The main purpose of our visit to Vietnam is exploring the Mekong Delta. Now finding a tour to the Mekong Delta isn’t particularly difficult. About every man and his dog run a travel agency in District 1, the backpacker area of Saigon. They all offer standard tours to the Mekong Delta and while these tours are basically good value, they’re also overly touristy and lack the opportunity of experiencing the real Mekong lifestyle. We decide to go and explore the area by ourselves. On a motorbike.
Our Base: Can Tho
With an estimated population of about 2 million Can Tho is the biggest city in the Mekong Delta. Still the city centre feels more like a town and has a pleasant riverside area. And with its central location, good quality accommodation and direct buses to Saigon, Chau Doc (for Cambodia) and Rach Gia (for Phu Quoc island) it’s an ideal base for both exploring the delta and onward travel.
Besides that Can Tho is home to the Cài Rang floating market, apparently the biggest of its kind in the world. Obviously a must-visit. We negotiated a boat tour for the next morning with one of the boat ladies who hang around at the riverside. No worries, they will find you first. But make sure you book a small boat because the bigger ones cannot navigate the small canals.
Cài Rang Floating Market
Next to sunrises, night buses and World Cup matches, local markets is another one of these events that messes up a good night’s sleep. At 5:30 in the morning our boat lady was already awaiting us in front of our hotel for the private 3-hour boat tour. Although we were certainly not the only tourists on the market, it’s not a tourist thing either. Cài Rang is the main wholesale market in the region accommodating the exchange of mainly fruits and vegetables. It’s a very lively scene. Photo opportunities abundant.
After passing through the market twice and a quick visit to a noodle factory we make our way back through the small canals that flow into the big Can Tho river. We see ramshackle wooden houses on stilts, women doing the laundry, fishermen preparing their basket traps, small brickyards and the odd temple. Life along the canals is peaceful and fascinating.
Exploring the Mekong Delta
In trying to put together a 4-day itinerary I had used blogs like Travelfish and What’s Dave Doing for some inspiration. On the first day we would ride from Can Tho to Tra Vinh. Next to Ben Tre and then back again to Can Tho via Vinh Long. With about 80 km a day this sounded like a feasible plan.
How Not To Do It
Unfortunately the next morning torrential rain trashes the plan and we have to postpone our trip with a day. That wouldn’t normally be a problem if we didn’t book any accommodation in advance.
But we did.
And so we are forced to ride some 150 km on the first day. Still doable. It only starts to get a bit alarming after our lunch in Tra Vinh where we take the wrong ferry. Instead of crossing the Mekong we end up on a small island in the middle of it. Good thing about it is that here we discover the small scenic backroads. The type of roads we want to ride. Bad thing was that dark rain clouds were coming our way.
After we finally cross the Mekong on the right ferry, more scenic backroads and small villages follow. But by the time we reach another main road the dark clouds have accumulated right above us. Time to get the poncho’s out. But the heavy downpour makes it impossible to ride any further. Looking for shelter we sort of crash into someone’s garage annex living room. True to tradition, the friendly man immediately welcomes us with tea.
About an hour and at least ten cups of tea later we can pursue our trip. It’s still at least 50 km to Ben Tre, our destination for the day. Because of the delay we have to take the shorter but heavily trafficked QL60, a main road. This is when we found out how not to ride the Mekong Delta. Busy main roads, specially in the rain and at dusk, are definitely not recommended. And 150 km on a day turns out to be a little too much. Specially in the rainy season. Or if you need to take a (wrong) ferry or two in between. ..
Finding the Backroads
For the rest of this tour we knew we had to find these nice small and quiet backroads and try to avoid the busy main roads as much as possible. That’s easier said than done because in Vietnam there’s no decent road map that shows all these little backroads. But then there’s Google Maps. Maybe it doesn’t show all of the small roads but at least it shows a couple of important ones. This is when I discovered how to use Google’s offline maps.
It works like a charm. With all the necessary maps downloaded and stored on my iPhone it’s a piece of cake to navigate the backroads. We still have to backtrack from Ben Tre to Mo Cay on this nasty QL60 because there’s simply no good alternative.
But from Mo Cay we can finally turn into one of these small backroads. A very scenic route follows. We ride through little villages and along lush green paddy fields. We cross small canals over wooden bridges and use ferries for the bigger ones. We stop for another delicious Vietnamese coffee on the way and while we sit down we see the daily life go by.
We arranged the motorbikes and the boat tour with Miss Ha (tel. 091 8183522) in Can Tho. Entirely recommended. Very good motorbikes, nice boat trip, everything on time and no hassle. And, after some haggling, for a very good price too. We paid 250.000 dong (9 euro) per day for 2 motorbikes and 350.000 dong (about 13 euro) for the 3-hour private boat tour. For accommodation you will have to stick to the bigger cities because the options in between are basically non-existing. Still there are possibilities to stay in the countryside for a more authentic experience. In Ben Tre we stayed at Mango B&B which is a couple of kilometers out-of-town. It’s kind of impossible to find this place on your own so make sure you call them to pick you up from the main road.
Vinh Long is known for its home stays on the An Binh island across. We stayed with the friendly mr. Phu from Phuong Thao Homestay. They have many (basic) rooms so it’s actually more of a guesthouse than a home stay. A big wooden verandah with hammocks is overlooking the water and dinner is fabulous. In Can Tho we stayed at Kim Lan Hotel. Exceptional good service and by far the best value for money we had in Vietnam. We had booked a standard room through booking.com but got upgraded for free to one of their luxurious VIP rooms. One of the advantages of traveling in the low season.
See, exploring the backroads of the Mekong Delta isn’t actually that difficult. As long as you have the right map 😉