From Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong delta just a few hours by boat or car , life in the Mekong Delta often seems a thousand miles away from that bustling modern metropolis. Things here tend to move at a more sedate pace, and the Delta’s friendly residents usually lead a far more traditional existence than their high flying city neighbours.
The ‘Nine Dragons’ as known by Vietnamese people, the nine major waterways of the Mekong Delta region extend from the Cambodian border to the South China Sea. Outside the region’s main cities – like My Tho, Cai Be, Vinh Long, Can Tho & Chau Doc – most people choose to build their homes on stilts along the many waterways that cut through the lush lowlands.
Inaccessible as this sounds, the Delta is actually one of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam. Characterised as laid-back and welcoming, its people intensively farm as much of the region’s fertile land as possible, with orchards, sugarcane plantations, rice paddies, fish and flower farms jostling for space amongst bird sanctuaries and national parks. Farming is a huge Delta industry – around 70% of Vietnam’s fresh fruit and vegetables come from the region.
Many people make their living by fishing the waters, and selling their catch at the floating markets. One of the Delta’s most enchanting – and often surreal – characteristics, the markets can be found throughout the major waterways. You may have to get up early to see them at their best, but they’re so emblematic of Southern Vietnam, and a wonderful, lively experience. It would be a shame to miss them for the sake of a lie-in!
Despite all the water, the Mekong Delta actually has very convenient roads and tracks, easily explored by bike, motorbike or bus. The cities and villages are just as fascinating as the waterways. Chau Doc, south Vietnam’s gateway to Cambodia, is an especially approachable Delta town, with friendly residents, many of whom speak some English. Nearby Sam Mountain, although not very mountainous, offers a panoramic view over the Delta that’s hard to match elsewhere in the lowlands.
A unusual and slightly crazy shopping experience
There are hundreds of floating markets throughout the Mekong Delta region. To truly experience one of these unusual markets at its best, it’s essential that you arrive as early as possible. The early bird most definitely catches the worm when it comes to shopping ‘Delta style’!
Fruits, such as mangosteen, durian, papaya, mango, guava and jackfruit (all grown in nearby orchards) are stacked in precarious piles on the bobbing boats, along with fresh fish, vegetables and ‘fast’ food, like steamed buns.
Most of the goods are bought by wholesalers, who resell to local markets and dealers in the big cities. This doesn’t mean you won’t get the chance to practise a little bartering for yourself!
With a motorised sampan instead of a shopping trolley, you’ll be thankful for your local skipper, who’ll navigate the disordered aisles with nifty skill. This truly is a crazy experience – you’ll come away amazed that it didn’t all end in a huge pile up.
Such an early start requires you spending the previous night in either My Tho or, better still, Can Tho. The nearby Cai Rang market is our absolute favourite (there are other markets close enough to Ho Chi Minh City to make a day trip possible, but you have to question their authenticity) and is just 20 minutes by sampan from your Can Tho hotel.