The Mekong Delta is one of the most charming regions of Vietnam. It’s naturally beautiful, culturally intriguing, and the locals are super-friendly. Most people speed through the region on a guided tour. In fact, it’s one of the most popular day trips from Ho Chi Minh City. But this is one part of Vietnam where it’s worth slowing down and getting off the typical tourist trail. I spent three days in the Mekong Delta without a tour — and in this post, I’ll lay out how you can, too.
Arriving in the Mekong Delta without a tour
Most travelers visiting the Mekong Delta without a tour come from Cambodia or from Phu Quoc Island. You can also get to the region directly from Ho Chi Minh City, but that would require doubling back at the end of your Mekong Delta trip.
I arrived in the Mekong river delta from Cambodia. I booked a tourist shuttle from Kampot, Cambodia to Ha Tien, Vietnam for around $5. Alternatively, you can take a motorcycle taxi straight through for around $8 if you have good bargaining skills. You must have your Vietnam visa arranged in advance if you need one (you can get it in Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh).
If you’re coming from Phu Quoc Island, you can take a ferry directly to Ha Tien for 230,000 dong.
Ha Tien is friendly enough. This is real, authentic Vietnam — no chain restaurants or air-conditioned cafes here. Grab a bahn mi from a roadside stall and take in the relaxed vibe of the Mekong Delta.
But Ha Tien is mainly a transport town. You’ll want to keep moving as part of your Mekong Delta tour.
Ha Tien to Chau Doc
One challenge of traveling in the Mekong Delta without a tour is transportation can be difficult at best. There is little information about routes. Your best bet is to ask locals until you find the right bus.
If you arrive in Ha Tien by early afternoon, you should be able to catch a bus to Chau Doc on the same day. Head to the local bus station. Chances are you’ll end up on a minibus, with no fixed pricing. The driver may try to rip you off, but it shouldn’t cost more than 60,000 dong.
The bus ride from Ha Tien to Chau Doc takes about four hours, but it’s a stunning journey. The bus weaves around the Mekong River and its tributaries, through tiny villages most of the way. Rice paddies all around. So much green. The roads are good, but you aren’t on main highways out here, so it’s slow going.
When you finally arrive in Chau Doc, the first thing you’ll notice is it looks like all the other towns you passed through along the way. It’s small and easily navigable on foot in about half an hour. There are almost no tourists, and all the typical banana-pancake-trail annoyances, like overpricing, hassle from moto drivers, and neon travel agency signs are gloriously nonexistent.
Chau Doc is most famous for its markets — unmissable when you’re visiting the Mekong Delta without a tour. The biggest market is indoors and lively in the morning. But the town center also has a good night market, with good cheap eating options. The street stalls have menus (in Vietnamese, but Vietnamese uses a modified Latin alphabet so they’re semi-readable). Sit at a plastic table, order something delicious with rice, and watch small town life go by. This is what you’d miss on a Mekong Delta day tour from Saigon.
Chau Doc has a handful of budget hotels. I stayed at Hotel Dong Bao. The location was great, a block off the main square. It was clean and comfortable and it had free WiFi. Don’t expect English-speaking staff here or at most of the other budget hotels — one of the challenges of traveling in the Mekong Delta independently, but also part of the appeal.
Chau Doc to Can Tho and the floating markets
As charming as Chau Doc is, it doesn’t have a lot to do. So you’ll want to move on pretty quickly. The next stop on your Mekong Delta trip is Can Tho, the biggest city in the Delta and the access point to the floating markets the area is famous for.
Buses run regularly between Chau Doc and Can Tho. It should cost around 50,000 dong and take 2-3 hours, depending on which company you go with. The bus station is well outside of town — hire a moto taxi to take you to the city center.
On your first day in town, you’ll arrive too late to visit the floating markets. So just wander around town and relish the lack of tourists. (The package groups from Saigon will arrive in the evening.) A couple interesting pagodas dot the town center. The main road, Mau Than Street, is the center of the Delta community and a fun area to wander. And of course, don’t miss the giant statue of Uncle Ho.
Grab a street food dinner and settle in for an early night. The best-value bed in town is at Hotel Xoai, which, if you took a motorbike taxi from the bus station, is probably where they’ll drop you anyway.
Get an early start the next morning — you want to be down by the river no later than 5:30 am to hire a boat to take you to the Cai Rang floating market. This Mekong Delta boat tour is the highlight of the trip. If you head down to the shore in the morning, you’ll surely find a boat driver to take you for about $10 (depending on your bargaining skills).
It’s about a 45 minute ride up the river to the floating market. You’ll know you’re close when you see the boats coming in the opposite direction overloaded with pineapple (it’s strictly a wholesale market). All in all, a great experience. On the way back, you can detour through the backwaters to a small floating fishing village. You’ll be back in Can Tho by 8 am, well before the tourists from Ho Chi Minh City arrive.
Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City
Your adventure into Mekong Delta without a tour is coming to an end. The last step is to buy a bus ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. You can organize this through a number of hotels and travel agencies in town. A shuttle bus will take you to the bus station — just be sure you get a real bus, and not a minibus-from-hell like I did, if you don’t want to spend the whole trip fearing for your life. It should cost no more than $7 and takes four hours.
In conclusion, the Mekong Delta is one of the most charming regions of Vietnam. Even though tons of people do a Mekong Delta day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, in the evenings and in the mornings the towns clear out and you can feel like the only foreigner around.
If you’re not up for an independent trip here, tour companies run 1 day Mekong Delta tours and overnight trips from Ho Chi Minh City for about $15 a day. You could also take a Mekong River cruise and spend several days on the river.
But I’d encourage you to try it on your own. It was nowhere near as hard as it seems — and you’ll end up with an authentic, off the beaten path, very satisfying adventure.
Have you been to the Mekong Delta? Did you take a tour or visit independently? Leave a comment and let me know!
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