Mekong Delta

mekong delta vietnam

              A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a trip to the Mekong Delta. This iconic Vietnamese destination is well known for its famous for its floating markets, stilted wooden houses on the river’s edge, and seemingly endless rice paddies.  The countless rivers and streams criss-cross the landscape like arteries; where their muddy brown waters carry fruit-laden boats to nearby floating markets and provide nourishment to bountiful rice paddies.

fruit phong dien floating market mekong delta vietnam
Fruit vendor at the Phong Dien floating market.

The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s rice bowl, an agricultural phenomenon that pumps out more than half of the country’s annual food crop from just ten percent of its total land mass.  Not only that but it also turns out 70% of the countries tropical fruit, many of which you will see piled high on boats in the floating markets.  Surprisingly, this area has not always been the agricultural center of Vietnam.  It wasn’t until the French colonized Vietnam that they turned the Mekong Delta into what it is today.  Ironically, this same landscape that had served the French so well also provided cover for the Viet Minh resistance who sought to overthrow them and later did the same for the Viet Cong against the Americans. 

How to Explore the Mekong Delta

boat house canal mekong delta vietnam

              Located southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta is known by the Vietnamese as Vietnam’s western area.  Although it lies just outside the city, tourist would be remiss to think that they could see enough of the Mekong Delta in just one short day trip.  Covering an area of 15,600 sq miles, this ecologically and culturally diverse area is well worth exploring.

mekong delta vietnam

              Many tourists coming into Ho Chi Minh City plan to take a boat ride through the historic Mekong Delta and witness one of its many floating markets, but many also want to simply take one of the quick day tours out of the city so that they can continue on their trip across Vietnam.  Like most places in the world, tours make for an easy and care free way of seeing an attraction, but are far less gratifying and immersive as doing it yourself.  In the Mekong Delta I did both, so I will share my experience and tips so you can decide what is best for you.


con phung mekong delta vietnam
Con Phung tourist stop.  One of the many stops on the day tour.

              If you only have 1 or 2 days to explore the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City, then a tour might be the best option for you.  That being said, if your plans are to see the floating markets then you will have to do at least a 2-day tour.  The floating markets are best during the early morning and you cannot get there in time from the city.  Tours to the Mekong Delta can be found on Phạm Ngũ Lão street in the backpacker’s district of Ho Chi Minh City.  There are many tour agencies in the area and since the Mekong Delta is the most hawked day tour you will most likely have some one come up to you about it before you even look.  

tourist boat 2 day tour mekong delta vietnam
2 day Mekong Delta tour boat.

              We started with the 1-day tour and it was the most awkward tour that I have ever been on.  We started the morning with loading on to a bus with the 50 or so other people that would also be joining us on the tour.  From here we made our way to the river where we would begin the actual tour, but before making it there we made an unknown stop at a business selling everything made from charcoal and bamboo.  After being guided into a room, we sat through what felt like a real-life info commercial where the lady demonstrated some of the top products that they were selling there. Once this awkward experience was over, we were herded through the store, down IKEA like aisles, in hope that we would buy some of their products.  After walking past the charcoal toothpaste for the third time Jade did actually buy some.  

tour boats mekong delta vietnam
Tour boats for the Mekong Delta.

              Having finished our first awkward experience of the day, we continued our way by bus to the edge of the Mekong River.  After piling out of the bus we snaked our way through some tourist shops to the boat that would take us to our next destination.   Boarding our traditional style longboat, we motored our way up the river to our next destination.  While traveling up the river we were able to vaguely see delta life being played out on the distant river banks.  

cocunut candy factory mekong delta vietnam
Coconut candy factory.

              Our first stop on the river was the Dáť Dừa Coconut Candy factory.  Besides being way over crowded with multiple tour boats of people this site was actually kinda cool.  When we first arrived, our group was the only one there for a few minutes, so we were able to take full advantage of getting a close-up demonstration of the candy making process.  We were also treated to free samples of the candy after it was made.  There were also two jars of flavored rum for us to try; one had pieces of honeycomb in the jar and the other had a snake.  Yea, you read that right! There was snake flavored rum and of course we had to try it!  It’s hard to describe the taste of the alcohol but it has a very gamy and herbal taste.

snake honey rum mekong delta vietnam
Snake (left) and honey (right) rum.

              After having a few treats and a shot of snake rum, we were of to our next stop where we would have lunch.   Cồn Phụng had fairly good food and an array of attractions like ziplines, obstacle courses, and hammocks.  Your stay on this island after lunch isn’t long so there isn’t a lot of time to explore the area and participate in any of the activities.  There is also a small pond with a lot of crocodiles in it that you can feed that many of the people in our boat took advantage of, but the pond is far too small for the number of crocodiles in it.  

feeding crocodiles mekong delta vietnam
Tourist feeding the crocodiles with a piece of meat tied to a string.

              We then made our way up river again to our next destination.  Leaving the boat, we were guided to a covered seating area where each table was served a large bowl of tropical fruit grown in the Mekong Delta.  While we enjoyed our fruit, we were entertained with live traditional Vietnamese music.  The whole experience was actually really nice.  Although they ended it by singing ‘If You Are Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands,’ which was kinda weird, but most of the tourist thought it was fun.

canoe tour mekong delta vietnam
Canoe tour through a canal of the Mekong Delta.

              Our guide then took from the pavilion, down a path, to a small stream, where we loaded into canoes.  They put four people into each canoe and try to keep groups together, but this isn’t always the case.  Dawning our Vietnamese conical hats, offered to us by our oarswoman for the duration of the canoe trip, we head off down a narrow stream.  The stream was lined in palm leaves and houses and was quite beautiful.  That being said, the stream was also very crowded with tourist laden canoes, making it feel very touristy.  Tipping your oarswomen after the trip is expected.

laughing buddha vinh trang pagoda mekong delta vietnam
Laughing Buddha statue and gardens at the Vinh Trang Pagoda.

              The final part of the tour took us across the river to the Vinh Trang Pagoda.  This is a very beautiful pagoda and a great end to the tour.  The compound consists of multiple decorative buildings, ornate gardens, and three large Buddha statues (standing, laughing, and reclining Buddhas).  During your time here you are left to explore the compound on your own.  Once done we loaded up into our bus and made our return back to the backpacking district of Ho Chi Minh City.

Do It Yourself

stuck canal mekong delta vietnam
Getting stuck in one of the canals.

              Seeing the Mekong Delta on your own terms is by far the best option.  It allows you to travel and see things at your own pace and to be able to delve deeper into the culture, history, and way of life of the people of this region.  You can create your own tour of the Mekong Delta, including experiencing the floating markets, if you have at least two days set in your itinerary.  Of course, having more days is always better and will allow you to see more, but two days will at least allow you to see the floating markets, enjoy a canoe trip through the smaller canals, and experience the way of life of this region without hundreds of other tourists crowding around you.  

Getting There

futa bus station backpackers district hcmc siagon vietnam
Futa Bus office in the backpackers district of Ho Chi Minh City.

              The most popular point of entry for the Mekong Delta is Can Tho, located about 166 km from the backpacking district of Ho Chi Minh City.  To get there you can either take a bus, motorcycle, plane, or boat, but the last two options will be expensive.  The bus is by far the cheapest and easiest option.  There are many bus companies that make the trip to Can Tho, but I recommend Futa Bus.  Futa Bus has an office on Đường Đề Thám, the main cross street in the backpacking district, where you can buy your ticket.  The cost of the ticket to Can Tho is 110,000 VND/5.00 USD and they will shuttle you to the station from the office.  

village bridge canal mekong delta vietnam

              If you choose to take a motorcycle and don’t have one already, you can rent one from one of the many companies located in the backpacking district.  The cost of rental is usually around $10 USD and you will also need to give a deposit and your passport.  If your plan is to do the trip by motorcycle and follow Google Maps, know that you cannot take highway CT01, as they do not allow motorcycles on the highway.  

cai rang bridge mekong delta vietnam
Bridge overlooking Cai Rang floating market.

              In Can Tho you will have many options for accommodations that will satisfy any price level you are looking for.  I always use Agoda to find the best hotels.  These hotels will also help you set up a boat tour of the Mekong Delta for the following morning.  Our private tour was 345,000 VND/15.68 USD per person and was really nice.  The tours start early, at 5 am, so that you can get to two different markets while they are still busy.  Boarding our small motorized boat, we headed out before sunrise towards our first floating market, Cai Rang.  

cai rang floating market mekong delta vietnam
One of the many vendors at the Cai Rang floating market.

              Cai Rang is a large floating market made up of large house boats, each selling different fruits and vegetables.  To make it easier to find what you are looking for each boat has installed a pole where they hang an example of things that they sell.  In this way, buyers are able to see what each boat is selling from afar and make their way to the items they need instead of going to every boat.  Some of the boats are also set up as restaurants or bars where you can buy a bowl of noodles for breakfast if you are hungry.  

raice noodles sheets mekong delta vietnam
Rice paper sheets drying out before being cut into noodles.

              After slowly cruising through this market we made our way further up the river to rice noodle factory.  Here we were able to watch the process of creating the noodles from start to finish, even participating in the cutting process.  After watching this process being done, we took a quick break to enjoy a cup of iced milk coffee before continuing to the Phong Dien floating market further up river.  

phong dien floating market mekong delta vietnam
A few of the vendors at the Phong Dien floating market.

The Phong Dien floating market is a much smaller market made up of smaller boats filled to the brim with produce.  Since the boats are smaller and you can easily see what each boat is selling, this market doesn't incorporate the same pole technique of Cai Rang in displaying their wares.  We spent a little more time in this market as our oarswoman steered us around through the boats.  She then brought us alongside one of the boats and bought us some fruit to eat while we took in the sight of the market in full swing.  While eating our fruit, she took the time to make us a few souvenirs by weaving and grasses together.  

bamboo grass bouquet souvenir mekong delta vietnam
Jade's bamboo and grass bouquet souvenir made by our oarswoman.

After we had spent some time at the market, we began to make our way up a narrow canal flanked by trees, farms, and houses.  At times the canal was filed with plants making it harder to get through and the boat had to wade through and at times the oarswoman had to clear the propeller of plants that had gotten tangled in it.  This part of the trip was very beautiful and was one of my favorite parts of the trip.  

boat bamboo bridge across canal mekong delta vietnam

 At one point of the trip the boat pulled over to let us out.  Confused as to why, the oarswomen just pointed up a trail that lead along the water.  We followed this path for a little way, enjoying the landscape around us, till we came across a restaurant.  Seeing that our boat was also docked her, we took a set and under some lunch.  It is expected that you will buy your oarswomen lunch as well.  The food is more expensive than normal, but we just included this as part of the final tip.  

trail along mekong delta vietnam

Finishing our lunch, we loaded back up in the boat and went further down the canal until she let us out again to do a little walking.  This part of the walk wasn’t very interesting but we were soon back to the boat and heading to the river.  By the time we made it back to the river the sun was up and blaring down on all of us, so the lady raised an awning to shade us as we made the rest of the trip back to town.

pin point map mekong delta vietnam

What was your experience in the Mekong Delta? 
Did you take a tour or do it yourself?

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