“I think that thing is staring at me,” someone in our tour group remarked nervously.
No, it wasn’t a wild animal spotted while hiking through the wilds of Vietnam. It was the fish proudly displayed before us, about to be consumed by our group exploring the Mekong Delta.
Lush, relaxed and scenic, the Mekong Delta region is a welcome contrast to hectic Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). It’s a worthwhile destination on any Vietnamese itinerary and can be visited on a day or multi-day trip from HCMC.
The drive south to Mỹ Tho, the gateway town to the Mekong Delta, takes about an hour from Ho Chi Minh City. Along the way, you can spot workers bending down in the rice fields, wearing the iconic cone-shaped straw hats commonly associated with Vietnam. Dotted among the fields are cemeteries where the locals keep their buried loved ones nearby.
From My Tho we boarded a riverboat to cruise down the Mekong River. Upon arriving at a little village, our small, international group sampled some coconut candy. We were shown the process of making the candy and admired a variety of items made from local coconuts. There are several traditional family-run businesses on the delta, including beekeeping and rice paper manufacturing. We learned about the local plant life used in regional cooking dishes – most notably lemongrass.
After boarding a songthaew (basically the back of a truck and often used as a taxi in Asia), we took a bumpy, yet gorgeously scenic ride through the lush countryside. We stopped to sample fruit from local orchards, including mango, papaya and jackfruit. It was easy to get a sense of the relaxed lifestyle of local inhabitants; many were lounging about in hammocks. The pace here is notably slower and more sedate than the hectic vibe of Ho Chi Minh City.
Our lunch was a staple of rice and fish from the local rice paddies and fish farms. The Mekong Delta area produces a huge amount of rice and, overall, about half of Vietnam’s agricultural output.
After lunch was the highlight of our visit – a boat ride through the labyrinthian passageways of the delta. We each had our own little boat to maneuver through the system of canals. Nearly everyone who lives in the Mekong Delta has a boat. They are a necessity to local inhabitants because of the flood-prone nature and layout of the region. We paddled alongside tropical foliage and several homes on stilts.
The Mekong Delta reminded me of the swamps in Louisiana. Its humidity, fecundity and swamp-like passages helped me understand why so many Vietnamese came to Louisiana after the war – the similar ecosystem of the bayous must have reminded them of home. The sugarcane and shrimp fishing along the Mekong are also reminiscent of Louisiana.
The two areas share similar environmental problems as well: Both locations are susceptible to floods resulting from climate change. In Vietnam, dams upriver prevent sediment from reaching the lower delta. This causes problems that can lead to flooding. Similarly, the levees along the Mississippi River in Louisiana have prevented sediment from being spread along the Mississippi Delta. Vietnam is also vulnerable to typhoons similar to Louisiana’s hurricanes.
As you travel further into the delta, there are floating markets and floating villages. The floating market at Cái Bè is particularly fascinating to investigate. Go early in the day to avoid the hordes of tourists. At the floating village near Châu Đốc, homes with aluminum walls cover fish farms encircled by nets.
If you plan to spend the night, Cần Thơ is a worthwhile spot. It’s the largest city in the Mekong area but retains a relaxed, small-town feel. If you’re adventurous, go to the snake market and sample the snake liquor. (I did not partake myself, thank you.)
Some popular annual events in the Mekong Delta include the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.
In addition to a single- or multi-day tour of the delta, you can also catch a bus and rent or buy a bicycle to explore the region on your own. A bus trip to Can Tho costs about $5 from Ho Chi Minh City. After exploring the area, you have the option of returning to Ho Chi Minh City or taking a scenic boat ride to Cambodia.