In the Mekong Delta, the sun shines brighter and the Vietnamese smile wider. Palm trees arch over waterways and boats with painted eyes move silently over pale brown water. You’ll see trees bearing magnificent durian and jackfruit. Seafood markets, floating markets and night markets are vibrant and full of life.
There are a plethora of packaged tours from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, ranging from one day to four day tours. It may seem that it’s too difficult, or complicated to get to the Mekong by yourself. But the truth is, it’s straightforward and if you want to travel independently, you absolutely can. Don’t let the travel agencies sway you.
This is how we planned our independent trip to the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City:
- Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho
- Day 2: Cai Rang Floating Market
- Day 3: Can Tho to Ben Tre
- Day 4: Ben Tre to Ho Chi Minh City
Read on for transit directions, expenses, and recommendations.
DAY 1: Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho
Getting to the heart of the Mekong Delta is really simple. Simply, take a Phuang Trang (Futa) Bus from Saigon. Buses depart for Can Tho every 30-60 minutes. You can buy your bus ticket (110,000 Dong, $4.83, per ticket) on the day of departure. We purchased our ticket at the Phuang Trang office location in the first district: 202-204 lê hồng phong phường 4 quận 5 (coordinates: 10.759378, 106.677315). They have other office locations in the first district, but they don’t necessarily sell the bus ticket to Can Tho.
Once you purchase your ticket, a free shuttle will take you to the bus station one hour before your bus departs. So, if you want to take the 11:00 a.m. bus, you’ll need to be at the ticket office no later than 10:00 a.m. It’ll take about 30 minutes to get to the bus station.
There’s an air-conditioned waiting room with a screen displaying the departing bus schedule with bus numbers. Your bus number (which will be on your ticket) matches the last 6 digits of your bus’ license plate. The drive took 3 hours and 10 minutes to reach Can Tho.
When you arrive in Can Tho’s bus station, simply walk to the Phuang Trang bus booth inside and ask for a free shuttle to your hotel. Make sure you can show them your hotel name, address and phone number. You’ll only wait a few minutes before they direct you to a shuttle.
- Purchase Bus Ticket at the Phuang Trang ticket office.
- Take free shuttle bus to bus station one hour before bus departure.
- Take bus to Can Tho.
- At the Can Tho bus station, ask for a free shuttle to your hotel/guesthouse.
Where to Stay in Can Tho
We stayed at the guesthouse: Minh Vuong Hotel (Address: 25 Phan Dang Luu, An Hoi, Ninh Kieu, Can Tho). It’s a budget stay, but very clean. The owner is extremely helpful in organizing tours and ongoing transit. After checking in, we booked our boat ride to the Cai Rang Floating Market through the guesthouse. We paid $25 for two people aboard a 4-person wooden sampan boat.
Most people only come to Can Tho to see the Cai Rang Floating Market. But, Can Tho is more than a mere transit stop. It’s a lovely town worth exploring. Admittedly, after 5 weeks of traveling throughout Vietnam, we weren’t so giddy about seeing everything. Our main objective in Can Tho was finding food. After walking around the Hồ Xáng Thổi lake, we ate on De Tham (Đề Thám) street where there are many restaurant and street-food options.
DAY 2: Floating Markets
Cai Rang Floating Market
We booked the 7-hour sampan boat ride without a tour guide (only a driver). Our experience has been hit and miss (mostly miss), when it comes to tour guides in Vietnam, so we opted out. But, if you get a good one, it adds a lot of value to your experience.
The tour began at 5:00 a.m. Our guesthouse organized a free taxi to the pier. At about 5:30 a.m., we departed on a four-seat wooden sampan in the direction of Cai Rang Floating Market. When we arrived at the market, we made a beeline for the coffee boat. After getting our caffeine fix, we tied up to another boat and ordered breakfast.
The first thing that struck us what the size of the market. It was far smaller than we imagined. We did hear that the market’s size fluctuates with the time of the month. So, if you want to see Cai Rang in its full glory, do some research about when to visit.
Phong Dien Floating Market
After navigating through the Cai Rang market, we set off for the second floating market of the day. Phong Dien was even smaller than the first and seemed to be exclusively for tourists. Our driver bought a pineapple and skillfully cut it up for us.
The second half of the boat ride weaves through smaller canals. Here, palm trees arch over narrow waterways and you get a sense of how local people live. We had the opportunity to get out of the boat several times. The first stop was a rice noodle factory. The second was a fruit garden and restaurant. All the tour boats seem to stop at the same places. The food at the restaurant was mediocre at best, so just order a drink. Heads up: you’ll be asked whether you’d like to pay for your driver’s lunch.
The last stop was something we didn’t expect to see. Because photos were not permitted, let me elaborate. We saw snake skins stretched onto wooden planks and nailed into place. The skins must have been 3 meters in length. Past the boards, there were four men working amidst inflated snakes. These snakes were blown up to a diameter of about 40+ centimeters (16+ inches). One man was standing on a headless python and using his weight to roll the body back and forth. Another man was slicing a snake open and skinning it. These men had obviously mastered this skill as demonstrated by their dexterity, composure and indifference. We watched this scene unfold not quite understanding it.
The site was ghastly, yet also morbidly fascinating (before fully processing it). Behind the slaughter, there were crates and crates of living caged pythons. This is a snake farm. The skins are harvested for the European fashion industry. Luxury brands like Prada, Gucci, Hermes, Dior, Burberry, and Chanel source their skins from farms in Southeast Asia. About 50% of the snake skin fashion products are consumed in the U.S. Of course, the average buyer probably doesn’t consider how the skin is harvested.
Depending on the method used, it’s not uncommon for the snakes to be alive while they’re being skinned. They are definitely alive when they are being inflated by water, or air – this makes the peeling easier. These animals suffer a barbaric slow death after spending their whole life in a tight cage.
The exotic skin market isn’t just limited to snakes. Crocodiles are also harvested for their skins in the Mekong Delta. With consumer demand fueling this industry, more Vietnamese will begin farming animals for their skin. Please consider what you shop for. Diatribe over.
Tran Phu Night Market
We returned to Can Tho around 1:00 p.m. We ate lunch at the “make your own spring rolls” restaurant called Nem Nuong Thanh Van (Address: 17. Hoa Binh Avenue, Ninh Kieu District, Can Tho). Next, we took a long nap. In the evening, we went to the Tran Phu Night Market. This place was amazing. It’s located on Tran Phu road and stretches to the water. There are at least 10 different seafood restaurants to choose from and a number of other food stalls. The market also houses furniture, appliance, and clothing vendors. It’s lively, loud and authentic. We didn’t see any other foreign tourists here. We settled into one of the seafood market restaurants and ordered seven dishes. The food is all freshly prepared, but avoid the oysters if you have a sensitive stomach. During the course of dinner, we saw a magic show, listened to karaoke, and watched local life unfold.
DAY 3: Can Tho to Ben Tre
The next day we departed for Ben Tre. To get to Ben Tre by public bus (67,000 Dong per person), you have two options. You can either take the 8:00 a.m. bus or the 1:00 p.m. bus. (We don’t know how often these times change, so please double check with your guesthouse). We took the 1:00 p.m. Bus to Ben Tre. The hotel owner organized a taxi for us to get to the bus station (71,000 Dong). The bus ride was on time and well organized. It’s not the most comfortable ride (no air conditioning), but it gets you to your destination. When we arrived in the Ben Tre Bus Station, we got a taxi to our homestay.
- Taxi to Can Tho Bus Station (Note: this was a different bus station than the one we arrived in)
- Public Bus to Ben Tre
- Taxi (and Tuk Tuk) to Homestay
Where to Stay
We spent the rest of the day relaxing at the isolated and peaceful Ba Danh Home ($16/room). There’s not much to do here but listen to coconuts drop, but we loved it. If you choose to come here, make sure to bring a book. A note about getting to Ba Danh: a taxi can’t take you to the homestay, because the road is too narrow. So, when we booked the night, the owner instructed us to have to taxi driver called them in order to arrange a drop-off. We got dropped off and picked up by a tuk tuk. This part of the journey is actually the most adventurous. Just remember to duck before banana and palm leaves smack you in the face.
DAY 4: Ben Tre to HCMC
We took a morning boat ride along the narrow canals of Ben Tre. Unlike the day before, the waterways are only populated with fisherman checking their fish traps, or the occasional local taking a dip. In true Vietnamese style, we could still hear mid-morning karaoke blasting from one of the restaurants. After the boat ride, we went back to Ba Danh for lunch. The owner prepared an excellent vegetarian curry. You can rent bikes from the homestay and ride into town if you need something to do.
Our homestay organized the transit to the bus station. We had to inform them a few hours in advance. We took a tuk tuk to a shuttle bus to the bus station. We took a Thinh Phat bus (70,000 Dong per person). We have no complaints, except that we were dropped off in a super random spot in Saigon.
How to improve this itinerary
Stay one more night in Ben Tre. There are a lot of transit steps to get between the two destinations and back to Saigon, so it would have been nice to enjoy Ben Tre for another day.
DIY Mekong Trip Expenses
- Futa Bus Tickets: 110,000 Dong per person ($4.83 per ticket)
- Guesthouse in Can Tho for 2 Nights: $9 per night ($18 total)
- 4-seat Sampan Floating Market Tour (no Guide): $25 for two people/boat.
- Taxi to Can Tho Bus Station: 71,000 Dong ($3.13)
- Bus to Ben Tre: 67,000 Dong per person ($2.95)
- Ben Tre Taxi to Homestay: 140,000 Dong ($6.17)
- Ben Tre Homestay: $16.20 per night
- Ben Tre Homestay Meal: 60,000 Dong per person (vegetarian food)
- Homestay to Shuttle Tuk Tuk: 100,000 Dong ($4.41)
- Thinh Phat Bus Ticket to Saigon: 70,000 Dong per person ($3.09)
One Person Expenses (excluding meals and assuming one person pays $25 per boat ): $83.78
Two Persons Expenses (excluding meals and assuming you’re sharing a bed): $94.65
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