Beginning way up in the mountainous regions of China and Tibet, the mighty Mekong River flows for some 2,700 miles, through the heart of Southeast Asia, until it drains out into the sea at the Mekong Delta. My first experience of the Mekong was on a trip to southern Laos, where I became enchanted with the fascinating way of life along the banks of Southeast Asia’s longest river. It was a major highlight of my trip and so, a year later, when I found myself in the south of Vietnam, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend some time exploring the Mekong Delta.
Getting to the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is in the very south of Vietnam. Many people get to it from Ho Chi Minh City, the business capital and largest city in Vietnam, also known as Saigon. There are loads of tours available from the travel agents around town. If you want more time and flexibility it’s also perfectly possible to go it alone. Having been on plenty of tours already, during my month in Vietnam, I decided on the latter option. It probably didn’t save me much money but I enjoyed being able to explore at my own pace. You can also book little tours along the way.
So, after some research, I managed to navigate my way to the correct bus station, in Saigon, and jumped on a bus to Can Tho, the largest city of the Mekong Delta and the perfect jumping off point for further exploration of the region.
Exploring Can Tho
As the biggest city and transport hub of the region, Can Tho is a lively place. That said it’s still fairly relaxed as far as Asian cities go. The area along the riverfront has pleasant gardens, small hotels and some decent restaurants. It’s a good place to wander in the day, taking in the way life along the Mekong, and really comes alive at night, when it’s fun to sit at a street side restaurant drinking cheap beer and people watching.
The main tourist draw for Can Tho are the floating markets. I was up at the crack of dawn, after organising a woman to row us along the river to where the boats were selling their, usually very specific, produce: bananas on one boat, mangoes on another, pumpkins, onions, pineapples and all other manner of fruit and veg spilling out of the windows and over the sides of others.
Delving further into the Mekong Delta
After Can Tho my next port of call was Vinh Long, not usually a destination in itself but more a gateway to the islands nearby. In Vinh Long, I organised a homestay, on the island An Binh, and a tour of the surrounding waterways for the following day. These homestays and tours can probably be organised directly from Ho Chi Minh City. If you only have a couple of days to play with, I’d recommend a trip to An Binh over Can Tho; it’s more rural and the way of life on the islands is truly captivating and unique.
Exploring An Binh
After organising things at a travel agent’s, in Vinh Long, I was taken by boat to a homestay on the island, An Binh. The homestay itself was more of a bed and breakfast; we helped cook our evening meal but didn’t eat with the family and were mainly left to our own devices. Shortly after arriving we were shown some bicycles, which we took off round the island. This was a highlight of my trip to the Mekong Delta: the pathways winding through verdant orchards full of jackfruit, mangoes, bananas, past children playing, old men wandering, streams trickling, by a school and a church, over a bridge, people saying hello. It was like being transported to another place and time – the nonchalant pace of life soaks through to your bones and leaves you wondering why anyone would live any other way.
The tour the next day was good too. The waterways around An Binh were much cleaner than those around Can Tho. We had a guide who spoke good English and gave us a glimpse into what goes on around the islands: a sea salt refinery, a pop rice and coconut toffee factory, alcohol distillation, more orchards and a plant nursery.
Back to Ho Chi Minh City
It was then back to Vinh Long and on again to Ho Chi Minh City, for my final days in Vietnam. There’s plenty more to explore in the Mekong Delta, I’m sure, but at least I got a taste of it. I could have stopped at Saigon, fairly exhausted from a month’s journey down the whole length of Vietnam, but I’m glad I didn’t – it was well worth the extra push.