Mekong Delta – 2 Day deep-dive into the local Vietnamese culture

The Mekong Delta (Cai Be) is about a 2-hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City. There are tons of tours – 1 day, 2 days – 1 night, 3 days – 2 nights … basically the offering feels like it was unlimited. We decided to spend 2 days and 1 night in the Mekong Delta. The reason was that we did not want to spend 4 hours (2 hours to the Mekong Delta and 2 hours back) in the bus for only a few hours in the delta. We preferred to visit 2 different floating markets and spend the night with a local family in a homestay (including a little cooking class).

Man hopping between two boats on the Mekong River

The Mekong Delta

The Mekong is a massive river – it does not only flow through Vietnam but also 5 more countries: Cambodia, Lao, China, Myanmar and Thailand. It is almost 5.000 kilometres (3.100 miles) long and therefore, one of the longest rivers in the world. The Mekong Delta is located in South Vietnam and is inhabited by more than 10 million people (mainly Vietnamese). The soil is very fertile – the Mekong Delta is also called the “Southern Rice Chamber of Vietnam”. One fourth of Vietnam’s agricultural activity is conducted in the Mekong Delta. As rice is not the most profitable business, many farmers have diversified their activity – nowadays, fruit, vegetables, fish, coconuts and sugar cane also come from the Mekong Delta. They also produce many other products from these products: coconut candy, banana candy, popped rice and many more. Especially, the plantation of the famous Durian (the stink fruit) has proven to be very profitable as it can not only be sold within Vietnam but also internationally (e.g. to Thailand).

Woman producing fine rice paper by hand

Kim Travel

Originally, we planned to do a private tour with a local but as this does not include the transfer to the delta, we changed our plans. As we had a pretty tight schedule and travelling on public busses is pretty complicated and time-intense in Vietnam (as in other Asian countries), we decided to go down the organized tour-road.

How much time do you really need?

For convenience reasons, we booked the tour in our hotel. They booked us a tour with Kim Travel and we were really satisfied with it. They offer 1, 2 Day/1 Night and 3 Days/2 Nights in the Mekong Delta. We chose the 2 Day/1 Night as it perfectly fit our schedule. We do not recommend the 1 day-tour as you would end up spending 6 hours in the bus for a few hours in the delta. You can easily spend 3 days there as there is really a lot to see – however, 2 days was the perfect time frame. You could also choose the 1 day or 2 day tour and if you feel like seeing more, you could just explore other parts of the delta on your own.

The Costs

We chose a tour with a smaller group (18 people). We would have preferred a more private tour (5 people max) but the price difference was pretty significant. The price was 45 USD per person for both days (see at the end of the article what was included) – private tours were between 65 and 100 USD per person. The cheaper private tours, however, did not include transfer to the delta. The bus is also about 10 USD per person for the return and considering the time and hassle finding the right bus station and bus, it is not a lot cheaper in the end. We were totally satisfied with our group size – it was an international group, we met lots of nice people and really enjoyed our stay in the Mekong Delta.

The Tour

Kim Travel did a good job. We got picked up and dropped-off at our hotel in Ho Chi Minh on time and the tour delivered exactly what we expected. The 2 day-tour includes 1 breakfast, 2 lunches and 1 dinner, an overnight stay (either homestay or hotel), the transfer, the boats and the guide. We had two different guides – both were great. The English was not the best, however, it was ok and maybe a little bit below Vietnam-average.

Hotel or Homestay?

The overnight stay at the hotel (you can choose between 2 or 3 star) is a little bit more expensive than the homestay. We chose the homestay because we liked the idea of dipping deeper into the culture by staying with a family. If you want a private room and bathroom – your choice should be the hotel. We had to share our room with two other members of our group – that we had just met that day. For us, this was perfectly ok and we enjoyed the time, but if you prefer privacy, the homestay might not be the right thing for you. The beds were also really hard – they were also hard in the hotels we stayed but not that hard.

Homestay near the Mekong River

Day 1

We were picked up at our hostel (Alleyway Hostel) in District 1 at 7:30 AM. The drive to the Cai Be boat station took about 2 hours. In the bus, our guide explained everything about the tour and told us a lot about life in the Mekong Delta. When we arrived, our boat was already waiting for us.

Boating to Cai Be Floating Market

Cai Be Floating Market

We first visited the Cai Be Floating Market in Vinh Long. It is a rather small and not so lively floating market as the one in Cai Rang (the biggest in the Mekong Delta). As it is not a very crowded market, we were able to observe the happenings very well and from very close. We learnt that the floating market is not like a supermarket where people can go to do their groceries, most of the boats only sell in bulk. There are some boats selling coffee, coconuts and soft drinks to tourists but in general it is a wholesaler marketplace. We learnt that every boat has a little stick at the front which helps the buyers to see what they sell.

Cai Be Floating Market

Cai Be big ship Floating Market

Cai Be Floating Market woman standing on boat

After about an hour on the boat, we arrived at a little island. We walked along the island and learnt about all kinds of different specialties that are produced in the Mekong Delta. Of course, once you watched the production process and tried everything, you can buy it right away.

Honey and Royal Jelly

They told us everything about the bee-keeping and the production of honey. They are especially proud of the Royal Jelly, which can only be produced by the queens of the bees. People in Vietnam like to eat a bit every day because they believe in the health effects. We tried some tea with the honey (not very different from in Austria but still exciting because it is Asia) and some little sweets like banana candy, candied ginger and sesame peanut crackers.

Coconut Candy

This is the classical stop on every Mekong Delta Tour. We heard it is very touristy and they just want to sell the candy – and, to be honest, we were a bit afraid but we really enjoyed it. We really enjoyed it to see how they produce different specialties, which techniques they developed to do so and how proud they are to present it. And, it was really interesting for us to see how creative they are: the coconut candy is very sticky, so they don’t just wrap it in paper but in rice paper first (very thin). That way, it doesn’t stick to the paper and you can eat it instead of having plastic that is not eco-friendly and pollutes the nature.
We also really enjoyed trying all the different things – which all taste really good.
The coconut candy is basically a coconut toffee that they make with the following flavours: plain coconut, peanut, coffee, chocolate and Durian (the stinky fruit – NOT GOOD! but worth trying).

Snake Wine

Vietnam has good and cheap beer as well as interesting wine – well, Schnapps. Why they call it wine is something we have not found out. They produce the wine exactly as we produce Schnapps in Austria – through distillation and the addition of yeast. It looks alike and it tastes alike – well, it burns down the throat that is basically all we could taste.

Firstly, we tried the plain product – nothing added. It was disgusting, strong, burning down like fire. Secondly, we tried the banana wine – very good, doesn’t necessarily taste like a banana but at least, it is sweet and somehow drinkable. The third specialty we tried was the snake wine. When we saw it on our first day in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided to stick to water and Coke for the rest of our stay in Vietnam. But the deeper you dive into a culture, the more open you become – at least, that is what we observed. So, when our guide opened the jar and pulled out the cobra with a tongue, we knew our time had come. He poured it in, confirmed that there was no venom that could possibly kill us and we tried it. It didn’t taste good but it didn’t taste like it looked either – like a dead cobra. It was a great experience but we won’t buy a bottle for private use (especially Bianca is completely horrified of the idea we could drop it and about who cleans up if the bottle breaks).

Snake Wine Production in the Mekong Delta

Snake Wine Mekong Delta

Puffed Rice

We also saw the production of puffed rice – definitely the most spectacular. They heat up ash in a pot over a fire, pour rice into the pot and then you just have to wait for some seconds until it starts popping. It is almost like popcorn, just that the pieces are smaller. Then they make sweet bars with the popped rice – available in different flavours like chocolate, durian and caramel.

Mekong Delta Puffed Rice

Boat Tour through the canals of the Mekong

The next experience was the tour through one of the little canals of the Mekong. The water in the Mekong Delta is very shallow and swampy – so going through the narrow canals is only possible with little non-motorized wooden boats that are steered by Vietnamese women that paddle through the water / mud. To make the experience more authentic, we received typical Vietnamese hats and after about 15 minutes we arrived at a little island. We walked along the island and saw all kinds of different fruit plantations – jackfruit, mango, papaya and durian. It is very interesting to see all these different trees and to learn how fruit is grown.

On our next tour stop, we could try a selection of fruit – mango, pineapple, guava and watermelon. The fruit taste very different from home – you can really taste how fresh they are and that they were just harvested from the trees in a ripe condition – delicious. Again, the tasting was made more authentic by adding a little bit of typical music to it. We even got to see a live performance – a group of singers and dancers played the “Welcome to the Mekong Delta” for us. It was … not good – well, it was traditional, but it was really a pain in the ears. Still, it was nice to see what a welcoming and friendly nation Vietnamese people are.

Mekong Boat Tour through small Canal

Mekong Boat Tour through small Canal

Mekong Boat Tour through small Canal

Mekong Boat Tour through small Canal

Traditional Lunch

Lunch on the first day was included in our tour – and it was delicious. Before we came to Vietnam, people kept on telling us how great the cuisine was and that everything is just so good. Yes, that is actually right. No matter, what or where we ate, everything we tried was really delicious. Also, the lunch on the tour was very nice: they served spring rolls, chicken, rice, vegetables and fresh fish. Drinks are always extra but prices are very cheap (around 50 Cents for a Coke).

Can Tho

After lunch, we were brought to Can Tho by boat. Can Tho is basically the center of the Mekong Delta – very vibrant and crowded. It took about an hour until we arrived at the Can Tho boat station. From there, we drove another 1.5 hours to arrive at our homestay. We were warmly welcomed by our host, who also showed us our room. We shared one room with a Croatian couple from our tour – private rooms are not available in a homestay as most of the rooms have around 4 double beds. However, we were just 4 people in a room for 8 – so, it was totally fine for us. The bathroom was shared, but that was also ok. Everything was clean, just the bed was very hard – it almost felt like we were sleeping on a wooden board (Ouchhhhhhh).

DIY – Dinner at the Homestay

Dinner in the homestay was included – it was a little cooking class. We learnt how to roll and fry spring rolls and how to roll Goi Cuon Tom Thit – very delicious rolls where we wrapped fish, rice noodles, mint leaves, cucumber and lemongrass into rice paper (very thing, you can see everything through). Spring Rolls in Vietnam are rolled into very thin rice paper and then fried for a short time. We learnt that when putting them into the hot oil, you have to hold them for 6 seconds with your chopstick so they don’t fall apart.

Cooking Class in Homestay Mekong Delta

Cooking Class in Homestay Mekong Delta

Cooking Class in Homestay Mekong Delta

Cooking Class in Homestay Mekong Delta

Cooking Class in Homestay Mekong Delta

Day 2

Our 2nd day started with a very early breakfast at 6:30 AM in our homestay. We were served traditional Banh Mi (a huge baguette that has such a fluffy pastry that the baguette almost only consists of air and crust) with cheese spread and jam (yes, no butter was available so we just ate the cheese with the jam). We also got tea and coffee – the tea tastes like home but the coffee is very special. It is very thick but not very strong though – you drink it with condensed milk (a very thin white paste) instead of real milk – making the coffee so sweet that your toe nails almost roll themselves up (CRAZYYYYYYY). But after 2-3 days you get used to the taste and start to like it (EVEN MORE CRAZYYYYYY).

Cai Rang Floating Market

At 7:00 AM, we hopped on the boat on the private dock of our homestay and after 30 minutes we arrived at the Cai Rang Floating Market. Cai Rang is the biggest floating market in the area and very busy. In order to get to enjoy the full experience, you should arrive early – around 6:00 AM. We arrived a little bit later, but it was still pretty busy. Just as we arrived at the market, a lady saw and approached us with her boat right away: she was selling coffee, coconuts and soft drinks. She was totally motivated and screamed “coffeeeeeeeeee – 15.000, coconut – 10.000, coffeeeeeeeeee – 15.000! – she was not very lucky with us though as we were all still too tired to get engaged into a buying process.

Mekong Delta Coffe Cai Rang Floating Market

The market is very interesting to watch – the complete chaos of big boats with loads of goods (fruit, vegetables, …) trying to sell and the little boats looking for what they need. As we had learnt the day before, we can recognize what is sold by looking at the stick in front. That is where they hang up what they have on sale – we saw boats that only had a watermelon hanging on the stick – which means that they only sell watermelon. We also saw boats that had different things – onions, turnip, cucumber and pumpkin. Some boats are selling flowers – especially the yellow flowers are sold very easily as they represent luck (especially around New Years’ Eve they are the bestseller). In the middle of the chaos, there are also beautiful house boats floating – with beautifully planted terraces, full of flowers.

Mekong Delta Cai Rang Floating Market

Mekong Delta Cai Rang Floating Market

Mekong Delta Cai Rang Floating Market

Mekong Delta Cai Rang Floating Market

Mekong Delta Cai Rang Floating Market

Rice Noodle Production

In order to escape the busy market, we anchored on an island. We visited a rice noodle production where two people (a woman and a man) produce large amounts every day. First, they make rice paper, which is then dried in the sun for about 5 hours and then cut into noodles. The rice paper and the noodles are as stable as plastic – it is very interesting to touch it.

Mekong Delta Rice Noodle Manufacturing

Mekong Delta Rice Noodle Manufacturing

Mekong Delta Rice Noodle Manufacturing

Cycling in the Village

After we had learnt how to produce rice noodles, we did a little cycling tour in the village. We visited a huge Mangrove Tree – that we did not think was super-special but our guide was very enthusiastic so it obviously means a lot to the community of the Mekong Delta. Attached to the tree is a little place for praying – that is why it is a really calm place.

Cycling in the Mekong Delta

Mangrove Tree in the Mekong Delta

We got more fruit to try (dragon fruit and rose apple) and had a quick lunch at a nice restaurant in Can Tho. After that, it was time to head back to Ho Chi Minh City – a 5 hour drive.

We really enjoyed the tour to the Mekong Delta. We highly recommend to spend one night in a homestay – it is a really memorable experience. You can choose between hotel or homestay but the homestay is really worth trying.

Our Conclusion

We loved the Mekong Delta and would definitely do the 2 day tour again. We would also do it with Kim Travel again. We have read reviews where people said it was a conveyer belt tour and things like that. It is an organized tour – yes, so that is somehow what we expected. We never felt that it was too much program and except for the cultural music show, we enjoyed everything we saw and did. The Mekong Delta is a unique place and we personally think that it should definitely be part of your trip to South Vietnam.

 

Bianca & Tom

We are Bianca & Tom. we love our life just the way it is. Still, we know there’s gotta be more and that is what we constantly want to discover new places and we want to take you on our journey with us. The journey of our life which is a journey to ourselves … one time around the world & beyond.
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