Vietnam experiences – the Mekong Delta

Vietnam experiences – the Mekong Delta

Mekong, to the south of Vietnam, is a lush coastal area known for its large rice fields, and, of course, the diverse wildlife of its delta. It is an extremely fertile area, and as such of vital importance to the Vietnamese economy in that 50% of its overall agricultural output derives from here. In fact, the Mekong Delta produces more rice than Japan and Korea combined.

The Mekong River itself rises in Cambodia, where it splits into two rivers – the Bassac and the First River. By the time it arrives in Vietnam it has meandered into a far more complex system of rivers and tributaries, creating a veritable maze of small canals and rivulets, interspersed with small fishing villages, rice farming communities and floating markets. As much of the surrounding landscape is completely waterlogged, the villages in the Mekong Delta are very often far more readily accessible by river.

For visitors, the best time of year to be visiting the Mekong Delta is during the lunar New Year (known locally as Tet), or during the mid-Autumn festival. During this time, Vietnamese children will release a galaxy of floating candles into the river, on tiny skiffs.

Particularly unusual location in this part of the world is Phu Quoc Island, lying 15 kilometres off the Cambodian coast, in the Gulf of Thailand. This is becoming increasingly popular with Vietnamese visitors, as well as tourists from various parts of the Far East, and beyond. The actual shape of the island is very unusual. It seems to rise from its slender southern tip, almost like a genie being released after countless centuries trapped inside a bottle. As recently as a decade ago Phu Quoc was virtually unknown to outsiders. However, even the best-kept secrets have a habit of becoming public knowledge. Know the island welcomes large numbers of visitors, drawn to its soft white sands, swaying palm trees and mild waters. In fact, Phu Quoc is rapidly becoming one of Vietnam's top beach destinations, rivaling Nha Trang.

It isn't a tiny tropical paradise either, running almost 46 kilometres from north to south. With a land mass of 593 square kilometres, it is Vietnam's largest island – although Cambodia also claims ownership, under the title Ko Tral.

Phu Quoc's natural landscape consists of topography and vegetation that are unique amongst the rest of the delta. The combination of verdant plant life and isolation meant that has been a hiding place for some of Vietnam's most famous historical fugitives. In the late 1700s Nguyen Anh took refuge here while on the run from the Tay Son brothers. In the 1860s Nguyen Trung Truc, the fisherman turned militia leader, holed up here during his guerilla campaign against the French colonists in the Mekong Delta.

For all its turbulent past, the island today is home to some 80,000 charming residents. There is also a sizeable population of indigenous canines – recognizable by the hair running along their spines rather than down! The island is now famous for its natural produce – principally fish sauce (nuoc mam, which is graded like olive oil) and black pepper.

Vietnam vacations – Mekong Delta Cruises

Vietnam vacations – Mekong Delta Cruises

One of the most popular excursions in Vietnam is to embark on a cruise along the Mekong River delta. Forget any preconceptions you might have of huddling together in a rickety old boat – although some visitors may well wish to experience river trips as they've been traditionally undertaken for centuries! Today's Vietnam travel experience offers nothing but luxury as you go on your Mekong River odyssey.

The cruise ships currently plying their trade along this stretch of Vietnam's beautiful countryside are more like floating hotels. A typical example of this would be the riverboat La Marguerite. As well as offering a superb vantage point for the journey, its facilities include a panoramic lounge, a library, a restaurant specializing in local and European delicacies, and the fully appointed Saigon Lounge.

The Mekong Restaurant gives tourists the perfect taste of Vietnamese luxury. The tables are well laid-out, giving visitors the option of dining within the privacy of their own company, or enjoying communal conversations. The team of professional chefs will provide a range of sumptuous dishes from France, Cambodia or, of course, Vietnam. As well as offering a mouthwatering menu of international fare, these chefs also like to specialize in traditional food from the delta itself. This allows tourists to get to taste of the landscape in which they are immersed. While much of the fresh food ending up in Vietnamese kitchens will already be familiar to travellers, some of the local Mekong delicacies will be far less so. Lavish buffets are available on request that can be served withn the restaurant itself; or for more occasions, brought to private tables.

The boat's upper deck posts the ‘Saigon and Panoramic Lounge'. This is where tourists can enjoy the ambience and find a comfortable position to relax on board the vessel. It's a backdrop of soothing music, you can choose from the extensive wine list. The panoramic views of the Mekong River are unparalleled. There is simply no feeling in the world like sipping from you drink while enjoying the fantastic background setting of the sun dappling on the delta waters.

This cruise offers many other facilities. You might be surprised to discover that on board this river-going boat there is a fully-equipped spa treatment centre. This is the perfect venue for relaxing for some serious pampering. And few spa clinics offer the additional luxury of the bed gently rocking to and fro with river currents. Within the room's genteel atmosphere you'll find a range of treatments available, which will help soothe your body, banishing stress.

Another thing the Mekong Delta is renowned for are the floating markets. This is where the locals pile their little crafts with all manner of interesting crafts, as well as exotic fruits and vegetables. After your relatively sedate river extremes, it makes a fantastic contrast to experience these bustling markets, chatting with these river merchants - and having a lot of fun haggling with them over items. You are sure to pick up a variety of exciting gifts and souvenirs that are unique to this part of Vietnam. These trinkets would make for a pefect memento of your holiday, as well as offering a pleasant reminder of your river cruise.

Vietnamese resorts – Nha Trang

Vietnamese resorts – Nha Trang

As far as memorable holidays in Vietnam are concerned, experiences don't come more diverse than visiting the seashore around Nha Trang.

One of the country's best-known diving destinations, Nha Trang is a coastal province roughly right in the middle of Vietnam's eastern coastline. Although this area has been popular with more affluent tourists for some time, increasing numbers of visitors from a diverse range of backgrounds are touching down here. Nha Trang Bay, considered one of the world's most beautiful, has definitely become one of the key stopping-off spots on the South East Asia circuit, attracting considerable numbers of backpackers, too.

The region popular with scuba divers is protected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The beaches are renowned for their fine, white sand, while the clear seas benefit from all-year round mild temperatures. Bamboo Island (Hon Tre) lies off the shore of Nha Trang. Thia island is an important five-star resort, currently operated by the Vinpearl Group. A cable car system, comprising a gondola lift system, shuttles tourists between the mainland and Bamboo Island.

Annual yachting races start in Hong Kong, stopping over at Nha Trang. In addition, the city also plays host to five-star sea cruises. Amongst the many activities that are open to visitors are island hopping, watersports, various boating activities, and scuba-diving.

One pastime that is a particular hit amongst visitors is sampling the local cuisine. Cooking in this region is famous for its fresh seafood, and mouthwatering barbecued pork, rolled in rice paper. The bird's nest soup on offer in Nha Trang is widely considered to be amongst the best you'll be served anywhere in the country. A longstanding Far Eastern delicacy, these soups have been a staple of oriental cooking for some four centuries. The actual nests themselves are gathered in the wild, as well as being produced in bird farms in the various islands off the coast of Nha Trang.

Kite boarding and scuba diving are amongst the recreational mainstays of the region. If you are looking for adventures to fill your leisure time long after the sun has set over the mainland, there is limited nightlife. However, because Nha Trang has been developed as a tourist hub for a while, the local facilities are amongst the best in this particular stretch of the Vietnamese coast. Towns such as Da Nang, Vung Tau and Mui Ne are all vibrant centres, which are usually busy around the time of the Vietnamese New Year.

The attractions are split between natural draws, such as Monkey Island or Hon Ba Mountain, and interesting organized activities, such as the magical Mystery Tour, or the Palace of Emperor Bao Dai (the final emperor of Vietnam's Nguyen Dynasty, who passed away in 1997). If you would rather keep up to date during your leisure time, then look no further than the renowned Nha Trang Booze Cruise – subtitled the ‘all you can drink party boar'. If you do find yourself overindulging on the fantastic array of tasty cocktails, you can rest assured that the following day it will be easy enough to find somewhere to chill out. There are plenty stretches of golden sand, with seating conveniently arranged by parasols.

Visiting the Mekong Delta by bike

Visiting the Mekong Delta by bike

If you'd like to get close to Vietnam's landscapes while visiting this incredibly diverse nation, then travelling by bicycle is to be recommended. In a country where travelling by bicycle is universally accepted, you will find ample support if you wish to use this as your preferred method of sightseeing. In fact, as well as simply travelling through the tourist sites, there are also opportunities for you to raise money as you do so.

One such fundraising exercise is known as the ‘challenge of the nine dragons'. Originally arranged as a charity event to raise money for underprivileged children, this takes full advantage of the tracks and trails running through the verdant Mekong Delta. The name ‘nine dragons', or Cuu Long in local parlance, is a reference to the nine main tributaries of the Mekong River as it flows into its verdant delta in southern Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia.

The first of these dragon's tails breaks away from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penj, when the Mekong is actually known as the Bassac. As the nine dragons unfold, you will find yourself on a fantastic cycle track that criss-crosses the landscape across minor roads and trails, bypassing the beautiful waterways of the Mekong Delta.

For the most part, due to the relatively flat terrain, the cycle race is reasonably straight. However, in parts the tracks do become somewhat overgrown, or involve traversing rickety bridges that do provide something of a challenge. But it only seems fair that any activity aimed at raising funds for underprivileged children should at least involve a modicum of effort on the fundraisers part!

The nine dragons cycle ride is the first of its kind that takes full advantage of a recently-opened border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia. This narrow point occurs at a position on the Gulf of Thailand coast known as Ha Tien. Cycling here will take you into Kep, once known as Cambodia's Riviera. The next point in the trail is the former French colonial town of Kampot. As you gaze over the mish-mash of colonial architecture and modern buildings, you might find it hard to picture this sleepy backwater as it was during its heyday – Kampot was actually Cambodia's main seaport.

Following on from this pleasant jaunt into Cambodia's past, the cycle track begins to demand something more of an effort from its charges. Bokor Mountain looms before you, presenting a challenging climb up above the encroaching treeline. Once you climb up towards the summit you'll be rewarded with views of the long-abandoned casino that broods over a dramatic escarpment. As you rest before your next leg of the nine dragons, you'll be rewarded with fabulous panoramic views across Cambodia's rural landscape.

The good news about this cycle tour of Vietnam and Cambodia is the fact the holiday can be tailor-made according to your wishes. The actual dates and preferences can be individually tailored to meet your own needs. This flexibility can prove to be particularly useful if you wish to balance your cycle tour of the Mekong Delta with other activities during your visit to Vietnam.