Our love-hate relationship with Vietnam began the moment we crossed into the Mekong Delta. It’s gorgeous, it’s exotic, it’s a veritable sensory overload…but Vietnam has more shysters than any of the other 33 countries we visited on the entire HoneyTrek–combined! We got scammed/lied to/accosted five separate times in our first three days in the country. People would increase the price by 10x, give us the wrong change (with a smile and a “thank you”), send us is the wrong direction on purpose…it was like nothing we’d ever experienced. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of wonderful people in Vietnam (we met dozens upon dozens), but this up-and-coming capitalist society can be ruthless if you are not careful. Once we learned to be vigilant and not take the hustling personally, we started to see the beauty in this very different world.
Starting at Chau Doc
To enter the country we took the boat from Phnom Penh, Cambodia down the Mekong river to Chau Doc, Vietnam, the first big town in the western delta. The Mekong river flows all the way from the Tibetan plateau, splinters into 18 rivers and thousands of canals. The marhsy region spans 15,000-square miles, with the rain-fall determining how much land is above or below water. To deal with the ever-changing tide, many people live in boats or build floating houses like this.
Floating Markets at Dawn
We always love good street food…but boat food? Irresistible! When this lady paddled up to us with her mobile pho kitchen serving rich broth, noodles, veggies and very local catfish…she had us at chao. Side note: Catfish farms are a huge industry here with most fish raised in suspended metal nets directly under the floating houses (see our Mekong slideshow to see the feeding setup through the floorboards).
Market City of Can Tho
We had a fanciful notion of taking boats from town to town but the area is massive and bus is actually the most efficient way to go long distances. We hopped a hoopty three hours and got to the mother of all market towns, Can Tho. It’s a pretty cute place with a lovely promenade and a fun night market but the real action is on the water.
Exploring Cai Rang Market
Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the Mekong and has its share of tourists to go with it. It’s definitely legit and worth a visit but best to time it to avoid the package tours. With a little negotiating we hired a private boat for $20 for the day and went straight to the smaller market of Phong Dien. This was a completely magical shopping experience where you bump up to other boats to smell the melons, shake the coconuts, and taste as many samples as possible.
It’s crowded, it’s chaotic but the traffic jams are the best part. Being pushed up against five other boats, trading, haggling, and throwing fruit, puts you in the middle of priceless encounters. I think this 500-watermelon transaction, went something like “Quick, take some before I sink!”
To get back to Can Tho we took a small stream home. Away from the main highway-style river, you get to glimpse a slower pace of life where people still tend to their rice paddies, wash clothes in the canals, and fish from their docks. Though no matter which side of the river you are on, the people watching is priceless.
Ben Tre Island
Our third and final town in our self-guided Mekong Delta tour was Ben Tre. We arrived late at night after an infuriating debacle where a ticket vendor took our money only to put us on the wrong bus and kick us out 45 minutes away from our intended destination. We were fuming as we got on the next bus only to have the scummy driver quote us double price, despite it being printed on the wall. We called him out and realized this was just how it was going to be. Though it was a rough start we really liked Ben Tre and shook it off at this Pre-Tet New Year festival, complete with magicians, pop singers, and endless Vietnamese snacks.
Biking the Backroads of Ben Tre
If at all possible, the Mekong Delta is a sight to come see, smell, taste, and feel. Have you been? Does this post make you want to go more or less?