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DIY Mekong Delta

How to Experience the Real Vietnam Without a Group Tour

Boat in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Canal boat drivers in Sa Dec are used to carrying fruit to the canal-side market. Ask for a ride, and you may get an off-the-beaten-track boat trip for a dollar or two.

Most visitors to Vietnam consider themselves more adventurous and independent than your average package tripper. Then why do nearly all take group tours of the Mekong Delta?

Rising just above the surface of the moss-covered water, our canoe rocked uneasily on tiny, tree-lined canals as the sun started to set. We went ashore, then crossed a bamboo-pole bridge to a rickety watchtower, from where we looked over rhyming mountains Cam and Sam as the skies turned dark cranberry. But for my driver and the thousands of birds—openbill storks, cormorants, cattle egret and a few dozen other species—I was alone. None of the package tourists streaming into Chau Doc, 25 kilometers north, make it here.

Not long ago, visiting the Mekong Delta—Vietnam’s wonderland of rice paddies, floating markets and chocolate-colored canals—meant taking a package tour. The few independent travelers who did come faced blank stares or extortionate prices as state-run tourist offices monopolized most activities. Tours arranged from Ho Chi Minh City were fun, sure, but you often felt (and still feel) like a part of a herd, bumping into fellow groups while filing through a rice-paper factory.

Still, the vast majority of Mekong visitors—including the folks toting Lonely Planet—come on tours (which now range from $8 whirlwind backpacker daytrips to 2-day $200 bicycle trips and $600 private cruises), yet things have changed. Private entrepreneurs—and an agency or two—make planning-as-you-go trips a breeze. You can now show up in towns like Vinh Long, Can Tho, and Chau Doc and easily arrange private boats for only a little more than the cost of a backpacker tour. Doing so means getting a boat to yourself, meeting more locals, and seeing more of the Mekong.

In My Tho—the first (not finest) Mekong town south of Ho Chi Minh City—up to 1000 daytrippers pour in and out daily on group tours. During my recent Mekong trip, however, I came on my own and arranged a trip on the busy promenade and headed out at 3 p.m.—after all the groups were gone. I had the sites to myself and ended with something few visitors experience: catching glowing fireflies in spooky pitch-dark canals. The cost? About $12.

A similar twist on an established route is easily arranged from Chau Doc, a popular boat-tour-stop and gateway to nearby Cambodia. One local who can help visitors on boat trips is Mr Long, who runs a small bookstore. He started our 4-hour trip (for $5) with an impromptu look at Chau Doc’s back-alley meatball makers and a fish head–soup breakfast. (“We have very good food in Chau Doc,” he said.)

On the water, we passed some group tours briefly pausing to snap photographs near the floating market downriver. Only we got to board a market boat. We chatted with the family, who just filled their two-deck boat with 26 tons of bananas in Tra Vinh, and ate a banana they offered. Next we stopped at Mr Long’s sister’s, in a nearby floating-house cul-de-sac. Seeing the rare foreigner (me), a canoe vendor pulled up to the porch, and soon I was enjoying my third morning snack—this time of bun thit nuong (vermicelli noodles with pork). Afterward the family even offered me a bed for the night.

Group tours overnight in guesthouses, nicer hotels or—infrequently—thrilling village homestays. I arranged a homestay on the fly from Vinh Long and ended up sleeping a military cot in a lovely traditional home of Mr Lien, a 70-something former Viet Cong veteran on nearby An Binh island. In the morning, Mr Lien cheerfully showed off his medals during my breakfast by his bonsai garden.

Getting town to town has never been difficult. Even when there’s not a bus, a guy with a boat or motorcycle usually appears to offer a ride. Instead of zipping along Highway One from My Tho to Vinh Long (as buses and tours do), I wanted to go the “back way,” a 3-hour hopscotch trip on islands that goes past the Cai Mon flower orchards, over two ferries, and on roads not making maps. It’s possible to do this by renting a motorcycle or by xe om (motorcycle taxi). In My Tho, I easily arranged a $10 xe om ride to Vinh Long—the driver somehow balancing my suitcase before him.

Besides alternate routes, another advantage of such DIY trips is just seeing the places that tours skip—like remote Ha Tien and the Mekong’s best beach at Hon Chong. Just 45 minutes from the tour-hub Vinh Long, however, neglected Sa Dec—where Marguerite Duras based her novel The Lover—has a pleasant, water-stained French colonial vibe and expansive flower market—and zero tourists, at least during my visit. The next day I bused a couple hours from Vinh Long to another off-the-radar town, Tra Vinh, in the heart of Khmer country. At dusk, I talked with robed Khmer monks at the pink-and-gold Hang Temple as hundreds of storks came home to their nests in the surrounding trees.

My favorite side-trip, however, came by chasing rumors of a bird sanctuary near Chau Doc that both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides had missed. I bumped into an English-speaking xe om driver in town, Mr. Dung, who had been. For $5 we set out on a 6-hour trip to Tra Su Bird Sanctuary, which included a ride up Sam Mountain, a thrilling sunset view, and a 90-minute ride back after dark on a bug-infested road. Back in Chau Doc, Mr. Dung—a Vietnamese man who had survived the Khmer Rouge while living in Cambodia decades ago—protested my $1 tip, but I insisted. “OK,” he finally agreed, “But I have to buy you a beer.”

If You Go

Bus services, of varying comfort, connect much of the Mekong. The modern My Thuan Bridge reaches Vinh Long from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s still necessary to take a ferry to Can Tho (and connections to Chau Doc and southern Mekong). Ask at the Ho Chi Minh City office of Mai Linh (211 Pham Ngu Lao St.) about its good-quality van routes around the Mekong.

Sa Dec’s flower market is best before 1 p.m.—it’s reached from Le Loi St., about 2 k.m. northeast of the center.

In Chau Doc, find Mr. Long at Hoa Sen Bookstore (14 Nguyen Huu Canh St.). Mr. Dung hangs out at dusk at the fruit-shake café at Nguyen Van Thoai and Phan Van Vang Sts. Tra Su Bird Sanctuary tours are best when the canals have water—generally November to March.

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