trees scattered in the vast rice fields. The farmers often collect this special fruit in the morning. They climb the tall trees and pick the ripe fruits by hand. Palm sugar and jaggery cake are specialties of Chau Doc.

Tra Su cajuput forest is a precious gem for those who love nature. July is the season when storks come to nest. Thousands of storks flew and perched on tree branches, making my trip in the mangrove forest even more interesting than ever.

Rate: 8.5/10

6. Ca Mau. The Flooded Forest Adventure

One of my favorite children's books is Southern Land. It got adapted for a popular TV series of the same name that holds the hearts of many children of our generation. The story is about the adventures of a 10-year-old boy searching for his father throughout the river delta of Mekong. Ca Mau, Dat Mui, and U Minh Forest are described in the novel as wild, uninhabited areas with fertile land, flooded forests, and wet swamps filled with crocodiles stealthily lurking for prey. Since then, I have always dreamed of going to Ca Mau to see with my own eyes what is written in the book. Luckily, I made it come true.

The southernmost land of Vietnam, 300km from Saigon city, is famous for 70,000 hectares of flooded mangrove forests and the highest quality sea crabs in Vietnam. A speedboat took us to the estuary before entering Ca Mau National Forest. The wind blew our hair. The atmosphere was quiet. Our companions were wild birds that occasionally flew past in front of us. It felt like I was traveling deep into my childhood adventure. Of course, I didn't expect to see any crocodiles popping up, threatening.

Rate: 8/10

Fun Activities in The Mekong

You won’t find adventurous activities or hardcore treks here. Beautiful nature and laidback lifestyle are fit perfectly for leisure activities that require you to slow down and feel the place with all your senses. 

1. Take A Boat Ride

Interlacing canal systems is a specific factor of the Mekong River Delta. Taking a boat ride is a popular activity in any place here. The choice is diverse. A rowing boat allows you to get closer to local life in small canals;  a motorboat takes you faster on large rivers; a speedboat is suitable if you travel deep into the wild nature.

For those who want to stay overnight on the river, there are many boats in the Mekong that offer tours of 2 days and longer, with routes going down and up the river. You can connect with Siem Reap and Phnom Penh on your excursions.

2. Do The Cycling

Gorgeous rice fields and fruit-laden orchards lie on shady village paths. Where in Vietnam is more beautiful than the Mekong River Delta for a relaxing bike ride? You can take a break anywhere in the middle of your route, enjoy the rural scenery in peace, and feel grateful for this simple joy. 

3. Walk The Village

Imagine this. You walk on a small path. Rural life is within reach of your hands. Summer breezes play with your hair and make the rice stalks sway in a waltz melody. Here and there, people collect thot not (toddy palm fruits) or coconuts. The path takes you into a charming village of friendly, warm people. There, you can watch them working in the fields, weaving, and cooking meals for the family. I don’t think there are many things more beautiful than that picture.

4. Try The Hammock Cafe

The name tells it all. There are cafes along the roads offering hammocks for travelers to take a rest while having a drink. Hammock Cafe is a typical image found only in the delta. You can order a cup of coffee for $1 and take a nap for two hours on the hammock. It’s also a good example of the leisure lifestyle of people here. 

5. Buy The Lottery

I don’t see any destination in Vietnam that has more lottery sellers than in the Mekong River Delta. They sell lottery tickets in a cafe. They have small stalls on every corner of the streets. They cycle or walk with a bunch of tickets on hand inviting you to try your luck. Children sell tickets during their summer break. Elderly people sell tickets to have more income. For each ticket that costs VND10,000 (~ $0.4), they earn VND1,100. One can sell 100 tickets per day, on average. 

Some people said that people in the Mekong believe in luck rather than hard work to change their fate. Others said it was easy to win the lottery there. The owner of my homestay in Tra Vinh told me that, six people in her family had won the lottery. The smallest win was $12,500 and the biggest win was $41,500. After the talk, I bought lottery tickets almost every day. After 7 days, I won nothing. I guessed I wasn’t lucky enough ^_^. But that experience is definitely great fun.

Great Food Must Try in The Mekong

Cuisine in the Mekong Delta easily distinguishes itself from others due to its unique taste, which comes from many kinds of fish sauces. Thanks to the interlaced system of canals and streams, this delta has long been dubbed the "kingdom of fish." People make sauce from fish, shrimp, and squid and use it in everyday meals as a single dish or an ingredient to cook the noodles and other dishes. 

1. All Kind of Noodles

I can name a few dozen kinds of noodles in the Mekong. Depending on the ingredients to make the broth and topping (mainly seafood,) you have a different one. The good thing is all of them are worth trying. Noodles are served with basil, bean sprouts, banana stems, lemon, and sliced chili. People in the Mekong prefer their food cooked a little bit sweeter. Therefore, sometimes, you find a small sugar jar on the table to add to your noodles.

Price: $1 - $1.5 per bowl of noodles

2. Grilled Banana

Easy to find in Tien Giang. The main ingredients of this food are ripe bananas. They peel the bananas, wrap them in a thin layer of sticky rice fragrant with coconut milk (almost every dish in the Mekong has coconut,) and another layer of banana leaf to cover, and grill them over charcoal. The seller continuously turns the bananas to make sure they are cooked evenly. When the banana leaf changes from green to dark brown, the sticky rice is perfectly cooked to a chewy and crispy texture. The fragrant smell of sticky rice, coconut, and grilled bananas stimulates the hunger of gluttony.

Price: $0.5/ banana

3. Broken Rice with Grilled Pork Chop

Broken rice is a popular dish in southern Vietnam, but it’s said that broken rice in Long Xuyen, An Giang is the best. Grill pork, egg meatloaf, and pork skin cut into thin slices and top on broken grains of rice. A spoon of sour, sweet fish sauce with steamed green onions is poured over before serving. Having a plate of it makes you a bit hungry. Two portions definitely make you too full. My advice is to eat one only and let your cravings remind you of this simple yet tasty dish forever.

Price: $1.5 per portion

Downloadable Itinerary For The Best Mekong Trip

Many Mekong trips start from Saigon. Once you’re out of town, easy traffic and pleasant scenery make the trip enjoyable. 

If you are a first-time visitor, you might want to know how many days are the best for a Mekong trip. It all depends on how long you stay in Vietnam and how much you want to know about it. For me, five to seven days if you have plenty of time. Ten days if you add Cambodia and Laos to the trip. But even when you have only a few days, you still can have a wonderful time to explore this beautiful region.

Our three-day itinerary is free to download. It is just a sample itinerary that can be adjusted to your preference. You can always chat with us to design your itinerary based on your interests and the number of days you want to spend in the Mekong. If you have never been to Vietnam, we have some essential tips that help you to know Vietnam better.

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