Mekong Delta head to head: by boat or land?
The Mekong Delta is one of Vietnam’s greatest treasures, but not because of spectacular scenery or a multitude of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as with elsewhere in the country. Instead, it’s a region rich in community, trade, cottage industry and home-grown produce. Known as the rice bowl of Vietnam, its waters are a necessary stop on any Vietnamese journey. But where to begin? Here we look at two contrasting journeys through the Mekong Delta.
A classic Mekong cruise
After enjoying breakfast in Saigon, you can travel to the port town of My Tho to join one of the cruise companies offering passage along the Mekong River and into Cambodia. One of our first choices is Pandaw. These boats are based on colonial-style Irrawaddy trading vessels, and offer comfort and style alongside a range of off-boat experiences.
Cabins are simple, yet comfortable — twin beds occupy the small rooms, with luggage space located underneath. There’s a small en suite, and the cabin doors open up onto a shared walkway with views out over the water. As with the rest of the boat, the cabin is clad in hard teak wood, a traditional finish for colonial trading vessels.
The small boat doesn’t boast as many cabins as other cruise options, but this is one of the draws. Rise early and you’ll have the top deck to yourself, plus bar service and meals are always efficient.
Dining on board is a communal setup, and it’s not unusual to share a table in the evening, discussing the adventures of the day. Menu options range from Western to Vietnamese fare — look out for pho (a noodle soup), the national dish — and pre-paid drinks packages can offer good value.
Over five days and four nights, the Pandaw takes you from the port town of My Tho, upstream to Tan Chau and the Cambodian border, then on to Phnom Penh. Daily excursions offer you the chance to explore the most fascinating sights along the route.
A typical first day could include a sampan ride through the mangroves of the coastal province of Ben Tre, to see how local honey is made or maybe try your hand at making banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancakes).
The second day begins at dawn with a relaxing boat ride through Gao Giong Bird Sanctuary. The early start boosts the chances of spotting some of the local birdlife, including one of the largest gatherings of white egrets in the country. Moving on, you’ll witness cottage industries such as basket weaving, before ending the day at a 100-year-old Catholic church — a reminder of Vietnam’s colonial legacy under French rule.
The last full day on board allows you to explore border towns and villages around Tan Chau, before completing your crossing into Cambodia to disembark in Phnom Penh on the fifth day. Should you wish, a longer seven-night cruise is available, taking you into Cambodia and (by land) to Siem Reap.
Get me there
Spend 11 days on Vietnam's Mekong Delta on a traditionally styled sampan, exploring Ben Tre, Vinh Long Province and Phnom Penh.
An alternative way to explore the Delta is overland, using small characterful lodges, private sampans, cars and bicycles.
Vinh Long is one of the Mekong Delta’s most tranquil areas, yet it’s still easily accessible from Saigon. A three-hour car journey will get you there in time for lunch and an afternoon’s exploration. One of our preferred places to stay is Coco Riverside Lodge, perched on the edge of a quiet waterway.
Each of its five bungalows are traditionally styled to blend in with their surroundings, but still offer modern conveniences such as air conditioning, a minibar and hot showers. Meals here are simple yet plentiful, and all take full advantage of the locally grown produce. The place is built for relaxing and enjoying a cold drink on the riverfront veranda.
I suggest spending one night here, taking the afternoon and the following morning to explore the local area. On arrival, you could spend the rest of the day on a countryside cycling tour through remote villages and farmland, before watching the sun set over the rice paddies. After dinner, you can walk to the house of a nearby neighbour, who opens up their home to visitors to share stories and play traditional music.
The next morning, rise early and you’ll discover the Mekong at its most lively. Going out on a rowing boat provides a different perspective, and your local guide will help you to seek out the most peaceful, photogenic corners of Vinh Long.
From here, I recommend taking an overnight sampan ride upriver toward Can Tho. A one-cabin sampan is a comfortable base from which to explore, and taking a private boat means greater flexibility as you can travel at your own pace. Although they don’t have air conditioning, rooms are very spacious, service is excellent and meals are delicious. One of the highlights is dinner with a local family at their riverside home.
Rise early as you come into Can Tho and you can witness the Cai Rang Floating Market — once one of the largest wholesale markets on the Delta. Cai Rang has shrunk a little since its heyday, but the structured chaos of boats piled high with coconuts, oranges and bananas is still worth exploring.
Finish your travels through the region by staying in the colonial-style Victoria Hotel, with its inviting pool area. Its restaurant, Spices, overlooks the Hau River, which is softly lit at night by the glow of boats docked along floating jetties. And for longer trips, Can Tho links well with Chau Doc, from where you can travel overland into Cambodia.
Get me there
Cruise the Mekong from Saigon to Siem Reap and explore cosmopolitan Saigon, the Temples of Angkor and the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
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