The Delta of the Mekong River begins a couple of hours’ drive south of Ho Chi Minh City, and extends west over 15,000 sq miles (39,000 sq km) to the Gulf of Thailand. Known as ‘Vietnam’s Rice Bowl’, it’s one of the most intensively farmed, densely inhabited regions in Asia. Mile upon mile of lush paddy fields carpet the flat landscape, lined by fruit orchards and coconut groves. Encompassing a chequerboard of cultures, this is also one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country – a fact reflected in the rich architectural heritage of the larger towns, many of whose inhabitants live crammed into houseboats on the river, or in stilt houses perched above it.
As picturesque as it is fascinating for the visitor, the Delta’s unique way of life can only really be observed from the water, and travelling around the region you’ll have numerous opportunities to take a boat trip – whether a short foray to a local market, or an overnight cruise north towards the Cambodian border.
Either way, the scenes of everyday local life glimpsed from the water are likely to leave the most lasting impressions: field workers in conical straw hats hunched over fields of ripe rice paddy; houseboats piled high with cargoes of pink dragon fruit and pineapples; children sluicing water over their buffaloes in the morning, or pedalling home from school in immaculate uniforms later in the day, as fishermen cast handnets from tiny canoes, and saffron-robed monks stroll to evening prayers through shafts of angled sunlight.
A great way to experience life in the Delta at close quarters is to take a cruise on a song xanh riverboat. These stately craft may be used for short day cruises and longer multi-night trips.