Since I started travelling to further-flung places about a decade ago, I’ve often felt a reluctance to go back to the same country or place twice.
I first visited Vietnam in 2006.
I remember long, slow train journeys—of the best kind—and waking up to blood red skies wrapped in mountains.
Back then, I arrived along the Mekong, from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and stayed overnight in the border town of Chau Doc. From my tin hut guesthouse room window I could see the launches crossing the river to ferry commuters and their motorbikes across, as the sun started to beat down intently on the corregated roof tops.
From there I moved on to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon—as many locals seem to still call it) and joined a group tour.
This time, I went back to the South of Vietnam. To see the Mekong Delta, which I’d only caught a glimpse of before.
Was it worth it? And was it possible to travel responsibly there?
Responsible Travel in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta: Getting off the Beaten Path.
I’ve always believed that a key element of responsible travel is getting off the beaten path, so that we can spread our impact and benefit as tourists. Not only that, but I find that going off the beaten path makes for a far more memorable trip.
My first stop from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was to the Mekong Delta backwater town of Ben Tre. Just two and a half hours from HCMC by bus, this town is surprisingly overlooked by visitors and day trippers from the city—most of whom seem to head to My Tho, or Can Tho, depending on time.
Staying at a quiet homestay outside of the town centre, I was plunged into another world. A world where walking or cycling around the nearby environs nobody spoke a word of english and everyone stared at us as pretty much the only foreigners around. That’s when you know that you’re somewhere where your money is going to be likely to be of benefit.
Aside from offering bicycles free of charge, the homestay also offered free kayaks, and I booked an hour’s boat trip of the backwaters for about 150,000 Dong (6 USD). During that boat trip I saw one other foreigner. A contrast to my later experience outside Can Tho.
Being in a town that was so un-developed for tourism did pose a few challenges. Namely communication when ordering food at anywhere outside of the homestay. Most Vietnamese restaurants are street food type setups. Each stand would sell one dish (and only one dish). At this point I wished I’d read up more on the Vietnamese names for the different types of noodle dishes!
My failsafe, Pho, is a common (and delicious) Vietnamese dish, but is usually eaten early in the morning for breakfast. So trying to find places serving it for lunch or dinner proved a bit more tricky. The result was eating a lot of surprise—but healthy—noodle soups, tasting mainly of fish paste! For that time I had to abandon being a vegetarian—it was just a step too complicated.
If you feel inspired to go off the beaten track in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, you can find more information on the Homestay I stayed in here.
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Exploring Can Tho’s Floating Markets.
Arriving in Can Tho provided a stark contrast to my experience in Ben Tre. I’d come prepared for tourist crowds, but the crowds did not seem bad to me. What I did find (to my relief) was a whole street full of tasty street food with english translations available and even a vegetarian restaurant.
I booked to visit the floating markets the next day: Can Tho’s most popular tourist attraction. Everywhere around town essentially offers the same package, and everyone goes to the same places so it’s tricky to get ‘creative’ with this one.
Can Tho’s best known floating Market is Cai Rang. It’s also touted as being pretty touristy, which it is. Another floating market was also included (which seemed to be the case for most of the tours) which was sold as being not-touristy. The ironic thing was that all companies were selling the exact same tour. So taking all the tourists to the non-touristy spot? You get the idea as to what happens.
The Problem with Tours in Can Tho.
I don’t have anything against ‘touristy’, but I did have an issue with being sold a “non-touristy option” that turned out to be more touristy than the touristy one!
In hindsight, I would have preferred to stick with just the Cai Rang market—where, by the way, we were served a delicious noodle breakfast from one of the food boats.
Let me explain my views on the market tour more. The tour included visits to villages (again sold as “non touristy”)—the reality was about 100 people at a time, from a variety of tour groups, were wandering around the same village. There must have been any number of villages nearby that would have benefited from having a couple of groups visit them instead of everyone being piled into the same one.
I had another issue.
On asking the guide, I learned that none of the money paid for the tour was going to this village. The problem with tours, particularly ones booked through guest houses or hotels is that often fifty percent of the money goes to the agency coordinating the tour, a substantial amount to the hotel or guest house, and then the remainder goes to those who actually deliver the services: like tour guides, drivers and others involved.
Of the 850,000 Dong (37 USD) that 4 of us paid for the tour (so total 3,4 million dong – 150 USD) our boat driver for the half day was paid a tiny total of 200,000 Dong or 8 USD including costs for boat fuel.
Which means, that guests are often expected to tip guides and drivers so that they earn a somewhere-near-reasonable wage. Many guests do not realise this and so guides and drivers make a very low amount of money, and travellers feel obliged to give tips when they’ve already paid a good sum of money for a tour.
It’s important to note that this isn’t always the case—there are some instances where tour operators pay their guides and staff members good wages, but these seem to be the exception rather than the rule, in this part of the world.
So what is the solution?
If I was to go to Can Tho again I would go down to the boat dock and arrange a boat and guide myself. It would definitely take more time to do this, but I’d be sure where my money was going, and be able to determine my own schedule.
In a country where Responsible Travel is more established than it is in Vietnam, I would always opt for a tour through a platform like visit.org or I-likelocal, who focus on community based tourism models. These are both companies that I use myself and recommend.
Summing up my Experience of the Mekong Delta.
During my travels of Southern Vietnam I saw two extremes. An untouched country, and a country taken over by greedy travel operators and tour companies looking to exploit and grow mass tourism for financial gain.
I saw waterways that were relatively quiet and peaceful, and waterways that were clogged up with plastic and filth. The delicate ecosystem of the Mekong Delta is literally being plugged up with plastic waste. It was inescapable.
It’s not a new story, but it is something that saddened me to see in Vietnam.
Responsible Travel in Vietnam.
In my search for Responsible travel in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, it became apparent that there were very few options. The North of Vietnam is a different story. I didn’t go to that part of the country this time, but there are many responsible tourism initiatives around Hanoi, Sapa, and Hoi An. I recommend checking out I-Like Local to get an idea of the experiences on offer.
As with some other South East Asian countries it can be hard to get off the tourist-circuit and away from the crowds. One thing however is clear: efforts to do so fall to us as travellers, but are often rewarded by the experience we have and the memories that we take home.
Was it Worth It Going Back to Vietnam?
On my first visit to Vietnam I left with the feeling that it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. My love for the country has now been challenged.
I don’t easily form negative opinions of places but based on my experience of in the Mekong Delta, and the lack of Responsible Travel options there, I have to say I would not return in a hurry to the large towns of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. I would, however, return to some of the smaller, off the beaten path villages to explore more, and explore responsible travel options in Northern Vietnam.