Mekong Delta Overview
To the Vietnamese, this region is known as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, a reference to the nine tributaries of the Mekong River that dovetail across plains fashioned by millennia of flood-borne alluvial sediment. These rich soils have turned the delta into Vietnam’s rice bowl, an agricultural miracle that pumps out more than a third of the country’s annual food crop – not just rice, but also sugar cane, coconut and fruit – from just ten percent of its total landmass. Such bounty has come at a cost, since this is now also one of Vietnam’s most densely populated areas. There is also a relative dearth of actual tourist sights – not really a problem, since you’ll likely be visiting for the area’s unique culture and topography, in any case.
Southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, buses emerge from the city’s unkempt urban sprawl and into the pastoral surrounds of the Mekong Delta’s upper plains. The delta is too modest to flaunt its full beauty so soon, but glimpses of rice fields hint at things to come, the brilliant emerald green dotted with the occasional white ancestral grave. There are over a dozen towns in the delta with facilities for tourists, though most are rarely visited.
Closest to HCMC is the town of My Tho. This is well geared up for boat tours, and near enough to Ho Chi Minh City to be seen on a day-trip: it affords an appetizing glimpse of the delta’s northernmost main arm, the Tien Giang. From My Tho, laidback Ben Tre and the bounteous fruit orchards besieging it are only a hop and a skip away. Further south, across a major arm of the Mekong, is modest Tra Vinh, whose surrounds are dotted with spectacular Cambodian temples. To the west is Vinh Long, another jumping-off point for boat trips and a pleasant town to boot. Heading west again, there’s little of interest until you hit the ebullient town of Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border; nearby Sam Mountain provides a welcome undulation in the surrounding plains, while the opening of the border here has brought a steady stream of travellers going on to Phnom Penh by boat, and several of them rest up a few days here before leaving the country.
Southeast of Chau Doc is Can Tho, the delta’s largest city and yet another popular base for boat-trips and visits to floating markets. From here it’s possible to take a loop-trip around the southern half of the delta area; first up is the Khmer stronghold of Soc Trang, a visit to which is especially rewarding if your journey coincides with the colourful Oc Om Bok festival (November or December), during which the local Khmer community takes to the river to stage spectacular longboat races. Further on, at the foot of the delta, the swampland that surrounds Ca Mau can be explored by boat. A boat-ride north is the charming, unassuming town of Rach Gia, while pressing on northwest to the border will bring you to Ha Tien, a remote frontier town surrounded by Khmer villages, which is the best place to hop on a boat to Phu Quoc. The town has also become popular for its international border crossing, which allows beach bums to slide along the coast to Sihanoukville in Cambodia or vice versa. Last, but not least, is Phu Quoc Island itself – though developing at speed and growing more popular with each passing year, it remains one of the best beach destinations in the land.
Given the region’s seasonal flooding, the best time to visit the Mekong Delta is, predictably enough, in the dry season, which runs from December to May.