The Mekong Delta (Cuu Long) is a destination like no other. Innumerable rivers, canals, tributaries, and rivulets overflow with fish, and the rich alluvial soil helps produce an abundance of rice, fruit, and vegetables. Lush tropical orchards, floating markets, quaint towns, delicious food, emerald-green rice paddies, and lazy brown rivers and canals add to the photogenic wonder of the place. It's a land touched by ancient and modern cultures, from the Funanese to the Khmer, Cham, and Vietnamese.
Slicing through the heart of the delta is the Mekong River, also known as Song Cuu Long, or River of the Nine Dragons. Descending from the Tibetan plateau, the river runs through China, separates Myanmar (Burma) from Laos, skirts Thailand, passes through Cambodia, and flows through Vietnam into the South China Sea. The river carries fertile soil deposits at a rate of 2,500 to 50,000 cubic meters per second, which created the delta and continues its expansion. As it enters Vietnam, the river divides into two arteries: the Tien Giang (Upper River), which splinters at My Tho and Vinh Long into several seaward tributaries, and the Hau Giang (Lower River or Bassac River), which passes through Chau Doc, Long Xuyen, and Can Tho en route to the sea. The river's many islands are famous for their beautiful fruit gardens and orchards, and the year-round hot and humid climate is ideal for tropical fruits, such as pomelo, coconut, jackfruit, pineapple, and papaya.
Dotting the endless fields of rice paddies, farmers in conical hats evoke the classic image of Vietnam. These days enough rice is produced to feed the country and to export abroad. Vietnam is now the world's third largest exporter of rice—a remarkable feat considering that as recently as the early 1990s the country was importing this food staple.
The northern delta, with its fruit farms and rice fields, is the most accessible from Ho Chi Minh City, with day trips possible to My Tho and Vinh Long. The south-central delta encompasses the Ca Mau Peninsula, which juts into the sea from Soc Trang. Can Tho is the major center, a pleasant town with just enough tourist infrastructure for a comfortable stay. In the Mekong's southern section, steamy mangrove swamps and thick palm forests thrive on the flat, flooded delta, creating a haven for water birds, including some rare species.
To make the most of a visit to the Mekong Delta, a homestay is recommended, for the access they give to local communities and river life. A number of quite comfortable options are available. Most of the delta is pancake-flat, making it ideal for exploration by bicycle, and the services of a good guide will get you into a network of lanes that don't appear on maps—intricate tracks that are the heart of Mekong Delta life.