Finding a Mekong Delta tour is the least challenging thing a backpacker can do in Saigon. Operators from Sinh Tourist to Hanh Cafe offer similar variations on a theme. A bleary-eyed 5am start on day one, visits to handicraft stores and various local industries and a whistle stop trip around a floating market. This is largely repeated on days two (and three), with the hours punctuated by hotel meals and little chance to interact with the locals that make the area tick.
To be fair, these trips are pretty good value and are more than decent for those who have only a short time to see Vietnam. I did one myself on my first visit here in 2003 and found it rewarding, if shattering.
But if you’ve got a bit of time, there’s no better way of seeing the Mekong Delta on your own. It takes some planning, plus a willingness to ignore the “It’s not good for you,” cries of local tour operators desperate to get you on their trips and take their cut. But doing so is undoubtedly one of the most worthwhile things I did in Vietnam and rates up there as the best experience of my three months travelling in Asia so far.
First up, you need to devise your own itinerary. All of the Mekong Delta’s major towns can be reached by bus from Ho Chi Minh City, either a public one or coaches operated by Phuong Trang or Mailinh. So whether you want to see the Cai Be market, mooch around the streets of Can Tho or simply head straight to Chau Doc ahead of a trip to Cambodia, it can easily be done.
We chose to do a two night trip, spending our first day and night near Vinh Long before going on to Chau Doc in order to get to Cambodia. This wasn’t exactly tough to arrange. Choosing a home stay from the Lonely Planet, we simply took down the number and called the owner, Tam Ho, from a pay phone at Saigon’s stunning old post office. Five minutes later we had agreed a bargain price of $8 for a room and were armed with precise instructions on how to get to Tam’s place, as well as a promise of help to get us on our way from Vinh Long to Chau Doc.
Arranging transport to Vinh Long was breezy. We simply rocked up at the Phuong Trang bus company office on De Tham, bang in the middle of Saigon’s backpacker district and asked when the next bus to Vinh Long left town. Herded into a minibus, we were taken across the city for free, before being sold a $4.50 ticket and taken to the main bus depot.
Here we were shown onto a spacious, air con-loaded coach, far more comfortable than the Sinh Tourist buses we’d taken down the coast. The three hour trip passed speedily, despite nearly taking out a road sweeper and having to listen to and watch some seriously questionable Vietnamese pop videos. Occasionally annoying, but as the only western faces on board, this was a travel experience many of our fellow backpackers were missing out on.
Dropped off at a dusty street corner stop, we followed Tam’s instructions and said we wanted a free ride to the nearby Dinh Khao ferry. Soon we were on our way, via the main Vinh Long bus station, where we ate noodles at a filthy road side street vendor, kept company by the owners vicious, mangy cats.
The Dinh Khao ferry itself made the journey to our home stay even more fascinating. This ramshackle vessel is loaded up with cars, motos and pedestrians for endless crossings of the Mekong. Best of all, we were once again the only foreign faces, giving us a truly Vietnamese experience. On the other side, we were met by three chirpy chaps from Tam’s place, each with a motorbike. Lashing our packs to one bike, we hopped on the other two and sped off down narrow paths and over open sided bridges towards Binh Thuan hamlet, where Tam’s home stay sits among a working orchard.
By this point, despite (or perhaps because of) taking four minibuses, a coach, a ferry and a moto to get to our first Mekong Delta stop, I felt we’d definitely made the right choice in going it alone. And I was soon vindicated thanks to a whistle stop trip around the orchard to talk to the workers and then a push bike ride around the neighbouring hamlets and villages, all done at our own pace and with tips from Tam’s colleague Nghiep thrown in for free.
This was plenty to exhaust me for one day, but while relaxing on the balcony outside our basic room, we were harangued by one of the resident youngsters into taking a dip in the murky Mekong. Whirling his arms, he jumped off of the jetty at the back of the building, plunging into the yellow, fast-moving water. There was nothing to do but follow. As others from the orchard joined us for a late afternoon swim, we were soon chatting away about life on the delta with the people who lived it. All this as the sun set and working boats chugged idly by.
A four course meal, at just $4 a head, was served up that evening. River fish cooked in chili, river crab, succulent pork and rice and a fruit platter that would usually take us a week to eat ensured we sunk into a food coma that was uninterrupted by the industrial barges plying the waterways late into the night.
The next day, Nghiep had us up at 7.30 for a quick breakfast of eggs and fruit from the orchard, before seeing us off on the motos and back to the Dinh Khao ferry. His urgency became clear when a minute after our arrival, the public bus to Chau Doc pulled up. Heaving on our luggage, we settled down for what would turn out to be a six hour epic across the delta.
Sure, this was far longer than we’d have liked. But to see the people who live here go about their daily lives, drive across the stunning new Can Tho suspension bridge and eat at the road side in Thot Not with pyjama-clad gents is something we’d have struggled to do if we’d chosen the more straightforward option of an organised tour. Arriving in Chau Doc, we hopped into a Mailinh meter cab, easily found at the bus station, and set off for the Vinh Phuoc hotel, our final stop in Vietnam and the place where we’d be picked up the next morning for the Hang Chau speed boat to Phnom Penh.
The latter we booked for $23 in Saigon, with the hotel arranged online once we knew this was where the Hang Chau boat company collected its passengers. The rudimentary room came to $13 including breakfast.
With a stunning street food pho inside us, we got an early night ahead of our 6am wake up call. In the morning, cyclos whisked down to the pier, where we caught sunrise on the Mekong Delta before our trip across the border. The whole experience came to around $60 for both of us, including all transport, accommodation and meals. That compares to $115 with a tour operator in Saigon. Admittedly the boat to Cambodia added another $46, but this would have been the case had we decided not to go it alone as well.
What I’m saying is this: if you’re going to Vietnam and really want to see the Mekong Delta, take a punt and do it yourself. It’s easy to organise, despite what Sinh Tourist and others will tell you. Plus, because most visitors do take tours, it’s a doddle to get off the beaten track and interact with the people whose country you’re there to visit. The rewards are endless and make for an utterly unforgettable travel experience.