There is a reason why the Mekong Delta is called the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam. It’s a region that is blessed with endless rice paddies. The delta is so huge that it literally covers about two thirds of the southern part of the country.
The facts first
The Mekong Delta covers more than 15,000 square miles. In fact, the Mekong river that finally ends here is, the seventh longest in Asia, and the 12th worldwide and traverses six countries including China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and of course, Vietnam.
It’s biologically diverse, with a variety of animal and bird species. It’s also the agricultural heart of southern Vietnam, with its rice paddies, fruit gardens and fish-flocked rivers.
Thanks to the waterways, the locals have adapted themselves very well to these conditions, by living and working from floating homes and markets.
Heading to the Mekong Delta
It’s roughly about a two and half to three-hour drive from Saigon to the city of My Tho. While there are several ways of exploring the Mekong Delta, including renting a private car, riding a motorbike or even hopping onto a bus that heads that way from Saigon, the easiest and most convenient is to take an organised tour.
I understand it may not be the best ways to see a place. However, as an introduction to the region, I feel it is perfect. While it might not be a satisfying tour, these packages normally tend to cover the main highlights, including a chance to travel in a sampan – a traditional narrow boat, visit a couple of local industries and try out the fruits that are grown there. And if you are there for more than two days, then there is also the opportunity to visit one of the floating markets.
Vinh Tranh pagoda
As you get closer to your destination, your first stop is the Vinh Trang pagoda. It is about three kilometers from My Tho city, in the heart of the Mekong Delta.
It is among the most well-known in the region and one of the most fascinating, not least because of the three enormous Buddha statues within its complex. A standing Buddha symbolising bliss and compassion is located just outside the main gate. As you enter the pagoda gates, a laughing Buddha symbolising happiness and good luck smiles down upon you. A little ahead is the reclining Buddha, meant to symbolise nirvana.
You can read more on Vinh Trang pagoda here.
The Mekong Delta
Once in My Tho city, we quickly disembarked from the bus and make our way to the quay. From here, a large boat took us across the Mekong river onto the other side. Sailing on the river is when it struck me that it is indeed large.
Once on the other side, we quickly disembarked, only to be ushered into sampans. As the sampan weaves its way down the narrow canal, traditional conical hats were passed on for us to wear. A short ride later, we are back exactly where we started – close to the big boat.
Another ride later across the Mekong river, and it was a visit to a coconut candy factory and apiary. At the factory, we were shown the process of making candy. They also give us samples to taste. I’m not a big fan of candy, and instead chose to munch on a coconut piece itself. Later, at the apiary, we were served a cup of honey tea with a dash of lime. Refreshing in that humid weather.
A short walk and we come to another open area where you get to sample fresh fruits. A group of musicians sing folk songs including a universal favourite, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’.
Finally, another hop on the boat and it was lunch break. It comprised of a small bowl of sticky rice with a vegetable and chicken dish. While not the best of meals, it was enough to keep the stomach from rumbling.
Immediately after lunch, there is about an hour and half to two hours, before heading back to the mainland and back to Saigon. I chose to wander around the local village using one of the bicycles parked at the restaurant. Chances are they will mostly have flat tires and brakes that don’t work. Let that not stop you though. Choose any of the cycles with a bit of air and you are good to go.
Riding through the village was, for me, the most exhilarating and the best experience on the tour. Never mind that I was riding after 10 years, the last time being exactly here in the Mekong Delta. The inner roads are narrow but nicely done with concrete blocks that have been paved neatly. And the views along the delta are simply outstanding. If you feel the need, take a break and stop by any of the shops selling refreshments and snacks. The people mind their own business and are friendly.
Once back, the last thing I wanted to do was find myself a comfortable hammock and let those weary legs stretch. With a beer in hand, it’s the perfect way to end a trip to the Mekong Delta.
Maybe I am wrong, but I would like to think that when I came to visit 10 years ago, I enjoyed the trip immensely. It might have to do with the fact that the number of tourists has increased these past few years. I also don’t remember being shepherded from one activity to the other. Things moved at a comfortable pace.
Not this time. I understand there are far more tourists visiting Vietnam today, unlike a decade ago when the numbers were far less. It’s also more of a well-oiled business, and a hardcore one that too. But a bit of respite from the hard-selling and rushing around would have been nice. From the moment you are ushered into the bus, all the way until you are dropped off later that evening, everything seems like a blur. Except for the bus ride which was as uneventful as it is meant to be.
There are also many who complain about it being very ‘touristy’, me included. However, reflecting on it, I realise it’s something we all experience on package tours anywhere in the world. Besides, in a country where tourism is becoming an important industry, it is important for the government that everyone within the community gets involved. It’s also another source of income for the many villages in the region.
Is it worth it? Well yes, for the money you pay, it’s an ideal introduction to the Mekong Delta. If you are looking for something more exclusive and tailored, that’s an option too. However, for those visiting for the first time, there’s ways to make it a memorable one. Like they say, you just need to go with the flow.