Making the most of the Mekong Delta Vietnam
Making the most of the Mekong Delta, those who have followed the Mekong Delta’s winding waters to the region’s farthest stretches agree that the journey is well worth it. Pham Nam Giang discovers the area’s hidden delights, both natural and man-made.
Most tourists who visit the Mekong Delta make it no farther than My Tho, a day’s jaunt from Ho Chi Minh City, where they can float down one of the region’s many waterways and sample the famous locally grown fruit.
Those who venture deeper into the region, however, are rewarded with the rich biodiversity, history and folklore of the southwest.
Sure, no visit to the Mekong (Cuu Long) River Delta would be complete without a boat ride down the red-silt-laced waters of My Tho or a visit to Can Tho’s bustling floating market. But when I pushed beyond these cities to Bac Lieu and Kien Giang, two of the 12 provinces that make up the region, I discovered many more elements of the southwest’s unique character.
In the quiet expanses of these provinces, immense forests and nature reserves shelter thousands of species of plants and animals. Seemingly unending green rice paddies chase the horizon, and friendly local residents will tell visitors tales of their hometowns.
My first stop was Bac Lieu Province, 280km south of HCM City, a symbol of natural bounty in the region. Every year, the river system delivers fresh silt to this province in the Mekong Delta’s southernmost tip, replenishing the fertile land.
In addition to containing rice paddies and shrimp ponds that local farmers depend on for their livelihoods, the region also provides a home to tens of thousands of birds.
It is unsurprising, then, that birds have become an integral part of cultural and spiritual life for people of the delta and of Bac Lieu in particular, as evidenced by the frequent mentioning of birds in folk songs and fairy tales. People say that no rice paddy in this land is without a flock of storks overhead.
This sheds light on a Vietnamese proverb often used in reference to the lush southwestern region: dat lanh chim dau (if the land is good, birds will come).
The highlight of my tour of the province was a trip to Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary, one of the most attractive ecotourism spots in the province and the entire Mekong Delta Vietnams.
The 100-year-old sanctuary is located in Hiep Thanh Commune, 6km east of the town of Bac Lieu.
"The sanctuary, a natural salt-marsh forest ecosystem, covers an area of approximately 170ha, of which 50ha is virgin forest," said Tu Hung, an official working there.
One of the largest bird sanctuaries in the delta, it is home to more than 60,000 birds of over 40 species, including some rare ones listed in the Red Book.
Every day, flocks of birds fly off in search of food at dawn and return to their nests when dusk comes, overshadowing the sky for the delight of the viewers below. Songs of birds intermingle with the sounds of flapping wings, bringing the whole area to life.
"It’s so extraordinary," said Dinh Thi Kim Dung, director of Sovico Travel company in Ha Noi and one of my companions.
Dung said there were many birds in her hometown in Thai Binh Province, a natural salt-marsh forest reservation in the Red River Delta, but never before had she seen birds practically covering the whole sky like this.
But the sanctuary not only shelters birds, it is also a reserve for 150 types of animals, dozens of species of butterfly and more than 100 plant varieties, ranging from giant centuries-old trees to small ferns.
Tourists, however, are only allowed to visit a nearby buffer zone where they can use optical devices to observe the birds from afar in high watchtowers. Hung explained that human activity could adversely affect the environment for the birds, causing them to flee the area.
Back in town, I experienced a taste of the delta’s history by spending a night at the palace of Cong tu Bac Lieu, the Bac Lieu mandarin’s son, a renovated facility transformed into a comfortable, one-of-a-kind hotel.
Located on the banks of Bac Lieu River, the villa retains its beautiful French-style architecture. People come not only for luxurious accommodation, but also to listen to stories about its former owners, the Tran Trinh Trach family, one of the richest families in the region in the early 20th century.
Many of these stories revolve around Cong tu Bac Lieu, originally named Tran Trinh Huy, the most famous son of the landlord Trach. The notorious playboy achieved fame not for heroic acts or contributions to society, but for his extravagant lifestyle.
According to legend, he once used money as fuel to boil water for serving tea to guests and another time used a kilogramme of green peas and sugar to make sweet porridge to impress a woman he was courting. While many Vietnamese farmers were labouring in the fields year-round to make ends meet and living without electricity, he would hire helicopters to go sightseeing with his girlfriends. He would be seen dressed in flamboyant Western attire, walking hand in hand with beautiful girls he had handpicked from the beauty contest he had organised.
These sensational stories about Cong tu Bac Lieu make staying in his house an opportunity not to be missed, and the true enthusiasts can even spend a night in his room for a price of VND600,000 to 700,000 (US$38-43), two to three times higher than prices of other rooms in the house.
The fairies’ land
Finally, I said goodbye to Bac Lieu and pressed on to Kien Giang Province, the extreme southwest of the Vietnamese mainland.
While Lung Cu in northernmost Ha Giang Province is called the roof of the motherland, defending it from rain and shine, and Dat Mui in Ca Mau Province in the southern tip is called the "the head of the Vietnam vessel", the town of Ha Tien is famous for its wealth of natural beauty.
Legend has it that long ago, Ha Tien had such beautiful rivers that fairies would come to dance and bathe every full moon, giving the town its name: in Vietnamese, ha means ‘river’, and tien means ‘fairy’.
While Ha Tien was a bustling port city in the 17th and 18th centuries, where European and Indian merchant ships would stop along their journeys, now it has settled into town status, without high buildings, crowded streets or noisy horns.
This new identity has served Ha Tien well: the 42,000 residents enjoy the atmosphere of tranquillity that makes this feel like a village from another era.
What’s more, without human intervention, the area’s natural beauty has remained intact. Unique from other places in the Mekong Delta, Ha Tien is surrounded by limestone formations that form a network of spectacular caves and grottoes, both on land and offshore. For this reason, sometimes people call Ha Tien "Halong Bay on land", much like Tam Coc, its northern counterpart.
Among the most beautiful is Thach Dong (Stone Grotto), a piece of green stone emerging from the ground, where a fresh breeze blows through the many clefts and crevices, making strange noises.
Not far away are the fine, white sands of Hon Chong and Hon Trem beaches. Standing on Mui Nai (Deer Cape), a deer-shaped pinnacle of rock on Hon Chong facing the sea, I could see the Hai Tac (Pirate) Islets, a gathering of 16 small land formations that look like a group of pirates standing on the blue sea.
Two kilometres from Hon Trem is the ancient Hang (Cave) Pagoda, which utilises the limestone range running along the seas as natural interior design. As visitors walk inside the cave-like structure, they can admire the stalactites hanging down from the ceiling of the cave like columns of a house.
Those who pray here feel at one with nature, surrounded by the shells of sea creatures left from a time when the ocean waters encompassed this space. Yet the presence of familiar Buddhist statues add warmth to a space that might otherwise be a bit soggy and foggy, making this pagoda an exotic and inspiring place to pray for happiness and peace.
Having experienced the Mekong Delta’s most unique sacred spot, spent a night in a historical hotel and viewed rare species in the wild, I returned to Hanoi, already planning my next trip to this bountiful region.
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