Is the Mekong Delta on your travel bucket list? If not, it should be.
The Mekong River, known as Sông Cửu Long in Vietnamese (“Nine Dragons River” for its nine major branches), is the longest river in SE Asia. It originates in the plateaus of Tibet and flows approximately 2,700 miles through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before ultimately dumping its massive amount of silt into the South China Sea.
Its waters are home to 15 million people and sustain an estimated 90 million people in total as well as a 1,000+ unique species of plants and animals. As you might guess, the main industries of the delta are agriculture and fishing, though much of that, and life in the Mekong in general, is threatened by drought, flood, and rising sea waters. The Climate Change Research Institute at Cần Thơ University has predicted that many provinces in the Mekong Delta will be flooded by the year 2030; the provinces of Bến Tre and Long An could be flooded if sea levels rise by one meter. In other words, now is the time to see this place.
Though the Mekong Delta was not on our list of places to visit in Vietnam, fate thankfully intervened. Our original plan was to go north from Ho Chi Minh City, which would have seen us missing the Mekong entirely.
A chance viewing of chef Luke Nguyen’s travel/cooking TV series, Greater Mekong: 2 (which is excellent, by the way) along with a desire to visit Phú Quốc Island, home of the best fish sauce in the world, brought us through the region. And I’m so glad they did.
Our first stop was An Binh, a tiny little “island” community right across from the town of Vinh Long, about 83 miles outside of HCMC. As you’ve read by now, we (ok…I) had a hell of a time getting here, but it was so worth it. An Binh is the Pluto to Ho Chi Minh’s Venus – small, quiet, and cool.
We spent two days at a homestay (Vietnamese B&B), and it was a fantastic experience. We met some wonderful fellow travelers (shout out to our German, Belgian, and Aussie friends!), rented bicycles and explored all the little trails and bridges spanning the island, had our headlights fixed (mechanic came to us – $1 total), relaxed in hammocks, and had a chance to cook dinner with the family – though it was more of a demonstration, with me helping to roll and fry up some chả giò (spring rolls).
And oh, what chả giò they were. Not your run-of-the-mill rice paper pork and veggie kind. No. These were made with a special, lace-like rice paper local to the area and stuffed with mashed taro root and potato, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and chicken. They were otherworldly delicious and now sit at the top of the list of dishes I want to make when we finally get home. Luke Nguyen has a similar recipe here.
I also got spanked in chess by a nine-year old Vietnamese boy at our homestay. I did let him win in the end, but it was simply to hasten my inevitable demise, having lost EVERY SINGLE PIECE besides my king. The little guy rather enjoyed it – too much, if you ask me.
Next up was Cần Thơ, and what a sleeper surprise. If you count a population of 1.2 million as a sleeper. It certainly felt that way after HCMC. We positively loved Cần Thơ – it was again cooler, quieter, and much more manageable than HCMC. This mild weather continues to be a welcome surprise.
We stayed at a fabulous little hotel, the Mekong-Logis, which I highly recommend. At just over $15 for a great room with a fantastic view in a central but quiet location, this gem is run by a French-speaking family whose service sets them apart.
Though it’s a hotel, the atmosphere is much more convivial, with the man of the house, Fredo, holding court with the French-speaking guests in his beautifully tended garden. For us English speakers, the daughter of the household, Linh (pronounced “Lil”), is a brilliant resource and just a lovely, sweet person to boot. Welcome tea, morning coffee, and fruit from their garden were all on the house, and while I’m generally in favor of a la carte pricing vs. all-inclusive pricing (I’d rather pay for exactly what I consume), it was nice not to feel nickled-and-dimed for a change.
Most importantly, they give the best tours in the area. While we ended up at this hotel thanks to its top ranking on TripAdvisor, most people we met rearranged their plans on the advice of fellow travelers just to do this tour. This is the same advice I am passing on to you. Their Mekong tour is a must do for Vietnam.
We’ve heard and read cautionary tales about floating market tours. For example, the market is not actually “open” during the tour (insider tip: if your floating market tour does not require you to wake up before sunrise, run – these markets generally happen only in the very early morning hours).
Another common complaint is that many guides don’t speak your language. Sure, a meandering, quiet boat tour for 6 hours is lovely, if a tad long, but it isn’t 1/100th of the experience you get with someone who can explain things to you and, equally important, help you actually dig into the culture.
We had this in spades on our tour. We began just before sunrise, speeding off on motorbikes for the village of Phong Điền rather than the more touristy Cái Răng. The roads blissfully clear at that hour, we were out of the city in no time, watching the sun rise over rice paddies. We arrived after about 20 minutes of riding, met our boat “captains” (a husband and wife duo), and hopped right into our boats – us with another English-speaking couple and Linh, and two French-speaking couples with Fredo; then, it was off to the markets.
We arrived at the tail end of things at 6:15 a.m. Yes, you read that correctly. According to Linh, people usually start gathering well before sunrise, around 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., but I’m guessing most tourists wouldn’t be into a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. I know I wouldn’t have been.
The good news is, waking up in the dark has never been more worth it. If there was a list of cultural wonders of the world, this experience would be on it.
Fresh tamarind! The elusive milk fruit and durian! The mildly revolting jackfruit! And of course, pineapple, dragonfruit, sapodilla, papaya, coconut, mango, lettuces, cabbage, all types of onions, potatoes, yams, peppers, carrots … the list goes on.
It was an absolutely incredible bounty in both size and diversity, made more so by the fact that it’s all produced and consumed in this little chunk of the river. No offense, but CSAs (community supported agriculture groups) have nothing on these guys.
In addition to all the produce, vendors were selling various kinds of meat, eggs, and prepared food for the shoppers/vendors (one and the same, really). Then there were what I am calling “general store” boats – they sell everything from cookware to toiletries to toys to condiments. A hoarder’s dream.
Our captains expertly steered us right into the thick of things, and soon we were tangled in the mass of boats, ordering “takeaway” iced coffee (from a boat, naturally), sampling some amazing pineapple, and taking it all in as people called out their wares, haggled, and socialized. We obviously don’t speak Vietnamese, but fortunately, the language of commerce is universal, and it’s not hard to figure out who’s haggling too low, whose fruit is not up to snuff, who had a good day at the market, etc.
After the river, we broke for a traditional breakfast of soup and a tour of another market – this one on foot. I must admit that while I very much enjoy food and cooking, I recognized maybe half of what was for sale here.
It couldn’t be a further cry from grocery shopping as we know it in the West – the smells; the noise; the different types of fish (not wrapped in plastic but still alive and swimming!); every last part of every land animal you can imagine (live snakes!) – it’s all here. Again, so much bounty that I have no idea how it can all possibly be consumed by only this little community. It’s truly a feat considering how tiny the Vietnamese people are.
Then, it was back to the boats to explore the maze of canals that are the main thoroughfares in these parts. If you have ever been to a Disney park and done the jungle cruise, this was like that … only 1000% more beautiful and a true learning experience.
We split our time between floating along under the lush canopy and exploring the many little islands on foot, tasting plants and fruits (highlight: watching Fredo climb 10 ft. into a tree to gather us all milk fruit), and meeting the locals, who were so welcoming and generous, happily sharing anything they could with us (tea, fruit).
Finally, it was time for lunch in the middle of the delta at a seedling nursery. My gardener heart was very happy to see so many perfect little rows of tiny plants and plants-to-be! And, par for the course, lunch was exquisite.
The standout dish consisted of these coconut milk and egg custard-like pods filled with green soybeans, rolled up in lettuce and herbs, and dipped in fish sauce. Even my meat-loving, seafood-averse hubby SCARFED these things down, and then had seconds and thirds … and may have asked for fourths (he specifically directly me to add this last phrase).
We have not seen or heard of them since, but we are on the hunt. We also sampled nước mía, fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, with some lemon added to counter the sweetness per Linh’s advice. I have not stopped daydreaming since then about using this juice to make mojitos, margaritas, mint juleps, you name it.
As with all good things, the tour, and our stay in Cần Thơ, came to end. We departed the next day for Rạch Giá on the coast, gateway to the island of Phú Quốc, our first blissful beach destination and part two of our Mekong Delta tour. Stay tuned!
Peace, love, and happiness –