Our time in the Mekong delta was without a doubt the highlight of our month in Vietnam, but it very almost didn’t happen in the way it did. If we had followed the Lonely Planet guidebook advice we would have booked a group tour from Saigon through the delta into Cambodia, which is what the vast majority of tourists in Vietnam do, and it’s a great shame. We were just about sick of these kind of tours – where you’re bundled into a minibus and dropped off at different tourist destinations for very short amounts of time and you have no choice over where to stay or what you eat. It’s all pre-booked by the tour agency and usually unappetising, and you don’t get to actually see much of the places you want to see. What’s more, the Mekong tours rush through the region in 3 days/2 nights, and you definitely want to spend longer than that there (we spent 6 nights, it’s very relaxing). Sure, sometimes these group tours are useful in certain situations, for example when there is a lack of public transport – we did an interesting trip to the demilitarised zone between North and South Vietnam which wouldn’t have been possible to do independently except with a private car which isn’t really in our budget. But we were feeling like we had done one too many tours like this recently so we looked into visiting the Mekong Delta independently.
It turns out that it’s more than easy to do (loads of accommodation options, public buses linking pretty much anywhere you want to go, many interesting activities you can arrange) and I have no idea why the guidebooks continue to recommend the group tours – so we used various travel blogs to help plan our visit. It seems that our guidebook writer hadn’t even bothered to visit some of these places as his descriptions were so short and often incorrect… For that reason this blog post is going to be a bit different as I’m going to try and include any necessary information you might need to visit the Mekong delta on your own, as some of the blogs we were using for research were two or three years old and it’s useful to have up-to-date information.
Essential details are at the bottom of the post. Regular readers might find these details and the post format less interesting, so apologies!
Saigon – Ben Tre – Vinh Long ( 2 nights) – Can Tho – Chau Doc (2 nights) – Phnom Penh
Day 1: Ben Tre
Getting there: We caught the “Minh Tam” bus from Mien Tay station in Saigon to Ben Tre, and the journey was much shorter than expected (2 hours ish) so we were in Ben Tre by lunchtime. We chose Ben Tre over My Tho to escape the hoardes of day-trippers from Saigon, but Ben Tre itself wasn’t that nice – it’s a city of 2 million people and apart from a colourful market, there’s not much to do in the city per se.
Boat trip: But we did have a lovely trip down the river with a German couple whom we bumped into on the riverbank. The boat was more expensive than other blogs had implied (700,000d for four people) and we practically had to beg the boatman to take us. That’s the nice thing about Ben Tre, it’s not at all set up for tourists, so there’s nobody hassling you to try and sell you something every other second (a welcome break!), but it does mean you have to go and seek things out a bit more yourself. We had a very pleasant two hour trip down the main river to see the famous fireflies, which were very cool – they made the trees by the river look like Christmas trees with fairy lights!
Food: Tasty street-food beef pho near the market for lunch for 20,000d, and surprisingly reasonably priced dinner with our new German friends on a fun floating restaurant – especially recommend the grilled eggplant dish. (Directions below.)
Sleeping: we stayed in the Hung Vuong hotel. It was basic but clean and met our needs fine but there were plenty of other options around if you don’t want to book ahead.
Bike ride: Probably the best thing we did in Ben Tre, we went for a cycle the following morning before moving onto Vinh Long. It took us a while to get hold of some bikes as our hotel had none left but we eventually got them from Ham Luong hotel down the road. The best thing to do is to head straight over the bridge southwest-wards onto the next island and just cycle around the leafy paths which are mostly deserted and intersect with little waterways in a very charming manner. Along the way are little vignettes of everyday life in Ben Tre province – barber shops, children playing, women gossiping, even a dentist operating next to the street! There are plenty of places to get a bite to eat.
Days 2-3: Vinh Long
Getting there: We caught a local bus (10,000d each) that was certainly not that comfortable but fine for only a couple of hours. However it dropped us in a strange place not very close to Vinh Long so I would get googlemap loaded on your phone before you leave if you choose this option. In the end we found a guy who arranged two motorbikes to take us from where the bus left us to where we wanted to go but at 100,000d each it wasn’t cheap. The ride on the back of the bike was actually an unexpected highlight of our stay as the sun was starting to go down and we raced over all these tiny rounded bridges crossing Mekong riverlets in fading light with beautiful vistas over rice fields and paddies in all directions. This is what you come to Vietnam for, guys. We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay so we got the motorbikes to drop us at the ferry port on An Binh island just opposite Vinh Long. There were signs giving directions to various homestays on the island but as it was getting dark we just picked the closest one and walked down the road to it.
Home stay: Our homestay was called Nam Thanh, and at $12 per person per night including an enormous multi-course dinner and breakfast, it was quite a good deal. Homestays in An Binh just don’t come dirt cheap. It wasn’t the most homey of homestays as the family had built a block out the back for 20 guests, so if you arrive with more time than we did you might want to look elsewhere. On the plus side they were very helpful about arranging a boat trip for us and also our onward travel, they had free bikes to borrow and the hammocks in the garden were great. We stayed for two nights as we were having such a fab time.
Boat trip: This was lovely. We left at about 7am, getting back to the homestay at midday (for an afternoon of hammock-reading). We had the long sampan boat all to ourselves which was an added bonus, and made the journey weaving through all the islands to reach the floating market at Cai Be. This is a place where rivers act as roads: every house has steps down to the river and a boat moored up, and there are even shops and fuel stations lining the banks. The market was quite small but interesting nonetheless (the ones near Can Tho are much better), and consisted of several boats moored at the entrance to a town, each with a long perpendicular pole tied to which was the produce of that boat: one had potatoes, another had cabbages and so forth. We motored up to a little fruit boat and clambered aboard for breakfast: a selection of various colourful fruit and a Vietnamese coffee (made with condensed milk so VERY sweet).
Cycling: Twice we borrowed bikes from the homestay and biked around the island (once at dawn, once at dusk), and again it was delightful. You can cycle along a myriad of pathways, mostly shadey and often running along slow-moving, murky rivers. The island especially comes alive in the very early morning.
Day 4: Can Tho
Getting there: Our homestay organised motorbikes to pick us up and drop us at our next hotel for 150,000 each. I’d read in several blogs about how it’s a great ride between the two over ferries and through rice fields and orchards, but we forgot to mention that we wanted to go “the back way” so instead we bombed down the highway for an hour with no views at all! So if you do this, make sure to specify which route you want to go.
Hotel: We stayed in the budget rooms at Xoai Hotel and they sure were small, but the receptionists were so helpful and friendly that I would very much recommend the place. We didn’t do much that afternoon, except getting my hair chopped short again, and eating THE most delicious dinner, I think the yummiest street-food I had in Vietnam. The dish was called Nem Nuong and consisted of BBQ pork pieces marinated in something tasty and wrapped in vine leaves, combined with pineapple slices and mint, and rolled in rice paper along with the usual additions – rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber slices, Asian basil, coriander etc (address details below).
Boat trip: You may be noticing a theme in our activities in the Mekong Delta, as this was our third and best boat trip. We arranged it not through the hotel ($38 for two) but with a man who approached us at the harbour, Mr. Han, for 400,000d/$18. I’ve put his contact details below, as he also runs a great homestay just outside of Can Tho with a beautiful garden (might be better to stay here rather than inCan Tho city itself). We set off at 5am the following morning in a tiny boat rowed by a lady whose name sounded like Zoom (but certainly isn’t spelt like that!) and a little boy called Tay who acted as our tour guide. It transpired later that he was Mr Han’s ten-year-old son, and as it was a Saturday and he had no school, he was learning the tricks of his trade so that he could take over the family business when old enough.
There are two options for boat trips from Can Tho, short (1 floating market) and long (2 floating markets) – I would recommend the latter. The markets were similar to the ones at Vinh Long, except bigger, and we appreciated being in a small boat so we could manoeuvre around all the boats.
On the way back we went through a back-network of little water-alleys and had a wander along the bank with Tay who kindly got us some stalks for a mock sword-fight with him. Ten-year-olds know how to have fun.
Days 5-6: Chau Doc
Getting there: Our hotel organised a Futa bus for us (perfectly comfortable), which included a free shuttle bus from the hotel to the bus station. We had to get a moto ride in Chau Doc into the centre to our hotel Thuan Loi which was nothing to write home about, but it was the cheapest place we could find and there weren’t many alternatives around. Check the room before you pay up – one had a funny smell but we changed to a clean one. As we arrived in the evening we decided to spend two nights there to have a full day to explore before catching a speed boat up the river into Cambodia.
Motorbike ride: We saw that several others had recommended Mr. Thanh Pho to organise a motorbike tour of the Chau Doc area. As we had missed out on the moto-trip to Can Tho, we gave him a ring and he picked us up at 7am the next morning for a wonderful trip to Tra Su bird sanctuary, stopping off at various places on the way, like a Cham village and a Khmer weaving house. Mr Pho was a great guide, even if his English wasn’t that good – we occasionally had to lapse into French (very basic) to communicate but he took us to lots of interesting places and was very enthusiastic. He also charged very reasonable prices.
Sam Mountain: We went with Mr Pho and two Dutch girls we met in our hotel on motorbikes to the foot of the mountain and walked up for a glorious sunset and cold beer at the top. I would recommend going in the late afternoon to avoid the heat – we left at 3.30pm.
Congratulations if you have managed to reach the end of this rather long post!
20,000d=$1 (very roughly)
Bus to Ben Tre: leaves regularly from Mien Tay station in Saigon. 67,000d for Minh Tam big bus or 45,000d for cramped minibus, probably worth getting the former given it’s only $1 more.
Hung Vuong hotel in Ben Tre: 300,000d for a large double room without river view, private bathroom, breakfast included. http://www.huongvuonghotelbentre.com.vn or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gave us details on 10,000d local bus to Vinh Long then had to get motorbike to An Binh ferry port for 100,000d each.
Floating restaurant in Ben Tre – hard to miss, it’s on a large dragon shaped boat on the river as you walk westwards from town, maybe ten minutes walk from Hung Vuong hotel. 0753822492. We paid 190,000d for three dishes and drinks.
Boat trip in Ben Tre: 700,000d for 4 people for 2 hours. Arranged with some difficulty by river.
Bike rental in Ben Tre: Ham Luong Hotel, 200C Hung Vuong, Phuong 5 TP, Ben Tre. Www.hamluongtourist.com.vn. Good quality bikes, 30,000d per hour, hotel is on river bank.
Homestay on An Binh island, near Vinh Long: Nam Thanh. 400m on left from ferry jetty when you get off. 0703858883. 172/9 Binh Luong, An Binh. $12 per person per night, includes dinner and breakfast. 5 hour boat ride for $25 for two with private boat. Organised motorbike to Can Tho for 150,000d each.
Xoai hotel in Can Tho: 93 Mau Than, p. Xuan Khanh, Ninh Kieu. Info@hotelxoai.com, website: hotelxoai.com. Recommended. $14.50 per small room. Organised bus to Chau Doc for 105,000d each but motorbike to hotel was 30,000d each.
Tasty street food in Can Tho: Ngoc, 125 Chau Van Liem, 07103826069. Only a couple of dollars.
Mr Han for boat trip in Can Tho: 0939502798. 400,000d for 2 people, private boat, 6 hours, Cai Rang and Phong Dien markets. His homestay looked lovely too, $15 per person, called My Thuan. 07103845538. Highly recommended.
Thuan Loi hotel in Chau Doc: email@example.com, 0763866134. Central location but rooms not that nice, receptionists don’t speak much English but they did book our speed boat into Cambodia for us for $26 each.
Mr Thanh Pho in Chau Doc: 0945833954. Highly recommended for motorbike trips – 250,000d each for 5 hours in morning to Tra Su. 50,000d each for motorbike to bottom of Sam Mountain, with tour around temples at bottom and picked us up from other side of mountain after sunset.