Cruising the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

(Last Updated On: April 30, 2021)

A river cruise through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam offers travelers a relaxing way to explore an ancient way of life that is rapidly changing.

boat being loaded in the Mekong Delta Vietnam

On a slow boat through the Mekong Delta

The Mekong ends its 3,000 mile journey to the South China Sea in avast delta to the south of the hectic megalopolis of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. But the Mekong is no longer one river as it arrives in Vietnam. After splitting into two main tributaries as it leaves Cambodia, the river branches out until it has nine main outlets to the sea. The Vietnamese call it Cuu Long or Nine Dragons. Although undergoing rapid change, many of the old ways remain as it continues to be an important part of both Vietnamese culture and economy. It’s a place where visitors can still discover an older, slower pace of life.

I wanted a glimpse of life in the delta, so we booked an overnight cruise along a tiny section of the river.

Leaving Saigon

The landscape becomes a sea of rice fields almost as soon as you leave the crush of Saigon, most of which have just been harvested when we visit in fall.

Rice fields Vietnam Mekong Delta

But that sea of rice is really only visible from the highway.

Along the water in Cai Be

Cai Be is the departure point for our overnight Mekong Delta cruise. I expect (hope?) to see at least a bit of Cai Be’s famous floating market as we are ferried to our ship.

However, it is already late morning when we leave the dock. Even at a busy market, most of the day’s business would be over by now, and the market at Cai Be is shrinking as the number and size of the roads serving the area increase. Why sell your goods on the river when it is faster to load them into a truck and ship them to the city?

We see a couple of market boats, but otherwise the riverbank is quiet.

boats and riverside homes in the Mekong Delta at Cai Be Vietnam

It’s my first glimpse of the odd mix of riverside development that crowds the river’s banks in urban areas.

Mekong Delta Cai Be Vietnam -

On board the Bassac II

Soon we arrive at our home for the next 24 hours.

Mekong cruise ship Vietnam Bassac-cruises

Photo from Bassac Cruises

The Bassac II is a lovely wooden vessel with cabins for 20 passengers and wonderful open decks for watching life along the river pass by.

cabin Mekong Delta cruise Vietnam -

After settling into our cabin, the first order of business on board is to be lunch.

dining room Mekong Delta cruise Vietnam -

The tables are already set by the time we pulled off the dock and into the river (we are beginning our tour on the Tien Giang River), but it is clear from the black skies ahead of us that a storm is brewing.

watching for the storm Mekong Delta cruise Vietnam -

Life along the Mekong’s watery highways

From the Tien Giang River, the cruise takes us through the busy Chợ Lách shipping canal, and then into the quiet Mang Thit River. Along the way we watch as people fish from tiny boats, as commercial traffic moves in each direction, as goods (mostly coconuts) are unloaded, and as barge after barge pushes loads of river sand toward construction sites near and far.

boat Mekong Delta Vietnam -

boat Mekong Delta Vietnam -

sand boat Mekong Delta Vietnam -

boat Mekong Delta Vietnam -

The river’s banks are as varied as the traffic plying its waters. Tangled jungle giving way to manicured orchards, simple small homes and a few elaborate modern ones, shops and businesses in cities (and seemingly in the middle of nowhere), narrow twisting side channels, and massive industrial sites.

house Mekong Delta Vietnam -

house Mekong Delta Vietnam -

town Mekong Delta Vietnam -

Mekong Delta Vietnam -

Traditional manufacturing

Among the most dramatic features are the brick kilns –not that we knew they were brick kilns at first. It’s the most entrancing industrial site I’ve ever seen.

brick kilns Mekong Delta Vietnam -

Many of these massive brick yards and their distinctive beehive kilns are abandoned now. It’s easy to tell which are still in operation, as clouds of thick dark smoke rise ominously above them. But in most areas, the kilns sit quiet, their docks used for loading agriculture products.

The hard, sometime dangerous jobs the kilns provided for generations of workers are mostly gone too.

brick kilns Mekong Delta Vietnam -

Village visit

As dusk nears we are transported from the ship through a narrow channel and to shore via a smaller boat.

Once on land we walk through a “village” – really just a collection of houses and farm fields along the river. Some houses are quite nice and modern, while others are more traditional in style and look very basic.

house Mekong Delta Vietnam -ExplorationVacation

Every yard has fruit trees, and our guide stops along the way to explain what each tree is.

village road Mekong Delta Vietnam -ExplorationVacation

Our destination is a home that has prepared tea and a large assortment of local fruits for us to sample.

fruit tasting Mekong Delta Vietnam -

My favorites are the sweet ripe mango slices and the rambutans (chôm chôm, a white fruit with a spiky red exterior that reminded me of a lychee), but most of it is delicious. The only ones I don’t like are the papaya (I’ve always hated papaya) and the sapodilla (hồng xiêm, which looks and tastes like an over-ripe pear).

Our guide explains what each fruit is and how it is grown. But then, instead of hurrying us along to get back to the boat before it begins raining again (the darkening sky is clearly warning us of more rain to come) and the sun sets, she entertains us with stories while creating whistles and figurines out of palm leaves. She is charming, but I am not excited about returning to the ship in the rainy darkness. When the evil eye doesn’t work, I suggest that perhaps it is going to rain, but she doesn’t get the hint.

It is already dusk when we started back, our guide commenting that it is too dark to take pictures now (as she shows us what she claims is a lovely farm scene) and that maybe we should have brought flashlights (as we stumble down a very muddy trail).

And then the rain comes.

We huddle in a patio with a roof through the worst of the rain (buckets of rain) while our guide runs back to get plastic bags (for rain coats) and flashlights from the boat. Fortunately the rain is largely over by the time she returns, but it still is a slippery, ankle twisting walk back in the dark.

This was not how I had planned to spend my birthday!

Of course, back on the boat dinner was being prepared for us and a nice meal does a lot to wipe away frustration!

Cai Rang floating market

The next morning I awake at dawn because there is supposed to be a floating market where we are anchored, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a market.

boats at dawn on the Mekong Delta Vietnam -

Instead, most boats seem to hurrying toward our final stop, the floating market Cai Rang.

boats Mekong Delta Vietnam -

We join the parade.

And, as we approach Cai Rang, more and more boats fill the river, until it is a floating parking lot of large boats with a steady flow of smaller ones maneuvering between them.

Cai Rang floating market Mekong Delta Vietnam -

Cai Rang market and modern tower Mekong Delta Vietnam -

We transfer to a smaller boat and joined the flow of traffic.

tour boat Mekong Delta Vietnam -

While a variety of items are available at the market, most of what we see offered for sale are groceries, mostly fruits and vegetables and particularly coconuts, pineapples, watermelon, dragon fruit, and a root vegetable that is probably taro.

Cai Rang floating market Mekong Delta Vietnam

Vendors on boats and watermelons at the Cai Rang market Mekong Delta Vietnam

watermelon transfer Cai Rang market Mekong Delta Vietnam

food for sale Cai Rang market Mekong Delta Vietnam -

The market boats and the activity happening on them are fascinating, but so is the area around the market. (Or, at least, it’s fascinating to an urban planner.)

For more on planning your own visit to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, see Should a Mekong Delta cruise be on your itinerary?

woman standing to row a traditional wooden boat

Floating through Cai Rang Market

Giant beehive kilns

Vietnam 2015 itinerary

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