Mekong Delta highlights and travel guide

Mekong Delta Overview

When thinking of the Mekong Delta, the imagination is painted in every hue of green, the tall swaying palms lining the river banks, the murky green reflection of the water and the fertile agricultural land which surrounds it. The maze-like rivers and tributaries which strike patterns across the map, stretch across the country before dissipating into the East Sea. The communities that have sprung from the banks of these waterways have made a unique life for themselves following the ebb and flow of the mighty Mekong.


The floating markets in My Tho and Cai Rang. Mekong Delta

The second image synonymous with the Mekong Delta is the colourful mosaic painted each day by the floating markets. Small wooden boats, laden with fresh produce in every colour converge at the break of day to commence trading.

Previously belonging to the Khmer Kingdom known as Khmer Krom, the Mekong Delta was brought under Vietnamese rule in the late 1690s. Throughout the French colonial period and during the America-Vietnam War, the Mekong Delta saw its share of bloodshed with fighting taking place on the banks and in the water.

Now the Mekong exists in peace and can focus its efforts on its thriving agricultural industry. Often referred to as the 'Rice Bowl of Vietnam,' The Mekong Delta region is one of Vietnam's biggest producers of rice with the crop flourishing in the nutrient rich, wetlands. Sugar cane, soybean and fruit plantations also prosper here and provide a livelihood for many of the inhabitants.

The climate in the Mekong Delta is split between the dry season, from November to April and the wet season, from May to October. The wet season brings monsoon rains which saturate the lands and cause the river to swell and burst its banks, flooding the region. There is increasing concern regarding the effects of climate change and the Mekong's ability to survive the man-made disaster.  

My Tho

Due to its ease of access from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho has become a popular day trip destination with tourism being a well-established industry within the town. Here thousands of tourists hop aboard the wooden sampan boats to experience the beauty of the Mekong. From the water, you can see the colourful riverfront facades stacked atop one another and the balconies which jut out into the river. It is also an interesting town to take a stroll around. The Vinh Tang Temple's beautiful architecture combines elements of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese and European styles to create an elegant design. The beautifully kept ornate design is reflected throughout the pagoda and surrounding grounds. Two giant statues of Buddha, one seated and one standing, welcome visitors to the pagoda.

Phoenix Island, not far from My Tho, was once the home of the eccentric Coconut Monk. Nguyen Thanh Nam, also known as the Coconut Monk, established the religion and practised it atop a floating pagoda. It is said that he meditated for three years on a stone slab surviving only on coconuts. The religion was a fusion of Buddhism and Christianity but was eventually halted by the Vietnamese Government. The island is decorated with a strange array of colourful structures, quite possibly the strangest being the model of the Apollo Rocket.

 The local life in Mekong Delta
The local life in Mekong Delta

Ben Tre

Ben Tre is famed for all things coconut, in particular, the sweet, sticky coconut candy which is produced there. As well as exploring the rivers, taking a trip to coconut factory is a great way to learn about the local trade. Rolling mounds of coconuts and piles of husks at the side of the river indicate where to find the factories. Inside men and women quickly and deftly split and hollow out the coconuts. Visitors are then shown the process from coconut flesh to morish candy with the chance to sample the finished product. Whilst in Ben Tre visitors can also see the art of mat weaving and meet the people keeping the craft alive.

Tra Vinh

Tra Vinh echoes of the Khmer Kingdom with over 140 Khmer pagodas decorating the province. The Khmer identity is kept alive with many attending Khmer language classes and practising Theravada Buddhism. Hang Pagoda is one of the most visited of the Khmer Temples in Tra Vinh, favoured not only for its architecture and serene ambience but also the opportunity to see the storks flying overhead.

 The local life in Mekong Delta
The local life in Mekong Delta

Vinh Long

Vinh Long is a great example of life on the Mekong which is flanked on either side by rivers and nestled in amongst the crisscrossing tributaries. It is the perfect place to book a homestay and enjoy taking in the rhythms of life on the river. Vinh Long is also a great place to organise a trip to Cai Be to experience the bright colours and friendly bartering of the floating market.

Although the market is at its peak at around 6 am, the activity continues on into the afternoon.

U-Minh Forest

The U-Minh Forest really is an area of outstanding beauty. The thick mangrove forests are the largest of their kind outside of the Amazon and are home to a great number of remarkable species of animal. The tangled mangrove roots emerge from the water converging into the thin and spindly trunks which erupt into explosions of green leaves. Entering the forest feels as if you are travelling back in time to when the earth was young and untouched by human hands. The towering trees and murky waters speak of worlds unknown and upon entering the thick forests anticipation of what lies within fills the air. This unknown territory was used by Viet Cong soldiers during the war who hid in the labyrinthian forests. US forces sprayed the area with harsh chemical defoliants to destroy the natural cover with disastrous effects. This type of warfare was used across Vietnam, and the chemicals were not only fatal to the plants but also had devastating effects on humans. The forest is returning to its natural glory, and it is hard to imagine the area without its lush carpet of vegetation. Now boat trips around the enchanting forest are run daily giving visitors the chance to see some rare animals such as fishing cats, hairy-nosed otters and 187 different species of bird.

Chau Doc

One of the most culturally diverse areas in the Mekong Delta region is Chau Doc, a small town which borders Cambodia. The population here is made up of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham and Khmer inhabitants. The pastel colours of the houses and stunning architecture of the various temples, mosques and pagodas add to the charm of this friendly town.

Not far outside of Vinh Long is the sacred Sam Mountain, with many Buddhists pilgrimaging to the site each year. The climb to the top is dotted with temples and pagodas tucked away in crevices and caves. From the top, the view reaches out across the lands below, on one side Vietnam and on the other, Cambodia.

Approximately 30 km South of Chau Doc is the captivating flooded forest of Tra Su which is now home to a bird sanctuary. Visitors can board small boats which glide through the rivers lined with carpets of water lettuce. The journey winds through the thick forest of arching cajeput and mangrove trees following the birds that dip through the sky and in and out of the water. During the afternoon the forest becomes thick with the chittering and chattering sounds of birdsong. The trips through the forest culminate with a trip to a watch tower whose vantage point offers stunning views of the forest before voyaging back by boat. As well as the flocks of birds in the forest, there are also swarms of bees whose fresh, sweet honey is sold in the forest.  

 The local life in Mekong Delta
The local life in Mekong Delta

Festivals and Events

The various religions inhabiting the Mekong Delta also have their own colouful and exciting festivals.

Ky Yen takes place each year from the 14th to the 16th of the last lunar month and brings communities together to worship the gods of the village. People don their festival outfits and gather in temples to take part in ceremonies, parades and vibrant dragon dances. The evenings feature a talent show called Hat Boi in which people compete in singing traditional songs. The sounds of singing and celebration resonate throughout the villages for three days each year with an extra special event being held every three years.

Ben Tre has a unique festival which started in 2009 to celebrate all things coconut as well as the history and culture of Ben Tre. Held biennially in the first month, the festival features lively performances of dancing and music along with traditional games for everyone to take part in filling the river with the echoes of frivolity. As well as the games and entertainment, local craftspeople sell their handmade goods, from bowls and mats to coconut jam and, of course, coconut candy.

 Ky Yen festival, Khmer festival Chol Chnam Thmay, Ok Om Bok festival. Mekong Delta
Ky Yen festival, Khmer festival Chol Chnam Thmay, Ok Om Bok festival. Mekong Delta

As well as celebrating the traditional Vietnamese New Year celebration of Tet, many villages also celebrate the Khmer festival Chol Chnam Thmay which takes place in April. Over the course of three days, people gather to make offerings of fruit and incense, listen to the teachings of monks and join in traditional games and dancing. This colourful festival is a chance for people to pray for their ancestors and welcome in the New Year.

Another Khmer festival which takes place in the Mekong Delta is Ok Om Bok which takes place on the full moon of the tenth month. This festival is held to worship the Moon God who is believed to control the weather and crops. As the full moon rises into the sky, families congregate and make offerings to the moon. After the ceremony, people gather at Ba Om Pond in Tra Vinh where they fill the sky and water with colourful, twinkling lanterns and the air fills with the sound of traditional music. The festival also features an energetic boat race using traditional wooden boats called ngo. The atmosphere at the race is always full of joy as people cheer from the sidelines.

Due to the high dependency on agriculture, it is no wonder that the God of Agriculture Festival is an important time of year for many people in the Mekong Delta. The festive takes place biannually in the second and eighth lunar months. People have the chance to express their gratitude for the past year's growing conditions and pray for a bumper crop in the coming year.
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