The Mekong River is one of those unique destinations, which personally can only be appreciated when traversing it from source to flush. The closest I have ever done to this grand exploration was exploring 3 of the 4 countries. A cruise and kayak along the Laotian side, a run along the Cambodian embankments and now, a paddle down the Vietnamese delta end.
Escape from Saigon
The start of a Mekong Delta Expedition is My Tho, a roughly 2 hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Once you get out from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, along the major expressway which then narrows down to smaller highways and by-ways, the sights that just scream ‘Indo-China’ pop out.
Passing green rice fields, going through small towns and settlements, navigating the traffic challenge that is Vietnamese driving and braving the roads, you will be happy you got in a nice, comfortable, well-airconditioned transport.
After the 2 hour drive, you would expect to see wide open spaces, rural idyll and of course, a lack of density. Well, we are in one of the densest parts of Southeast Asia, so expect to see people living cheek-to-jowl even in this ‘far flung’ end of one of the largest cities in Asia. The quay at My Tho hammers this home, when you observe the sheer congestion and mass of boats moored by the banks of the Mekong. Such fun!
Cruising the Delta
There are a myriad of operators conducting tours on the Mekong Delta, but they have one thing in common: their boats are relatively narrow. These small-ish boats are perfect for skimming the wide delta and navigating the channels.
Out in the Delta, the contradictions of Southeast Asia becomes apparent: massive highways and impressive bridges juxtaposed against small sampans and narrow village roads. Yet it is this contradiction which gives this Delta character.
After passing a few islands in the Delta, we moored by the banks of Thoi Son island. From here, we were greeted by a song-and-dance and refreshments before starting a short walk in to the island’s interior and on to shallow boats for a unique experience.
Paddling through palms
One of the images you see of Vietnam, apart from those tunnels and WWII sites, is one of serene paddling through dense foliage, as you explore the backwaters of the Mekong Delta. Lush greenery, against the silt-laden channels and a local paddling a flat-bottomed boat.
Yes, we had that. That, on top of something I thought I would never see: boat-related congestion in a village on a narrow irrigation canal. Truly a unique experience, and while not the ‘ideal,’ it was different. Old ladies deftly navigating their boats, avoiding collisions despite the sheer congestion.
From here came the ‘tourist traps.’ A honey bee farm and a ‘picture session’ with a blind python. While I personally am not a fan of these, it did come in with the tour and I did know what I was getting myself in to. Might as well make the best of it.
Sweet Delta Images
While I am not a big fan of the hard-sell, make me curious enough and I may just bite at what you have to offer. This was what they did after another session of cruising down the Mekong.
From the congestion of the irrigation canals and the buzzing of sting-less bees, after a nice lunch with a sumptuous spread (tours are not all bad: they feed you well if done properly) at a riverside restaurant with a nice view of the Delta, we were brought on a ride.
After a pony-drawn carriage ride through back-roads, we ended up in a truly random place in the middle of the jungle. The smell of sweets though was unmistakable. I was told we were going to a coconut candy factory. I was not expecting a cottage-industry outfit, and this was something different.
In between playing with the resident cat, listening to our guide tell us how coconut candy is made, and get a bit confused by the tall blond Russian trying to sell coconut candy and related products, I have come to realize one thing: travelling in a tour group will occasionally throw a curve ball.
On the boat ride back, the life of the Mekong came in to perspective. Tourists and travellers come and go, and the residents continue as normal. Congestion on the canals and delta channels does not faze them. Tourists take pictures of them packing candy and they continue on their rhythm, headphones in their ears. Tour busses clog their streets during ‘peak hours’ but they still ride their motorcycles in complete serenity, ignoring ‘proper’ traffic routines.
Tour groups: there are a myriad of tour options to the Delta, from private transfers to large bus groups. The options at the Saigon Post Office are a good bed. Be warned: you get what you pay for. A little extra can be the difference between a basic boiled dish to an imperial spread.
Tips: Bring small change, as the boatmen and paddlers do not get much despite what you pay the operator. It is not easy paddling a flat bottom boat all day.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.