Picture the Mekong Delta, and you will see an intricate tapestry of waterways yielding to a vast landscape of mangroves and rice paddies. This great flat expense of sand bars and watercourses forms a 35,000 square kilometre triangle lying just west of Ho Chi Minh City. The Mekong Delta is central to all local life, expect to find a delightful mishmash of boats, floating markets, mangrove swamps, fruit orchards, and rice fields.
Coined the ‘rice bowl’ of the country, over fifty percent of Vietnam’s rice is produced in the Mekong Delta. Such is the richness of the land, that a triple rice cropping system could be adopted in the area, resulting in rice fields birthing bountiful harvests. The sediments deposited by the Mekong river and its tributaries, the upstream tidal flows punctuated by monsoon rains, have created a utopia of a physio-graphically unique environment with some of the most fertile and productive land in the country.
Unsurprisingly, the nutrient rich area is home to roughly 1,000 species of fish, 20,000 plant species, a large bird population, and plenty of other land and aquatic animals. It is also no wonder that the area has 2,000 years of history behind it with ancient civilisations settling along its fertile banks. The Mekong Delta river remains an important symbol of power and prosperity in Vietnam, and it called the ‘River of Nine Dragons’ (Song Cuu Long) in Vietnamese.
Lose yourself in the exquisite tropical flora and fauna and experience the rich riverine heritage of the Mekong Delta for yourself. Come, wander about the capillaries of the waterways on a river cruise or wander about markets to sample the local good on offer. Given the proximity of the Mekong Delta to the city, day trips from Ho Chi Minh City are certainty doable, but a two- to three- nights’ stay would allow you to truly enjoy the majesty and diversity of the low-lying flood plains at a comfortable and relaxed pace.
Top 6 Things To Do in the Rice Bowl of Vietnam
The things to do are endless, from wandering about markets to never-ending outdoor activities, choose between Mekong Delta tours and independent exploration. We bring to you top six tourist attractions, with our number one recommendation being to visit the Cai Rang floating market!
1. Shop at the Floating Markets
Wares being loudly hawked, plenty of bargains to be had, incessant haggling going on, stores laden with flowers and ripe fruit, smells of freshly cooked food wafting tantalisingly – this sounds like a regular market, but in the Mekong Delta, it all takes place on boats and sampans. Long before becoming a top tourist attraction, the floating markets of the Mekong river have been integral to local life and culture. Some historians believe that they have been around since the early 1800s during the Nguyen Dynasty. The floating market attracted peoples of different ethnicities and backgrounds, Chinese merchants, Malay seafarers, Khmer and Vietnamese locals and more came together to engage in pre-colonial trade and commerce.
The floating markets continue to be the beating heart of enterprise and livelihoods for many locals, some of whom live in floating houses along the Mekong Delta river. There are currently five floating markets in the area, Cai Rang floating market, Cai Be floating market, Phong Dien floating market, Nga Nam floating market, and Long Xuyen floating market. The most popular markets are the first two, as Cai Rang floating market is the biggest and most bustling, while Cai Be floating market is the only floating market that can be easily accessible via a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City.
The Cai Rang floating market is located on the Can Tho River. Be sure to rise early to truly experience the market life. As early as 3am, hundreds of hawkers are already expertly manoeuvre boats and sampans into the market area. If you are travelling with a group, it would be wise to rent a private boat (600,000 VND to 1,200,00 VND) to explore the market to your heart’s content!
2. Get Fruity at Fruit Orchards
Imagine setting foot into a lush garden with tree boughs bowing down laden with ripe fruit, birds chirping in the background, and you are breathing a hearty lungful of fresh air, this is basically the tropical paradise the Mekong Delta has to offer. Summer would be the best time plan your visit to a fruit orchard, where you can pluck the fruits straight from the branches and take a big, juicy, bite.
The Tien Giang Province is the largest fruit producer in the Mekong Delta region, with fruit farms benefitting from the fertile alluvial of the Tien River. Cai Be Fruit Orchard is one of the largest fruit gardens in the area, specialising in growing grapefruits, longans, jackfruit, tangerines, guavas and more. Another fruit orchard worth seeing in this province would be the Hoa Loc Mango Garden. This orchard is famous of course for cultivating the delicious, fragrant Hoa Loc Mango, one of the tastiest varieties of all mangoes, and mangoes are reportedly the world’s favourite fruit!
If you have the time, visit the Dragon Fruit Farm of Long An Province, which produces the pink, white, and yellow varieties of the contentious fruit. The pink type is a favourite among the locals, who enjoy its auspicious colour and lightly sweet taste. However, others find the fruit to be relatively tasteless and basically like eating ‘crunchy water’. Nonetheless, the dragon fruit plant is worth a looksee, hailing from South and Central America, it belongs to the cacti family, it is quite unlike other fruit plants in the region. Depending on the season, be sure to visit the farm at night, as the beautiful, white flowers only bloom after the sun has set for over a period eight hours and fades after that one night.
3. Visit the Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho, Tien Giang Province
The Vinh Trang Pagoda is renowned across the country for being an enchanting historical, religious, and architectural treasure. Not to be missed, this Buddhist pagoda cultural relic is nestled in a series of ornamental gardens located in My Tho, Tien Giang Province.
The Vinh Trang Temple complex houses four large, interconnected sections, five buildings, 60 statues, and 178 pillars and a bell made in 1854. The central gate, constructed from steel, is always closed, while the two side gates are accessible, they are made from concrete and are cheerfully ornate with colourful mosaics showcasing folktales and nature symbols. Some consider the pride and joy of the Vinh Trang Pagoda to be the 18 arhats carved out of jackfruit tree wood in 1907.
A pleasing mix of Eastern and Western architecture, the 150-year-old pagoda has a long and complicated history. Starting off as a small hermitage in the early 1800s, by mid-century, a large pagoda was constructed and named Vinh Trang. Shortly after that, in the scrimmages between the French colonising forces and the Nguyen Dynasty army, the Vinh Trang Temple suffered serious damages. Renovated in 1895, the temple fell into disarray due to a large tropical storm in 1904. Thus it required further extensive repair and redecoration, which was carried out in the next 30 years.
4. Bird Watching at the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary, Chau Doc, An Giang Province
If you are an aspiring ornithologist, or you simply enjoy the sweet notes of bird songs, Tra Su Bird Sanctuary is the place to visit. A serene and scenic spot of over 800 thousand hectares, it is situated just 23 kilometres from Chau Doc in An Giang Province, most of the sanctuary is closed off to visitors, allowing for conservatory work and for the bird population to nest peacefully.
The best time to visit is between August and November, when the water levels are at their highest. Another good time is between December and January, which is hatching season.
For tourists, this bird paradise is accessible largely via boat ride, which will take you through enthralling riverways richly emerald with duckweed, moss, water hyacinths, lily pads and more. The water canals are lined by cajeput trees, lending a romantic and ethereal atmosphere to the experience. Home to more than 70 species of birds, expect to see some stocks, egrets, and herons as you sail tranquilly by. There is also a viewing tower from which you can observe the vast maze of green wetlands.
5. Tan Lap Floating Village, Long An Province
The mysterious floating forest that rises from swampy rivers in Tan Lap is known as a spot eco-tourism across Vietnam. Suitable as a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, it is 100 kilometres from the city, and only takes over two hours to arrive at the Floating Village via motorbike or car. Exploring this gem will take about three to four hours, leaving you ample time to return to hectic Saigon. If relaxation and rejuvenation in nature is your goal, there are also accommodation options within the village.
The sightseeing ticket for Tan Lap floating village will include a boat ride taking you on a river cruise through the mesmerising wetlands. Lily pads float along on the lakes, and if you are in luck, the lilies might be in tantalising bloom, lending a sweet scent to the air. Wandering through the raised walkways between the floating mangrove forest and towering cajeput trees is the highlight of the visit to Tan Lap. The intricate network of trees forms a microclimate unique to the Mekong Delta region, meander about and try to spot wildlife and birds.
6. Tra Vinh Province's Khmer Pagodas
Visit Tra Vinh province, once part of the Khmer empire, is home to over 300,000 Khmer people, forming about 30% of the ethnic make-up in the region, the highest in the Mekong Delta. 140 Khmer temples rise from across the landscape, beautiful golden structures that give the area its unique flavour.
Visit the Hang Khmer Pagoda or Kompong Chray Pagoda, widely touted for the egrets and stocks that nest in the surrounding tall trees. Called ‘Hang’ pagoda, the Vietnamese word for ‘cave’, the pagoda is named after its dome-shape gate that has a depth of 12 metres, one of its most distinguishing features. Come during dusk to enjoy a stroll around the serene complex and to see the stocks ahead in flight. While in Tra Vinh, you may also want to see the Khmer Culture museum and Ba Om Pond, located conveniently next to each other.
5 Must Try Foods of the Mekong Delta
1. Coconut Candy
Coconut candy wrapped in delicate rice paper is a specialty of Ben Tre. Coconut trees abound in this region, and the precious silky coconut milk is extracted from the fruit and caramelised with malt syrup to form the candy. Cooked at a high temperature, the creamy mixture is poured into wooden moulds. The result is a sweet, luscious, and chewy treat. Many Mekong Delta tour operators also run candy making workshops for interested tourists ready to get their hands sticky.
2. Noodle Soup: Hu Tieu My Tho
Ubiquitous in the My Tho city in Tien Giang Province, this rice noodle soup dish has its origins there. What makes this Hu Tieu different from its counterparts is its noodles made from local rice – a glassy and tough noodle with a bite to it. Served with pure fish sauce, typical dressings also include pork meat, liver, ground pork, scallions, and chives. There is nothing better than a hot bowl of noodle soup for a peckish stomach.
3. Elephant Ear Fish
The Elephant Ear Fish may be the number one must try dish in the Mekong Delta. A local delicacy fried in its entirety and served standing upright, it looks slightly intimidating at first sight. Crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside, the fish is a culinary delight. The tender flesh is planted onto rice paper sheets and topped off with fresh herbs and pickles. Do not miss this classic Mekong Delta dish!
4. Small Pancakes: Banh Khot
Banh Khots are basically the perfect snack – a small, savoury pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk. What makes the Mekong Delta’s Banh Khot different from its perhaps more famous rival, the Vung Tau Banh Khot, is the addition of turmeric. The lightly yellow Mekong Delta Banh Khot is slightly softer and thicker and is usually cooked with prawns, pork meat, or mung beans. To no one’s surprise, Banh Khot is served with fish sauce and fresh herbs. Try not to fill up on Banh Khots before dinner!
5. Tropical Fruits
Did someone say fresh fruits? There are plenty to choose from and be sure to visit at least one fruit orchard while you are in the Mekong Delta. Known for being a tropical fruit paradise, these sweet, juicy offerings are endless. Copious fresh and ripe fruits await you everywhere, dragon fruit (thanh long), longan fruits (nhan), rambutan (chom chom), mangosteens (mang cut), and pomme de lait (vu sua), are only some examples of the fruits that might not be as easily found elsewhere even in the gastronomic heaven of Ho Chi Minh City.
When Should I Visit the Mekong Delta?
- Rainy Season: May to October
- Dry Season: November to April
- Temperature Range: 23 to 30 °C, all year round
- Rice Field Cropping Season: March/ April, July/ August, October/ December
Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, part of the Lower Mekong River Basin, has a tropical monsoon climate chiefly due to the Southwest Monsoon that is responsible for the rainy period across the Indian sub-continent. This results in dry and rainy seasons of similar length in the Mekong Delta, with June and July bearing the brunt of the wet weather. The temperate remains moderate with slight variations between 23 to 30 °C throughout the year, with March and April being the warmest months.
Most tourist choose to visit the Mekong Delta from October to February, during the dry season, and veering away from the warmer, humid, months. Yet, the rainy season need not be a barrier to visitors, the showers usually last for an hour and mostly fall in the afternoons.
Year round, the Mekong Delta river brings different delights to guests.
- Late-January to March: A vibrant Mekong Delta bursting with spring flowers
- April to May: Calm waters with many fruits coming into season
- June to September: Wetter weather but with the greatest variety of tropical ripe fruit, be sure to visit a fruit orchard
- October to December: Floating season comes around with wild water lilies blooming and abundant water vegetables
To sum it up, there is no poor time to explore the Mekong Delta. The valley and its water capillaries promise fresh fruit and local goods whenever you choose to visit.
Mekong Delta: Where to Stay at the River of Nine Dragons
Ben Tre Garden Farmstay, An Khanh Commune, Ben Tre Province
- Price: starting from 450,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: This charming farmstay boasts delicious home-cooked food made from locally grown fruits and vegetables. Rooms are rated highly for comforted and cleanliness.
The Green Sunshine, Binh Thuy District, Can Tho Province
- Price: starting from 220,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: The bright, cute, eclectic décor and shared showers may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this place exudes coziness and hospitality. A clean and friendly homestay!
Middle Ground Options
Mekong Lodge Resort, Cai Be District, Tien Giang Province
- Price: starting from 720,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: Lush gardens surround the rooms and bungalows with a pool that is good for families and kids to enjoy. Close to tourist attractions like the Cai Be Floating Market.
Mekong Home, Giong Trom District, Ben Tre Province
- Price: starting from 1,300,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: A getaway on the river, Mekong Home is homestay where the owners believe in hospitality and service with a personal touch.
Can Tho Ecolodge, Cai Rang District, Can Tho Province
- Price: Starting at 1,500,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: 12 thatched cottages in a beautiful setting, each room comes with a large wooden bathtub for some soak therapy. A good location to access the Cai Rang floating market and a 20 minute drive from the night market.
Victoria Can Tho Resort, Can Tho Province
- Price: Starting at 1,900,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: Sitting along the peaceful banks of the Hau River, the Victoria Resort is a classic old school resort with colonial style architecture known for its laid back elegance and equipped with a pool for the ultimate relaxation.
Azerai, Cai Rang District, Can Tho Province
- Price: Starting at 5,000,000 VND per night
- Why stay here: A true luxurious hideaway with 60 rooms built with local traditional materials, all with garden, river, or lake views. For the ultimate splurge, the villa options come with private concierge service.
The Bigger Picture: History and Geography of the Mekong Delta
The Mekong river is the longest river in Southeast Asia, stretching over 4,000 kilometres in length. The headwaters spring icily from the Tibetan Plateau, then the river tumbles down from the roof of the world and flows steadily through its upper basin in China, before coursing through the four lower basin countries of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand. Then of course it reaches Vietnam palming into a delta, before it spills heartily into the South China Sea.
Nestled in southwest Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is an unassuming green pocket that is a historic, agricultural, and environmental gem of the nation, and daresay even the region. This wet coastal geography boasts abundant fish populations, easy cultivation of tropical fruits, and irrigates the surrounding land of rice fields, making it highly arable and ripe for aquaculture.
The bountiful and productive waters and coasts of the Mekong Delta boosted maritime trade ports and canals as early as in the first century AD, with significant human habitation likely since the 4th century BC. The Mekong Delta continued to be occupied by Khmer and Cham settlements, and then by the Vietnamese, Chinese, and the French. The richness of the Mekong Delta as a lifeline of settlements and civilisations was also a constant source of conflict and strife. Nearer in history during the Vietnam War, the vast maze of marsh and swamps proved to be a highly sought-after piece of territory given the area’s vitalness to rice production and other essentials, eventually giving rise to the battle of Ben Tre. Now, in times of peace, the Mekong Delta, is bursting with local life and Vietnamese culture.
And just before you pack your bags, learn even more about the attractions of the Mekong Delta!