The far south of Vietnam is one of the two main rice bowls of the country. Dominated by the Mekong Delta, the surrounding lands are comprised of low lying rice paddies and the rivers are bordered by dense mangroves and palms. The tributaries of the hectic Mekong River highway provide a comprehensive network of canals and channels. The rivers are the best methods to explore the region at a leisurely pace and offer the opportunity to experience the truly unique Mekong River lifestyle.
What follows is an exploration of the Delta in a clockwise direction, beginning south of Ho Chi Minh City at Mytho, visiting areas both very popular with travelers, and those which are virtually unknown. Cruising up river on the roof of a boat laden with all manner of fish produce, as the sun sets over the distant coconut tress, is a truly remarkable experience.
Can Tho is a thriving metropolis with huge streets, little action and loads of mosquitoes. Although Can Tho has its own market by the riverside, where you can get excellent ice-cream, the principal attraction would have to be the nearby floating markets. Being rather industrious, the centre of Can Tho is quite busy and noisy with motorised cyclos roaring up and down the streets combined with throngs of people going about their lives. The riverside can have its quiet moments, but Can Tho is also a burgeoning are a number of pagodas worth visiting, and for the trivia fans, Can Tho is the home to much of Vietnam's fish sauce.
Cai Rang Market is situated about 8 km from Can Tho by road or a 20 km loop by boat. This market is quite nice and sells a variety of fruit and vegetables and operates from 5 am to 11 am, though the markets are better the earlier you can get there. A cyclo from Can Tho will take about 15 minutes to get to Cai Rang Market. Another market, Phung Hiep market, is 31 km from Can Tho. This is the snake market, selling a plethora of living, wriggling and often poisonous snakes. Pythons and Cobras are sold here by people from the countryside who have caught them by hand, whilst others have come to purchase snakes for restaurants, medicinal reasons or personal consumption. This market is open from 5 am to 5 pm. If travelling by boat, you can add a dimension to your day by stopping and visiting some of the fruit gardens, which sell pineapple, rambutan and papaya amongst many other fruits.
The town of Vinh Long is set on the edge of its principal attraction, the Mekong River. More precisely it is the beautiful islands that you can visit from here that may attract you to use Vinh Long as a base. Vinh Long is uncharacteristically large for the Mekong Delta, displaying an abundance of tall buildings and Karaoke bars to tempt your vocal chords. At one stage in Vietnam's history, Vinh Long was at the center of a Christian stronghold. Although Christians no longer dominate in the area, there is still a cathedral that is worth looking at.
Most people that visit Vinh Long use it as a base to explore the islands which are home to people that grow exotic produce. One of the more popular islands to visit has several rambutan and bonzai tree gardens with many different fruits and flowers that you can visit.
Soc Trang is situated on Highway 1 and makes for a perfect place to break the journey from My Tho to Ca Mau. With a 500 kg Vampire pig and a psychedelic pagoda to see, Soc Trang is well worth a visit to experience a bit of the bizarre side of life in Vietnam.
Soc Trang is the home to two fascinating pagodas. The first one is the Khmer Bat Pagoda. The grounds are spacious and serene and the pagoda is lovely. About 20,000 fruit bats with dog-like faces live on the grounds of the pagoda, and an individual bat can weigh up to half a kilo. What gives the pagoda a twilight zone appeal is the fact that the bats only live on the trees within the pagoda grounds, and they eat no fruit from within the pagoda. For surreal appeal there is also a five year old 500 kg Vampire Pig in residence. This Pig has five ‘toe things' instead of the usual four and to top it off, the Pig has fangs which are really weird.
The second is Dat Set (Soil) Pagoda. This is a truly incredible pagoda boasting hundreds of statues made of soil. Even the building and pillars were once made of soil, but have since been replaced with more stable concrete. There is a huge dragon and a huge tiger statue that protect the gold mountain, whilst a lion protects the silver mountain. However the most intriguing part of the pagoda is the candles. There are four large candles, two of which have never been lit and stand at 2.6 m high, weighing 200 kg. The other two candles have been burning continuously for the last twenty years and are only half done. There are crazy multicolored flickering lights everywhere giving the pagoda a psychedelic Christmas feeling.
This laid back fishing town is the capital of the Kien Giang province and faces the Gulf of Thailand. The main part of town is on an island connected by four roads that cross the channel. Some of the tastiest and cheapest local food is sold on the northern end of Hung Vuong Street. Rach Gia is considered a stronghold of the Cao Dai faith.
It is almost worth getting up at 5 or 6 am to watch the boats come in from a night of fishing. The fishing docks on the sea side of the island are a hive of activity while all the fish are being sorted.