Life on the delta revolves around the Mekong River, with its green expanses of paddy fields, thick orchards, and intricate patchwork of canals. Floating houses, markets, and fishing boats bob on the rivers, while the islands boast dense forests and beautiful white-sand beaches. Amid the bells, drums, and chanting of the delta’s many pagodas, an ancient way of life continues well into the 21st century.
With its origins on the high plateau of Tibet, the mighty Mekong River meanders along for 2,800 miles (4,500 km), gathering silt from China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, before splitting into the distributaries that give the region the name Song Cuu Long or the River of Nine Dragons. These tentacled waterways bestow Vietnam’s southern plain with rich alluvial soil that has made it a “rice basket,” as well as a “fruit basket” filled with coconut, longan, and mango trees. The delta has long been laid claim to by Cambodia, and in 1978, the Khmer Rouge orchestrated a savage massacre at numerous villages. Nevertheless, the delta and its people are extremely resilient, having survived the ravages of frequent floods, French and Cambodian occupation, many bombings, and the devastating effects of the chemical defoliant, Agent Orange. Despite this legacy of conflict and upheaval, life on the delta ebbs and flows to an age-old rhythm. Through necessity and tradition, the physical boundaries between land and water are transcended by farmers who row across canals that crisscross their emerald fields. In contrast, commer- cial towns such as Can Tho and Rach Gia are hurtling towards modernization. Everywhere, however, are attractive Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese-style pagodas that reflect the delta’s ethnic diversity. Nature is a major part of the delta’s draw. Ha Tien’s beaches fea ture white sand and towering limestone karsts, while the marshland around Bac Lieu is home to a variety of migratory birds. Off Vietnam’s southern shore lie Phu Quoc and Con Dao Islands, which boast national parks and are both fast becoming popular as ecotourism destinations.