For many tourists, the Mekong Delta brings to mind a fertile landscape filled with fruit orchards, paddy fields, and myriad waterways. But if you dive deeper, you will realize that this land has no shortage of cultural heritages. From vibrant floating markets to peculiar architectures, they reflect a unique lifestyle that follows the rhythm of the mighty river.
To most Vietnamese, the Mekong Delta is known by a more flamboyant name: Đồng bằng sông Cửu Long, meaning “The Plain of Nine Dragons”. It is a reference to the Mekong’s nine tributaries that crisscross the southwestern plains like arteries. Together with innumerable streams and rivulets, they turn this region into an agricultural miracle. Indeed, the Mekong Delta pumps out more than half of Vietnam’s annual rice and fish production, even though it occupies just ten percent of the total landmass. Not just rice, sugar cane, coconut, and many other fruits also flourish on this nutrient-rich soil.
Due to this unique topography, a unique lifestyle has been shaped in the Mekong Delta. It revolves much around water, from the houseboats, the dense network of canals to the famous floating markets. Everything moves to the ebb and flow of the Mekong.
The Floating Markets
No one has ever known what time or age the floating markets appeared in the Mekong Delta. The only thing we know is that they were formed based on necessity. With many villages were only accessible by rivers and canals rather than by roads, locals needed to find a way to trade their products. And a market on the water seemed like a viable option.
Overtimes, this kind of trading has become a distinctive feature of the Mekong Delta’s culture, with floating markets springing up in nearly every province. Some are just a few boats gathering on the river, while others are crowded fleets positioned at the river junction. Among them, the largest and most popular is Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho.
Cai Rang Floating Market
Located just six kilometers from the de facto capital of the Mekong Delta, Cai Rang is the name associated with the Vietnamese floating market. Every day, boats of all sizes gather here to commence trading, from fresh fruits, veggies to flowers. Each vessel is laden with certain products which loosely hang on a pole above the deck for advertising.
As a wholesale market, Cai Rang starts very early; probably at three or four o’clock in the morning. Yet it only comes alive at the break of day when more boats arrive, bringing fresh produce from far-flung corners of the delta. The market is bustling with sounds and colors: the voice of traders, the noise of boat engines, the vibrant colors of goods and painted boats. Together they create a massive colorful mosaic on the river. At around nine o’clock, the market begins to disperse. Some boats will return to where they come from (if they sell out), while others continue on to Saigon, or even upstream to Cambodia.
Temples and Pagodas in Mekong Delta
Fertile alluvium and fish are not the only things that the Mekong River brought to the southwestern plains. Due to the favorable conditions that the river provided, Vietnamese, Cham, Khmer, and even Chinese had migrated here for centuries. They were accompanied by customs and religions which in turn transformed the Mekong Delta into a cultural melting pot. And there is no better place to experience this diversity than the worship houses scattered across the region.
Boasting a prime location on the bank of Can Tho River, Ong Temple is probably the finest example of Chinese religious architecture in the Mekong Delta. Constructed in the late 19th century as part of the Guangzhou Assembly Hall, the temple is dedicated to Guan Yu (God of War) and many other Chinese deities.
Similar to the assembly halls in Hoi An, Ong Temple features vibrant colors and intricate decorations. It also has an open-to-sky courtyard, as well as exquisite furniture and artwork. Hanging from the ceiling are countless spiral incenses that swing gently and capture the light in their fragrant smoke.
Vinh Trang Temple
Another outstanding example of the delta’s cultural diversity is Vinh Trang Temple in My Tho. With three colorfully ornated gates, it is hard to believe that this structure is a Buddhist temple at first glance. The facade of this 19th-century temple is also unorthodox. It takes the appearance of a European mansion, with curves, arches, and stucco decorations in Renaissance style.
Inside, foreign architectural styles give place to traditional Vietnamese architecture. The interior is dominated by wooden furniture and carving artworks with dragon and phoenix motifs. There is also a marvelous rock garden standing at the heart of the building. However, Western elements, such as electric lamps, colorful tiles, and glass, are cleverly integrated, making the temple one of a kind.
Ancient Houses in the Mekong Delta
Aside from the floating markets and the beautiful temples, the charm of yesteryear can be found in a handful of ancient houses in the Mekong Delta. These buildings are usually private properties that have been passed down over generations. Some bear the marks of the colonial era, while others preserve the traditional Vietnamese architecture.
Binh Thuy House
The moment I walked past the gate of Binh Thuy House, I felt as though I was being transported back to the late 19th century. A French colonial architecture appeared in front of me, featuring a low-tiled roof, turquoise-colored shutter windows, and elaborate ornaments. The house is surrounded by a series of cactus flowers and plumeria which offer a nice contrast to the facade in vanilla color.
An elegant bow-shaped sidestep led me to a spacious living room furnished with antique and exquisite furniture. There, I had a brief conversation with a member of the Duong family whose ancestor built this lavish house back in 1870. He said his forefather fused Western elements into a traditional Vietnamese structure, creating such a unique architectural style. On the wall are intricate chinaware, carving artworks, as well as paintings inlaid in gold and mother-of-pearl. All those things reflect the wealth and nobility of the owners at that time.
Mr. Kiet’s Old House
Even older than Binh Thuy House is the residence of Mr. Tran Tuan Kiet which was built in 1838. The house of Cai Be’s former district chief is set amidst a luxuriant orchard measuring over 1.8 hectares. Its architecture follows the traditional style, with five living areas and 108 supportive poles made from solid wood. All the walls, gates, and doors are also made of wood. And they are meticulously craved with patterns demonstrating flowers of the four seasons. Inside, finely preserved antiques such as phản gỗ (wooden bed), oil lamps, and tea sets are on display.
Tips for visiting the Mekong Delta
- Despite its vastness and diversity, many travellers see the Mekong Delta as a mere day trip destination from Saigon. But eight hours is barely enough to scratch the surface of this area.
- Travelling around the Mekong Delta is time-consuming, even though the infrastructure has largely been improved. The reason is traffic congestion, especially on the main routes. On the other hand, some places are only accessible by boats, and thus it extends the travelling time significantly.
- Officially, there is no admission fee to the ancient houses. But it would be nice to donate one or two dollars. It’s a gesture to show respect to the house’s guardians.