A Guide to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

| Tomáš Malík / Unsplash

Too many tourists think they can see enough of the Mekong Delta on a brief day trip from Ho Chi Minh City – but there’s so much more to it than a pagoda and a floating market. This region is home to unique ecosystems that deserve more than an afternoon in your itinerary. Read our guide to this diverse part of Vietnam to understand why.

What is the Mekong Delta?

The Mekong Delta is a network of tributaries in southwest Vietnam, between Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia. The river itself starts in the Himalayas and passes through China, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia before reaching Vietnam, which partly explains why the waters are so murky.

More than half of Vietnam’s rice and fish comes from the delta region, so you can see how vital it is to the Vietnamese economy, diet and culture. Life in the area revolves around water, from the famous floating markets to vast agricultural industries; a variety of fruits, flowers and livestock grow in the region.

Best Things to See and Do in the Mekong Delta

1. Mỹ Tho

Architectural Landmark

Tho, Tien Giang, Vietnam
Irish83 / Unsplash

Hundreds if not thousands of tour groups come to this city every day, making it the most visited city in the Mekong Delta, and an important part of Vietnamese history. Besides their famous floating market, there are also impressive pagodas and local orchards to visit at this city, just two hours from Ho Chi Minh City by bus. Don’t expect to find many off-the-beaten track experiences here, as the destinations are all designed for day trippers – most of the tourism in this city is packaged by the local tourism bureau. Book a guided tour of the city to get the best grasp of Mỹ Tho’s many faces.

2. Cần Thơ

Natural Feature

Aerial view of Can Tho, Vietnam
Tan Dao / Unsplash

Cần Thơ is the biggest city in the Mekong Delta region and home to the Cái Răng floating market. Here, you’ll see hundreds of boats packed with more varieties of fruits than you ever thought possible. Although Cần Thơ is a large, somewhat industrialised city, it also serves as the cultural centre for the surrounding rural areas. The nice thing about this city is you can get the best of both worlds: comfortable accommodations in the city centre, with easy day trips available to head out and see the picturesque agricultural communities. There aren’t the dance clubs and cocktail bars you find Ho Chi Minh City, but the nightlife is still vibrant. It takes approximately four hours to get to Cần Thơ from Ho Chi Minh City by bus. Be sure to book a tour of the city’s floating markets if you’re in town.

3. Cần Giờ Biosphere Reserve

Park

The Cần Giờ Biosphere Reserve, protected by UNESCO, is valuable for its rich mangrove forests and wetland ecosystems. This biosphere reserve also helps to protect the region from corrosion – without it, a lot of rich agricultural land would wash out to sea. There are many tours available to the biosphere reserve, and since it’s so near to Ho Chi Minh City, it makes one of the best Vietnamese destinations for a day trip, or a starting point for your trip through the Mekong River Delta.

4. Châu Đốc

Architectural Landmark

For those of you making your way between Vietnam and Cambodia, Châu Đốc is an easy stop along the route. It’s known for its religious and ethnic diversity, which includes Khmer, Chinese, Cham and Vietnamese people. Like most of the Mekong Delta, the surrounding areas are lush with rice paddies and spectacular rural scenes. For a real treat, stay at the Victoria Nui Sam.

5. Sao Beach

Natural Feature

The beauty of Sao Beach in Phu Quoc, Vietnam.
Vivu Vietnam / Unsplash

Head to Sao Beach on Phú Quốc, a Vietnamese island just off the coast of Cambodia, if you’re looking for a quintessential tropical beach paradise – it has crystal clear waters, white sand and swaying palm trees. The picturesque beach takes its name from the Vietnamese word for “starfish” as the waters used to be full of white starfish at sunset. The south of the beach is often crowded with tourists, but the north is much quieter (and cleaner), and is ideal for snorkelling, swimming and strolling along the shoreline. There are a number of beachside restaurants, as well as the Paradiso Beach Club, which offers showers, massages, a restaurant and a bar.

6. Thoi Son island

Natural Feature

This lush island, the largest of four in this part of the Tiền River, with about 1,200ha (3,000 acres), is crisscrossed by canals and waterways. It’s best known for its natural beauty and abundant fruit trees, including rambutan, longan and sapoche that line the shore and supply many of the markets in Tiền Giang province. You can explore the island by boat, before visiting the orchards and spending an afternoon relaxing in hammocks. The island’s historic homes are another attraction: Mr Tam’s house, open to visitors, is an exemplary model of a traditional home, with antique furnishings and a bonsai garden. To reach Thoi Son island, catch the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to My Tho, then take a 45-minute boat ride on the Mekong River.

7. Phú Quốc National Park

Natural Feature, Park

Women walking on the beach of Phu Quoc island, Vietnam
VENUS MAJOR / Unsplash

The Mekong Delta isn’t just about the rivers – many of the tours also explore the nearby islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Phú Quốc is Vietnam’s largest island and is a relatively unknown tropical paradise where you can immerse yourself in wild nature, deserted palm tree-lined beaches, and forested mountains. More than half of the island’s northern region is protected as a national park and was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2010. Here, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping and bird-watching – and the possibility to see rare wildlife, such as long-tailed macaques, silver langurs, slow lorises and hornbills.

8. Cai Rang Floating Market

Market, Vegetarian

Floating market of cia rang in the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam
Etienne Girardet / Unsplash
There are plenty of floating markets in the Mekong Delta but the biggest and most impressive is Cai Rang, which is 6km from Can Tho towards Soc Trang. The best time to visit is early morning before the boatloads of tourists arrive, so plan to get there around 6am. There are hundreds of vendors crowding the river, selling an astonishing array of fruits and vegetables, as well as clothes and wholesale food products – look at what’s hanging from the long pole above the boat to see what it’s offering. The smaller boats sell food, coffee and souvenirs to tourists.

9. Vinh Trang Pagoda

Buddhist Temple

It’s a mesmerising sight, in bougainvillea-laced gardens by the Songgo river near Mỹ Tho city. The main structure, raised in the early 20th century, glitzily weds French-rococo mansion and Confucian prayer hall, opening onto an atrium that holds a Gongshi (scholar’s) rock encrusted with a miniature temple. Cloisters ring with giant bronze bells, effigies of scholar-saints sit shrouded in incense and two huge Buddhas bask in the grounds. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

10. Cai Be Floating Market

Market

Floating market stall at Cái Bè, Tiền Giang, Vietnam
Falco Negenman / Unsplash

A decade ago, this beautiful sight in the small town of Cai Be was as big and busy as its counterpart Cai Rang. It’s quieter nowadays and you’ll need to arrive early for the best of the trading as people finish business before mid-morning heats up. For ease, visit from HCM City (an hour’s less travel time than from Cai Rang) and you’ll still get those snaps of locals balancing on barely-there dugouts as they buy bags of baguettes from bobbing barges. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

11. Sampan Cruise

Natural Feature

Woman rowing on a sampan boat in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Anne Lin / Unsplash

The Mekong Delta delivers an intoxicating mix of drifting serenity and floating-market mayhem, the best way to absorb it all being a two-day cruise aboard a sampan. There are loads of tours to choose from, including plenty that set off from Ho Chi Minh City and drift through the Mekong’s tangled backwaters, canals and floating villages, taking in Cai Be and Cai Ro markets along the way. Cabins and dining rooms, under palm-thatch canopies, are airy and cool at night. Bring plenty of repellent. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

12. Feast on Mekong Delta specialties

Natural Feature

There are so many wonderful dishes to try in the region, and even some you would consider weird. 70% of fruits consumed in Vietnam are grown here, so make sure you fill up on as much dragon fruit, pomelo, coconut, mango, rambutan, jackfruit, banana, mangosteen and durian as you can. By the way, you can even eat these fresh from the tree if you pay a visit to a local orchard. Some popular ones include Cai Be Orchard, Phong Dien and My Khanh. A tour of a fruit garden is a great help to support these farmers’ hard work and livelihoods. Recommended by Piumi Rajapaksha.

13. Sóc Trăng

Architectural Landmark

Sóc Trăng is home to the largest population of Khmer people outside of Cambodia, which is why this city has an interesting cultural feel to it that’s different from the Vietnamese cities in the area. The best examples of Khmer culture are the Clay and Bat pagodas, both famous for their intricate designs. This city may not have many flashy things to do, but those who prefer a relaxed experience will enjoy the calm vibes here, especially in the rice paddies that surround the city. If you’re in the area around November or December, be sure to check out the Oc Om Boc festival.

Rạch Giá

If you plan on visiting Phú Quốc Island, a trip to Rạch Giá is the perfect stop off on route. Several companies operate fast ferries out of Rạch Giá, arriving at various spots around Phú Quốc. Another option is the town of Hà Tiên, which is a little to the northwest from Rạch Giá; ferries leave from there as well, or you can cross into Cambodia. And if boats aren’t your thing, Rạch Giá also has an airport with daily flights.

Ninh Kieu Wharf

In Can Tho city, find peace at this flower-filled park overlooking the Song Hau river. It’s most beautiful at night when the scent of jasmine lingers and walkways sizzle with food stalls. The other eye-catcher is a sinuous pedestrian bridge topped with two giant replica lotus flowers, shimmering green and red on the rippling surface. Couples court strolling arm in arm to Cai Khe, an islet with pretty views of Ninh Kieu and the city skyline. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

Tra Su Mangrove Forest

Packed your binoculars? Not far from Chau Doc city is Tra Su forest, a plantation left to run wild as a reserve in the 1980s. Now it’s a haven for birds, including threatened species such as the painted stork. Between September and November, you’ll see them early morning or late afternoon, when they’re most active and the forest floods. A canoe tour passes along leafy waterways spanned by romantic, rustic wooden bridges. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

Sam Mountain

Above the vast flatness of the Mekong plains, 60km (40mi) or so from the city of Long Xuyen, Sam Mountain (Nui Sam) rises like an isolated blister of rock. It is a sacred site for Buddhists, encircled by a pilgrims’ village and speckled with dozens of pagodas and Buddha statues. Paths take you upwards to a temple at the broad peak. From up here, you can look out over patchworks of paddies cut with ribbons of water and groves of palms. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

Tan Lap Village

Travellers love this rural complex of camps, huts and jetties in the midst of Dong Thap Muoi wetlands close to the Cambodian border; particularly in the wet season, between September and November, when the flower ponds of lotuses are in bloom and locals offer canoe rides. Follow wooden causeways cut among the cajeput trees – known for their essential oils – and climb the observation tower for drone-worthy views over the wilderness. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

Tram Chim National Park

Before they were wrecked by agriculture, reed-bed ecosystems dominated the Mekong Basin. This is why Tram Chin – a government-decreed restoration project – is so internationally important. The nurtured wetland is a crucial habitat for rare species – you may spot the world’s tallest flying bird, the Sarus Crane. It gets busy so arrive early morning – or two hours before sunset on a weekday – when crowds are a trickle and the birds most active. Recommended by Alex Robinson.

Swim in the swamps and try net fishing

Swamps are a lot more fun to swim in than pools, and children in Vietnam love doing it. From September to December is when this activity is at its best because the water levels are higher during this time. Swamp swimming is a particularly favorite play time activity of children in the area, especially on hot afternoons as a great way to cool off. You will also probably come across some locals partaking in net fishing. They will gladly welcome you and let you have a try and your catches will be cooked for dinner. Recommended by Piumi Rajapaksha.

Visit our favorite little coconut candy lady

Many residents of the Mekong Delta specialize in producing goods such as rice paper, coconut candy, bricks, handicrafts and the like. They even open their homes for you to visit, look around and buy items if you wish. One of our favorites is a wonderful lady named Tu Ha who makes the world’s best coconut candy. She is 62 and lives by herself doing what she loves, and part of that is sharing with the rest of the world her delicious sweets. She spends her days making different kinds of candies from coconut and ginger which are packaged and sold off to buyers. She is always open to teach you what the process is like, so go with a local who can help translate. Don’t miss out on the coconut rice wine! Take some back home – it’s delicious, and strong. To get to her, just tell the boat driver “Co Tu Ha” and they will know. An encounter with her will probably be the highlight of your whole adventure. Recommended by Piumi Rajapaksha.
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Mandi Keighran contributed additional reporting to this article.

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