The Mekong River delta is the second largest in the world, and it’s easily explored from the Vietnamese capital Ho Chi Minh City. Bernard O’Shea rocks the boats as he hops on board.
The Mekong is South-East Asia’s longest river, seeped in history, and rich in colour and character. One minute she can be frenetic, bustling and business-like: boats laden with goods churn through its choppy water with determination and purpose, anxiety almost, as if they are running late. At other times she is a picture of calm, a pool of shadow and light, exuding a gentleness that falls like a blessing on those privileged enough to witness it.
From its source in the Tibetan Plateau, it flows for some 4350 kilometres through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before draining into the South China Sea at its delta in Vietnam. The delta is massive, about 94,000 square kilometres (source here) – that’s roughly the size of Malawi in Africa, and slightly bigger than Portugal, or Hungary, in Europe. Apart from the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta (106,000 sq km), all other deltas are dwarfs in comparison. The Mississippi’s one-third the size; the largest delta I had previously explored, the Paraná in Argentina, which I thought was enormous, is just 14,000 sq km; and the Danube delta in Romania is a mere puddle at just over 4000 sq km.
For all its vastness, if you’re short of time you can still get a good look at life in the Mekong Delta, for it’s only about 70 kilometres south of Ho Chi Minh City, and there are heaps of day tours to it. My tour was conducted by Urban Adventures and entitled “Best Day Ever – Mekong Delta Discovery“, so apparently I was in for the time of my life. And yet it was sad to know that soon my best day ever would be behind me!
Like many tours in Ho Chi Minh City, the pick-up point was the steps of the Opera House, where I was to be at 8am. It’s a good idea: the Opera House is very central, and the cool of the morning is the most pleasant time to see the city. It’s much better than sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for your pick-up vehicle, and then traipsing in heavy traffic from hotel to hotel to collect all the others who are due to have their best day ever – because they’d have me for company, haha.
It takes a while to get out of Ho Chi Minh City – a sprawling city of more than eight million people – and into the countryside, but as the high rises, shopping centres, warehouses and factories give way to rice paddies, you sense you’re on the verge of a scenic rural adventure.
ISLANDS IN THE STREAM
Up near the border with Cambodia, the Mekong River forks into two, and then the northern prong forks into two again, and again, so that ultimately a five-pronged fork jabs into the South China Sea. Our destination is My Tho, a busy port on the most northerly prong of the Mekong, and the embarkation point for most boat trips into the delta. My Tho’s population is comparatively small – almost 250,000 – but it has a the vibe and energy of a tourist hub and I got the sense that it would be fun to spend a couple of nights here if you have the time.
On this tour, however, there is no time to stop, our boat is waiting to take us out onto the river and there is much to see and do. Just offshore are four islands: Tortoise Island, Dragon Island, Phoenix Island and Unicorn Island. We’re going to sample life on the islands, then cross over to the opposite bank, part of Ben Tre province, and explore Tan Thach, one of its many canals. Life jackets on, please, everybody!
We hop on on boat 17 (pictured further below). Like many of the passenger vessels here, it’s a simple, wooden, flat-bottomed craft, but full of character and colour – blue with red and yellow trimmings, to be precise. There is seating for 18 but our group of 10 comprises five Australians, two Japanese, one English, one Irish and one Taiwanese – a nice mix. The Mekong is murky brown, almost amber in parts.
From My Tho we were taken to an island (Phoenix, I think), to see a typical house, then out in the back garden we were treated to a refreshing tea – in the heat and humidity of the delta, liquid refreshment is always welcome – and a colourful array of local fruits: rambutans, dragonfruits, papayas, pineapples and the cutest little bananas I have ever seen. Red, orange and yellow are the fruity colours of the season here.
We were also serenaded by two singers and a three-piece band playing traditional Vietnamese music – solemn stuff, although they did finish off with an amusing and rousing version of “If you are happy and you know it clap your hands”. (You can see videos of these on our Facebook page.)
Next we were taken to another island to visit a bee farm, where you could hold up trays of bees if you wanted.
And there was more delicious tea to consume, sweetened by honey, of course.
By now I was really beginning to appreciate the scenery among the narrow waterways, as photographed below.
Then, if my geography is correct, we headed over to Ben Tre, a big landmass in between two of the main forks in the river. Here we donned helmets for a fun ride by Xe Loi (motorised cart) deeper inland.
By now we were getting hungry, and thankfully the purpose of the trip was to take us to a restaurant, where we were served freshly cooked fish. It was the ugliest fish I have ever seen!
How to eat this beast? Our hostess used chopsticks to shred the fish, pulling off bits of flesh which she wrapped on rice paper roll along with salads. Dipped in sauce, it was simple, light, yet satisfying. The ugly fish was surprisingly tasty.
Then came one of the most enjoyable parts of the day, a ride on a sampan under the shady canopies of the tranquil canals.
So, was it my best day ever? Let me mull over that for a separate post. But it was certainly a memorable experience. If you are ever offered the chance to go punting on the Mekong, take it! TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled at his own expense. More at urbanadventures.com. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.
Many well-known cruise operators do long trips (of a week or more) up and down the Mekong, taking in sights such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Loas, Phnom Penh in Cambodia (with land excursions to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat) and, of course, the massive delta. Some companies combine tours on Mekong with the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, which Time To Wander has had great pleasure exploring at the start of monsoon season (read about it here).