Mekong floating markets, fruit orchards and wildlife, and Phu Quoc beaches
The main routes to the Mekong are by road or water. Fast boats travel between Ho Chi Minh City and the towns of Vinh Long, My Tho, Can Tho and Chau Doc: two of the hotels in the area have their own service for guests. Most visitors travel by road. The first part of the journey is a long and tedious escape from the sprawling suburbs of Viet Nam's largest city, but becomes more interesting as the road passes My Tho and begins to cross the delta.
My Tho is the destination of many of the Mekong tours from Ho Chi Minh City. It is very ‘touristy’, so we by-pass it to head for lesser-known, out-of-the-way places that lack the relative sophistication of the tourist areas, but make up for it by their greater authenticity.
Vinh Long and Can Tho
Vinh Long, about 140km from Ho Chi Minh City, is less developed than My Tho, and has enough to make a visit worthwhile. A particular attraction is a riverside street of cottage enterprises of bewildering variety. Vinh Long is also the only place on the Delta that offers homestay facilities. Visitors can stay overnight in one of the houses belonging to fruit farmers, set invitingly beside a canal amidst their numerous orchards.
Can Tho is the ‘capital’ of the Mekong. It is a vigorous modern city with some good hotels and restaurants, but not much else. However, it’s a useful centre for visiting the Cai Rang and Phung Hiep floating markets, and cruising the labyrinth of the Mekong’s channels and canals.
Flora and fauna
Haivenu takes visitors to an open-air viewing platform in the heart of Tam Nong Wetland Reserve just before dawn to be greeted by the chorus of well over a hundred different species of birds to be seen in this national park.
Another visit takes guests to the Rung Tram 'Forest', which concealed a secret Viet Cong base during the American War. Today it is a peaceful natural area with only faint echoes of the desperate struggles in the swamps and jungles of the Mekong.
Vietnam's first UNESCO 'biosphere', the Can Gio mangrove forest, is another interesting place for nature-lovers. A victim of US defoliation chemicals during the war, a remarkable rescue operation has restored the area. It combines well with a visit to the serene cajeput trees of the U Minh forest.
Although there are crocodiles in the far reaches of the Mekong River, dropping in at a crocodile farm is a safer way to see these massive reptiles rather than encountering them in the depths of the mangrove swamps.
In the area nearer to the Cambodian border, many of the pagodas are Khmer temples, including the remarkable 'Bat' pagoda in Soc Trang, another fascinating visit. On the Cambodian border in Chau Doc, there is a group of ethnic Cham people who converted to Islam and built up a sizeable Muslim community. Cao Dai and Taoist temples, Buddhist pagodas and the occasional Christian church add to the religious diversity.
These, and many other attractions, ensure that several days in the Mekong delta will be a fascinating experience. The winter months in the South are warm and sunny, making the Mekong, together with a beach extension amongst the rolling dunes of Phan Thiet or on the soft white sands of remote Phu Quoc Island, a good combination for a memorable holiday.
Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc, 45km from the coast of Vietnam, can be reached by a brief flight from Ho Chi Minh City or a much longer boat trip from Rach Gai, 250km from Ho Chi Minh City by road. It is a large, tear shaped island, about fifty kilometres from top to bottom, part of an archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. It has a sizeable military presence in the north of the island as it is claimed by Cambodia, only 15km away.
The island has some of the best beaches in Vietnam, a large forest area, and good coral around the small islands to the south. A five star PADI diving centre has recently opened on the island. On the downside, the tourism infrastructure is very basic. There is only one tarred road. The rest are dirt tracks, so travelling around involves using local ‘xe-om’ (motorbike taxis) or hiring a motor bike. There are a few hotels, but they are mostly basic. The most recent, the Saigon Phu Quoc, is better, but has some way to go to match its counterparts on Mui Ne beach and elsewhere. Cafes and restaurants are plentiful, but international dishes are virtually non-existent.
Nevertheless, its unspoilt beaches and lack of tourists makes it an excellent ‘get away from it all’ holiday for travellers who can survive without the creature comforts of international standard resorts. It is currently being considered by UNESCO to become a ‘biosphere’ nature reserve.