Mekong Delta DIY versus Organized tours

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Typical countryside views riding to the Mekong on our motorbikes

First time to the Mekong Delta: the organized tour

One thing everybody agrees on is that THE cultural activity to do in the South of Vietnam is a visit to the Mekong Delta. Even before landing at Tan Son Nhat you’ll know all about the floating markets, the fruit groves and the coconut candy factories from the airline magazine or from your shiny and trustworthy travel guide. Only a couple of hours later, if your hotel happens to be in the backpacker area smack in the heart of District 1, you’ll also know all about the many options to visit the Mekong Delta from adverts in the hotel lobby, from seemingly trustworthy young street vendors and questionable travel agencies around Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao.

“All” you have to do now is pick the right tour. Easy peasy. Where do you want to go? Can Tho? Ben Tre? My Tho? By organized tour, private bus, public transport, boat or taxi? Is it worth going on a day trip? Should you stay 2 days and 1 night? Or more? And where are you going to sleep? In a hotel picked out for you by the travel agent? In a homestay? What will you eat and is it included in the price? Do you want to do a boat, a bicycle or a motorbike ride? Or maybe a cruise? Or a cooking class? Man, the options are endless.

The first time I went to the Mekong Delta with Poulou and Olivier, to Can Tho and My Tho to be exact, we chose a 2-day 1-night package with Get your Guide, including transport, accommodation, food and pretty much everything. I was a bit skeptical at first, having worked for a similar online platform in tourism, but you know, 50 bucks per person for a weekend away, we thought we’d just go for it. I haven’t personally experienced any other TO in the area so I can only tell you what our experience was like. Somehow, I have a feeling most 2-day 1-night packages are similar in the Mekong Delta, at least concerning the activities on-site.

The good: if you only have a few days to go down to the Mekong, then this tour is alright. You don’t have to worry about anything. Accommodation, transportation, lunches and dinner, boat rides, everything is carefully planned for you. We got to see a lot of things in a very short period of time so all in all, this package is not bad if you don’t have too much time and want everything to be taken care of for you. The boat ride along the Mekong to the family (homestay) on our first night was smooth and relaxing. The Banh Xeo cooked by the family was lovely as well. Too bad we didn’t really get to interact or cook with them at all.

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Rice noodle factory

We visited a rice noodle factory and activated the grinder ourselves, then we moved on to a bee farm but we didn’t get a lot of information about honey making. We were taken along the narrow canals of the Mekong Delta on a little rowing boat, and given a pointy hat to wear for the famous picture on the delta. Even though it felt once again like the least authentic thing to do, it was refreshing to be on the water.

The bad in a nutshell: annoying guide, sad feeling that this tour was rehearsed, definitely not authentic, following touristy routes that most tour operators take – it was sometimes hard to tell which one was our group because there were so many similar groups preceding or following us at the rice noodle factory, the coconut candy factory, the bee farm etc. Too bad the schedule was so uneven, that we didn’t get to interact with the family at all – weren’t we supposed to cook some typical Vietnamese food with them?

In more details: to begin with, the meeting point was wrong. From what a staff member told us, GYG has been notified for a year (?!?) but the map is still showing the wrong address. Make sure you know where the meeting point is.

Then, if your tour guide is Phaaaaaaaaa, make sure to sit at the back of the bus or you’re in for a headache and a very long ride. The guy LOVES to talk and repeat about 50 times the same thing, while dropping heavy comments every now and then on how he is single. If this was supposed to be funny, it was nothing more than a bad running joke. Seriously, the dude gave paraphrasing a whole new meaning.

One thing’s for sure, however, is that you can’t complain about his enthusiasm; it’s way over the top, calling us “my group” for 2 days. By the end of the first day, just about everyone on the bus had had enough of his constant chitchatting and some people actually told him so. The guide is knowledgeable, that’s for sure, but he’s got a loooot to say.

One thing that I didn’t like about the tour, and this is probably true for a lot of organized tours in the Mekong Delta, is that it made me feel like one of those cliché tourists following a guide with a flashy shirt and a stick. Luckily, our guide didn’t have a stick or a portable speaker. Anyway, the feeling was that of being taken from one place to the next to show us local activities that they think we’d like – and most of them we did like – while disturbing the locals at work. At the end of the day, I just wished we’d have more time to look around a bit, shop for a second and get a real, authentic feel. Authentic is definitely NOT a word I’d use to describe this tour. Even the local band singing some typical Mekong music for us looked bored, and understandably so – weren’t we the umpteenth tourist group they were playing for that day?

We were left for 1h30 on an Island with hundreds of school kids where there wasn’t much to do or see (a few exasperated crocodiles that were being toyed with and a few hammocks) and we didn’t have any time to shop in a small village where there were dozens of cute, colorful street shops. When I asked the guide if we could look around for a bit, he vaguely answered ‘alright, just five minutes then catch up with the rest of the group’ and led the group away to show them some roosters – ??? The tourist show reached a peak when they shoved us inside a rickety carriage pulled by a miserable, half-starved horse for literally 5 minutes then we got off. Some people asked the guide if the horses were being fed properly but once again, he smiled, cracked a dumb joke and ignored the question.

Bottom line is, if you want a hassle-free tour where everything is taken care of for you, this 50$ 1N2D tour might just do the trick.

Second time to the Mekong Delta: the DIY tour

The second time I went to the Mekong Delta with Heather, Vincent and Justyna we chose to DIY – or DIO rather. I borrowed a motorbike from a friend and we scooter ganged down to the Mekong on a Saturday morning, with the usual breaks for pho, water, and sugar cane juice (nuoc mia). We lazily cruised along some remote dirt roads and arrived in My Tho after lunch.

We spent an hour at Vinh Trang Pagoda, a beautiful Buddhist Temple with a unique structure featuring different architecture styles from Vietnam, Cambodia and China. The main building is surrounded by pretty twisted trees, bonsai and colorful gardens, which makes for a nice break on the way to Cai Be. It is also a very popular stop amongst organized tours, but luckily we didn’t run into a pack of tourists.

We left My Tho behind and kept riding along the Mekong River on DT864. In all fairness, that stretch of road between My Tho and Cai Be really isn’t a very pleasant ride due to the many trucks and the crazy traffic at sunset. Or maybe was it just our experience.

We made it to Ba Duc Ancient House after nightfall, and after riding in circle for longer than expected we managed to find the location. As a result, we didn’t make it in time for the cooking class at Ba Duc Ancient House, for which we were not refunded. We had, however, a lovely dinner out on the terrace under a canopy of fragrant trees.

At Ba Duc homestay the bedrooms were big, had a very basic ensuite bathroom and two double beds in which I would have slept like a baby if my sunburns had allowed it.

The next day Ba Duc had organized for us a boat trip to the Mekong Delta canals and floating markets, a visit to a coconut candy factory, elephant fish and fresh spring rolls for lunch followed by a bicycle ride on a lovely island in the afternoon. What they forgot to mention was the lack of shades for a couple of hours after lunch so my sunburns did not get better – far from it.

Altogether I think we paid a very reasonable price for the accommodation, the food (dinner, breakfast and lunch on the tour) and the activities for a much more authentic experience that we would have never received on yet another organized tour. If I were to go again, I’d go back to Ba Duc Homestay and make sure to get there in time for the cooking class.

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