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The ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, the delta is carpeted in a dizzying variety of greens. It's a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries.
The bustling commerce of its towns contrasts sharply with the languid, almost soporific pace of life in the countryside. Here buffalo wallow in rice paddies, coconut- and fruit-laden boats float slowly along the mud-brown waters, and two-wheeled exploration of the narrow lanes is amply rewarded with a true taste of rural hospitality (and delicious river fish).
Elsewhere, mangrove forests teem with a wealth of bird life and bristle with the remains of Viet Cong bunkers, ornate Khmer pagodas and Buddhist temples reach for the sky, while off-coast islands offer white-sand beaches and tropical hideaways to some, and pirate havens to others.
Sights in Mekong Delta
Cai Rang Floating Market
Just 6km from Can Tho in the direction of Soc Trang is Cai Rang, the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta. There is a bridge here that serves as a great vantage point for photography. The market is best around 6am to 7am, and it's well worth getting here early to beat boatloads of tourists. This is a wholesale market, so look at what's tied to the long pole above the boat to figure out what they're selling to smaller traders.
Cai Rang can be seen from the road, but getting here is far more interesting by boat (US$10 to US$15). From the market area in Can Tho it takes about 45 minutes by river, or you can drive to the Cau Dau Sau boat landing (by the Dau Sau Bridge), from where it takes only about 10 minutes to reach the market.
Phong Dien Floating Market
The Mekong Delta's most intimate and best floating market, Phong Dien has fewer motorised craft and more stand-up rowing boats, with local vendors shopping and exchanging gossip. Less crowded than Cai Rang, there are also far fewer tourists. It's at its bustling best between 5am and 7am. The market is 20km southwest of Can Tho; you can get there by road but many operators now offer a six-hour combined Cai Rang–Phong Dien tour, returning to Can Tho through quieter backwaters.
Xeo Quyt Forest
Around 35km southeast of Cao Lanh is the magnificent 52-hectare Xeo Quyt Forest near My Hiep village. One vast swamp beneath a beautiful thick canopy of tall trees and vines, it hides the remains of Viet Cong bunkers, which can be seen both on a canoe tour inside the forest and on foot along the walking trails.
A taxi from Cao Lanh, including waiting time, costs around 800,000d.
For much of the year, a marvellous 20-minute canoe tour (15,000d) takes you past old bunkers and former mine fields along a narrow canal loop beneath the forest canopy and choked with water hyacinths (luc binh) . It's an exquisite experience but splash on the repellent. A walking trail parallels the canal and allows you to duck into the Z- and L-shaped Viet Cong bunkers (if you're compact enough) and to admire the expertly hidden, tiny trapdoors through which the Viet Cong disappeared underground.
During the American War the VC had a base here, where top-brass VC lived in underground bunkers. Only about 10 VC were here at any given time; they were all generals who directed the war from here, just 2km from a US military base. The Americans never realised that the VC generals were living right under their noses. Naturally, they were suspicious about that patch of forest and periodically dropped some bombs on it to reassure themselves, but the VC remained safe in their hideouts.
Tram Chim National Park
Tram Chim National Park is around 40km due north of Cao Lanh and notable for its rare red-headed cranes (Grus antigone sharpii), though more than 220 species of bird live within the reserve.
The cranes nest here from about December to May; from June to November they migrate to northwest Cambodia. Seeing them requires a considerable commitment (time, effort and money), with Dong Thap Tourist organising expensive trips by car and small boat (5,000,000d); it's cheaper to go if you make friends with locals.