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.
hThe first time I went to Saigon in the early 2000s, I saw a city in flux: a romantic city, with forlorn memories of her glory days and a sheer mass of humanity on motorcycles. In 2018, I still saw a city in flux, but one remembering where she was and knows where she wants to be. A window to the past always open, but always looking ahead to once again being a major lynchpin in Indo-China. The mass of humanity on motorcycles remains: always a fun challenge for walkers like me.
Parisian flair, Asian touch
One of the things you will notice in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, or whichever term you want to use, are her elegant boulevards that connect her districts, or as I like to call them, arrondissements. The main arteries are beautifully manicures, with shady trees providing the perfect avenue for an evening promenade. Some even have dedicated ‘local’ and ‘major’ lanes, one for bicycles, another for cars. Very civilized.
For a taste of what was intended in terms of grandeur, head over to the Hotel de Ville, now the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, and the city’s main public square. Here, what was once a canal is now paved over, but the outline of the grand boulevard is still present: stretching for a good 1km, this links the city’s heart to the Saigon River’s banks.
Very much a product of her age, Saigon is filled with beautiful examples of colonial French architecture: a Paris in the Tropics. From the pastels of the Hotel de Ville to the elegant buildings along the main thoroughfare, the mansions along Le Loi to the Gustaff Eiffel-designed Post Office building, and the Notre Dame to the Saigon Opera House, the sense of provincial French familiarity permeates through the city.
Personally, the best way to experience a city is on food: the avenues and streets of Saigon are built just for that. Once you get past the initial fear of crossing the street, and remembering to take deep breaths, look straight and walk at a consistent space across the road, you are set for an experience not many Asian cities can offer: a pleasant walk.
The city is densely built, with trees providing constant shade as you walk. With architectural distractions left, right and centre, it is hard to decide where to start, where to stop and where to look. However, District 1 is designed in such a way, with a firm grid, it would be hard to get completely lost once you identify landmarks.
Walking along the river promenades, on the Mekong River and Saigon River sides are a treat, and this is where this city in flux truly shows itself. At the bridge linking District 1 and District 2, the eclectic dynamism and eagerness of Saigon, and modern Vietnam, is for show: the restored Finance building, juxtaposed against massive public works program, anchored by the Bitexco Finance Building: the old, the new and the idealism.
The architectural beauty of Saigon is easily accessible thanks to a lot of them being converted to museums: the former Governor of Indochina’s residence is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The exhibits are generic, but the interior and views from the upper terrace are stunning. The Hotel de Ville is sadly not open to the public, but the nearby Saigon Opera House is, and the theatre now holds regular modern arts and interpretive dance performances.
The Museum of Vietnamese History, built by the French amidst courtyards and the Saigon Botanical Garden is a treasure throve of Cham artefacts, Sino-Vietnamese art and houses a memorial turned Hung Kings Temple to the numerous wars affecting the region. The interior of both these buildings are worthy of mention, and if you are lucky, the sunlight streaming in through the windows against the incense inside the memorial temple would provide for stunning pictures.
If French Colonial history is not your thing, then perhaps something more recent would whet your appetite. The Presidential Palace, or the Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, is so saturated with history, it is hard to miss on any walk of the city.
The interiors are mostly open, and when your timing is right, preferably early in the morning, or in between tour groups, you can wander the halls and corridors and imagine what transpired here just 40 years ago. Beautifully restored state rooms, private quarters and the bunkers are kept as they were in-situ, complete with the helicopter used for the evacuation, with the tanks and bombs reminders of the last push for reunification.
Day Trips and Thrills
A few hours drive south and you will be in the Mekong Delta, which is a unique destination in itself. A good respite from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, but in a densely populated delta of a major river, do not expect a tranquil spot.
Realistically, you will need to be part of a tour group to experience most of what is on offer here, but for an independent traveller, the trade-off is somewhat worth it. After a 2 hour drive, traffic dependent, you will be in the town of My Tho, the starting point for many river cruises. From a paddle in canals through nipah palms and small villages, to a coconut candy manufacturer to a honey manufacturer, complete with a python as a gimmick, it can be an oddly fun day out from the city.
Tipple after Trippin’
Apart from the dynamism and attention to restoration and repurposing in Saigon, the array of watering holes in this city has impressed me compared to my last visit. While the Park Hyatt Saigon is still my go-to place for after-exploration tipples, a few others may just make my ‘Southeast Asia Bars to Watch’ list.
Eon51 on Level 51-53 at the Bitexco Financial Tower has, without a doubt, the most stunning view of the city. One of the highest bar in Southeast Asia, this bar has a commanding 360* view of the city, if you don’t mind a walk around the deck.
However, Shri, one of two rooftop terraces at the Centec Tower. has one of the best cocktails in town, with an art book to match. Located on a terrace at the northern end of the city, this spot has a stunning view of the city at sunset.
If I had to pick my favourite, SOHY, just upstairs from Shri at Centec Tower, is a surprise entry in my rolodex of bars. This 3-floor terrace combines outdoor terrace with beach-vibe club and champagne bar, with an Italian restaurant just to round things up. Hardly any expats or tourists, this very local place could easily help place Saigon as one of the next leisure destinations in Southeast Asia, a viable alternative to Bangkok, vibe, view and price-wise.
Museum of Vietnamese History – VND 15,000 with a VND 40,000 camera fee
Reunification Palace – VND 30,000
Ho Chi Minch City Museum – VND 25,000
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.