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The best things to see in the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta, located in the south west of Vietnam, has long held a very important place in the lives of those who make a living from the river. With an intricate system of river channels and tributaries, it winds itself over a massive land space (nearly 40,000 square km), before emptying into the ocean.
As we motored along the muddy waters, I was instantly pleased we had chosen to spend three days/two nights onboard one of the many boats that can be hired on the Mekong. Being out here for one night is quite simply not enough.
From Can Tho to Cai Be (return), these are my best things to see in the Mekong Delta. It’s a trip I will always remember.
Cai Be Floating Markets
With boats all bunched together, the floating market is a sight to see. If there is one activity that happens along the Mekong that is authentic and steeped in history it is these floating markets. With the river being the lifeblood of these regions, the floating markets became central to the livelihoods and the functioning of those who made the river banks their home.
With no way of crossing from side to side, and with no ready access to larger commercial operations, the river became the conduit for trade and living. Customers pull up alongside the boats and either conduct their trade over the side, or hop on board.
Long, thin poles can be seen jutting up from most of these boats. At the very top will usually be a sample of what the boat sells. See a pineapple swaying in the breeze up there and you’ll know that this is the place to buy those sweet juicy tropical fruits. It’s like a river billboard.
We had the opportunity to jump on board a boat and have a chat to the owner about her wonderful fruit. Showing the Vietnamese hospitality that we had become accustomed to, before long we had some samples of water apple, jack fruit and longan to try. In return, my husband bought some of her (apparently) wonderful coffee. As a non coffee drinker, I’ll take his word for it.
Unfortunately, not even the Mekong Delta is exempt from change and the impact of modern technology and infrastructure. With a new bridge recently built, residents can now easily, and quickly, make their way from one side of the river to another. Trading patterns have also changed with larger, central markets establishing and drawing local villages towards them.
Whilst I’m a strong advocate for change, I can’t help but wish that the floating markets would continue to have a place in the heart of these communities.
The younger generations are also turning their back on hundreds of years of tradition and hard work, instead looking towards the large cities for different opportunities. Our tour guide cheekily told us they wanted to work in air conditioning. With no family members to continue the legacy, it dies slowly.
Cai Rang Floating Market
These markets are a great example of how they all once were. Located only 6km from the main city of Can Tho, they have a larger population, and a lot more tourists, from which to support their business. As such, they are the largest floating wholesale market in the region. This area can get quite busy with tour boats. Having our own boat and guide made this a lot simpler and we were able to get fairly close to the activity.
The great thing about the floating markets is that there isn’t a souvenir in sight.
The boats all bunched together
A lady buying her produce from one of the floating market boats
Visit to a village
In a world of highlights, this would be my number one, with an afternoon spent wandering through a small river village. As we docked the boat, the sounds of the radio permeated through the trees on the river bank. It was Saturday and the village was alive with community activity. Despite tour boats bringing visitors through on a regular basis, the locals are still both delighted to see us and somewhat amused that we find their life so interesting. Whilst many of them are exuberant, especially the kids, it’s always wise to be watchful of body language and ensure your presence isn’t making anyone uncomfortable.
More markets give further insight into the simple lives of the river people. As we walk through them, the hygiene factors (or lack thereof) can’t help but be noticed. I love seeing this authenticity, but at the same time, it’s these moments that make me realise that I travel to learn, but also to appreciate what I have.
Of course these people are born and bred here, so flies on meat and vegetables placed on the muddy ground does not seem out of place at all.
Rubbish is a real problem here, and indeed in other villages along the river. It’s difficult to understand sometimes, such is the value of this river in all that they do, but the level of education around rubbish, and the infrastructure to dispose of it is sadly lacking.
We were followed round the village by a group of local kids that we met at their school. Having spent some time with them, they weren’t keen on letting us go. It made for some funny interactions along the way. 450 children go to this school, an unappealing concrete structure, with open sewer holes and a concrete playground. Still, this is where the village’s future generation are learning English, opening up different opportunities for their future. They were keen to practice their English with us.
Rice plays a very important role in the Mekong Delta. Used as a primary food source, its by-products are used as fuel to drive factory kilns, and as the base for many income producing crafts. The woman here is planting rice plants into the bare spots in the fields where the original plants haven’t grown. This is such a difficult job. Bent over all day, in water and mud. Another example of just how hard these people work.
This was part of the rice factory that we stopped at. The equipment that is used is fairly antiquated, but in these country areas, they make do with what they have. The rice products are produced in and around the roaming dogs and chickens, pecking at the bits on the floor.
This woman sits at the front of her one room house on the edge of the rice fields and makes squares for baskets that are onsold to tourists. She squats here, all day, making on average six squares which is enough for one basket. In return, she receives 20,000 VND (or around AUD$1.20). It’s another of those moments when you can’t help but compare the difference in our worlds. The other thing I do notice however is that she is happy. Happy with her lot in life, and happy that she has a job. Makes you think doesn’t it?
Walking through the village means walking in and through the resident’s backyards. Obviously some courtesy needs to be extended when doing so, but they are more than willing to have you explore.
As we walked along the river and past the house above, these kids were out playing hopscotch (it was another name in Vietnamese that I can’t remember). Always keen to join in, the kids giggled as I threw their rock and jumped over their chalk drawn squares on the ground.
Taking a ride in a sampan
The beauty of the Mekong Delta is the small waterways that can only be accessed via the sampans. The locals of course use these boats themselves as a means of transportation, whereas for non locals, a trusty driver makes the process far easier. There is an absolute art to managing these boats.
Cycling through a village
Riding a bike through another local village added another dimension to our time here.
We stopped at Mr Kiet’s House, now owned by a wealthy businessman. With its original structure dating back to 1838, there is plenty of history to be found here. It’s dark and moody inside, with heavily carved wall and ceiling panels, and large pieces of furniture. Now fully restored, the house is home to many antiquities, a restaurant and a beautiful garden.
I enjoyed being able to walk through the restaurant back of house, where all the women were busily preparing lunch for the day.
Visiting a coconut candy business
Manual machinery is used to make a variety of coconut candy, flavoured with such things as ginger, cacao and pandan. From humble beginnings as a coconut, it is shredded, crushed for the milk and cream, boiled into a caramel mixture and made into the candy. In a future article, I will go through some of these important industries in the Mekong Delta in more detail.
Sampling local food
We ate so much food onboard our boat. The Vietnamese love to eat and love to feed you too. The street food we got to try in the local villages was great too.
On the side of the road in one village, a local barbecues quail and pig rectum. And whilst the air was filled with wonderful smells, willing us to try the smoky meats, the quail made it to my plate but alas the pig rectum didn’t. That one stayed on a toothpick of its own so my husband could try it out. I wasn’t bothered though, the quail was full of crispy, caramelised bbq goodness. I don’t think he will be going back for a second serve anytime soon either, but he gets the tick for being very brave.
Whilst there was much about Vietnamese cuisine that I loved, dessert and sweet things were not one of them. At a small village we tried the cubes made from coconut cream and tapioca flour, flavoured with pandan. Keeping with the pandan theme we then had a roll made with the same flour, wrapped around dessicated coconut and mung beans. Definitely not sweet, more savoury, and definitely not something I’d return for a second serve.
Sunrise on the river
If you are not usually an early riser, making the effort to get up and see a sunrise is really something you must do. The days we were on the river were also filled with thunderstorms, making the late afternoon and dusk skies too cloudy and gloomy for any decent sunset. Sunrises are definitely your better option.
As the sun commences its day here, so too does the river, coming to life with the noises of the birds and the course, but somewhat comforting noise of the boat motors. It’s a wonderful time of day to experience the beauty of the Mekong.
This was taken off the back of our boat and I’m sure you will agree it was definitely worth getting up for.
A magical morning on the Mekong Delta
Family run rice paper business
Despite it being incredibly hot outside, the seering heat coming from inside this hut was palpable. The blast of hot air hit us in the face the moment we stepped inside. Here, family members stoke the fire, make rice papers, and carry them on their backs out to the drying racks, in one of the last few businesses of its kind that is family owned.
The precision (and monotony) of this process is fascinating to watch, with everyone having their own part to play. It’s a process they carry out on a day commencing at around 2am, and it works like a well oiled machine (without the machines !) Here they use rice husks to burn as fuel but also old clothing and rags. Whilst it burns effectively, I’m not quite sure about the toxins that emanate from the textiles when it is being burned.
It was another interesting interaction with the local people, who not only work in this environment, but live within these walls as well.
The river is active all day long. There is never a dull moment. Sampans glide quietly along the banks, sometimes running the gauntlet across the river, in amongst the barges, weighed down in the water with their enormous loads. Many of the boat captains drive their vessels from a squatting position. It’s reasonably unusual to see a boat with a cabin space large enough to allow the captain to stand.
Life and work are interchangeable on the river boats. Sleeping and living areas are usually at the back, and depending on the size of the boat can be quite cramped spaces. But once again, this is the life they know, and they certainly make the best out of what they have.
Access to the other side of the river is dependent upon the boats. For those that don’t have one, or who want to take a motorbike to the other side, there are frequent ferries costing 1VND per trip (about $AUD 0.26)
Trade is an important part of the Mekong and is evident everywhere you go and almost everything you can imagine is carried up and down the river.
River bank life
Just as much happens on the edges of the river as it does on the river itself. These houses, in one of the larger towns along the Mekong, are built up off the river a little, in an attempt to minimise the impact the flooding.
Houses like the ones below can be seen as you move further away from the big cities. They tend to be on the water’s edge. For houses such as these, they don’t need floods for water to enter their houses. Normal tidal flows can mean water in their house is a common occurrence.
Of course none of this is even possible without a boat of your own to do it in. There are plenty of options here, including do it yourself methods, but for this trip, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.
After all the adventure on shore, being able to come back to our boat and relax was just terrific. With the river and all it had to offer literally floating past us, who could really wish for more.
The details – in short
There are many ways to get to the Mekong Delta. Tours start and finish at different locations, and are for different durations. As we were based in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a 4 hour drive to Can Tho. A private transfer was included as part of our overall rate for the 3 day, 2 night trip.
Who to go with
There are many operators to choose from. We chose to travel with Mekong Eyes. They had a good reputation and a variety of options to suit different budgets. Our time on the Mekong River was spent on board Dragon Eyes II, a boat designed to carry only 2 couples.
When to go
The Mekong Delta can be accessed at any time of year. We went in late October which was the start of their high season. Rates obviously increase at this time of year.
For a more detailed review on our boat, check out Cruising the Mekong Delta aboard the Dragon Eyes.
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