The rich soil and lush green habitat of the dense mangrove swamps and tropical forests of the Mekong Delta are home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, with new ones still being discovered. The region is truly a wonderland of biodiversity.
Birds of the Delta
The Delta’s rich environment provides sustenance for a huge range of both migratory and sedentary avian species. The painted stork and the sarus crane, as well as a wide variety of egrets, spend time here in migration, but many colorful tropical species, such as the green bee-eater, can be seen year round. Some excellent bird sanctuaries have revived local populations. The mangrove forests of the Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary attract some 46 bird species. Tram Chim National Park, accessible only by boat, is a migratory stop for storks and cranes, as is the Bang Lang Stork Garden near the town of Can Tho.
Green bee-eaters, which nest in tunnels in the riverbank
Reptilian life, such as snakes and lizards, abounds in the rich ecosystem of the Mekong Delta. Indigenous snakes include the feared king cobra and the giant python. Crocodiles are now rarely seen in the wild but are raised on crocodile farms to preserve them from extinction.
Coconut Trees Lining Delta Waters
Coconut palms are an intensively cultivated source of food, eco-friendly packaging, and building materials. The nuts provide cooking oil, are used to make candies, form a vitamin-rich beverage, and are used in curries. The leaves are woven into baskets, as well as roofing materials. Coconut tree roots in canals provide a habitat for fish.
Banks of the Mekong Delta, with hundreds of coconut palms
Many species of orchids flourish naturally in the Delta region and have been supplemented by imported varieties and hybrids, which are cultivated. Most orchids attach themselves to the trunks of larger plants, so in the wild, you will need to look upward to spot them. Nurseries around Sa Dec town have live specimens and rhizomes for re-cultivation.
Purple orchids, one of the orchid species abundant in the Delta
The best-known mammal living in the wilds of the Delta is the crab-eating macaque. These monkeys are omnivorous, eating crabs, insects, and plants, and will happily raid local fruit orchards. Less common is the fishing cat, which will actually dive into the water in pursuit of prey. The hairy-nosed otter is one of the endangered species under protection at the U Minh Nature Reserve in the southern Delta province of Ca Mau.
The beautiful nocturnal fishing cat, very much at home near the water
INSIDER TIP Tra Su Bird Sanctuary
Fifteen miles (23 km) west of Chau Doc, the huge Tra Su Bird Sanctuary is a habitat for a large number of wading birds. The best time to visit is between September and November. Travel through the park is mostly by boat. Even if you’re not an avid bird-watcher this is a beautifully tranquil spot to spend a day in a stunning setting.
The largest city on the delta, Can Tho is one of the most delightful destinations in the south. Bordering six provinces, it serves as a transportation hub for the region, as well as a major agricultural center, with rice milling as its main industry. The city is also an ideal base for day trips, especially to the floating markets – the highlight of a visit here.
Devotees come to this small pagoda to pray before Than Tai, God of Fortune, and Quan Am, Goddess of Mercy.
Can Tho Museum
This excellent large museum illustrates life in Vietnam and the history of the city and province. Exhibits include reproductions of buildings, including a traditional teahouse, a lifelike tableau of a herbalist tending to a patient, and many artifacts. There are also some harrowing war photographs.
An Angkor-like tower rises over this Khmer Theravada Buddhist temple. Inside, Doric columns blend beautifully with Asian features, such as seated Buddhas and ceramic lotuses.
Can Tho is central for at least two floating markets, which provide a glimpse into a unique commercial culture. Traders paddle from boat to boat, selling a variety of goods amid a traffic jam of sampans.
The morning market of Cai Rang is the closest and largest, located just 4 miles (7 km) southwest of the city. A bridge nearby offers great views, but nothing compares to exploring the market by boat. A farther 9 miles (14 km) west, Phong Dien market possesses an endearing simplicity. Sampans can be rented for both these markets from the riverfront off Hai Ba Trung Street or from local tour operators. About 32 miles (52 km) north of Can Tho is a sanctuary for storks, the Bang Lang Stork Garden. The trees attract thousands of storks in the evening: a wonderful sight as they settle down to roost.
Binh Thuy Communal House
Built in 1893, this historic building is an interesting fusion of architectural styles, with a French facade and ceilings, a Chinese roof, and Vietnamese wood carvings. Its dark interior is crammed full of antique Chinese furniture and objets d’art. Once used for community meetings and religious rites (there are several shrines within the grounds), it has been the residence of the same Chinese family for five generations. As there is no ticket office, the small fee to enter should be paid to whichever household member is present, but visitors are welcome to wander around the oriental style gardens for free.
This small museum provides a quirky break from the usual attractions. Housed in a beautiful old building and run by multilingual tarot expert Philippe, it is crammed with tarot cards, historical books, decorative occult objects, and healing stones. Reserve online at least two days in advance.
CON DAO ISLANDS
A cluster of 16 islands, Con Dao may be remote but, with its remarkable dense jungles, wildlife, and beaches, it is one of the most astounding destinations in Vietnam. Still relatively little visited other than by Vietnamese tourists, it is a beautiful tropical paradise.
CON SON ISLAND
Often referred to as “Bear Island” because of its shape, Con Son is the largest island in the group and the only permanently inhabited one. About 6 miles (10 km) in length, and with well-marked trails, the entire island can be walked in a day and has beautiful beaches, coral reefs, and lovely bays The idyllic surroundings of Con Son hold the remnants of a sad history. It became a devil’s island of sorts after the French built the Phu Hai Prison here in 1862. The abandoned prison can now be visited, a poignant and eerie reminder of the past. Many political dissidents and revolutionaries were imprisoned under horrifically cruel conditions, often kept shackled to the floor.
The Con Dao National Park is renowned for its large population of visiting sea turtles, which lay their eggs on many of the islands between April and September. These include endangered species such as the green and hawksbill. Visits to the nesting sites can be arranged. For more information, contact the Con Dao Tourism information office.
CON DAO NATIONAL PARK
Declared a nature preserve in 1993, Con Dao National Park covers a massive portion of the archipelago, stretching across 154 sq miles (400 sq km) and offering fantastic wildlife-watching opportunities. About two-thirds of the park is on land, while the rest, including the beautiful coral reefs, is water. These seas are home to more than 1,300 aquatic species, such as sea turtles, dolphins, and dugongs – a mammal belonging to the manatee family. On land are more than 130 species of fauna and 880 types of flora, including orchids unique to the islands. The only home of the pied imperial pigeon, this park is a bird watcher’s dream.
There are several lovely, wild beaches in the Con Dao National Park. Sandy Ong Dung Beach is the most easily accessible from the park entrance, while remote Bang Beach and Dat Tham Beach are more of a trek.
With more than 200 fish species and other marine life, Con Dao is great for diving and snorkeling. The best time to visit, when the seas are calmest, is March to July.
Because of its proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho, on the northernmost tributary of the Mekong River, is the most popular day-trip destination in the delta. It is an ideal base from which to hire a boat and cruise along the canals, stopping along the way to explore the surrounding islands.
A stroll through My Tho’s wide tree-lined boulevards and bustling waterfront market is almost a walk back in time. In fact, the town was founded by Chinese immigrants from Formosa (now modern-day Taiwan) in the 17th century. The French also had a garrison here to oversee the rice and fruit crops production. Wooden boats and barges crowd the shore, as vendors sell an impressive array of goods, from food to hardware and domestic items such as the giant earthenware urns used for bathing. The pungent aroma of dried fish and the fragrance of pineapple, coconut, and jackfruit fill the air.
In addition to commerce, My Tho is also a religious center, with Vinh Trang Pagoda being one of its most noteworthy edifices. The temple’s facade is embellished with mosaics made from broken pottery, a custom followed throughout Southeast Asia. Lily ponds and stone tombs surround the beautiful complex, and an image of the Buddhist goddess Quan Am is set into the heart of a banyan tree.
Serving the city’s large population of Christians, My Tho Church functions both as a diocese and a Catholic school. Originally established in the 19th century, the current massive
Midway between My Tho and Ben Tre are numerous small islands, with Con Phung or Phoenix Island the best known. This was the lonely bastion of the Coconut Monk. On this small spot of dry land, he built his quaint little Sanctuary. On a circular base, about 75 ft (25 m) in diameter, are several freestanding blueandgold dragon columns, supporting nothing but the air above them. Nearby is a latticework structure resembling a roller coaster flanked by minarets and the monk’s impression of a moon rocket. On the upriver side, a huge funerary urn lies on the back of a giant tortoise sculpture. A small coconut candy factory operates on the perimeter of the island.
Nearby are islands that make good picnic venues: Con Tan Long or Dragon Island, home to beekeepers and boatwrights; Thoi Son or Unicorn Island, full of narrow canals that irrigate lush longan orchards; and Con Qui or Tortoise Island, known for its coconut candy and potent banana liquor. Pineapples, jackfruit, and mangoes are grown here in abundance. Each of these islands is served by a scheduled ferry.
thus providing a rare glimpse into an ancient river town still living in its traditional ways. The capital of Ben Tre Province, this town is famous for its coconut candy and is lush with vast plantations yielding huge amounts of coconuts. To make the candy, the fruit’s milk and flesh are boiled down to a sticky mass that is allowed to harden, then cut into small pieces and wrapped in edible rice paper. The process is fascinating to watch and the results delicious. A “country” market in every sense of the word, the town’s central market offers little finery, with preference given to hardware, cloth, and food. The most interesting stalls belong to the fishmongers, who sell a variety of fresh and dried fish.
A notable religious site in Ben Tre is Vien Minh Pagoda. Established around 1900, it is now the head office of the provincial Buddhist association. The sparse interior is enlivened by colorful wall hangings and images sporting neon halos.