Down south exploring Vietnam’s delta
HO Chi Minh City attractions can be covered easily in two days , but as the city turns into a gateway there are more options to extend the stay to other destinations.
A popular one-night escape heads to the Mekong River delta covering visits to orchards on Mekong islands in My Tho and a wholesale floating market in Can Tho.
The Mekong River delta covers vast stretches of marshy land forming a triangle extending from My Tho in the east to Chau Doc and Ha Tien in the northwest, down to Ca Mau and the South China Sea at the southernmost tip of Vietnam including Phu Quoc Island.
The area is blessed with fertile soils and a complex network of rivers and canals that sustain agriculture and aquaculture the region’s main industries. This slice of land representing 12% of the country’s land mass. It is a major food supplier, not only for locals, but for export too. The delta region produces 50% of the country’s rice output and Vietnam is the second largest rice exporter after Thailand.
My Tho, is the gateway to the delta, 70 km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Despite the short distance, travelling time is around two hours; first to get out of Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic jams and then on a bus that rarely goes faster than 60 kph.
Once you start to cross several bridges, over small and large waterways, you recognise you are in the delta and My Tho must be close by.
At My Tho, tourists meet a local guide and board a boat for a short cruise to visit islets. In the same area, there are four islets: Con Qui (Turtle Island); Con Phung (Pheonix Island); Con Thoi Son (Unicorn Island) and Con Tran Long (Dragon Island). The islands are famous for fruits such as coconut, pineapple, papaya, longan, banana, rambutan and jackfruit.
The tourist activities are mainly on the Unicorn Island, the largest, while the tour stops at Turtle Island for lunch.
The Mekong River, during this monsoon, is swift and mud red in colour. Each island is about 15 to 20-minute trip by boat.
Once you step onto Unicorn island you will see restaurants and souvenir stalls, mostly selling the same goods as in Ho Chi Minh City. But villagers here generally quote cheaper prices than in HCMC to justify the repetition.
The first stop (unless shopping) is a coconut candy factory. If visitors arrive early, they can watch workers mixing and cooking the coconut, but after lunch, the tass has progressed to cutting and shaping the tiny rectangular pieces and packing them. The chewy sweet candies come in several flavours.
Then, the tour continues to a bee farm, for tasting locally produced honey and drinks. Tourists take a seat, while the sellers prepares a hot longan honey drink mixed with Kumquat, (sour orange-like fruit). Questions about bees and honeys are welcome and if you buy some honey or sweets then the farm workers wave you off with broad smile.
Afterwards, the guide leads the way to an orchard to check out fruits, while listening to Don Ca Tai Tu, folk songs sung and played by villagers.
The last activity of the programme sees visitors travelling by row-boats through narrow canals. Most of the rowers are women dressed in traditional Mekong delta outfits; Ao Ba Ba– button down long sleeves blouse and pants with Non La, the Vietnamese conical hat.
Women usually row the boats, daily, to the orchards and nipa palm forest to sell the products in the markets so it is a common sight not one created to please tourists.
Each boat is propelled by two rowers; one standing at the rear using two oars and in the front using a paddle to help steer the boat.
Leaving My Tho to Can Tho, the largest province in the delta on the southern bank of the Hau River, we reach the town on a branch of the Mekong River after a three-hour, 90 km transfer. From Ho Chi Minh City, tourists can also catch a hydrofoil to reach Can Tho in four hours.
Can Tho boasts floating markets – Cai Rang, Phung Hiep and Phong Dien. To visit the markets, you must travel early, or you will miss the colourful scenes as people trade their goods at this busy market.
The market we visited is Cai Rang, 6 km upstream from Can Tho City, taking around 15 minutes by motor boat. Individual travellers can hire small boats and they are usually owned by women and are fitted with small engines. Oars are used whehn the width of the channels narrows.
The floating market is a very lively trading scene, genuine and not contrived. But how long will it stay that way?
Rivers are quite busy because they are the main transport channels in the delta region.
Cai Rang is the main wholesale floating market. Barges loaded with fruits and vegetable from other districts and provinces arrive before the moon sinks, while retail sellers from Can Tho head from their homes to buy goods to sell at dawn.
When they trade, the small boat will draw near the barges. There are hundreds of boats around, so it a confusing scene that makes you wonder how they can trade.
Among the traders, there are also food and drink boats moving around. You can buy a glass of strong Vietnamese coffee to wake you up.
In Can Tho, there are very few other attractions. After breakfast at the hotel, the guide takes tourists to a small Chinese temple, close to the pier and a community shrine that is a place for worship.
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, the bus stops for lunch at the Mekong Rest Stop, a huge complex of restaurants and souvenir shops in the middle of nowhere. It is very touristic place, purpose-built to serve tourists en route to the delta. TT Group that built Mekong Rest Stop plans to replicate the facility throughout the country with the second one due to open near Danang.