Mekong Delta: In Search of the Cultural Heritages

Tiếng Việt

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 realise 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.

Sunset on Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong
A canal in the Mekong Delta

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.

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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 spring up in nearly every province. Some are just a few boats gathering on the river, while others are crowded fleets positioning at the river junction. Among them, the largest and most popular is Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho.

Gliding through Cai Rang floating market

Cai Rang Floating Market

Located just six kilometres from the de facto capital of the Mekong Delta, Cai Rang is the name that associates 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 colours: the voice of traders, the noise of boat engines, the vibrant colours of goods and painted boats. Together they create a massive colourful 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 other continues on to Saigon, or even upstream to Cambodia.

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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 favourable 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 scattering across the region.

Ong Temple

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. Built in 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 colours and intricate decorations. It also has an open-to-sky courtyard, as well as exquisite furniture and artworks. Hanging from the ceiling are countless of spiral incenses which swing gently and captures the light in their fragrant smoke.

Ong Temple – the finest example of Chinese architecture in the Mekong Delta

Vinh Trang Temple

Another outstanding example of the delta’s cultural diversity is Vinh Trang Temple in My Tho. With three colourfully 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 artworsk with dragon and phoenix motifs. There is also a marvellous rock garden standing at the heart of the building. However, Western elements, such as electric lamps, colourful tiles, and glass, are cleverly integrated, making the temple one of a kind.

Vinh Trang Temple
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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 which 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 coloured 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 colour.

Binh Thuy House, Can Tho

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.

The wooden interior of Mr. Kiet Old House

Practical Information in 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.
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21 thoughts on “Mekong Delta: In Search of the Cultural Heritages”

  1. Nemorino – Frankfurt am Main, Germany – Hello, my name’s Don. I’m an American living in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I teach, ride a bicycle and go to the opera. You can find me at https://operasandcycling.com/
    Nemorino says:

    Marvelous photos of the river markets and historic houses.
    My one visit to the Mekong Delta was a three-day tour from Saigon in 1995:
    https://operasandcycling.com/mekong-delta-tour-1995/

    1. Thanks for sharing your post! The Mekong Delta looks so different back then 🙂 Have you been there during the rainy season? All the fields were flooded and the river looks much wider.

      1. Nemorino – Frankfurt am Main, Germany – Hello, my name’s Don. I’m an American living in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I teach, ride a bicycle and go to the opera. You can find me at https://operasandcycling.com/
        Nemorino says:

        No, I’ve never been there during the rainy season, but I can imagine what it looks like. Thanks for having a look at my post.

  2. Orvillewrong – "I am well read, fairly well travelled, maybe not as many stamps on my passport as I would like. Young at Heart, Always! I like Military history. I Love Life`s variable, colour, character are potential events to record for posterity!!
    Orvillewrong says:

    Thank you for sharing the beauty that you saw!

  3. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    What a collection of beautiful buildings! Vinh Trang Temple caught my attention the most for its unusual architecture for a Buddhist place of worship. Although I also like the elegance of Mr. Kiet’s Old House. The Plain of Nine Dragons seems to be a very interesting place to visit. Thanks for introducing some of its gems to us!

  4. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    I love the lushness of this post. Your photos are beautiful and make me long to explore the delta more. I’ve been briefly to Can Tho, and to the Cai Rang market early one morning, an experience I’ll never forget. I had no idea about all those beautiful buildings! One day I’ll have to get back to Vietnam.
    Alison

  5. Your post is just what I needed today…to be transported to a place full of vibrance, beauty and history. Your photos are stunning. I love the watermelon boat and I gasped when I saw the Binh Thuy House—that turquoise colour and the lovely flowers make me happy.

  6. Klausbernd – http://toffeefee.wordpress.com – Autor (fiction & non-fiction), Diplompsychologe (Spezialist für Symbolik, speziell Traum- und Farbsymbolik)
    Klausbernd says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your beautiful pictures and for giving us a short introduction into this culture.
    We lived for quite a while in the middle of the Arctic centre of a water culture. Amazing, how different water cultures can be.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

      1. Klausbernd – http://toffeefee.wordpress.com – Autor (fiction & non-fiction), Diplompsychologe (Spezialist für Symbolik, speziell Traum- und Farbsymbolik)
        Klausbernd says:

        Thank you!

  7. These are great images. The architecture is fascinating. Hope to visit there in the near future.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I also hope I can see the Alhambra in the near future. I did plan a trip to Spain last year, but then the pandemic came 🙁

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