A Dash Along the Delta

The Mekong Delta conjures up images of traditional Vietnamese life governed by the river

 Exploring the Mekong Delta, the rice bowl of Vietnam, can be a way to glimpse the traditional lifestyle and industries along the life giving waters of the mighty Mekong river. 

The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in the world and from its start in China the river meanders through South East Asia before reaching the delta in the south of Vietnam. 

Traditional houses along the luscious banks of the Mekong river

Floating on a boat along the muddy brown river takes you past flat flood plains and green paddy fields, orchards and sleepy villages.

The main waterways of the Mekong Delta are surprisingly chaotic – teeming with boats of every size and description. Huge wooden boats, old junks and barges criss cross with more modern boats, smaller vessels, rowing boats, canoes and slow moving tourist boats that weave through the river past wooden houses on stilts, but then this region is the most important agricultural area in Vietnam and home to around 18 million people.  

Many different types of boats crowd the main waterways

 Here the river still provides and governs the way of life. Goods and people are transported on the river and many villages are only accessible by water. People live and fish on it or on the many small islands and grow rice, fruit and other crops that depend of the flooding from the river.

The fertile land around the Mekong  Delta provides many crops which are traded on floating markets on the river

Even trade is conducted on boats on the river as floating markets are still held on the river in Can Tho. Large barges sell local produce, their wares displayed by putting a fruit on top of a long stick above the boat, smaller boats weave through making their purchases while hawkers sell drinks and prepare food while balancing on small rowing boats.

Women precariously prepare food on boats to sell at the floating market

The smaller canals and river tributaries are shaded by huge palm leaves offering a more serene passage through less explored ways, along the low lying rice paddies tended by conical hatted farmers, bordered by dense mangroves, glistening green palm trees and coconut trees that hang overhead.

The smaller canals are more peaceful and shaded by green palms

These smaller waterways and islands offers an insight into rural way of life that is governed by the river and see traditional industries on the island – fishing, making coconut candy and textiles, tropical fruit orchards, making rice paper, vermicelli noodles, rice wine and floating fishing villages.

Cooking up a coconut paste to make coconut candy

People work in small, wooden houses in smoky conditions to make soft, chewy delicious candy out of coconut. Rice has a multitude of uses – it is made into a paste and into a thin round paper which, after leaving out to dry, is cut up into thin strips to make vermicelli noodles. 

Drying the rice paper before it is cut up into strips to make noodles

If you can’t handle another bumpy night bus ride, one of the more interesting and relaxing ways to get to Cambodia is by taking a boat from Chau Doc along the river passing waving green palm trees, little riverside houses, boats and floating fishing villages. 

Floating fishing villages line the river towards the Cambodian border

This area did actually used to be part of Cambodia and is known as Kampuchea Krom and there is still Khmer influence as well as minority Cham Muslim people who make their living along the river. 

Traditional wooden stilt houses

A word of warning though – it can be costly and time consuming to travel round the Mekong Delta independently. There are many cheap tour operators in Saigon (HCMC) who will also tell you this and try to dissuade you from exploring independently.

Inspecting the produce at the floating market

There are many cheap and good value tours but these tours can sometimes feel like you are being rushed and herded from one place to another, along with hordes of other tourists, with the emphasis on trying to get tourists to buy additional items which spoils the serenity, authenticity and atmosphere of this area.

The sheer amount of tourists can ruin the peaceful atmosphere

It was the first, and last time, I took a tour. The tour was amazing value for money but there was quite unorganised, the English speaking guides level of English only amounted to a couple of key words and some pointing. He couldn’t give much information about the area or explain what we were seeing. 

The boats and buses were crowded, even more so when they stopped to pick up local fares on the way and a lot of time was spent or changing buses or waiting in places where there so happened to be many shopping opportunities but unfortunately the cultural sights were rushed through.

The most disappointing part was the homestay which was incredibly inauthentic, especially after our previous experience of staying with a family in Vietnam. 

Amazing food but inauthentic homestay

A delicious meal of Mekong Delta specialty elephant ear fish, spring rolls, noodles, rice and pancakes was served but  the food was amazing but the ‘family’ didn’t even talk to us or even live in the house and after the amazing food we were just left to talk to the village kids. 

The local kids – our hosts and entertainment for night at the homestay.

 If you have the time make the effort to do the Mekong Delta independently as it will be a lot more rewarding – the rushed tours can feel a bit like a shopping spree which is disappointing as the area has a lot of natural beauty and culture to discover if you can just get away from the hordes.

Hellllooooo….You buy something!

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