With its origins on the high plateau of Tibet, the mighty Mekong River’s tentacled waterways bestow Vietnam’s southern plain with rich alluvial soil that has made it a “rice basket,” as well as a “fruit basket” filled with coconut, longan, and mango trees. The Delta has long been laid claim to by Cambodia, and in 1978, the Khmer Rouge orchestrated a savage massacre at numerous villages. Nevertheless, the Delta and its people are extremely resilient, having survived the ravages of frequent floods, French and Cambodian occupation, many bombings, and the devastating effects of the chemical defoliant, Agent Orange.
Despite this legacy of conflict and upheaval, life on the Delta ebbs and flows to an age-old rhythm. Everywhere are attractive Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese-style pagodas that reflect the Delta’s ethnic diversity.
While the most famous sights in Vietnam are to be found between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, a trip through the largely rural Mekong Delta will show you the authentic side of Vietnam – and it’s a jumping-off point to visit the world-famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
10 DAYS in the Mekong Delta with an Excursion to Angkor
Day 1: HCMC to Vinh Long
Head out early from Ho Chi Minh City to Vinh Long. Here you can get a real taste of rural life on the Mekong Delta by taking a day-long boat tour along the Co Chien River and through the network of canals around the town. You’ll pass through traditional villages that have remained largely unchanged for centuries, sweet-smelling orchid gardens, and fruit orchards. For dinner, take a taxi to Mr. Kiet’s Historic House for excellent local food in gorgeous, atmospheric surroundings.
Day 2: Can Tho
It’s a short hop from Vinh Long to Can Tho. You’ll want to make another early start so you get there in time to visit one of its famous floating markets. Hire a sampan boat to take you to Cai Rang market, where a chaotic mass of floating traders paddles around in sampans overflowing with produce. After lunch, head to the Can Tho Museum to escape the worst of the day’s heat and learn about the history of the province and the Delta’s largest city. After it’s cooled off a bit, check out the impressive Khmer Munirangsyaram Temple, with its Angkor like a tower and welcoming monks.
Day 3: Soc Trang
A bus ride south is Soc Trang, the religious center of the Delta and home to dozens of Khmer, Chinese, and Vietnamese religious buildings. Start off at the Khmer Museum to get a flavor of the local culture, then head to the 16thcentury Khleang Khmer Pagoda. Stroll around its beautiful grounds, and have lunch at one of the vegetarian restaurants outside. A short walk east, you’ll find Clay Pagoda, so named for the hundreds of fantastical clay figurines and statues that festoon its interior. Then, at sunset, take a taxi to Chua Doi, or Bat Pagoda, when thousands of bats emerge from the temple to blacken the darkening sky.
Day 4: Ha Tien
Next make the five-hour trip by road up to Ha Tien, which overlooks the Gulf of Thailand by the Cambodian border and is surrounded by dramatic limestone promontories. It is one of the most attractive towns in the Delta. After checking in at a hotel and having lunch, hire a taxi to take you to the many sights around the town, such as the Buddhist cave temples at Thach Dong, or the Hang Pagoda in Hon Chong, where a grotto contains “musical” stalactites. Enjoy the absolutely stunning scenery around the town during your drive.
Days 5 and 6: Phu Quoc Island
Hop on a ferry and head to golden beaches and swaying palms on Phu Quoc Island (p108), an ideal setting for some rest and relaxation. There are plenty of resorts and hotels to stay in on the beautiful beaches, including Bai Truong, or less developed ones such as the lovely Bai Sao and Bai Dam. If you get bored with lazing on the beach, you could easily spend a day on the several hiking trails that wend through the jungle past unspoiled beaches and coves in the Phu Quoc National Park or take a snorkeling or diving trip out to Hon Doi Moi, whose coral reefs teem with colorful marine life.
Day 7: Chau Doc
After taking the boat back to Ha Tien, head up to the waterside border town of Chau Doc. After lunch, take a wander down the riverfront to see the fascinating stilt and floating houses where most of the people here live and work, and the lively riverside market, which is one of the busiest in the region. Then spend the afternoon at Sam Mountain, a short taxi ride away, whose slopes are crowded with temples,
Days 8, 9 and 10: Siem Reap and Angkor
It’s a long (about 12 hours) but an interesting journey to Angkor – take a boat across the border into Cambodia and upriver to Phnom Penh, and then a bus to the town of Siem Reap. This will take up most of the day, but it’s a good chance to see the Cambodian landscape.
Allow two full days to explore the mysterious and magnificent Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom nearby, which you can do either on a tour or independently by bike. A great way to end your trip, Angkor Wat is the single largest religious monument in the world, while the nearby ruined city of Angkor Thom is somewhat less visited but equally awe-inspiring. The tourist hub of Siem Reap has an airport, from which you can fly out a home or to your next destination.