YOUR TRAVEL GUIDE BLOG TO THE MEKONG DELTA
IN VIETNAM 🇻🇳 SINCE 2008
By Robert Fouldes
Vietnam’s Mekong Delta has so much to offer
The Mekong Delta makes up the greater part of the area southwest of HCMC. It offers the visitor a fabulous yet easily accessible destination with diverse attractions from cruises and river tours to boat trips through maze-like waterways connecting small farms, forests, and mangroves. Cycle tours with guides introduce the visitor to the welcoming communities and farms, and accommodations can be found to suit all budgets from basic overnight stays to luxury resorts.
The Mekong Delta is an Easy-to-Reach Destination
The gateway to the Mekong Delta area lies within easy reach of HCMC with the nearest major river crossing of the Mekong river distributaries at My Tho, being easily reached along a good highway, only 75 km from HCMC airport, and approximately 1 hr 35 mins by car, providing safe highway travel to the edge of the delta. The region maintains its small-community charm, catering to diverse tourism sectors from mass tourism for large tour groups, to expat families seeking weekend breaks.
While currently lacking a direct flight to HCMC, the regional capital of Can Tho (a fairly long drive of around three hours), has an international airport, with regional flights to Hanoi, Phu Quoc, and Da Nang, allowing for the air traveler to explore the Delta waterways, or even to continue upriver into Cambodia on the many available river cruises.
The Mekong Delta’s Natural Beauty
The principal attraction has to be a natural beauty, as Françoise and Michel Scour, the French founders and former managers of The Island Lodge at My Tho described: “For sure water is everywhere you go, from small arroyo [creeks filled by the near-surface water table] to large navigable canals constructed in the French period to ease river navigation, to innumerable small canals to irrigate plantations,” orchards and rice fields. Many of these can be explored by boat, by foot, or by widely available guided cycle tours where you can encounter local communities of farmers and fishermen.
Jean-Luc Voisin, the French General Manager of “Les Vergers Du Mékong”, a large fruit-farming agricultural venture in the Mekong Delta area, describes the Mekong delta as a big garden, ”like a dream”, where “people from cities need to go back to nature”.
Choice of Accommodation and Tours
The Mekong offers a broad choice of accommodation, from the highest quality resorts and boutique hotels to overnight budget hotels and B&Bs. Packaged tours can easily be found through numerous travel agencies and tour groups, commonly varying from two to eight days in length suitable for an array of activities, such as cycle or boat tours. In our conversations with local operators, we heard about the importance of the local tour agencies to them. Benoit Perdu of the “9 Dragons Mekong Delta Cruise” organization talked of how they “cherish agents with a long-term commitment to the area, to their clients and to their customers”.
Jean-Luc Voisin also points to the importance of building a sustainable tourism industry here: “Agro- or eco-tourism is one solution to help the farmers stay on the farm.” This also provides a very good opportunity for small farms to continue that may otherwise be economically difficult to maintain. He adds, “Bed & breakfast need political [local government] authorization to set up, and support from travel agencies to help local businesses learn what the different needs are from the Vietnamese visitors to the international visitors.“
Water tours are booming. These range from mass-tourism scenic tour boats and party boats, to more relaxed cruise boats offering cruise-based accommodation and dining. Some visitors may enjoy the foods principally, other groups may prefer the packaged and busy guided tours, while others may prefer a relaxed pace, or perhaps a mix of relaxation with activity locations such as a visit to a floating market, a cycle through a fruit orchard, enjoying a wonderful meal prepared on a farm stay, or a shorter smaller craft excursion, all planned on a day or multi-day cruise.
Talking to Benoit Perdu, we learned that: While international visitors come from all over the world, outside of the mass tourism sector, the visitors returning to the region are most often from groups broadly belonging to European cultures, such as France, Britain, Germany, and Australia, possibly appreciating the more niche boutique appeal of many resorts and attractions.
Dining in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
Dining throughout the Mekong will surprise you with the abundance of locally farmed produce, fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course fresh seafood. Cuisines can be found with strong influences from many local and nearby Asian cultures, to more Western and some IndoChine and French influences. One of the more attractive aspects of mass tourism groups, especially Vietnamese tour groups, is the large choice of dining, with local and seafood restaurants meeting the needs in large numbers.
The Mekong – Economic Miracle
The Mekong river, its tributaries, its maze of narrow waterways, and its broad expanse of wetlands support a massive region. With agriculture, manufacturing, fisheries, and river transport, the region is of significant economic value both nationally and internationally. However, the natural beauty of the province is in no way compromised by all this economic success.
Jean-Luc Voisin describes that in his decision in choosing to build his business in Vietnam and the Mekong Delta; following a career working around the world with engineering companies, and having considered many things like education, business possibilities, and security, he says simply that “Vietnam got the gold medal!”
Tourism development in the Mekong Delta region appears to build from the same foundations, with an approach that fosters relationships not only between tour agencies and operators but also between operators, in many ways building a synergy that combines tour agencies with specialist operators or service providers. With such relationships, an organisation can, as shared by Benoit Perdu, “identify your segment and stick to that”.
Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta is one of Vietnam’s most beautiful, untouched, and authentic provinces.
Ben Tre province, just a short three-hour coach ride from Ho Chi Minh City lies Vietnam’s capital of coconuts, is so close to Saigon that the contrast between the city’s hustle and Ben Tre’s tranquillity is immediate and incredibly dramatic. The main town of the province, Ben Tre, is the epitome of simple Vietnamese small-town life. With only a handful of restaurants and hotels, the town has retained the simple charm of traditional Vietnamese life, with simple beer halls and local cuisine dominating the nightlife scene
Sedate and serene, the calm town is a delightful getaway option for anyone seeking a quick and easy break from city life. Try and get there early in the afternoon, explore the town, eating as you go until the sun sets. Here are two places you should definitely check out:
Ben Tre Night Market
Nguyen Trung Truc Street, Ward 2, Ben Tre, Vietnam
Situated between two busy roads, Phan Ngoc Tong Street and Hung Vuong Street, the Ben Tre night market serves clothes, handmade souvenirs and an enormous range of coconut-derived crafts. You could browse the wares for hours if you wish, and maybe take a short break to pick up some delicious fresh fruit, grown in the local orchards. If you get tired of shopping, the nearby Ben Tre riverfront with its idyllic lights and calming serenity makes for a perfect location for a romantic evening stroll.
Where to stay in Ben Tre
Hung Vuong Hotel ★★★
148-166 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre, Vietnam
With unbeatable value for money at around $15 a room, the Hung Vuong hotel comes highly recommended. Modestly furnished, yet clean and efficient. it’s no surprise most travelers make it their first port of call in the town. It’s also conveniently located in the city centre, offering easy access to the night market, restaurants and street food stalls.
Viet Uc Hotel ★★★
144 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre, Vietnam
Slightly downriver, and slightly upmarket, the Viet Uc hotel may be twice the price of Hung Vuong at $30, but the 4+-star service is well worth the extra money. If you’re only staying a night or two it’s perfect for a luxurious getaway on a shoestring budget.
Venturing South to Ba Tri
While Ben Tre province is worth a visit for the main town alone, there really isn’t much to warrant more than a one or two days stay. To really experience the beauty of the province, take a trip south to the smaller town of Bat Ri. Nestled down at the bottom of the peninsular, this sleepy town is a truly untouched joy, with friendly locals, rich heritage, and exquisite scenery.
Amazing Dream Homestay
039/AL An Binh Tay Hamlet, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre, Vietnam
To best experience the town there is no better way to go than to opt for a homestay, such as the fantastically friendly Amazing Dream Homestay. By staying in a family home you can immerse yourself in village life in an instant and enjoy unrivalled access to the local attractions.
Arriving around midday is to be advised, not least because you’ll no doubt be invited to join the family for a light lunch on arrival. It is fairly common for guests to be welcomed and treated instantly as one of the family, and at the Amazing Dream Homestay. Like many homestays, accommodation is not the family’s primary source of income. You may notice the family preparing mounds of vegetables into dua mon, a local delicacy which combines fresh vegetables with fish sauce and spices to create an unmistakably strong, pungent accompaniment, added to almost every meal. If you pitch in and help them with their craft you will no doubt enjoy a discount on your room bill.
Dinner is eaten with the family, giving a wonderful opportunity to experience authentic Vietnamese cuisine – enjoying a traditional mix of salted fish, rice, vegetables, hotpots and a variety of sauces. Ben Tre province is famous for its unique cuisine, from elephant ear fish to coconut candy. Restaurants abound but again, there is no better way to experience the variety of flavours than with the assistance of a local expert, yet another reason to opt for a homestay rather than a hotel or hostel.
Local attractions in Ben Tre – Ba Tri district
Ben Tre’s beautiful scenery is peppered with vast lakes of what at first appearance seem to be lilies. In fact, these lakes are home to vast floating fields of lotus plants, resplendent with pink flowers and bright green leaves. With a little negotiation, and for a small fee, it is possible to hire a boat and driver to paddle out into the mass of lotus plants. As you approach the field of green and pink flora, the silence of the countryside lulls you into a state of pure calm. The delightful peace and gentle sound of the paddle hitting the water are only interrupted by the occasional low ‘moo’ of a distant cow.
Nearing the edge of the floating forest you begin to make out the beauty of the iconic lotus plants. The locals I floated out with picked occasional plants and as we slowly drifted through grabbed what looked like children’s rattles, passing them to me. These dark green cones, specked with strange-looking lumps on their flat upper side were, they told me, guong sen, Lotus pods. By breaking them open and retrieving the Lotus seeds within we were able to snack out on the lake, pleasantly basking in the mild afternoon sun and enjoying the cool breeze and idyllic peace of the scenery.
By the end of our trip around the lake, our boat was filled with lotus pods and flowers, making perfect gifts for friends and our newly adopted family. Ba Tri is full of delightful little secrets. You might have to put a bit of effort into finding them all but it’s worth it.
Quang Anh Coffee Shop
No. 42-19 Thang 5 Street, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre, Vietnam
One of the reasons Ba Tri is so popular with locals is the abundance of coconut-based delicacies. Sticky coconut is available pretty much everywhere (and well worth sampling) but for an unforgettable experience, visit the Quang Anh Coffee Shop to try the coconut pudding cake (Rau Cau Dua). Succulent and tasty, it’s the true taste of the South.
Ong Pagoda – That Phu Vo Mieu
Ba Tri District, Ben Tre, Vietnam
With a unique heritage dating back to 300 years of Chinese Buddhist settlers, the That Phu Vo Nieu Pagoda is a mystical and humbling building. As you enter, shoeless, of course, you smell the ancient carved wood and the scent of incense. A monk or priest will invite you to light joss sticks and pray to the Buddha, and any other deities you choose to honor. The branch of Buddhism practiced here, Xin Xam Dau Nam, is a rare mix of Buddhism and ancient Chinese spiritualism. Different statues represent different facets of life and the faithful pray to whichever god can best help guide them on their way.
It’s generally rare to see large crowds in attendance: Local worshippers visit the temple sporadically in times of need, to light joss sticks and pray. Usually they do so in the hope of finding guidance on life’s important junctures – be they marriage proposals, job issues or family disputes. However, throughout the year, the pagoda holds special events which are well attended by locals. Many Ba Tri residents are of Chinese descent, and the pagoda offers them a chance to reconnect with their spiritual heritage. Ornamental weaponry is taken off the walls and incorporated into the pageantry, creating a unique and deeply historical atmosphere.
Phu Le Rice Wine Factory
456 HL14, Phu Thanh, Phu Le Hamlet, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre
A trip to Ba Tri is not complete without sampling a local delicacy with justified national notoriety. The intensely potent sticky rice wine made at the Phu Le distillery is a force to be reckoned with.
Master Distiller Mrs. Loan will happily demonstrate her craft, chattering away as she simmers huge vats of sticky rice and water over bamboo kilns, before slowly distilling the alcohol through a huge vat of cold water. It’s a painstaking process that she undertakes largely on her own, but with generations of distillers behind her she is happy to continue the family tradition.
With an average output of around 40 liters a week it’s hardly an industrial operation, but her large tubs of high-power liquor supply bars and restaurants for miles around. At around 50 percent ABV, calling this stuff ”wine” is a heinous misnomer, but with such a unique taste there really isn’t an easy alternative English equivalent. Its strong flavor is overpowering at first but becomes surprisingly drinkable afterward; provided it is suitably mixed. Locals advise coconut water and lime, I went with coca cola, purely out of convenience.
Night entertainment in Ben Tre – Ba Tri district
Ba Tri is not a party town, but most of the homestays in the region do offer entertainment of some sort. After drinking a few rice wine/coca-cola mixers with your fellow guests you may feel the need to party. From across the farmland that surrounds the town you will hear karaoke machines blaring out Western and Vietnamese songs. Take the hint and join in.
Karaoke is such a simple pleasure that you can forget how much fun it is, but when staying in the countryside, getting to know new friends in a sedate and simple setting, and drinking alcohol that could probably, in all fairness, be used as paint thinner, there is nothing more fun than butchering a rendition of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello.
This is the nightlife. While there are bars, they rarely attract enough customers to justify late opening hours. The way of life in Ben Tre is that of agriculture, nature, and tranquillity. Bedtime for my hosts was generally around 9 to 10 p.m. Ben Tre is a different world from Ho Chi Minh City, much like the rest of rural Vietnam in many respects. But with it so close, there is every reason to take a short break south and explore this delightful province.
City Pass was recently invited by the Thien Minh Group (TMG) to visit their new resort Victoria Nui Sam along with the recently acquired La Longanier. Since I’m the main writer for City Pass, I had the unenviable task of taking three days out of the office while being shuttled around to different resorts. Let me tell you, it was a tough job!
The first stop was at Victoria Nui Sam which is located in Chau Doc. TMG has spent the last year gutting the original hotel and starting fresh with a design unlike any they’ve done before. While still using the standard color palette found in most Victoria hotels, Nui Sam as a more contemporary feel. One element that they kept is the stunning panoramic view, overlooking lush green rice paddies and mountains in the distance. Each of the 21 bungalows along with the infinity pool share the same stunning view. Nui Sam was also designed with a social conscience.
The resort has eco-friendly elements such as on-site water reclamation, an herb and vegetable garden on the premises that supplies the resort’s restaurant and using the breezy location to supply airflow to the cliffside restaurant. The resort also runs a vocational training school which will train 23 students from the local area for one year. After that year, they will have the opportunity to join the ranks of the Victoria hotel group.
Along with the Nui Sam resort, we also visited La Longanier restaurant in Can Tho. We were able to take a small boat down the Mekong which gave us a bit of insight into life on the mighty river. Upon arrival, we were shown to a sampan where guests can stay the night in luxury. The restaurant has an open air plan that accentuates it
’s surroundings. Black wicker chairs with yellow table cloths that take you back to the days of Indochina’s colonial past. Our group was led upstairs where we were treated to a luxurious 4 course lunch. After lunch, our group headed back to the buses which take us back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Many thanks to the Thien Minh Group for the invitation!.
By Keely Burkey
Head south to the Mekong in Cai Be to reconnect with nature
If you live in Saigon or are traveling around Vietnam, the big cities aren’t the only things worth seeing. It’s really Vietnam’s vast countryside, like what you’ll find in the Mekong Delta, that gives you a true impression of the country. Cai Be, just a few hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, gives you the perfect opportunity to take a quick weekend getaway.
Along with Ben Tre and My Tho, Cai Be is a charming small town in the south sitting picturesquely alongside the mighty Mekong River. If it’s your first trip to Cai Be, you should definitely take the almost mandatory tour of the floating markets and coconut candy factory, or you can make your day lose and easy with a leisurely bike ride along the small residential roads. Here’s your guide to Cai Be to help you can make the most out of your trip.
And might we suggest staying at the Mekong Riverside Resort for a taste of the finer things?
What to Do in Cai Be
First order of business: relax. The warm and friendly people of the Mekong Delta have perfected the art of enjoying life, which is seen in the proliferation of hammock cafes dotting the roadside, and the abundance of fresh fruit in markets wherever you turn. Embrace it! Sit down and eat a pomelo. Depending on where you’re staying, your homestay or hotel will probably have a list of activities you can choose from. At the Mekong Riverside Resort, they were plentiful.
Kayaking and Canalling in Cai Be
While kayaking in the Mekong River itself would be terrifying due to workboats constantly roaring up and down the waterway, my friend and I kayaked around our resort’s large garden pond. It didn’t go anywhere but was still pretty fun.
If you want to venture into more narrow bodies of water, you can always sign up for one of the many canal tours. Done in wooden sampan boats and adeptly steered by riverside denizens, travelers can see small canals and rivulets you’d never be able to explore with a larger vessel. Plus, you always get to wear a nón lá when you take one of these tours, which adds enjoyment for everyone involved.
Boat Tours in Cai Be
You’ll probably be offered boat tours more than once when you travel through the Mekong Delta. Sure, they’re touristy, but also fun, and you can learn a lot about daily life here—especially if it’s your first trip to the region.
The go-to sites for a Cai Be boat tour include a trip to the floating market (which opens very early, so be prepared to leave before sunrise if you want to partake in this), a tour of a coconut candy factory (these are also great places to stock up on snake-infused rice wine if this is your drink of choice), and a rustic, local-style lunch at a nicer restaurant in the area. Definitely check these out if you’re traveling with a group or with your family.
Different tourism agencies offer varying prices and tour quality, but your best bet will be to ask the proprietors of your hotel or homestay for advice. The Mekong Riverside, where we stayed, offered two different tours: the floating market and island tour, and the floating market, ancient house, and island tour.
Biking in Cai Be
This is a favorite thing to do in the Mekong Delta. While biking or driving a scooter only induces panic and stress in Vietnam’s big cities, the bicycle is actually enjoyable in Vietnam’s small towns. Be sure to pin your hotel or homestay’s location on your map when you embark on your journey: there are a lot of twists and turns to these roads that could get you confused.
If you take a ferry to another island, don’t be worried if your Google Maps feature just shows a block of green, without mapping any actual roads. Just learn or write down the phrase “Phà ở đâu?” (Where is the ferry?) Show someone this and give them the name and address of your accommodation; that will probably get you where you need to be.
Relax at the Pool and Spa
I’m not sure if you can do this everywhere in Cai Be, but my friend and I got to indulge in some serious relaxation at the Mekong Riverside Resort. My friend luxuriated in a foot massage (VND200,000) by the resort’s professional masseuse while I, too ticklish for such things, found my inner peace in the warm-yet-refreshing swimming pool. Be warned: the sun and the mosquitos are both fierce here. It’s best to bring the resort’s complimentary bottle of mosquito repellent, along with some sunscreen, with you at all times.
What to Eat in Cai Be
Here you’ll find some of the best Southern Vietnamese cooking. When my friend and I had our dinner at the Mekong Riverside Resort, we got a tour of the region’s different culinary options. We enjoyed crispily and beautifully fried Elephant Ear Fish (Gourami), displayed majestically on wooden holders. A server helped us take the meat from the body, which we rolled into fresh spring rolls and enjoyed with the traditional fish sauce-and-chili combo. So good.
Another highlight you have to check out: is the enormous bánh xèo. Depending on where you travel in Vietnam, the size of bánh xèo differs, but in the south, they’re usually huge and filling. Filled with pork, shrimp, and coconut meat, this saffron-infused pancake is served alongside a veritable mountain of fresh Vietnamese greens. At the Mekong Riverside, most of these were grown on the property, completely organically. This dish was the perfect marriage between fresh and decadent.
If you’re in Cai Be and staying elsewhere, you can still check out the Mekong Riverside Resort for lunch or dinner. Or, if you want to venture out and see what some other local restaurants have to offer, here’s a list of some well-regarded houses of culinary delights.
Mr. Kiet’s Historic House (1924 Phu Hoa Village). Quaint, charming, local, and very remote. A few river tours, including the ones at our hotel, partner with Mr. Kiet’s. Plus, the house itself is an attraction. At around 200 years old, it’s one of the oldest preserved buildings in Cai Be.
Le Longanier (49 Hamlet 5, Phu An Village). Quiet and peaceful, good food is served in a jungle setting.
Around 113 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, you can get to Cai Be in a few different ways: motorbike, bus, or car. When we went, we chose the motorbike option, which took around 3.5 hours. Google Maps was not incredibly helpful when picking a route. Many of the roads it chose for us were expressways for cars and trucks—no motorbikes allowed. Luckily, there was usually someone at the traffic booth who could show us alternate routes on a map or phone.
If you’re not comfortable with this or don’t want to go through the hassle, it might be easier to book a ticket for Can Tho with Phuong Trang. Just make sure that both the ticket salesperson and the driver know that you want to get off in Cai Be. You don’t want to miss your stop.
By Keely Burkey
Mekong Plus is a non-profit that helps Vietnamese and Cambodian communities struggling with extreme poverty.
It’s a hot day in Long My in the southern half of the Mekong Delta. Luong Thuy Hang walks carefully around women sitting on the laminated floor of the open-air, covered veranda; the walls hold sewing supplies and colorful fabrics, and fans are strategically placed to move the still, heavy air. The women sit in groups, talking quietly amongst themselves as they work on their sewing. Small piles of fabric ornaments and children’s room decorations pile high as the day wears on.
As the manager of the operation, Luong Thuy Hang has worked with Mekong Plus, a non-profit that helps Vietnamese and Cambodian communities struggling with extreme poverty, for over five years. When the women finish their weekly quotas, they will send their products to one of the remaining Mekong Quilts stores, or online; all proceeds will be reinvested in their community.
For Hang, the opportunity to earn a regular income was too good to pass up. I ask her what her plans are for the future, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. “I’ll be working to help support my family,” she tells me through an interpreter. “If I don’t have this job, I’ll find another. It’s what I have to do.”
A Dire Situation
The Mekong Delta region, which spans over 38,000 square kilometers and houses over 17 million people, is one of the poorest areas in the country. With an emphasis on agricultural and aquacultural production and traditionally labeled as Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, this largely flat land has been almost entirely devoted to growing food, an activity dependent on the Mekong River. And due to several factors, the livelihoods of millions could be permanently altered in the coming years.
Dr. Marcel Marchand, flood risk and coastal management specialist with Deltares, told me via Skype that the changes we’re currently seeing in the Mekong Delta are nothing new, and will probably get worse without strategic and intense human intervention. “The Mekong Delta is often referred to as one of the most vulnerable deltas in the world to climate change, and that is basically because of the low-lying area. That means it’s directly impacted by sea level rise,” he explained.
Dr. Marchand was also quick to report that the gradual rise in sea level is just one of the factors. “The river discharge of the Mekong River will probably change [due to] a combination of climate change and human interference by large dams.” As dams and dykes are built upstream in Vietnam, China, Laos, and Cambodia, for hydropower in China and to regulate the yearly flooding in Vietnam, the farms downstream are affected by increased salinity brought in from the ocean and a lack of fertile silt flowing from the upper plains.
Traditional cash crops like rice wither in the salty and brackish water and poverty grows—and not just for farmers. Logistical workers who transport heavy loads of rice are also affected.
For Dr. Marchand, the potential solution is all about farming diversification. Rather than try to prevent the inevitable salinity rises, he’s working with local governments in the Delta to encourage the spread of other agricultural and aquacultural crops. The most profitable change, adopted by many farms, is a two-tiered approach: growing rice during the wet season, when freshwater is plentiful, and switching to saltwater or brackish shrimp in the dry season, as the ocean waters surge upstream.
Alongside this approach, soon helped by the salinity-measuring system Dr. Marchand is helping to produce and distribute with Deltares, are recent efforts to propagate salinity-resistant rice strains and encourage coconut farming—a crop that requires less fresh water to flourish.
Bernard Kervyn of Mekong Plus also heartily encourages alternative career paths for Delta citizens. Besides the Mekong Quilt retail program, the group also promotes new and updated agricultural systems to farmers eager to increase their yields.
Kervyn and others working in the Mekong Plus’ Long My division showed me the work they’ve done with pig farmers like Nguyen Van Troi. Troi, who comes from several generations of livestock farmers, pointed to the biogas system the Mekong Plus team helped establish near the pig pens, where methane harnessed from faeces is used for cooking. As we walked back, Kervyn proudly announced that Troi has spread the system to other pig farmers in the community.
This is just one of the welcome ways to save on money, especially as pork prices drop, a consequence of China’s ban on Vietnamese pork exports established earlier this year. “Troi is worried about it, of course,” Kervyn told me. “Farming pigs is all he knows how to do, and now […] it costs more to raise them than to sell them.” Asked what Troi can do about it, Kervyn shrugs. “What can he do? Just wait for better days.”
The Way Out
As situations seem increasingly dire and poverty increases in these rural communities, organizations like Mekong Plus don’t just focus on individual households. Efforts are also being made to provide tutors for children who need extra help and scholarship funds for deserving students.
As a study by the Ministry of Education showed in 2015, the Mekong Delta has the nation’s largest dropout rate, nearly three times the national average. The gap between rich and poor has risen in quickly developing cities like Can Tho, and more remote regions lack the resources to transport children to schools, which are sometimes long distances away from the family farms.
The need to focus more on education to eliminate poverty is sometimes lost in translation. Kervyn recalled a conversation with a potential donor while raising funds for his project. “She asked me why we’re devoting resources to education if our organization was trying to reduce poverty. Like it was two separate things,” Kervyn says, shaking his head. “I didn’t know how to respond.”
Through a mix of education and employment opportunities, many hope that environmental changes in the Mekong Delta won’t stop communities from developing on their own terms, with a few helping hands.
Why do most travelers choose My Tho, to discover the Mekong Delta?
As I recently learned, a trip to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta can’t be fully complete without spending some time in My Tho City. Only 70 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho is one of the closest destinations for a truly relaxing getaway away from Saigon’s madding crowds. As I learned, My Tho has innumerable things that can be enjoyed. A bike trip through towns, villages, and along footpaths; tours of fish farms, coconut farms, and cocoa farms; exploring small city markets full of beautiful local products; visiting Cao Dai temples and Buddhist pagodas; and, of course, enjoying the peace and serenity of Vietnam’s country life.
And, if you’re as lucky as I was, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery and high-class luxury of The Island Lodge.
But First, a Few Words About My Tho
You might not have heard about My Tho, and I don’t blame you. When placed alongside larger and more overly scenic cities like Ha Long Bay, Da Lat, Can Tho, and Hoi An, My Tho often gets sidelined. You’re even more likely to hear about the neighboring city of Ben Tre, connected by the relatively new Rach Mieu Bridge, which is quickly becoming a homestay hotspot. While all of these locations have their own charms, let me tell you: there’s no place like My Tho.
This small city of around a quarter of a million residents thrives on small-town charm. In the past, this town, located in the northern region of the Mekong Delta, was considered a gateway into the southern lands and rivers. The economy here is largely built around fishing and agriculture. Nowadays, My Tho is separated into six “communes”, and our story today takes place in Thoi Son. Even more specific, I spent my weekend on Unicorn Island (Con Lan), one of the four islands in Thoi Son (the other three: Dragon Island, or Con Rong; Tortoise Island, or Con Qui; and Phoenix Island, or Con Phung).
The mere fact that you can stay somewhere called Unicorn Island should be reason enough to go. But if you need even more reasons, read on.
Experience the Truly Special Island Lodge
The fun thing about this weekend was that I was able to experience two completely different worlds. On the one hand, I spent time in authentic Vietnamese countryside, biking and sightseeing for two wonderful days (more on this later). One the other hand, I got to luxuriate in The Island Lodge, an exquisite hidden gem of a boutique hotel.
From the time I stepped foot in The Island Lodge, I knew it was a special place. As I walked up to the receptionist, I saw a welcome drink waiting for me; as I sat down and took a look around the open-air restaurant area and magnificent 24-metre pool, I was given three amuse-bouches just because.
I could wax poetic about the quality of the rooms, the deliciousness of the French and Vietnamese food offered in the restaurant and the lush opulence of the grounds and well-placed architectural touches. Basically, there are so many places to relax on the grounds of The Island Lodge that, even if you trip and fall, you’ll probably land in a beautiful and comfortable lounge chair. Just try and feel tense at The Island Lodge – I don’t think it’s possible.
What Can You Do in My Tho?
Bike Through the Countryside
Without a doubt, biking is a must when you visit My Tho, or anywhere else in the Mekong Delta. The plentiful bridges arching over small rivers and streams, the narrow country paths leading to places more and more beautiful, the ability to pass at your leisure and enjoy the country at your own pace… it’s hard not to fall in love with My Tho on the seat of a bike.
But before we go on, a bit of context. I don’t exercise often. For me, climbing up three flights of stairs to my apartment is exercise enough, thank you. So when Michel announced on Friday night that he would show me his 13-kilometre Fish Farms Road tour, I was, at first, a little worried. I’d been to the Mekong Delta several times before, and the tours were markedly different.
On a typical tour, travellers are herded onto a boat where they are driven straight to an empty floating market and then the coconut candy factory. The tour Michel was proposing sounded like a proper bike tour. Could I handle it? Or had my cushy Saigon lifestyle atrophied my leg muscles? I would soon find out.
It was actually amazingly fun. We rode through a variety of different terrains and Michel essentially showed me a cross section of what life was like in the sleepy towns of Ben Tre and My Tho. I was able to see sugar cane fields, banana farms, cocoa trees, pink carp fish farms, and about a dozen other spectacular things. What I really enjoyed about the trip was how relaxed the itinerary was. Michel asked casually if I wanted to see an independently owned pagoda for fruit and water, for example (the answer, of course, was “yes”).
Explore the Vinh Trang Temple
The Vinh Trang Temple is definitely the most famous tourist destination in My Tho, and for good reason. To call it just a temple does it a slight injustice, because you get a lot more than a temple when you come here: the grounds also feature two massive statues of Buddha (one reclining and one sitting), the temple proper, a lotus garden, a small cemetery and amazingly beautiful gardens.
But be warned: when I visited the temple, I was not alone. There were three large tour groups milling around the grounds and enjoying the sights. Be prepared to have a certain number of photobombers invading your pictures.
Admire the Cao Dai Temple
This beautiful building is a great example of Cao Dai architecture. This religion, established in 1926 and unique to Vietnam, incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. What I discovered on my visit, however, is that it also incorporates stunning and colourful architecture. As soon as I walked in, I was struck by how quiet and still the pagoda was. It’s not a huge place, and there aren’t many attractions attached to it, but it was a wonderful place to visit.
Visit the My Tho Fruit and Vegetable Market
After my trip to the peaceful Cao Dai Temple, my trip to the fruit and vegetable market was a big shock. The energy! The people! The (sometimes unpleasant) smells! And, of course, the fruit!
Fruit and vegetables weren’t the only things sold here. I went on a Sunday morning, and the place was packed with people, sounds and activities. There’s a huge food court, flowers, textiles, sassy vendors (one woman let me take her picture and then – somewhat – playfully tried to shake me down for VND 5,000) and fresh fruit and vegetables literally everywhere you look. Even better, this market was a good place to interact with locals. The language barrier was strong, but we still found ways to communicate.
Read. Live. Enjoy. I’ll just leave this here.
Things to Watch Out For in My Tho
The sun. I grew up in Hawaii, and I’ve never felt the sun so strong as during this trip. During my bike ride I slathered myself with sunscreen, and I still got a slight burn. My advice: keep the sunscreen with you and reapply it often. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll probably get a lot of stares. Don’t let this get to you! Just take it in stride. If you smile, you’re pretty much guaranteed a smile in return.
Who Should Go to My Tho
My Tho is a great place for families and couples. Boat tours and market visits are perfect for families. With the scenery changing with every moment, kids will no doubt be entertained. Plus, the abundant fruits, teas and candies in most restaurants are ideal for people who take pleasure in sitting for longer periods and simply enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
More adventurous couples will definitely love My Tho as well. Bike tours abound, and most hotels and homestays rent bikes for a half day or full day if you’d rather go solo. While there’s the slight chance that you’ll get lost amidst the different paths, roads and canals, it won’t be difficult to find somebody willing to direct you back on the right path.
For more information about The Island Lodge, be sure to check out their website.
By Ly Quoc Dang & Laura Nalin
Behind the banks of the Mekong Delta lies the Y-Farm, formally known as the Mekong Youth Farm Network.
Y-Farm, a groundbreaking sustainable farming initiative, is making a positive impact in Can Tho City in more ways than one. The project, led by Ly Quoc Dang, aims to improve the livelihood of local community members while also serving as an education for young generations in Vietnam on the importance of renewable, eco-friendly efforts.
The Y-Farm project is linked with the Warm Hold Association, a volunteer-led nonprofit working with HIV positive individuals in the Mekong region. The impassioned constituents of the Y-Farm are a mixture of local community members as well as applicants of The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, a small grants competition for young leaders in Southeast Asia.
There are currently nine members of the Mekong Youth Farm Network; the team is from five different countries. The network assists more than 250 young people within the district as well as 25 young farmers and students. The ultimate goal is to encourage youth in the area to become interested in organic agriculture while promoting income improvement for disadvantaged women.
Why the Binh Thuy District is an Ideal Eco-Farming Location in Vietnam
Binh Thuy District, where the farms are located, is known for its lush green spaces and its expansive vegetable production. The fact that the farm functions in this region is what makes the program successful. Two of the main goals of Y-Farm are to provide part-time jobs for impoverished women living within the local provinces as well as provide free, healthy and safe food for orphaned children.
The network is committed to helping poor community members rise out of poverty, and proves itself in several ways. Much of the farm’s produce is sold at local shops, serving as an affordable alternative for poor and homeless locals.
While the Mekong Youth Farm Network mainly functions as spaces for farmers, volunteers and researchers to do their work, some of the farms also serve as an opportunity for tourists to gain insight into life in Can Tho City. If they’d like, tourists can link up with a local family and stay on their farm for a few days for an unmatched. experience.
How One Company’s Transparency is Changing the Sustainability Game
The Y-Farm isn’t the only project in the Binh Thuy District working toward sustainability. Les Vergers du Mekongthe Orchards of the Mekong River has been working directly with local farmers since 2000. The French-owned company has established long-term relationships with community agriculturists, and produces gourmet coffee, honey, juices, tea and jam. According to the company’s website, the orchards generate what is estimated to be more than six million tons of fruit per year, with more than 30 different varieties, including mango, pineapple, raspberries and passion-fruit.
Sophie Boyadjian, Export and Marketing Director for Les Vergers du Mekong, stated that operating business in such close proximity to the farmers in Binh Thuy District has done wonders for all involved. From the very beginning, the company’s founder Jean-Luc Voisin created a unique business model with the concept of farm-to-table in mind. The presence of the strong local supply chain combined with the processing of natural products that get directly distributed throughout Vietnam is what has made his business so successful in the region.
Boyadjian added that a common goal of Les Vergers du Mekong is to share the success with the famers, staff and community as a whole. During the early stages of business, Voisin and his team invested in a program to successfully integrate local farmers into the larger supply chain. By creating several training centres throughout the Binh Thuy District, the company has been able to collect fruits with 100 percent traceability, preserve the natural ecosystems and promote environmental agriculture certifications, according to Boyadjian.
The company’s unique business model has become a staple in the region and will continue to seek ways to build upon a sustainable future in Vietnam and beyond. “Real sustainability can only be truly achieved when all parts of the value chain work together and especially to integrate the small farmers in the food value chains,”, Boyadjian said. “Sourcing for shared value reinforces our contribution to preserving the environment;, stimulating the well-being of communities; and securing resources for the long term. By building sustainable value chains, we seek to revitalise rural communities, improve the living standards of the small-scale farmers, increase the quality and quantity of fruits they produce.”
Although programs like the Y-Farm and Les Vergers du Mekong are currently few and far between, it will be absolutely necessary to integrate sustainable efforts into Vietnam’s business efforts in order for it to thrive. The nation’s absence of practical recycling solutions combined with unhealthy food production practices are driving it to a point of recklessness,; many of its citizens suffering as a result. With companies looking toward the future, Vietnam can successfully join the global ranks both economically and sustainably.
By John Aspin,
Mekong (not-so) Confidential—Bikepacking Vietnam’s Delta.
If there’s a better way to see the Mekong Delta than strapping a spare pair of cycling shorts, a dry T-shirt, a couple of pairs of underwear and some decent off-road thongs to your bicycle, City Pass Guide contributor would like to know.
The Basics of Cycling the Mekong Delta
In truth, you do need a few more items than the above shortlist lets on. A spare tube and puncture repair kit is mandatory on any ride, and a water bottle, sun cream and shades are no-brainers. In addition, as every cyclist already knows, if your ride doesn’t upload to Strava, it may as well not have happened, so a power pack to keep your phone charged should also be considered essential.
At the beginning of June, as my immense number of followers on the above-mentioned ride-sharing app (90) will tell you, something definitely did happen. I spent four days in the saddle getting to know the Mekong Delta as I hadn’t done before and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
High Praise from a Mekong Delta Cycling Enthusiast
Riding alongside me, or for large parts of it, ahead of me, was my ride buddy Jeremy, a native of the Alaskan wilderness, though more latterly of Portland, Oregon, and a veteran of several trips to this incredible part of the world.
“You’re going to love it, Jon”, he told me as we sat in the van we had hired to take ourselves and our bikes—mine a well-worn Cannondale CX, his a recently purchased Giant Roadster—to our first destination, Ben Tre, the Mekong Delta’s unofficial, coconut-flavoured capital.
Skipping the dusty, dangerous highway to arrive there in air-conditioned comfort—leaving only a good night’s sleep in front of us—it was from here that we would begin our first bikepacking trip together, and what better place to do it?
“I’ve done this trip four times already”, Jeremy offered, “and I can’t wait to do it again”. Coming from someone who’s ticked off some serious bucket-list rides, including a circumnavigation of the bike-friendly but dramatically beautiful Taiwan, some more extreme bike-kayak-bike rides around his home turf of Juno, Alaska, as well as several other multi-day excursions all over southeast Asia, it’s high praise.
In total, we kept the pace light and in four days of riding completed just under 300 kilometres, give or take a few. Using Jeremy’s saved maps (I told you a charged phone was an essential piece of kit), we avoided anything that resembled a highway and stuck mostly to back roads and quiet lanes, cross-stitching our way through stunning countryside, dense jungle and quaint villages, always with the mighty Mekong in range. It didn’t mean we never got lost, in fact that is part of the joy, but because we weren’t trying to break power or distance records, this was cycling at its absolute best.
Cycling from Bến Tre to Vĩnh Long and Back
For the uninitiated, 300 kilometres might sound a lot, but Strava tells me that our biggest day was day one, when we covered a flat 78 kilometres between our riverside accommodation in Bến Tre (I’m not getting paid to say that Mango Home is well worth staying at next time you’re in the area) and Vĩnh Long, where we lobbed at the charismatic and incredibly good value-for-money Happy Family Guesthouse.
On day two, we returned from whence we came, taking a slightly alternative route from the previous day that involved a number of ferry crossings—adding to the mystique of being there. On all four days we encountered locals who reminded us of the magic that is Vietnam.
Sure, they were giggling at our lycra-clad bellies, funny shoes and weird choice of headgear, but the overwhelming response was to welcome us, pour us tea, bring us fruit and smile—never expecting a cent in exchange.
Of course we did spend money, as there were far too many opportunities to drink delicious nước dừa (ice coconut) and eat the freshest vải (lychees) I’ve ever tasted—though these were also available for free off the trees we rode past. Obviously, you can’t go all the way to the Mekong Delta without getting deep on life while sipping more than your fair share of café sữa đá, so we did this too. There may even have been a few Saigon Specials in the mix as well. It was hot after all.
During our ride we came across virtually no other foreigners, save for a drunk Russian couple in Bến Tre. The riding itself was excellent (aka flat), across a variety of manageable terrains with limited traffic outside of the regular flow of improvised ‘hoppers’ that carry anything and everything you can imagine. Whether we were traversing multiple series of tiny old bridges, stopping to admire artwork and vestiges of communities we’ll never know, or riding through towns that time had forgotten—all while luxuriating in the fresh air we miss while living in Ho Chi Minh City—every day in the Mekong Delta was a very good day for a bike ride.
Cycling to Gò Công in the Mekong Delta
On day three, we made it to Gò Công, through what can only be described as one of the coconut-processing capital of the world. It was incredible to see the strength of the men and women who take this commodity from raw product and strip it back manually, ready presumably for export.
Also remarkable throughout the trip was the ever-present dichotomy between what we know about the encroaching threat of things like saline intrusion—caused by rising sea levels worldwide—plus the general level of poverty we hear about in the Mekong Delta, and the apparent abundance of life all around us.
Cycling the Mekong Delta in the early morning glow through fields of coconut palms, cashew plantations and lush vegetable and rice paddies, not to mention on residential paths where beaming locals live out what seem like idyllic lives, it was hard not to get a bit dreamy-eyed about it all. I asked Jeremy at one stage, “Wouldn’t you just move down here if you could?”
It was on day three that we also unexpectedly happened upon a prison labour camp in action. Young men paying their dues in fields wearing striped uniforms under the supervision of local officials. Before we knew what was happening, a very cordial police escort had greeted us, making sure we found our way off a property we didn’t know we were on—an interesting and unexpected highlight.
A Better Way to Cycle the Mekong Delta?
On day four, having spent the night in what was essentially a converted warehouse before filling ourselves with yet another nutritious bowl of Vietnamese goodness—bún bò Huế from memory—the dense vegetation and meandering pathways along the tributaries of the Mekong eventually gave way to straight-up commercial cropping and the hint of industry, signalling a transition from where we had been, to where we were going.
One ferry crossing and a final bridge climb later, the Mekong Delta was behind us, accompanied by the familiar drone of heavy traffic, and a sense of sadness that the experience was over, but also a satisfaction that we had created new memories, seen things that so many people never will and left no trace of us ever having been there. Bikepacking the Mekong Delta: is there a better way?