What better way is there to explore one of the most extensive delta networks in the world than by boat? The mighty Mekong River meets the sea in the far south of Vietnam and before doing so, it meanders through some of the most colourful countryside in South East Asia.
To travel around the area on a tour is the cheapest, easiest and some would say least rewarding method of transport. Unless you are prepared to spend the dollars (or dong), it seems that the visit often leaves travellers a little like the region; flat and washed out.
So, my partner and I headed out independently from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) through the Mekong on a four-day trip. HCMC, the former Saigon, is a fabulously chaotic and noisy city and well worth spending a couple of days in. Staying in the infamous Pham Ngo Lao area, you really get a taste of city living with street hawkers, bazaars, piercing studios and more electronic shops than you could shake your mp3 player at!
The night market at Ben Thanh has some very interesting food stalls, with meals that are spicy, fresh and tasty, although I was not tempted by the fried frog rolling. There are some fantastic live music venues including Acoustic Bar which was absolutely rammed with locals listening to strange power ballads and Vietnamese love songs until the band stopped and they all emptied out at high speed for the next hot spot… the location of which we were sadly not aware of.
Heading out to the Delta from the city is fairly straightforward, with a local bus taking the route out to the Mien Tay bus station where you can buy a ticket from any one of numerous sellers for a large bus or minivan, complete with all the colourful local characters. Once out of the bus station, one of the passengers will invariably transform into a high-speed and high-pitch seller of some random product — in our case, some delightful fake silver jewellery, which we respectfully declined.
First stop was Mytho; famous for its numerous delta islands. We found Xe Om (motorbike taxi) transport pretty quickly and headed to a reasonably-priced hotel on the banks of the river where they were more than happy to organise a boatman for us to take us out for five hours. This included stops at all the islands, a bike ride and a firefly cruise. By the time we headed out, all the big tour buses from HCMC had been and gone so it was fairly sedate and mellow.
The area is very geared up for the tourist dollar and everywhere you look there are opportunities to buy various products from honey to coconut candy to tea. The hard sell had been and gone with the big buses though, so we didn’t feel pressured to buy at all. We took a narrow boat through the middle of one island and then decided to try some coconut candy, before taking some decidedly rickety bikes around Ben Tre island. The last part of the tour was a firefly cruise in the dark, which was truly magical; they looked like fairy lights on all the trees and there were hundreds of them! Don’t expect a plethora of places to eat in Mytho, but we managed to find a bright-yellow place where we played menu roulette, with a 50% success rate.
Moving onto Vinh Long, we found an authentic Vietnamese homestay simply by walking around the town. It seemed that everyone was in on the homestay business and had photos and maps and tours on offer. We headed over on the local ferry to An Binh village where we were scootered to our destination, to be met by various animals, children and a verandah with hammocks on it. The narrow waterways running up to the property were barely wet as the river was affected by the low tide, but the family’s boat was moored next to the verandah, ready for action in the early morning.
Again we found ourselves on two rickety wheels, exploring the island by tiny pathways through paddy fields, meeting local children, checking out the produce in the local shops and enjoying a cold drink before stopping at an internet café and heading back for a delicious dinner of the local delicacy: elephant-ear fish with rice pancakes and fresh vegetables. If you do head to Vinh Long; plan for a couple of days in this awesomely chilled-out spot.
Next stop was the infinitely more cosmopolitan centre of Cantho where we took a 5am trip to the Cai Rang floating market. The market was a real spectacle, with floating coffee shops and whole families, including chickens and dogs, on their boats. Each stall had their main produce displayed high on a pole above the boat, so you could spot them from all vantage points. My favourite were the huge watermelons suspended in the air like zeppelins, though I wasn’t as enamoured by the rubbish floating in the side tributaries of the river, where it collected in big piles.
There are some great places to eat in Can Tho and some good shopping to be had too. From here, you can head onwards to other spots in the Mekong Delta, including Rach Gia, the gateway to the fantastic Phu Quoc Island or one of the Cambodian border towns of Ha Tien or Chau Doc…or head back to HCMC, there’s always something happening in the big smoke!