On the river at Long Xuyen. Floating markets are one of the main attractions in the region. Photo by Nick Ross

Be truthful now; how much do you know about the Mekong Delta? If you’re like most expats in Vietnam, not very much, I bet. You’ve got no excuse — the Mekong Delta is the world’s largest delta, an ecological treasure trove, the nation’s rice basket, and a region of pivotal importance to the wealth and wellbeing of the country. You can hardly be blamed for being in the dark, though; the Delta has never received much press attention. Alternate floods and droughts seem to be the only events there that the media considers newsworthy.

 

But you don’t have to remain in the dark forever. You can always get yourself off your sofa and take a little look-see for yourself.

 

The Itinerary

 

Travelling the Delta independently, while not impossible, is arduous, and most travellers choose to go with a tour company. There are plenty to choose from. Unlike other parts of Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta the tourist infrastructure is relatively undeveloped. On a tour you can expect to be passed from carrier to carrier, and from tour company to tour company. The road network is patchy, and eventually peters out the further south you go.

 

For the most part you’ll find yourself on the water, whether it be aboard a small cruise vessel, motorboat, sampan, noisy long-tail speedboat or skiff. You’ll be expected to hoof it from time to time while transferring from transport A to transport B. Sometimes you’ll have the river to yourself, at other times your boat will be cautiously nosing its way between freighters, barges, sampans and river vendors.

 

If your tour kicks off from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho is the first stop. It’s situated on an island in the river, and there you can visit the crowded fish markets, wander through tropical fruit orchards, and sample the local delicacy, elephant’s ear fish. (It’s very good, by the way.)

 

Second stop is Vinh Long. The floating markets are its main attraction. Hundreds of small boats selling produce of all kinds, with a sample of the wares each has to offer suspended from a long pole. You can get on a small boat and stop off at riverside workshops with blacksmiths, rice huskers, basket weavers, thatchers and makers of bricks, noodles, fans, brooms, and sugar-cane based confectionary.

 

Next up, Can Tho. This city, the trading hub of the Delta, is the first taste of sophistication that you’ll get this trip. It has international restaurants, a nightclub or two, motorbikes for hire, and hotels that will actually exchange your dollars. The last place you come to is Chau Doc, a border town with not all that much going for it, except that it’s a gateway to Cambodia.

A ferry going across one of the many tributaries that make up the Mekong. Photo by Nick Ross 

A boat vendor in the port of Cai Be. His family has a local monopoly on melons. Photo by Nick Ross

Big Fish and Little Fish

 

Although the infrastructure is undeveloped, the people are invariably friendly and welcoming. On a tour to Can Tho last year I met Thuan, a courier-guide of around 25, with a good command of English and an air of quiet competence about him. He and I had temporarily wandered away from our group for a quiet beer at a nearby café.

 

“You know,” said Thuan, “it’s my dream to set up a company of my own one day.”

 

“A tour company?”

 

“Of course — that’s the only business I know anything about. But it’ll be a tour business with a difference. It will be a tour for drinkers. ‘Pub-crawls’ you call them, right? Well, mine will be a river pub-crawl.

 

“I’ll serve beer on my boat, and we’ll stop off at local rice-wine manufacturers, home breweries, and grape-wine makers so the passengers can buy a drink or two, and take a bottle home with them. It’s a win-win situation; the customers get drunk, I get a commission on how much they spend, and everybody’s happy.”

 

“Sounds like a good idea. What’s stopping you?”

 

Thuan sighed and lowered his voice. “As soon as it starts getting successful, the big-time tour operators would get their protection heavies onto me, or steal my idea outright.” He sighed again. “Small operators have a hard time of it in the Delta.”

 

There are many words to describe the Mekong Delta, but the word I think fits it best is ‘different’. A world away from the bustle and chaos of Hanoi and Saigon, a million miles away from the culture and tradition of Hue, light-years away from the rampant commercialism of Ha Long Bay, it’s… well, it’s just plain different.

 

Born in New Zealand, Don Wills lives in Vung Tau. He’s been writing his way round the region for decades

A young girl helps her family weave mats in the Delta town of Cai Be. Photo by Nick Ross

 

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