Exploring the Nine Dragons: The Mekong Delta
The day I left Can Tho, one of the major cities of the Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam, I did it in style. At 12 p.m. on a balmy day, I boarded the Bassac II, one of the classic wooden cabin cruisers that make up TransMékong’s 9Dragons experience.
On my Mekong Delta river tour I would experience a lot: the most delicious and fresh fruits available in Vietnam, tours of narrow water canals and vast waterways, walks through sleepy villages and trips to lively markets. But it was the peace and quiet that really made my trip memorable.
Authenticity Is Key
The Bassac II follows traditional Vietnamese boat architecture, and the owners do everything they can to maintain the authenticity.
The ship is completely made out of wood, just like the boats of the past. I was the first one on board, so I wasted no time exploring every area my temporary home had to offer.
When I walked through the door of my room, all I could smell was lemongrass (I’m not complaining). A large bed took up most of the room, and a window looking out to the river was situated on the wall alongside the bed.
One small problem with this: people who walked up and down the boat deck had a clear view into my room. However, I could cope with it, as there was a window shade. Plus, I didn’t spend all that much time in my room anyway.
The Mekong Delta: A Few Facts
Considering a trip to the Mekong Delta? You totally should. As “the rice bowl of Vietnam”, it’s one of the integral places to visit if you want a complete Vietnamese experience.
However, if you think the Mekong Delta is a pristine set of rivers ideal for a honeymoon vacation, think again. The Mekong Delta is a working river, and you should look at it from a historical perspective more than a thing of pristine beauty. Want to learn more about the Mekong? I’m glad you asked.
When you visit pretty much any place in the Mekong Delta, get ready to see some farming (farmland covers 2.6 million hectares of land in the Mekong Delta). The farming here is so extensive that, according to a report by the Mekong River Commission, from the 1950s to the mid 1990s, over 95 percent of forest cover had been reduced (although, to be fair, trees didn’t cover 100 percent of the land before the 1950s). Today, the Mekong Delta supplies over half of Vietnam’s rice output, as well as a variety of different fruits, most of which I saw (and sampled) as I toured the countryside. Indulge in the longan, papaya, grapefruit, jackfruit, pomelo, durian, rambutan, guava and more. And, by the way, spring months are when most fruits are at their most delicious. Just saying.
What Can You See on a River Tour?
The River, for Starters
As the Bassac II started her journey downstream (or maybe upstream? It was hard to tell), I sank into one of the reclinable loungers that accompanied the two outdoor decks of the ship and looked around to get a feel for the scenery.
The sky that day was overcast with pockets of blue sky, and the water of the river matched the colour, with a tinge of brown from the silt that makes the soil in the Mekong Delta so rich and fertile.
The real scenery was, of course, along the shore. From my vantage point I could see dozens of different kinds of trees and plants all mixed together. Ramshackle houses appeared amidst the trees. Once, I even heard the familiar sound of karaoke, still audible even from the middle of the river.
The authentic scenery, mixed with the sounds of work boats passing by and the occasional small children screaming “Hello” from the shore made for a memorable experience.
After a truly delicious lunch (boiled prawns, fried calamari, sauteed vegetables, sauteed beef and seasonal fruit, if you’re interested), the other passengers and I saw something special: one of the last floating markets in Vietnam.
Made up of about a dozen boats selling everything from fruit to clothing moving serenely and still in the equally serene river, floating markets are a throwback from the time when personal canoes were used as a family’s main mode of transportation.
If possible, you should try to check out a village or two while you’re in the Mekong Delta – not just the bigger cities. Walking through a small village will give you a better impression of what most of Vietnam is really like than the bigger streets and cities.
The 9Dragons package came complete with a two-hour walk through one such village. I know I mentioned this before, but I was immediately impressed by the amount of different vegetation I saw everywhere around me. Along the sides of the roads we saw wild pineapples, papayas, pepper, water hyacinths and about everything else you would expect to grow in a tropical climate.
See the Stars
This might seem silly for someone who’s used to seeing the dark night sky every night, but anyone that lives in a brightly lit city will share my pain. When I look up into HCMC’s night sky, I’m usually met with a weird cloudy haze. When I looked up at the sky on the deck of the Bassac II, I saw magic.
After our (equally delicious) dinner, I headed out to the the second deck and hopped onto a reclining chair. The captain had set anchor in the middle of a wide part of the river, which meant it was quieter than I had experienced in years. That hour of peace was reason enough for me to go on the trip. Pure bliss.
Explore the Canals
The next day, after breakfast we were all ushered into a smaller traditional long canoes, each deftly steered by Vietnamese women clad in ao dai and conical hats. In a row we went down a winding, narrow canal.
Houses were (somewhat) evenly spaced along the edges, and you could really see rural lives being lived. Some long canoes, obviously a family’s personal vessel, were still tied outside some houses, though many were rotting and sinking into the water.
Of course, the nature stole the show. For the length of this boat ride, nobody spoke – we were too mesmerized by the nature. I looked up and saw that the branches of the trees on either side of the canal met overhead, forming a lushly latticed roof.
The Coconut Candy Factory
When the Bassac II arrived in Cai Be, a town about 60 km away from Can Tho by boat and 110 km away by river, around 8:15 a.m., I knew it was coming. A trip to the Mekong Delta could never be complete without coconut candy, and this one did not disappoint. This gummy, toffee-like substance, made from fresh coconut oil, is one of the mainstays of tourism in the Mekong Delta.
At a few different stations we watched workers dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans work with rice and thick coconut oil. In another corner, two women were individually wrapping each square of coconut candy. They offered samples; I accepted in a heartbeat.
Of course, they sell other things at most of the candy factories all over this region. I didn’t know the next time I would be back, so I made sure to stock up on candied ginger, rice puffs and dried banana as well.
Things to Watch Out For
As with all tourist destinations in Vietnam (and everywhere in the world, really), locals might look at you as an easy mark. Be careful, but don’t be too careful – most local people here are amazing and genuinely nice people. I’ve never said cam on so often in my life.
Bring mosquito spray and sun tan lotion. With all the water around, mosquitoes are ubiquitous. I’m a particularly poor planner and didn’t bring any with me. If the Bassac II didn’t come fully stocked with its own supply… I don’t even want to think about that outcome.
Who Should Go?
Although obviously everyone should go to the Mekong Delta, there are a few who would enjoy it more than others. Many of the people on my 9Dragon cruise were a bit older, retired and all couples. They all enjoyed everything immensely.
However, river cruises are just as good an idea for families. Here you’ll find little distractionsfrom the scenery and the experience of being on board a classic wooden boat. When’s the last time you’ve been somewhere and could just enjoy the company of your loved ones? And since the cruises here are generally only one night, it’s perfect for a quick weekend getaway from Saigon.
If you’re visiting Vietnam for the first time, one standard route of course is to fly into Hanoi and work your way down the country, stopping at the major destinations along the way. Usually, the Mekong Delta is the last port of call before either heading home or to Cambodia. This is a good call – you definitely won’t have a complete idea of Vietnam’s many wonders without putting the Mekong Delta on your itinerary. And if you’re looking for a good travel guide, you can’t find one better than 9Dragons.