If you’d like to know the route taken on this 5 day trip, see The Road Trip post
A little Southeast of the colossal city of Hồ Chí Minh, lies the Mekong Delta region. It’s surprisingly different compared to any other place in Vietnam like Nghe An or Tuy Hoa. The Mekong Delta region is a vast flat land, woven together by small streams and large rivers everywhere you look. Its ample supply of fresh water, combined with a
warm hot climate, make it an agricultural paradise. This area produces much of the fruit for the rest of the country effortlessly. In fact, this area may look poor on the surface because it lacks money, but money lose value when you can grow any fruit in your backyard and catch anything in the waters.
The best way to truly explore this area is by motorbike. The tour buses will bring you to some hotspots, but they skim over the soul of the region. It’s a laidback, friendly and beautiful place. Every small town has a bustling market, children ride their bikes back from school in the Ao Dai, sleepy workers take a nap in the hammocks during the heat of the day. It’s a peaceful and out-of-this-world experience go off the beaten track. You will feel at peace knowing that this is the real Mekong, this is how people live everyday. So what can you do while exploring the backcountry of the magical area?
Things to do on the Mekong backroads
A quick google search will yield hundred of homestays in the Mekong. Some of them are newer than others, and it all depends on the type of experience you want. If you’re near Ben Tre or My Tho, we stayed at Nhà Hàng Tân Phú in some very small town. Be warned: the reviews are negative, but we had a fine time. Wherever you choose, be sure it has a lovely setting and includes some local dishes. Ours was set in the back of a small village. A canal ran next to the homestay and thick jungle surrounded us on all sides. It was dead silent at night and so close to nature.
2. Bến Tre Tour
Bến Tre is famous for its coconut plantations. The best way to see this first hand is by taking a tour. The playfully named Unicorn island is a one-stop shop to get the full experience. This island is located on the Mekong River between Mỹ Tho city and Bến Tre province. On this little island you’ll be treated to locally produced honey, fresh fruits, local folk performances, and more knowledge about coconuts than you thought possible. Best of all this island tour includes a boat ride through the Mekong mangroves. Get on a small boat with a little old lady steering behind you and soak in the incredible scenery of water coconut trees and surrounding you on all sides.
3. Be Awestruck by Bridges
If you couldn’t have guessed, due to this regions geography, bridges are essential to connecting these places together. And they come in every shape and size. Some of the most impressive bridges were least 100m high and built in partnership with Australia, Japan and Korea. They are truly impressive and it’s almost unbelievable that they can build them all so close to each other. In fact, one particular bridge was still under construction as on January 2018 and a ferry was still moving motorbikes and cars across the Mekong. Other bridges were the width of one, yes one, motorbike and made of 3 slabs or concrete haphazardly attached together. These also make great spots to pull over and admire the lush jungle that surrounds you on every side.
4. Cái Bè Floating Market
Cái Bè is another hotspot that many tours from HCMC visit. It’s famous for it’s floating market. I recommend just stopping here early in the morning, before 7am to get the best experience. And if you’re going to visit Cần Thơ as well, then I’d wait for that market, as it’s larger and more impressive. Nonetheless this town is charming and has houses built on stilts lining all sides of the small river. We drove out motorbikes to the eat side of the river and into a sleepy village. And it provided amazing view of Cái Bè city on the western banks.
NOTE: There is a new bridge connecting the town to the Eastern side of “Kinh 28” river at Xẻo Mây street. Google maps is incorrect.
5. Sa Đéc Market and Flowers
Sa Đéc is famous for it’s flowers. They show them with pride along the streets, in every shop and on large structures covered in flowers. On some of the roads outside the city (such as the ones on our trip) you’ll see endless flower farms and nurseries. People from HCMC often come here to buy flowers in bulk and take back to the city. In the center of Sa Dec is the market building with lots of local goods. In particular there is a type of scarf the is famous to the region that you can find here. I believe it’s made of linen, and can be used as a towel, to protect from the sun, or keep your next warm. Surrounding the market you’ll find stalls set up with more goods and some authentic street food.
6. Cao Lãnh market
Another lively market in the middle of this town of 160,000 people. We traveled here one morning for breakfast. It was amazing. Outside the market there are covered street food stalls as far as you can see. Here is a great place to try some local cuisine and buy something authentic. Be sure to haggle and don’t start to talk about a price unless you’re serious enough to buy it! The locals quite friendly, and stared as if we were on fire, but not as much as our pleasant experience in Trà Vinh. More on that later!
7. Cần Thơ
Cần Thơ is often referred to the capital of the Mekong region. It’s a large city sitting on the banks of the Bassac River (Sông Hậu). This is easily the most visited place in the Mekong region.
The floating market is the number one this to do here – and actually get in it! My friends and I gathered a small group from our hotel and set off at 5:30am to get to the market before sunrise. You must go early morning if you want to see prime time at the market. We met someone on the side of the road and negotiated a price with him to get a boat for a couple of hours. We paid 100k each for 2 hours of a private tour. You can also head down to the ticket booth and purchase a ticket there for a fixed price. Our guide brought us right into the ‘main street’ of the market. The market is primarily for farmers to sell their goods in wholesale. It’s easier to load it onto a boat from their farm and come up the river to the city. Each boat was selling a different fruit, and they advertised it by attaching a fruit to a tall pole for all to see. When we wanted coffee – then the coffee boat hooked onto ours and made us some cups. This happened over and over. We ate noodles, mango, pineapple and coconut. Our driver also brought us to a rice paper factory and down some of the more local canals where we could really observe local life. By boat, you can really see how much of an impact the river has on life here. People do everything by the water, and houses extend over he rivers on every side.
Cần Thơ also has quite a vibrant downtown. Find Hồ Xáng Thổi lake and enjoy some smoothies with a view. You might stumble onto some Khmer temples too. This blog offered some good details on the temples. We even stumbled by what looked to be an abandoned waterpark (located here). Please comment if you visit this park! It was in an old exhibition area of the city after my friends and I crossed the wrong bridge. We were in a rush to make it to Trà Vinh, so we couldn’t stop by and explore further.
8. Trà Vinh temples
As we approached Trà Vinh, an enormous golden Khmer Buddhist temple came into view through some tall trees. This would be the first of several Khmer temples in Tra Vinh Province. This province has a notable Khmer Ethnic population compared to other areas, it was part of the Kingdom of Cambodia and it shows. It’s easy to stumble onto these temple as they seemed to be everywhere. These breathtaking temples are active with Buddhist monks maintaining the grounds and practicing their religion. You will see them everywhere. It honestly does not feel like Vietnam anymore. We visited 3 temples: Chùa Âng, Chùa Koskeoseray, Chùa Hang, and Chùa Mạc Dồn. Chùa Âng is perhaps the most famous, as it has been a place of worship since 990, and has been continuously rebuilt in the same location.
9. Trà Vinh city
The drive from Cần Thơ to Trà Vinh was the most beautiful part of this trip. We stayed off the main roads and went through countless little villages. For 4 hours we went along farms and over tiny bridges that linked these villages together. It’s easy to find a cafe along the small roads with hammocks ready to be used. We stopped at one particular cafe that had mango, starfruit and coconut trees surrounding the rest area.
This lovely city has barely been touched by tourism. We stayed at the Khach San Phuong Dong, an incredibly affordable hotel a block from the city center for 300k for a family sized room. Nearby if the market square, filled with street food at night. I recommend going for a walk around here and finding some nice local food to try. A Chinese temple, Chùa Ông, is also located in the city. It is quite different from the Khmer temples outside the city. It was built by Chinese traders in the 1600s to honor a heroic Chinese war general and is thought to protect the people from danger.
Trà Vinh city is quaint and charming, and the people are incredible! Everyone wanted to practice their English, say hello to us, and were genuinely kind. But I’ll never forget one 3 year old boy who’s parents were pushing him to say hello to us. He didn’t know what was so special until he turned around and saw 3 foreigners walking by. He instantly burst into tears and ran back to his mother’s arms. Otherwise, everyone was friendly and even yelled hello as they were driving by. I even had a drive-by conversation with one man as I was looking for a shop to buy beer.
11. Get Lost on the backroads
Look at a map and you’ll notice the Mekong region is well connected by roads. Although not all roads were created equally, it means you can easily explore anywhere you’d like. You might come across a small ferry or tiny bridge that even google doesn’t know exists. If you have the time and a comfortable seat, stay on the small roads and you’ll never regret it. Here’s a breakdown of the different road classifications:
CT01: This is a free-way. Tons of trucks and buses moving at high speed. It will take you between main cities, and I recommend getting off it ASAP.
QL##: These roads are major roads, usually 2 lands with a big shoulder for motorbikes. They are usually in good shape and might have the occasional bus or large truck on it. This is the common artery road connecting most cities.
DT##: These roads are smaller versions of the QL roads and might just be 2 lanes. So any passing traffic might go into the oncoming lanes to get by. In my experience they were also much rougher. More potholes and huge bumps when coming up to any bridge.
HL##: These are the smallest roads that pass through all the farmland and the sleepy villages. They are often bumpy, the edges are deteriorating, and there aren’t many signs. But these roads are the most incredible part of the area. Passing between small farms and seeing kids riding home on their bikes in the Ao Dai brings such a sense of peace. My best memories were on these roads, especially HL6 and HL7.
Read more about the road trip route in this post!
Did I miss anything crucial? Let me know what is a must-see in the Mekong Delta by motorbike.