More than 4,000km after rising in the Tibetan Himalaya, the Mekong enters its sluggish dotage. I felt equally languid. I was the only passenger aboard a powder-blue cargo vessel with a rat-a-tat-tat engine that spluttered like a lifelong smoker. In fierce heat, I lolled in a shaded hammock gazing listlessly at faraway riverbanks – now impenetrable with water coconuts – as the boat, weighed down with fruit and rice sacks, ploughed the treacly brown flow.
For the most part of this 65km voyage between Ben Tre and Tra Vinh, I had little idea which river the captain was actually navigating. That’s because the Mekong Delta is a sodden jigsaw of interlocking rivers, tributaries, lakes, canals and flooded rice fields spanning 39,000 sq km.
When the Mekong first enters south Vietnam from Cambodia it fractures into two mighty systems: the Mekong proper, locally called the Bassac or Hau (‘back river’); and the Tien Giang (‘front river’). Between them they spawn nine major tributaries draining into the South China Sea, lending the delta its old Chinese name, Cuu Long – ‘Nine Dragons’.
Despite being only two hours from Saigon, the delta is often given short shrift by travellers. Most choose hurried day trips from Saigon to honeypot tourist attractions around My Tho or two-night whistlestop packages west towards Cambodia. There’s something, however, about delta life that screams ‘slow travel’.
Ben Tre backwaters (Mark Stratton)
The stultifying humidity certainly didn’t tempt me to hurry. I also found that new bridges and freeways are ushering the urgency of Saigon ever closer to the delta. It felt the right time to see Cuu Long before it changes forever.
My plan was to travel independently from east to west, around 240km. I had 12 days to meander as slowly as the rivers themselves.
Angels & demons
Mr Phuoc had a permanently smouldering cigarette in one hand and a red-hot cell-phone in the other. He met me after my two-hour minivan ride south from Saigon to Ben Tre province in the eastern delta, to shepherd me to his homestay. “We get few visitors compared to the thousands visiting My Tho,” said Phuoc. “They miss out on Ben Tre’s authentic delta life.”
Ben Tre spans several mid-river islands that are surrounded vice-like by the immense Tien Giang and smothered by endless water coconuts – palms with nuts resembling mahogany muesli clusters. I spent two relaxed, enjoyable days at Phuoc’s, who offers rooms in the simple home he shares with his wife and son.
Banana and jackfruit crops surrounded his property and mudskippers slithered around the riverbanks. In the evening, guests helped with food preparation as noisy frogs outcompeted the daytime cicadas. We cooked fresh shrimps in caramelised coconut sauce while his neighbour’s rice wine ensured I was only vaguely conscious of their cockerel’s cock-a-doodle-dooing at 3am.
With one of Phuoc’s guides, Mr Liem, I explored the Tien Giang by bicycle, following concrete concourses raised above waterlogged fields. We crossed tributaries by local ferries, ate wild honeycomb, watched tree-climbers harvesting coconuts and saw catfish being fed at fish farms. Bat-sized black and blue-banded butterflies glided serenely by.
Ben Tre coconuts (Shutterstock)
Yet this angelic backwater camouflages an incongruously brutal recent history. Liem, a thoughtful, somewhat melancholy Buddhist, revealed that he was forced into the military when Vietnam, tiring of the Khmer Rouge’s frequent raids upon the delta, invaded Cambodia to depose the genocidal regime in 1978.
Later, at a monument near Dinh Thuy to commemorate an uprising against the American-backed South Vietnamese government, Liem told me that napalm was used locally to flush out Viet Cong guerrillas. “The Americans lost a lot of lives around here,” he reflected.
I was uncertain if it was too intrusive to ask which side of the war older locals backed. But the eccentric (borderline mad) Mr Khanh, who I met later, didn’t care what I asked him. From the clutter of his house, filled with so much china and so many Buddha icons there was scarcely room for his bed, he produced a photo album revealing pictures of him in South Vietnamese uniform. “I was an aircraft engineer for the Americans,” he said, bellowing with laughter.
I wondered what happened to him when the Americans left in 1975. “Oh,” – cue loud guffawing – “I had a few years away.” I assumed he meant a spell in a re-education camp. But never mind that. He suddenly ripped off his shirt and shinned athletically up a coconut palm. “I’m 61!” he roared, heading skywards. Whatever happened to him clearly hadn’t dampened his zest for life.
My five-hour cargo-vessel voyage onwards to Tra Vinh Province showcased the vitality of river trade. There was a continuous slow armada of wooden vessels serving vibrant riverside markets, from canoes top-heavy with prickly red rambutans to barges large enough to hold containers. All of them had eyes painted on their bows to symbolise watchfulness against danger.
The ragged Tra Vinh peninsula juts into the sea like a dragon’s talon. I’d come to explore its ethnic-Khmer culture. Historically Cambodian Khmers populated the delta before being marginalised as Vietnam expanded its influence southwards in the 18th-century.
Around Tra Vinh, 142 Khmer pagodas host orders of orange-robed monks. At the 900-year-old Ang Pagoda, I recognised from my past Cambodian travels the sumptuousness of Khmer art: central wats with Technicolour murals chronicling Buddha’s life, multi-tiered roofs writhing with dragons, stairways of rearing seven-headed snakes.
Ca Day, a young women employed at Ang, told me that 300,000 Vietnamese-Khmer inhabit Tra Vinh Province. “My identity is split,” she said. “My parents are Khmer and I speak Khmer, but I consider myself Vietnamese because it’s all I’ve known.”
Pick of the pagodas is 350-year-old Hang Pagoda. Each evening, around 5pm, hundreds of storks launch skywards from the surrounding trees to create a swirling whiteout like an unlikely snow blizzard.
A disappearing delta?
Drifting westwards, I reached Cai Be, alongside the Tien Giang, where I found elegant reminders of French rule in ancient houses cross-fertilised with Francophone style. Phan Van Duc appeared from his 19th-century villa; in his sixties, he’s the sixth-generation owner. “I am old,” he mused. “But there is a seventh and eighth generation to follow me.”
The villa was sumptuous. Blue louvered shutters and art-deco lamps lent French finesse to an open-fronted reception exposing ironwood pillars and dark-wood furnishing carved with Vietnamese and Chinese characters and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
As with most Vietnamese homes, a central ancestral shrine bore portraits of departed parents. In the courtyard were charred gables – French soldiers attempted to burn the villa down in the 1950s. “They thought my ancestor was hiding Viet Minh communists,” explained Duc. “Was he?” I asked. “Of course,” he smiled.
Cao Dai temple (Shutterstock)
A cruise from Cai Be to Can Tho is the most popular component of all whistlestop tours across the delta, and I was briefly jumping onto the tourism treadmill to experience a night on the river. I joined British, American and German travellers on Mekong Eyes’ attractive river-barge, which has 14 luxurious air-conditioned cabins. We transited southwards along the Mang Thit River linking the Tien Giang and Bassac systems. At times the channel was so narrow that we could peer into the riverbank’s rickety stilted houses.
At one river village, Cai Nhum, we disembarked at a Cao Dai temple. The Mekong Delta remains a stronghold for this peculiarly Vietnamese hybrid religion, founded in the 1920s. From a distance the temple’s towers resembled a French parochial church; closer inspection revealed an eclectic facade with sword-brandishing gods, swastikas, a communist red star and an Orwellian all-seeing eye.
Our guide gamely tried to explain Caodaism’s perplexing fusion of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, occult and Islam. Caodaism’s ultimate aim, he said, is to break free of the cycle of life and death (which sounded very Hindu) to join God in heaven. Hedging its bets, the sect reveres, among others, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and even French novelist Victor Hugo.
Later I watched the delta sink into darkness with a gin and tonic, before awaking the following morning on the Bassac at Can Tho – with 1.2 million inhabitants, the delta’s largest city. We visited Cai Rang floating market, joining an unedifying scrum of too many tourist speedboats molesting the fruit-and-veg selling wooden vessels for photographs.
Our boat’s young guide, Phuc, said the floating markets may disappear within a decade. “Younger people don’t want the hard lifestyle of their parents; they would prefer a comfortable office job in Saigon,” he said. “The delta’s changing fast. We do not value traditional life and I wonder if it disappears, will we regret it has gone?”
After my foray onto the tourist trail, I was back on my own, easing between the intertwined Bassac and Tien Giang rivers. In Sa Dec, a bustling market city with lingering French ambience, my guide Oanh told me of the delta’s steamiest romance. In her book, The Lover, former resident and novelist Marguerite Duras recalled her 1930s tryst with an older Chinese businessman, Huynh Thuy Le, when she was aged just 15. It scandalised Sa Dec.
We visited the French school, where Duras’s poverty-stricken widowed mother taught, and Le’s opulent ancestral mansion, which left an impression on the youthful Duras. Oanh readily divulged the scandal as we went: “They met en route to Saigon... Le’s father wouldn’t let them marry because Duras was too poor... She refused to see Le decades later in Paris because he’d shunned her...”
The delta’s conservatism has scarcely changed since Duras’ era. A movie of The Lover was filmed around here but, according to Oanh, most locals avoided it because it was “too sexy”. “Have you seen it?” I asked. “Yes.” She blushed crimson.
Eye of the tiger
My own love affair with the delta continued two hours upriver on the Bassac at Long Xuyen. The city hosts an authentic floating market of 500 vessels without a visitor in sight. Larger boats bring produce from rural provinces to sell wholesale to market traders. Given the riverboats’ hanging laundry, children, pets and pot plants, it was clear that these are people wedded to the river.
Floating market, Mekong Delta (Shutterstock)
Long Xuyen is no oil painting so I hired a local ethnic-Khmer guide, Thai Sarorn, and booked a homestay mid-river on Tiger Island. The island proved utterly engaging: 15 sq km of plantations, rice paddies and cottage industries hand-making incense sticks.
Thai explained that the island’s name originates from a 300-year-old legend about a kindly tiger raised by a human couple; the tiger has its own temple. “Islanders believe the tiger has always brought them good luck and prosperity; there was never any fighting here with the French or Americans,” said Thai.
But maybe the tiger’s aura is diminishing? We met a rice farmer unable to plant because the seasonal floods, required to fertilise his paddies with rich silt, had not arrived. The farmer blamed the Chinese for building dams upriver on the Mekong. “The falling floodwater is changing the delta’s climate to become hotter. In a few decades rice farming may not be possible,” said Thai.
That evening the lovely Mrs Mai cooked me several delicious fish dishes at the wooden homestay she shares with husband, Hoang, and their two daughters. They tried to teach me Vietnamese; however, more noteworthy than my struggle to grasp grammar was their devotion to a Buddhist sect I knew little about called Hoa Hao. Again, this emanates from the delta. A simple shrine in their house featured portraits of Hoa Hao’s 20-year-old founding monk, Huynh Phu So.
Thai explained the boy had a vision for a sort of austerity Buddhism that espouses self meditation without lavish temples and monks. “After a trance he cured himself of illness,” explained Thai. But by the 1940s he was dabbling in politics and was labelled the ‘Mad Monk’. “He ‘disappeared mysteriously’ in 1947 after refusing to join the communists fighting the French,” added Thai.
After a healthy dose of self austerity, frequenting budget hotels, buses and homestays, my final sojourn on the delta’s edge with Cambodia was the French colonial-style Victoria Hotel, 50km west in Chau Doc.
My room’s balcony offered a view to die for: a U-bend kink in the Mekong Bassac heading directly towards Cambodia. The sounds of calling mosques from Cham minority villages over the river mingled with the ceaseless slow-chugging riverboats, my ever-present delta tinnitus.
But the Victoria Hotel was quiet. Hotel employee, Mr Tuan, lamented how guests typically arrived late afternoon then hurried away early next morning on the daily speedboat to Phnom Penh. “It’s like we’re a transit lounge en route to Cambodia,” he said, “but there’s so much to see here.”
He was right. I spent two days exploring Chau Doc’s striking natural environment. From Sam Mountain, a place of Buddhist pilgrimage where a young woman had a Lourdes-ian apparition, the view spanned miles of flat emerald-green rice paddies stretching into Cambodia. It was one of the finest I’ve encountered in South-East Asia.
Tra Su (Shutterstock)
Further north, I rode a sampan through the cloying green river weed of Tra Su’s flooded cajuput forest. “The VC hid here during the war,” said my guide, Phuong, “so the Americans defoliated the forest.” It has made a remarkable recovery and now teems with egrets, painted storks, darters and purple swamphens.
The next morning I left the dragon. I boarded the speedboat for Phnom Penh, whizzing beyond the mighty juncture where the Mekong divides into the delta’s two great rivers. Nine Dragons became one.
Plan your trip...
Mekong Eyes arranges delta itineraries that include Cai Be to Can Tho cruises; starting from £162pp for a two-day/one-night all-inclusive trip.
Ang Giang Tourimex is de-facto tourist office for Long Xuyen. An English-speaking guide (Thai Saror; firstname.lastname@example.org), homestay and floating market trip costs around £50.
Buffalo Tours works with Victoria Hotels, running a range of trips based around properties at Chau Doc, Can Tho and Nui Sam.
Nguyen Thi Thuy Oanh (honey0109@ yahoo.com.vn) is a local guide in Sa Dec.
Vietnam Airlines operates the only direct flights from the UK to Vietnam, flying from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Returns on its new six-weekly Dreamliner 787-9s start from £525; flight time is 12 hours.
Where to stay
The elegant Hotel Continental Saigon (Saigon) is full of history; its frangipani courtyard is Saigon’s most beautiful breakfast spot. Excellent-value doubles from £69.
Mrs Mai’s Homestay (Tiger Island; book through Ang Giang Tourimex) is a welcoming household with polished-wood floors. Half-board costs £16.
Victoria Hotel (Chau Doc) sits imperiously on the Bassac River, with a pool terrace. Doubles from £91.
Main image: Vietnam's Mekong Delta (Dreamstime)