The Mekong Delta
Touring the orchards, paddy fields and swamplands of the Mekong Delta, you could be forgiven for thinking you've stepped into the pages of a geography textbook. A comma-shaped flatland stretching from Ho Chi Minh's city limits southwest to the Gulf of Thailand, the delta is Vietnam's rice bowl, an agricultural miracle that pumps out more than a third of the country's annual food crop from just ten percent of its total land mass. Rice may be the delta's staple crop, but coconut palms, fruit orchards and sugar-cane groves also thrive in its nutrient-rich soil, and the sight of conical-hatted farmers tending their land is one ofVietnam's most enduring images.
To the Vietnamese, the region is known as Cun Long, "Nine Dragons", a reference to the nine tributaries of the Mekong River which dovetail across plains fashioned by millennia of flood-borne alluvial sediment. By the time it reaches Vietnam, the Mekong has already covered more than four thousand kilometres from its source high on the Tibetan Plateau; en route it traverses southern China, skirts Burma (Myanmar), then hugs the Laos—Thailand border before cutting down through Cambodia and into Vietnam - a journey that ranks it as Asia's third-longest river, after theYangtse andYellow rivers. Flooding has always blighted the delta; ever since Indian traders imported their advanced methods of irrigation more than eighteen centuries ago, networks of canals have been used to channel the excess water, but the rainy season still claims lives from time to time.
Surprisingly, agriculture gripped the delta only relatively recently. Under Cambodian sway until the close of the seventeenth century, the region was sparsely inhabited by the Khmer krom, or "downstream Khmers", whose settle-ments were framed by swathes of marshland. The eighteenth century saw the Viet Nguyen lords steadily broaden their sphere of influence to encompass the delta, though by the 1860s France had taken over the reins of government. Sensing the huge profits to be gleaned from such fertile land, French colons spurred Vietnamese peasants to tame and till tracts of the boggy delta; the peasants, realizing their colonial governors would pay well for rice harvests, were quick to comply. Ironically, the same landscape that had served the French so well also provided valuable cover for the Viet Minh resistance fighters who sought to overthrow them; later it did the same for the Viet Cong, who had well-hidden cells here - inciting the Americans to strafe the area with bombs and defoliants.
A visit to the Mekong Delta is so memorable because of the region's diversity. Everyday scenes include schoolgirls clad in "white ao dai cycling along country lanes; children riding on the backs of water buffalo; rice workers stooping in a sea of emerald; market vendors grinning behind stacks of fruit; bright yellow incense sticks drying at the roadside; flocks of storks circling over a sanctuary at dusk; Khmer monks walking mindfully in the shadow of pastel pagodas; locals scampering over monkey bridges or rowing boats on the Delta's maze of channels.
It's difficult to overstate the influence of the river: the lifeblood of the rice and fruit crops grown here, it also teems with craft that range in size from delicate rowing boats to hulking sampans, and it forms a backdrop to everyday activities some of the region's biggest markets are waterborne. Inevitably the best way to experience riverine life is on a boat trip. Day trips can be organized in Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho or Chau Doc, while some tour operators offer 2—3 day live-aboard trips (see box below). Since most day tours follow a similar itinerary (a visit to a floating market and stops at cottage indus-tries on the shore), you'll probably want to choose just one. Though Can Tho is most popular for its good range of hotels and restaurants, you're likely to see more tourists than locals in the nearby floating markets. A good alternative is Vinh Long, from where boats head out in many different directions through the canals of An Binh Island to the floating market at Cai Be.
There are over a dozen towns in the delta with facilities for tourists, though some are rarely visited as they are not on the way to anywhere. My Tho is well geared up for boat trips, and near enough to Ho Chi Minh City to be seen on a day-trip: it affords an appetizing glimpse of the delta's northernmost tributary, the Tien Giang. From My Tho, laidback Ben Tre and the bounteous fruit orchards besieging it are only a hop and a skip away. Cao Lanh is strictly for bird enthusiasts, but Sa Dec, with its timeless river scenes and riotously colourful flower nurseries, has a more universal appeal, while just down the road, Vinh Long is another jumping-oft" point for boat trips.
Many visitors spend a day or two in Can Tho, the Delta's biggest settlement. to take advantage of its decent hotels and restaurants and to recharge batteries before venturing out to the floating markets nearby. From Can Tho, there's something to be said for dropping down to the foot of the delta, where the swampland that surrounds Ca Mau can be explored by boat. Pulling up, en route, at the Khmer stronghold of Soc Trang is especially rewarding if your trip coincides with the colourful Oc Om Bok festival, during which the local Khmer community takes to the river to stage spectacular longboat races. Northwest of Can Tho meanwhile, and a stone's throw from the Cambodian border, is the ebullient town of Chau Doc, south of which Sam Mountain prpvides a welcome undulation in the surrounding plains. The opening of the border here has brought a steady stream of travellers going on to Phnom Penh by boat, and several of them rest up a few days here before leaving the country.
A bustling fishing port due south of Chau Doc on the Gulf of Thailand, Rach Gla is a convenient place to catch a boat or short flight to Phu Quoc Island, whose splendid beaches are a big draw for tourists. Northwest of Rach Gia, Ha Tien, a remote border town surrounded by Khmer villages, now also has daily boats'to Phu Quoc.The town has recently become popular for its international border crossing, which allows beach bums to slide along the coast from Phu Quoc Island to Sihanoukville in Cambodia or vice versa.
Given its seasonal flooding, the best time to visit the delta is, predictably enough, in the dry season, which runs from December to May.