Deciding to Visit the Mekong Delta
Before heading to Vietnam we had booked out the majority of our month long stay, giving us the ability to focus on adapting to life on the road versus planning the next leg of our journey. There was one week toward the end of our visa though that we left open. We knew we wanted to be back in Ho Chi Minh for New Years, leaving us just enough time to go to the Mekong Delta and back.
We were excited to visit the Mekong Delta because of its unique ecosystem and culture (being most famous for their floating markets), so we planned a quick three day trip down and back. Three days isn’t enough to truly experience the area, so for those with more time I’d suggest spending about a week visiting multiple towns and waterways in the area. Our trip though would just be to their main city of Can Tho, where the biggest of the floating markets is held.
Crafting Our Own Mekong Delta Tour
Now many tour companies offer a one or more day trip to the delta, but reviews often spoke about moving too fast and hitting too many tourist traps in hopes to get you to spend more money. As that’s not our style, we were left with doing things a la carte. Thankfully this trip has gained a lot of interest with the backpacker trail, so it was easy enough to piece everything together. We used Futa bus to go from Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho, and had a hotel pre-booked right in the heart of downtown so we would be close to the action during our short stay. Upon arriving all we then had to do was figure out what company we’d use for our actual boat trip.
There area few options for booking the boat including using a typical tour agent or making arrangements directly with the river folk. Although making arrangements direct sounded interesting as it allows you to haggle for potentially a better deal, the experience received is varied. You see, while the touts may speak English to sell you on the experience, there’s no regulations to guarantee if your boat driver will also be multilingual, the quality of boat you’ll ride in, or even size of group you’ll go with. This may be fine for some people as “part of the experience”, but we knew we wanted something more personalized and educational, ultimately leading us to book directly through our hotel.
Turns out it was 100% worth any extra cost using their service. For roughly the same price as the tour agents, we received a private boat and pilot, English speaking guide, a guaranteed visit to two markets, plus a stop at a local rice noodle factory. Additionally, as our hotel booking included breakfast, the staff packed us a to-go bag since we left well before the kitchen opened that morning.
Our Mekong Delta Experience
Our day started early with a 4:30 am wake up call. I used to pull similar hours all the time back in the States, but have since transitioned to a later schedule accommodating the evening culture that’s common across Asia, leaving me quite groggy that morning. Thankfully our guide (a recent college graduate) was picking us up at the hotel so we didn’t have to worry about having our wits while trying to navigate the docks.
After a quick meet-and-greet and short walk, we soon found ourselves at the pier boarding our vessel. At this point I started to perk up thanks to the cool morning air and get excited. While other tourists we’re being crammed into boats with loads of other strangers, we had a small vessel all to ourselves.
Getting settled, our pilot switched on the engine and we were off! The first stop was about an hour out, so we sat back and watched as life on the waterway picked up around us. There were fishermen selling their catch at the local market, families eating breakfast on the decks of their boats and barges slowly making their way downriver. Above us bats dipped and dived, getting in a last meal before retreating to their hideout for the day.
This is where having the guide really paid off. Instead of guessing at what was happening around us, he was able to provide insights into the things we passed and point out cultural elements that we’d otherwise have missed. It also gave us time to get to know one another, swapping questions about our lives and respective countries. I really enjoyed this exchange as there was a lot we wanted clarified from our month in the country, and it was obvious that he was also getting something out of the experience beyond just working another job.
The floating markets were fascinating to see. At the larger market shoppers learn what goods are available by looking toward the front of the boat, where sellers display the produce they have by hanging one piece from a tall pole. More items on display mean more items for sale.
When ready to purchase something you just row your boat up alongside the other, rope them together and then conduct your business accordingly before shoving off and making room for the next shopper. The first market we visited (Cai Rang) is the larger of the two and used mostly for wholesale purchase, whereas the second market (Phong Dien) is smaller and mainly filled with locals selling small quantities of produce or hot food and drinks.
As we watched people haggling and going about they’re morning we were suddenly rafted together with a string of locals while our boat driver bought a bunch of fruit for us to eat, including water apples, mangosteen, passion fruit, rambutan, mango and pineapple. All of it was delicious, and gave us a chance to try a few of the things we’d been eyeing over the last few weeks. And, since fruit is biodegradable, we were able to put the rinds straight into the river for easy cleanup once done.
One thing we really appreciated was when our guide informed us that fruit was the only acceptable thing to dump overboard. During our travels through the country we saw many waterways (rivers, streams, etc.) polluted with garbage and sewage, so it was nice to have a guide promoting good environmental practices. Although the country has a ways to go in cleaning things up, the more people who are educated, the better!
Unfortunately we learned that the floating markets grow a bit smaller each year as more farmers switch to bringing their goods into the city by car instead of boat. The government is trying to protect the cultural heritage by offering free electricity to families that maintain a boating lifestyle. Still, our guide wasn’t sure if it’d be enough, making us even more grateful for the experience before it becomes too touristy, or is lost forever.
We also had the pleasure of visiting a rice noodle factory. Once again, the private tour really paid off. No one else was there when we arrived, giving us the ability to walk around and see everything unhindered. It was fascinating to learn how they grind the rice into flour, cook it into pancake like sheets, and then eventually cut it into noodles. It’s a much more manual process than factories in the USA. Not much went to waste though as they even used the rice husks to fuel the cooking fires. You can watch our video of the market and factory tour here:
Tips for Doing Your Own Mekong Delta Tour
Getting to the Mekong Delta
- There are multiple Futa bus stations in HCMC, all servicing different routes. The one with service to Can Tho is a bit outside of the tourist center, located at 202 Le Hong Phong Str, Dist 05.
- Unfortunately you can only purchase tickets from the Futa station that services your desired destination, meaning you’ll have to go further away from downtown when preparing for your trip. We learned this the hard way by visiting an incorrect branch first. For all you other travelers out there, we have marked the correct office for Can Tho on the map below. Although a bit of a walk from the tourist center, it can be done easily enough when not in peak heat. This is also the same place you’ll need to go to on the day of departure.
Arrival into Can Tho
- As with many Futa stations, the Can Tho branch is a ways outside of the main downtown area. Because of this, Futa will provide a free shuttle to your hotel. Upon arrival do not catch one of the taxis that’ll try to snatch you after deboarding. Instead walk into the station and show the hotel address to a clerk at the desk along the right side wall near the doors (not where they sell tickets). The attendant will give you a number indicating the shuttle van to use, which you can then find right outside, parked in a line. There will be many other visitors using the same service, so just look around and follow their lead.
- You’ll need to show the shuttle driver your ticket number to ensure it’s the correct van, and also your hotel address. Ideally you’ll have the address written on a note as they’re moving fast and we saw multiple people hold things up by fumbling with their phones for the details. The shuttle will wait to fill up before taking off, so if you’re one of the first to get in, expect to sit for a little while.
While in Can Tho
- We stayed at the Anh Dao Mekong Hotel for our visit. Facilities were nice and the staff friendly. What made it truly worthy though was the location for seeing the main sights easily on a quick trip, and the quality of tour received.
- Take water, a sun hat and sunscreen with you on the tour. It gets hot on the water and although our boat had a canopy, we noticed that not all vessels were as well equipped.
- Make sure to tip your boat driver and guide for the tour. 20-30K VND is standard per person, while 50K VND is generous if they do a great job.
Heading Back to Ho Chi Minh City
- Assuming you take Futa back to HCMC, know that they do not provide a free shuttle to your hotel like they did in Can Tho. The city is just too vast for them to offer that service. However, you can catch one of their minivans back to the ticket office in downtown and then take a cab from there. It will be much cheaper than using one of the taxi cabs waiting at the Futa terminal.
- The minivans are located to the left, after you get off the bus, in front of the bathrooms. They are parked, not idling. Be diligent and patient if you have trouble locating them. When we asked around no one pointed us in the correct direction or even acknowledged that transit back into town was a service. We only learned you could do this by assuming the vans had to head back to town after dropping off new passengers and hoped to bum a ride. When you find the correct people they will let you climb aboard, no questions or money asked.