A Guide to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

The only way to navigate the Mekong Delta is by boat | © Cavan Images / Alamy
Photo of Matthew Pike
Writer6 May 2021

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 and diet. Life in the area revolves around water, from the famous floating markets to the vast agricultural industries; a variety of fruits, flowers and livestock grow in the region.

What to see and do

Mỹ Tho

Architectural Landmark
Map View
TIEN GIANG / VIETNAM, 20 MAY 2018 - VINH TRANG FAMOUS PAGODA IN MY THO CITY, TIEN GIANG
2BA92Y5 TIEN GIANG / VIETNAM, 20 MAY 2018 - VINH TRANG FAMOUS PAGODA IN MY THO CITY, TIEN GIANG | © Quang NGUYEN DUC / Alamy

Hundreds, if not thousands, of tour groups come to this city every day, making it the most visited city in the Mekong Delta. 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 much off-the-beaten track kinds of 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.

Cần Thơ

Natural Feature
Map View
Mekong River delta, Phong Dien District, Can Tho, Vietnam
FT05FW Mekong River delta, Phong Dien District, Can Tho, Vietnam | © Jason Langley / Alamy

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.

Sóc Trăng

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Soc Trang Province, Vietnam - February 6, 2021: The largest reclining Buddha in Vietnam at SomRong Pagoda in Soc Trang Province, Vietnam
2EC05R3 Soc Trang Province, Vietnam - February 6, 2021: The largest reclining Buddha in Vietnam at SomRong Pagoda in Soc Trang Province, Vietnam | © Quang Nguyen Vinh / Alamy

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.

Cần Giờ Biosphere Reserve

Forest
Map View
Portrait of a monkey in Sac forest. Royalty high quality stock image of animal. Many monkey lives in Sac forest, Can Gio, Ho Chi Minh city.
2A1X4XJ Portrait of a monkey in Sac forest. Royalty high quality stock image of animal. Many monkey lives in Sac forest, Can Gio, Ho Chi Minh city. | © Shinigamj / Alamy

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 for a great day trip, or a starting point for your trip through the Mekong River Delta.

Rạch Giá

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Sac Tu Tam Bao Tu Pagoda. Rach Gia. Vietnam, Indochina, South East Asia. Orient. Asia.
F4CTTG Sac Tu Tam Bao Tu Pagoda. Rach Gia. Vietnam, Indochina, South East Asia. Orient. Asia. | © Danita Delimont / Alamy

If you plan on visiting Phú Quốc Island, a trip to Rạch Giá is the perfect way to get there. 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.

Châu Đốc

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Victoria Nui Sam._421e2929
Victoria Nui Sam | Courtesy of Victoria Nui Sam / Expedia

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.

Thoi Son island

Natural Feature
Map View
Woman canoeing tourists boats, Thoi Son island tour, My Tho, Tien Giang Province, Vietnam
E6XWP3 Woman canoeing tourists boats, Thoi Son island tour, My Tho, Tien Giang Province, Vietnam | © Hauke Dressler / Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy
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.

Sao Beach

Natural Feature
Map View
Stunning white sand beach name Bai Sao beach in the Phu Quoc island in south Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand.
J97M08 Stunning white sand beach name Bai Sao beach in the Phu Quoc island in south Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand. | © AsiaDreamPhoto / Alamy
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.

Phú Quốc National Park

Park, Natural Feature
Map View
Mountain road with many trees in on Phu Quoc Island_MA5MJM
Mountain road with many trees in on Phu Quoc Island | © Duy Phuong Nguyen / Alamy
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.

Cai Rang Floating Market

Market, Vegetarian
Map View
Cai Rang floating market at the Mekong Delta, Can Tho, Vietnam, Indochina, Southeast Asia, Asia
EKBD1T Cai Rang floating market at the Mekong Delta, Can Tho, Vietnam, Indochina, Southeast Asia, Asia | © Yadid Levy / robertharding / Alamy
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.

Mandi Keighran contributed additional reporting to this article.

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