The Mekong Delta feels like a step back in time to a simpler era, unencumbered by the trappings of the 21st century. If it wasn’t for all the plastic trash everywhere, you might think the time difference between the U.S. and Vietnam was less like 12 hours and more like 100 years.
Simpler doesn’t always mean easier though. Homes here are pieced together with corrugated metal and bits of wood, many looking like they are one strong storm away from disintegrating into a million pieces. Some of these homes are floating on the river while others teeter on stilts at the river’s edge, a physical manifestation of the local people’s fluid relationship between land and water.
It’s quite a sight to behold. It gets you thinking about how different life must be for the people who live here compared to the people back home. Sure, deep down we all want the same basic things in life, but how different one’s worldview must be from mine after growing up in a place like this. The things we think about every day, our concerns, our goals…all stemming from entirely different reference points and experiences.
It’s worth seeing and worth thinking about, but unfortunately, the tours to the area are not awesome.
So not awesome, in fact, that I almost wrote a post recommending that you skip it entirely. I had a last minute change of heart, but suggest you take the below into consideration before booking anything and try to find a better way to do this than I did.
I booked a three-day tour through Chum Travel, which actually ended up being the Youth Tourist Joint-Stock Company (YTC) tour. The total cost was $78, including two nights of lodging, a few meals, and transportation to Cambodia.
HCMC – My Tho – Ben Tre – Can Tho – Cai Rang – Chau Doc – Phnom Penh
The Main Problem
As far as I can tell, almost all tours go to the same places, as every stop was overrun with tourists. The first day is a complete waste of time because you barely get into the Mekong at all (in fact, we never got out of sight from the mainland where the bus dropped us off). This is largely due to the amount of time it takes to get there from Ho Chi Minh City (the most common launch point).
If you only have one day to visit, skip it, it’s not worth it.
If you do a multi-day tour, you will most likely have the same Day 1 as the one-day tours (which means it’s not going to be awesome). I also wasn’t impressed with Day 2, although it was further into the region (so I felt like I was actually there and not just hanging out on the edge). Day 3 was my transfer to Cambodia, which was more interesting (for at least a couple of hours).
Throughout the tour, you make all of these stops where you learn about local life and how people make various products (honey, candy, rice noodles). This learning happens at record speed and consists of a two-to-five minute explanation by your guide followed by 10-15 minutes of waiting around so you will buy things.
The whole place is dirty (not just in the shanty town kinda way, which is fair enough, but also in the litter everywhere kinda way) and overrun with tourists. Nothing about the places we stopped along the way felt authentic. It felt like we were just seen as money machines to buy souvenirs and leave tips, and that the insanely brief explanations of things that we received was the bare minimum they thought they could get by with and still have us spend money. Nearly the whole day was spent either in transit or waiting to get back in transit.
Really the only part of this I enjoyed was when we were on the boats and I could just take in the scenery and atmosphere of the place. Any time we were interacting with anyone at any of the stops, I was annoyed. Between being treated like an ATM, packed into tiny spaces with dozens of other tourists, and the animal neglect and abuse that runs rampant, I was not impressed.
After nearly three hours on a bus, we arrived in My Tho. My first thought after getting off the bus was ‘this place smells like dog food.’ Like if you stuck your head into one of those giant bags of kibble and took a really deep breath. Turns out the smell is from the fish food factory that makes pellets to feed the catfish being farmed under the floating houses. Strike One.
We loaded into a boat for our day of touring and after five minutes we were already at our first stop: Unicorn Island (which was not nearly as cool as the name implies). This is the island famous for beekeeping and we kicked off with a quick overview of the process as our guide waved around one of those things that comes out of the hive all covered with bees.
We were then shuttled into a large area with tables where we were served honey tea and presented with various products to buy. To add to the atmosphere, there were bees flying all around us, which is not my favorite thing. After everyone had finished their tea, we continued to sit there for an awkwardly long time. I’m quite sure the plan is to make people uncomfortable enough that they give in and purchase things they don’t really want.
At the next stop, on the same island, we were treated to five minutes of traditional music before the tip boxes were not-very-subtly passed around. The perk here was that we did get some fruit and non-honey tea to accompany the music.
Back in the boat for another five minute ride to Turtle Island for a lesson in coconut candy making. We saw how the local people press the milk out of coconuts, cook it into a thick mixture with various flavors (my favorite is peanut, which makes the final product taste like peanut butter fudge), roll it into long strips, and then cut it into bite-sized pieces. It’s always interesting to me to see how manual these processes are (because in my head everything is done with a machine). In this case, one lady was in charge of cutting the pieces and three ladies were hand-wrapping each one. We got a free sample, plus another 15 minutes to buy more.
We had lunch at the completely-overrun-with-tourists Phoenix Island. I was not excited about the whole fish being served, but luckily no one at my table ordered this (shoutout to the only other American on the tour, who was also vegan…we ate tofu together). On the way to the bathroom I passed the kitchen area, which was filled with aquariums of live (for now) fish and what may have been a mini crocodile farm (I didn’t look too hard, but it looked like a bunch of kids were dangling meat down into a pit and shrieking in delight when someone grabbed it). Strike Two.
After lunch we headed another five minutes to Dragon Island for a canal ride in a traditional boat. This place was crawling with tourists so badly that the boats were traffic jammed. The canal, which would have been cool without the dozens of other boats, seemed like a bad Disney ride. Also, the water was so shallow that the ladies with the paddles were just pushing us along off the bottom of the canal. The whole thing lasted five minutes and as we approached the end, the lady paddling our boat asked for a tip. She wanted the equivalent of $5. This was Strike Three for me and I was not playing that game. One of the other guys in the boat tried to hand her some money (about $1) and she refused to take it because it wasn’t enough. No ma’am, that is not how tipping works.
I was completely over it at this point, which is a great time to get back in a bus for another three hour ride…
We spent our first night in Can Tho, which is right on the river and much deeper into the Mekong Delta, so we didn’t have to start on a bus (which was a definite perk). We walked a couple of blocks to the water and hopped in a boat for our ride to the famous floating markets. Maybe we were there on an off day, but the market didn’t seem nearly as big as I expected. It was also limited to just produce (no crafts or other products).
The market is separated into three basic sections: pineapples, root vegetables, and watermelons. Each boat is piled up with their produce of choice and ties a sample of their goods to a tall pole so potential customers know what it is they’re selling. If they tie a banana leaf up, it means they’re selling the whole boat.
As we made our way around, smaller boats selling coconut water, coffee, and other drinks would pull up beside us and try to get us to buy things. When someone indicated they wanted something, the smaller boat would attach itself to us until they finished the sale.
The market was interesting, but we only spent about 15-20 minutes there before moving on (there wasn’t anything else to see, but it wasn’t much time considering that it was supposed to be the highlight of the day’s activities).
Next up was learning how to make rice noodles. The rice is cooked with tapioca until it makes a batter-like liquid, which is then ladled onto a hot stove thing and spread around, much like a crepe.
The rice husks are used as fuel for the fire, which creates steam under the stove to steam the rice mixture into a gelatinous solid. While still hot and soft, these are laid in the sun to dry. After a few hours you have rice paper, which can be used for making spring rolls and other items. If you want noodles, you just feed the rice paper into the shredder machine. Easy breezy.
After that quick lesson, we hung around for another 10 minutes in the giftshop, once again being encouraged to buy something. As we were leaving, I saw several civets in tiny wire cages (no doubt being exploited for civet coffee); this did not improve my cranky mood.
The next stop on our rapid fire tour was a place where we rented bicycles for $2.50 each to ride around the little pathways in the village. This was okay, except the bikes were crap and the pathways were barely large enough to pass. There wasn’t a ton to see, but I do find the houses in the area interesting so it was cool to ride around and imagine what it must be like to live there.
Lunch on this day was at a horrible restaurant that was, again, packed beyond capacity with tourists from various bus trips. The restaurant had several aquariums of animals (frogs, snakes, fish) piled on top of each other, waiting to be killed for someone’s novelty meal.
After lunch, we spent six more hours on a bus to get to Chau Doc, the launch point for the boats to Cambodia. When we arrived it was 7:30 pm and the whole town was dark. The houses had no lights, nearly all the shops were closed, and the streets were nearly abandoned. I don’t know if this is normal, but it sure was weird.
In the daylight it’s clear that Chau Doc is the town that most clearly resembled the image of the Mekong Delta that has been in my head. While the whole area has the floating houses on the water and stilt houses on the banks, this felt like a more truly immersive experience. As I was eating breakfast, I watched two girls come out onto the walkway around their house and proceed to brush their teeth and wash their faces with the brown river water. I can’t help but wonder how they see the world and what they think of countries like America…
After being picked up for transport to the docks, we filled out some visa paperwork and prepared to head to Cambodia. Before we got there though we had to make another stop at a floating house to hear about their fish farming and shop in their gift shop (sigh…) and then to a Cham community to watch a lady making fabric on an old-school loom and (surprise!) shop in their gift shop.
Once all of that was over, we finally, after more than two days, got to the good part of the trip. It took about two hours from that point to get to the border crossing, during which time we cruised past many floating and shore houses. It was easy to imagine we’d stepped back in time and I really enjoyed taking in the view as we cruised along. The weather was perfect and it was a lovely end to a frustrating tour.
There are buses that go from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho and continue on to Chau Doc (total time listed as 8.5 hours), which would allow you to skip the big tour and find local options. I suspect, though, that many of these will go to the same places. If you’re continuing on to Cambodia, head straight to Chau Doc and enjoy the boat ride.