The Mekong Delta

MEKONG | The River of the Nine Dragons

As the waters of the mighty Mekong River reaches the end of its nearly 2,700 journey from the Tibetan Plateau, it enters Vietnam from Cambodia it splits into two channels, which the Vietnamese call the Tien Giang (Upper River), and Hau Giang (Lower River) . The the river continues to divide as it traverses the soggy delta, an enormous fertile area of almost 50,000 square kilometers and by the time it empties into the South China Sea, it has seven branches, or mouths. Thousands of streams and canals linked to the Nine Dragons are the village "main streets" and irrigation canals of the delta. The rich silt deposited by the Mekong and its tributaries created a fertile delta, an area that holds a fifth of Vietnam's population but supplies half its rice crop, while being the world's largest exporter trade of rice after India.

Mekong Delta Travel Map

With a profusion of tropical fruit in the Mekong delta, there are bound to be some exotic varieties. A unique species of vegetation lining the delta's canals is the water coconut palm. The fruit of the palm (dua nuoc) hangs close to the ground, and at first sight resembles a husky pine cone. Edible, transparent, fleshy pieces are embedded in the rough segments of the water coconut and are revealed only after the fruit is cracked open. Another variety found in the Ha Tien area is called thot lot, with blubbery, opaque pieces embedded in three sides of a small, purplish brown coconut. Instead of cutting this coconut in half for you to eat, the vendor slices off the sides. The coconut contains no milk; its flesh is served in a glass with ice and sugar. With its extensive reed beds, lakes, and mangrove forests, the delta is home to many species of rare birds, among them kingfishers, red-headed cranes, and eastern Saurus cranes.

Rice paddy famer in Vietnam

The delta is also a breeding ground for odd religions. Besides an eclectic range of Buddhist temples, Catholic churches, and Islamic mosques, there are many Cao Dai temples in the delta. Hoa Hao Buddhism emerged in the delta area, with a large number of devotees around Chau Doc.

Mekong Delta floating market rower

"All around the ferry is the river, it's brimful; its moving waters sweep through, never mixing with, the stagnant waters of the rice fields. The river has picked up all it's met with since Tonle Sap and the Cambodian forest. It carries everything along, straw huts, forests, burned-out fires, dead birds, dead dogs, drowned tigers and buffaloes, drowned men, bait, islands of water hyacinths all stuck together. Everything flows towards the Pacific, no time for anything to sink, all is swept along by the deep and headlong storm of the inner current, suspended on the surface of the river's strength.

Marguerite Duras describing the swirling waters of the Mekong in her novel, The Lover, set during the 1920s. Duras' hometown was Sadec, where embassy staff had left behind files on those who worked for them, making it easy for the north to identify collaborators.

Mekong Delta Touring

The Mekong Delta's unique water culture is unique for Vietnam, and on a vast scale. Here small sampans navigate thousands of small canals, to market, small towns, and island farms. Stilted houses line the rivers and most fascinating of all are the busy floating markets with in some cases, such as Cai Rang, hundreds of colorful boats zigzagging and maneuvering in to sell or buy guides. The early morning, at market's peak, is the best time to visit and for photography. Overnighting in Can Tho at the pleasant French-operated hotel Victoria.

A few of our favorite experiences and activities in the Mekong Delta:

  • Cycling (see below). The Mekong provide for warm sunshine year round when other places may be too cool or wet, with a full variety of rides from leisurely back country spinning along village footpaths to century rides to the far southern tip.
  • Floating markets. Nobody ever forgets their first glimpse of hundreds of loaded boats zig-zagging across the river, jostling for position to sell and buy all manner of goods.
  • The Victoria Can Tho. A luxurious oasis on the banks of the Mekong with charming, period rooms (below)

Sampan rower in the Mekong Delta

  • Exotic tropical fruits. You're sure to sample at least one fruit you've never even seen or heard of in the Mekong Delta, from rambutan, mangosteen, jack, dragon, water apple, lychee, star, sugar apple, longan, passion and varieties of bananas non existent in the West.
  • Cruising to Cambodia. By all means, avoid backtracking all the way to Saigon and continue on to Phnom Penh, currently one of Asia's most interesting cities.

Mekong Delta Accommodations

Victoria Can Tho Hotel in the Mekong Delta

The French Victoria chain features a property near to the city of Can Tho, the perfect base for exploring local villages, floating markets, and taking short cruises on the Mekong. A tranquil retreat on the banks of the Hau River, the lovely setting boasts colorful gardens of tropical plants.

Traveler sketching on top of Sam Mountain in the Mekong Delta


Mekong Delta Bicycle Tours

Like many rural places in Vietnam, pedaling a bicycle is a the best way to explore the Mekong Delta, allowing travel down small footpaths but also quick loading on and off of ferries and small boats that will transfer us the many canals from island to island. To really experience the Mekong Delta, cruising by boat only provides a partial glimpse.

Cyclist at school in the Mekong Delta

We've organized high-end bicycle tours of the Mekong Delta for over 20 years for all ages, including families with younger children. Cycling is wonderful through the pancake-flat delta it's vast network of pleasant footpaths away from motor traffic ( wonderful and safe for families with children of all ages—above, the Bellinghams with one of two boys). Our cycling trips combine easy cycling days, boat cruises (making all the early floating markets in Cai Rang, Can Tho, and Chau Doc), and luxury accommodation at riverfront resorts. Our 3-4 day Mekong Delta bike tours travel one way, deep into the Mekong where fewer travelers venture and then taking a scenic 4-5 hour cruise to Phnom Penh, Cambodia from the Vietnamese border. From Phnom Penh, Angkor or a return to Saigon is a short flight away.

Three-Day Mekong Cycling Itinerary

DAY 1 | Cai Be & Can Tho
Depart through the lighter, early morning traffic Saigon after breakfast to our first stop, Cai Lay (about two hours). In Cai Lay, we'll have tea or iced coffee as the bikes are prepared then begin riding the flat scenic roads, passing fruit orchards and expansive, emerald rice fields en route to our destination, Cai Be. After reaching Cai Be, we'll board a local sampan (boat), drifting down the smaller branches of the Mekong River past waterfront villages and floating markets until we reach our lunch spot on Binh Hoa Phuoc Island featuring local specialties and exotic fruits. In the afternoon, continued boating to Vinh Long where we'll disembark for continued cycling through countryside and villages, witnessing life firsthand in the Mekong. Afterwards, transfer remaining distance to Can Tho. Accommodation at the elegant French resort Victoria Can Tho (featuring some of the best massages in Vietnam).

Cyclist in the Mekong Delta on cycling tour

Rise early morning to witness the beautiful sunrise over the Mekong River. After breakfast banquet, board sampan to explore the vibrant, bustling Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets -- some of the last authentic floating markets in Asia swirling with hundreds of boats zig-zagging on the river. Afterward, mount bikes for pleasant riding further out from Can Tho under the lush green, jungle canopy in one of the most scenic areas of the Delta. After passing through numerous villages, return to the resort for cooling off in the pool.

family cycling tour of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

After breakfast, optional repeat visit to the floating markets, followed by breakfast at the resort and continued biking (or optional boating by sampan) through the tranquil paths and lush canals of the area, along the scenic, back country roads stopping to visit local schools, markets and homes. Also pausing for tropical fruit tasting and tea at a longan tree orchard with a local family. After lunch, we depart the Victoria resort and return to Saigon by private car stopping briefly in My Tho for refreshments at a popular local cafe.

Mekong Delta Cruising

Traversing the Mekong overland, by car, foot and bicycle, with shorter, smaller-boat and focused cruises are a better way to immerse and experience the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese are Asia's most gregarious, friendly, and fascinating and one should not miss getting up close and personal as much as possible and we recommend considering an overland trip with a combination of short cruises, which enables you to see what is most interesting on the river and hundreds of small canals, such as the floating markets, yet also explore local villages and markets. However, if your preference is for more laid-back cruising, then there are a handful of pleasant cruise offerings to choose from, including by river all the way from the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Aqua Mekong cruise ship Vietnam

In the last few years a handful of luxury boat companies have cropped up serving the Cai Be to Phnom Penh route (and further up to Siem Reap to explore Angkor). The finest quality cruise is offered by the Aqua Mekong, a newer venture launched in 2014 by Aqua Expeditions that has organized cruises in Peru. The Aqua Mekong offers 3 to 7-night cruises aboard its Aria Mekong Cruise Ship in twenty suites.

Crew on the Aqua Mekong cruise ship

Indochina Travel Notes
Although marketed as a luxury ship, please be aware that all of these ships that ply the Mekong, including the Aqua Mekong, are a lot like the boat charters in Halong Bay -- fully wooden boats and not sleek, fiberglass and chromed yachts of, say, the luxury charters in Thailand.

Phu Quoc Island Paradise

From the delta, is it possible to fly or ferry to Phu Quoc, an enormous island of over 400 square miles that is actually situated off the coast of Cambodia. Pho Quoc remains pleasantly undeveloped, a Koh Samui of thirty years ago (read more about Phu Quoc). Also consider the Song Saa, located on a small private island south of Cambodia as well.

When to go?

Unlike much of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta provides pleasant touring year-round, although very hot during April and the summer months. Rain is far less than the northern areas, and even during the monsoon season (August and September), welcome showers typically arrive in the afternoon for only a brief period.

Plan My Vietnam Travel

INDOCHINA Travel Company

San Francisco California
Phone: (415) 418-6800