Exploring the Mekong Delta: A Travel Guide to Ben Tre

By: Kristian Goodchild

Just a short three-hour coach ride from Ho Chi Minh City (or a two-hour hair-rising motorbike ride if you’re feeling adventurous), down in the Mekong Delta, lies one of Vietnam’s most beautiful, untouched and authentic provinces.

Ben Tre province, 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.

Ben Tre lifestyle

Photo by: Ben Tre Que Toi

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:

Night Market

Nguyen Trung Truc Street, Ward 2, Ben Tre

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.

Ben Tre night market

Photo by: Nguyen Anh Duy


Thuy Pizza

51 Ngo Quyen Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre

Purportedly the only Western restaurant in town, Thuy Pizza is a gem of an eatery for anyone who needs a break from noodles and pork. The dough is fresh and crisp and the toppings tasty and filling. The staff is friendly and the interior is peaceful and beset with a gentle, homely atmosphere. Well worth a visit if you’re craving some home comforts.

Thuy Pizza


Where to stay

Hung Vuong Hotel

★★★

148-166 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre

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 travellers 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.

hung Vuong Hotel Ben Tre


Viet Uc Hotel

★★★

144 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre

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.

Viet Uc Hotel


Ham Luong Hotel

★★★

200 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 5, Ben Tre

Similarly priced to the Viet Uc, the Ham Luong Hotel may be the pick of the town due to its gorgeous coconut field views, crisp river breeze and quint traditional decor. It's a little further away from the action at around two kilometres from the city centre but in a town with such a sedate pace, a two-kilometre stroll is all part of the fun. Highly recommended.

Ham Luong Hotel


Venturing South: 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

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.

Amazing Dream Homestay in Ben Tre

Photo by: Amazing Dream Homestay

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.

Amazing Dream Homestay in Ben Tre

Photo by: Amazing Dream Homestay

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.

Amazing Dream Homestay in Ben Tre

Photo by: Amazing Dream Homestay


Local attractions

Lotus Lakes

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 or 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.

Ba Tri Lotus Lake

Photo by: Amazing Dream Homestay

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

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

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 honour.

The branch of Buddhism practiced here, Xin Xam Dau Nam, is a rare mix of Buddhism and ancient Chinese spiritualism. Different statues represents different facets of life and the faithful pray to whichever god can best help guide them on their way.

Chua Ong - That Phu Vo Mieu Ben Tre

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.

Phu Le Rice Wine

Photo by: My Tuu

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.

Phu Le Rice Wine

Photo by: My Tuu

With an average output of around 40 litres 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 flavour is overpowering at first but after becomes surprisingly drinkable afterwards; provided it is suitably mixed. Locals advise coconut water and lime, I went with coca cola, purely out of convenience.


Night entertainment

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 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.


Your Guide to a Weekend in Cai Be

By: Keely Burkey

If you live in Saigon, or are travelling 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 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.

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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 loose 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.

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Kayaking and Canalling

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, travellers 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

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.

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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 travelling with a group or with your family.

Different tourism agencies offer varying prices and tour quality, but your best bet will be asking 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

This is a favourite 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.

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What to Eat in Cai Be

Here you’ll find some of the best of 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 crispy 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-chilli combo. So good.

Another highlight you have to check out: the enormous bánh xèo. Depending where you travel in Vietnam, the size of bánh xèo differ, 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.

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Le Longanier (49 Hamlet 5, Phu An Village)

Quiet and peaceful, good food is served in a jungle setting.

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.

Getting There

Around 113 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, you can get to Cai Be 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.

Image source: Keely


Your Next Trip: My Tho in the Mekong Delta

By: Keely Burkey

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 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho is one of the closest destinations for a truly relaxed 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.

My tho river

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.

Mekong delta

Run by Michel and Françoise Scour, 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.

Resort My Tho

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.

Pool My tho

One of the best things about The Island Lodge, however, is the owners, Michel and Françoise. Natives of France, they opened their hotel two and a half years ago because 1) who wouldn’t want to live there?? And 2) to celebrate and promote the beauty of My Tho’s surroundings and people.

Their devotion to both their guests’ happiness and the Mekong Delta as a whole is evident by the way that Michel personally leads bike tours and tailors each guest’s experience to their particular interests. Case in point: during my weekend there, two guests told Michel they were in Vietnam to look for chocolate farms to source cocoa for their candy factory in France. So, Michel organised a trip to a local cocoa farmer in the area.

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”).

My Tho path

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.

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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.

Buddha My Tho

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.

Mytho Dragon

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 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.

My Tho

Things to Watch Out For

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

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.


Mekong’s Helping Hands

By: Keely Burkey

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 colourful 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.

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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 five Mekong Quilts stores; 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 in 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 kilometres 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 labelled 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.

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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.

Career Shifts

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.

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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, organisations 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.

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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 organisation 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.

Image source: by Keely

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