Things have certainly changed in Ho Chi Minh City. But so have I – last time I was here, well over a decade ago, I traveled by local bus and cyclo, my heart in my mouth as vehicles and pedestrians mingled at suicidal speed on the ripped-up streets of a Saigon that had aspirations of modernity but was still very much in the chaotic “developmental” stage.
Today my mode of transport is decidedly different. I’m met and escorted to a gleaming Mercedes-Benz for a drive in luxurious, air-conditioned comfort through the city and south towards my destination, deep in the heart of the Mekong Delta. The drive reveals that the modern world is undoubtedly sweeping Vietnam into its eager embrace; Japanese cars and mopeds outnumber bicycles ten to one, computer shops and high-rises sprout throughout the city, but the familiar chaos of interweaving vehicles and pedestrians remains to jangle my nerves.
Outside the city, an age-old rhythm is once again apparent; the roads are newer and better maintained, but the flanking fruit stalls, the expansive green fields, the regular rise and fall as we arc over rivers or canals on sturdy bridges, glimpsing hand-rowed longboats and bulky rice barges — these are quintessential Delta images that will never disappear. Two huge rivers require crossing by boat, and stepping out of the car on the rattling, clunking vehicular ferry to stand at the front with smiling locals whose mopeds are piled high with produce or family members, I realize I could be back on my first sojourn in this evocative land.
Seasons define the river’s flow
The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s rice basket, producing enough rice to feed all of the country and still have enough leftover for meaningful export. Its eponymous benefactor is the Mekong Song Cuu Long — “the River of Nine Dragons” as the Vietnamese call it – because by the time it has entered the country after its long journey from the Tibetan Plateau, it has split into two main waterways – the Hau Giang, or Lower River, also called the Bassac, and the Tien Giang, or Upper River, which empties into the South China Sea at five points.
The second of our ferry crossings leaves us on the south bank of the Bassac, from where a five-minute drive brings us to the graveled entrance of the Victoria Can Tho Hotel. Its refined, 1930s-style French colonial architecture, colonnaded lobby, and languidly-turning ceiling fans place me back in a world of privilege, plantation owners, and French Indochina, but amazingly the Victoria Can Tho was built from scratch less than a decade ago on a patch of paddy fields facing the main town across the Can Tho River. It is by far the most luxurious hotel establishment to be found in the Mekong Delta region, offering French cuisine of the finest quality; a large, colonial bar with a pool table; spa facilities; tennis court; and swimming pool… nothing quite like it had been been in the Delta before when it was constructed over a decade ago.
The government is reclaiming 30 meters of land on the river right in front of the hotel and for hundreds of meters on both sides, intending to turn it into a park-like promenade. The hotel will rent the land directly in front of their property and use it to extend their swimming pool, create a new spa facility, and showpiece riverfront restaurant — all of which speaks volumes about the success of the Victoria group’s vision in predicting that this colorful, fascinating region of southern Vietnam would become a popular destination for upmarket travelers, as well as backpackers.
And why is Can Tho so popular among tourists and travelers? To find out, I book an early morning trip on the Victoria’s own converted rice barge, the Lady Hau – 20 minutes of genteel sailing, coffee and croissant in hand, up the Can Tho River to the famous Cai Rang Floating Market. Before dawn every day, large boats arrive from the Delta hinterland to sell huge amounts of produce to small-boat owners who then paddle up the myriad small canals and waterways that create a vast and intricate water network around the main town, shouting out their wares to canal-side households as they go.
Vietnam’s rice basket
It’s a way of life that has changed little in thousands of years — in a land where water is so all-pervading, the seasons defined by the rise and fall of the Mekong’s massive flow, the best way to visit friends and family, transport goods, in fact to do anything, is by water.
At this time of year, the boats at the floating market are full to the gunwales with sweet potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and spring onions, as well as pineapples, dragon fruit, custard apples, and passionfruit. It’s a cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables, testament to the fecundity of the alluvial soil that blankets the Delta, replenished every year when the Mekong breaks its banks and floods, leaving a new layer of rich silt into which the myriad roots eagerly delve.
I transfer to a smaller longtail boat with a young girl named Thoai Anh, who will act as my guide. Chugging through the market melée, small boats with open kitchens pass among the buyers and sellers, providing hot noodle snacks and lunch for the industrious market-goers. The larger boats’ engines emit deep staccato expellations, like flatulent elephants on speed, while smaller boats buzz by like giant-sized mosquitoes — it’s hard to know where to look, so much is happening all around you.
Eventually we leave the market behind and turn off into a side canal. We visit a rice noodle factory, family run, with eight members working methodically, each with his or her own job. The rice is first soaked in water, then made into rice flour, which is mixed 50/50 with rice tapioca, then cooked into a thin paste. This is ladled out onto a hotplate for a minute or two, becoming a large, semi-translucent disc that is expertly rolled onto a wicker “bat” before being transferred to a woven mat. These mats are piled into stacks and taken out into the sun, where they are laid out in expanses to dry, before being fed into a shredder much like the paper shredders found in legal and government offices. I am astonished to be told that this factory produces 500 kg of noodles a day. It’s a long working day and a tough life, but Thoai Anh is unmoved. “They make a good living, they are secure,” she says — hard work is a given in the Delta, but financial security is not.
Next we visit a fruit orchard; many families use what land they have to grow as many types of fruit as possible. These orchards are not the tidy affairs with trees lined in neat rows that visitors from temperate climes know — they are more like jungles, where grapefruit trees stand shoulder to shoulder with jackfruit, longan, and lychee.
The curving waterways
We continue, winding our way along straight, manmade canals and through curving natural waterways. In places, these are only two boats wide, bridged by simple structures made from a single tree trunk with — if you’re lucky — a bamboo hand rail. It’s easy to see why these are called monkey bridges — you’d need simian-like agility to cross them, although young boys and girls actually cycle across, I’m told.
I have no idea where we are at this stage, no sense of direction or the distance we have traveled, but suddenly we exit onto the main river thoroughfare on the far side of Can Tho town, and I am dropped off at the town’s bustling riverfront promenade park, where a metallic grey statue of Ho Chi Minh – or Uncle Ho, as he is fondly known – is guarded by a policeman who shoos people away to a respectful distance from Uncle Ho’s laughing presence. An afternoon storm is approaching – yet again, I see how water dominates the natural rhythms of life for all who live here — and I retreat to the hotel for tea, a game of backgammon, and the pleasure of reading a newspaper on a veranda as cooling rainwater courses down the slanting roofs, falling in a waterfall onto the terracotta-tiled terrace.
The next day, a van picks me up at the hotel for some landside exploration. My guide is Nghia, an affable young local with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s history and culture. He takes me first to the house of Duong-Chan-Ky, a 19th century landowner who in 1870 built an amazing house in which to house his collection of exquisite furniture and antiques. The house combines European and Vietnamese influences, including a beautiful French-tiled floor from which extend ironwood pillars that have lasted over a century and will probably last another. The old couple who still live in the house are third-generation family members.
We move on to a small village in the Bin Thuoy (Peaceful River) area. There is nothing remarkable about this hamlet – it is like any of thousands in the lower Delta region – but that is why I am interested to see it, to immerse myself in the everyday rhythms of life here. It flanks a confluence of river canals — of course — and a tiger shrine pays homage to a local legend telling how this area was once infested with tigers and how the village’s founders made peace with the tiger spirit and received its protection.
Can Tho’s oldest Chinese Temple
Along the main street, market sellers smile shyly, young children careen past piled fourfold onto single bicycles, and at an open-air billiard hall, locals play each other for the hire of the table (3,000 dong per hour) or perhaps the bill for dinner that evening. On our way back to town, we stop a few kilometers upriver at Can Tho’s oldest Chinese temple, Hiep Thien Cung, built in 1850 by Chinese merchants who settled here. Most Chinese left Vietnam in the late 1970s after waves of persecution, but the temple is still visited by those who stuck it out, as well as by local Vietnamese, who hedge their bets, figuring that it can’t do any harm to pray for health and prosperity from any immortal, regardless of faith.
Our last stop is at a boat builder, the master working hard attended by his young apprentice. Small boats in various stages of construction are stacked up in the workshop, waiting for buyers from villages up the canals. A boat costs 1.5 million dong (US$100), far more than most individuals can afford, but as with all rural communities, the more wealthy village heads will often buy a number of boats and allow their new owners to pay off the loan as and when they can. The master builder stops for a brief rest and genially tells me, “I work 14 hours a day, but I enjoy it, and the day passes quickly.” He is happy with his lot — there will always be a market for well-built river craft on the Mother of Rivers.
In Can Tho centre, a Khmer temple exhibits a distinctly Thai architectural style, very different to the ethnic Vietnamese temple across the road. That complex is carefully maintained and clearly well patronized by wealthy local Vietnamese. The Khmer temple, by comparison, is a little shabby, showing a dearth of donations. The Khmers are the smallest and poorest sector of the population. Khmer boys all spend a year or 18 months as monks in deference to their parents’ wishes, although they seem hardly monk-like as they lounge about telling jokes and smoking cigarettes in the temple’s ante building.
The following day, early morning light bathes the Victoria Can Tho’s beautiful yellow-and-white façade in golden light – a pure, soft light free of industrial fumes. This is also the best time to wander around town, before it’s too hot. The bustle of river life is at its most convivial at this time, the vehicle ferries spewing crowds of workers and shoppers off on one side of the river, before sucking up an equal number all eager to get across to the far side.
Can Tho is the Delta region’s largest town, and it is booming. Shops selling mopeds, modern appliances, and high-tech accessories sit alongside the more traditional dried-food stalls and colorful shops touting religious paraphernalia. A few kilometers downriver from the town is a suspension bridge, which now crosses the broad Bassac River, an ambitious five-year project that was completed earlier this week will open up the southern Delta by making it much more accessible, eliminating the bottleneck of the current ferry crossing and shortening the driving time to Ho Chi Minh City by almost an hour.
Incongruous spells pervade the air
But wandering around this in many ways typical Asian town, two initially incongruous smells pervade the air, letting you know that you are very much in French Indochina: they are coffee and fresh bread — one of the most pleasant colonial customs to have endured in Vietnam is the coffee and baguette culture that the French instilled during their tenure in this tropical land. Coffee shops abound, with low, deckchair-like seats facing the street in rows – cheap but cheerful places to relax and watch the world go by. Bicycles freewheel past with baskets stuffed full of fresh baguettes, leaving redolent scent trails that draw you further into the backstreets. It’s such an easygoing place, you have to watch the time or a whole day will disappear before you know it.
That’s something I must not do, because this afternoon I’m heading to the Victoria’s other Delta property in Chau Doc, a small market town also on the Bassac, but over 100 kilometers upstream, close to the border with Cambodia. The river is the fastest way to get there, and the hotel runs a speedboat service between the two. It’s an exciting four-hour journey, filled with interesting sights as the boat begins by hugging the river’s right bank as it pushes upstream against the powerful current. Huge wooden vessels ply the main channel, built in the same fashion as the smaller Mekong craft, but large enough to travel the ocean, carrying huge loads of rice and vegetables out — and bikes, cars, and electronics in.
Fish-processing factories dot the shoreline, but as the river narrows — at Can Tho it is more than a kilometer wide — the view becomes purely rural, with cantilevered Chinese-style fishing nets perched on the riverbanks and hamlets bridging countless side canals that snake their way into the flat land beyond.
Finally, I see a hill ahead — my first in days — and at the confluence of the Bassac with a 200-meter-wide waterway that links it to the Tien Giang, the Mighty Mekong’s Upper River, we pull in at the Victoria Chau Doc hotel, where I am met by a member of staff dressed in a beautiful ao dai — surely the Vietnamese national dress, a combination of loose pants and knee-length tailored top all in finest silk, is the most gorgeous of Asian clothing.
My guide for my stay here is Tan Loc, a softly spoken ex-teacher, well educated and highly knowledgeable about his hometown. As we board a small boat for a dawn visit to Chau Doc’s own floating market — every Delta village has one, of course — he tells me of his parents’ suffering both during the American War and at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who during the 1970s would make killing raids across the border, which is only four kilometers away. A young Tan Loc and his family moved away from the trouble but returned as soon as it was safe.
“You know, we have Cham Muslims, Khmers, both Buddhist and Christian Vietnamese, such a mix of peoples in Chau Doc, but we live harmoniously here, never any conflict,” says Tan Loc proudly. Perhaps they’ve experienced enough terror and pain, and realized the futility of racial or religious conflict.
Idling through a floating village
The floating market follows the same rhythm as in Can Tho, though on a smaller scale, and afterwards our boatman takes us to see Chau Doc’s famous floating houses. They are built on a platform of empty oil drums, and what’s unusual about them is in fact what’s underneath, for suspended below in the muddy Mekong water are huge wire fish cages where hundreds upon hundreds of catfish are farmed. The family feed them through a trapdoor in the middle of the living room floor, and once the fish are around one kilogram in size, they harvest them, laying their gutted and filleted carcasses out in rows under the sun to dry.
We move on, idling through the floating village, past colorfully-clad women powerfully hand-rowing their small canoe-like craft from one home to the next — a timeless rural Delta scene. Reaching dry land, we take a short walk through a Cham village to the Mubarak Mosque, where young children study the Koran in a schoolroom next to the modest but neat mosque, its minaret and domed roof somehow seeming perfectly at home in this watery flatland.
There are many other holy sites to visit in the town center, from churches to temples and pagodas, but the most impressive is the Temple of Lady Xu, six kilometers west of town at the bottom of the hill I saw as I arrived in Chau Doc, which in fact is ambitiously named Sam Mountain. We get there in the Victoria’s own immaculately-restored classic American Jeep, passing stone sculpture parks and new tourist resorts along the way, which show how popular even this part of the Delta is becoming.
It’s hardly surprising that in a land that is virtually all low-lying floodplain, a 260-meter obtrusion would be given reverential status. Sam Mountain is home to a host of temples, pagodas, and cave retreats, many with their own legends and stories. The Temple of Lady Xu, at its base, has perhaps the best, since the statue around which the main building has been built, was originally located at the top of the mountain. During the 19th century, Siamese troops attempted to steal it, but the statue became heavier and heavier as they descended the hillside, and they were forced to abandon it in the jungle. Later it was discovered by local villagers, who also tried to lift it up, but again the statue proved too heavy.
A girl suddenly appeared and told them that it could only be carried by 40 virgins, and this proved true, for the requisite maidens easily transported the statue to the bottom of the mountain where it suddenly became immovable again. The villagers divined that this was where Lady Xu wanted her effigy to remain, and so the temple’s site was set. Inside, the temple is a kaleidoscope of colorful paint, candlelight, and neon gaudiness, but it is a major pilgrimage site for both Chinese and Vietnamese families, who bring whole roasted pigs to offer in exchange for the Lady’s grace.
My last stop is at the top of the mountain, from where the inspiring 360-degree view gives me another perspective of how the Mekong dictates every aspect of life here. Huge tracts of land are under water, while the curving waterways and arrow-straight, man-made canals stretch off into the hazy distance, their banks lined by stilted houses, ubiquitous tethered boats alongside. To the south and west, other hills mark the border with Cambodia and the edge of the floodplain. From there on, life is intrinsically different, governed by other natural phenomena and populated by equally-different cultures. The Mekong Delta is a world unto itself, exotic in almost every sense, imbued with sights, sounds, and scents that all evoke its inextricable link to the Mother of Rivers.
Jeremy Tredinnick, a UK-born travel journalist and editor, has spent the last 20 years exploring Asia from his home in Hong Kong. He has won awards as editor-in-chief of Action Asia magazine and managing editor of Silk Road, Morning Calm, and Dynasty magazines, and contributes stories and images to many top travel publications, including TIME, Travel + Leisure, and Condé Nast Traveler. A lover of unusual destinations and the culture beneath a country’s tourist facade, in recent years Jeremy has co-authored, photographed, and edited cultural and historical guides to Kazakhstan, the Silk Road, Mongolia, and China’s Xinjiang Region.