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The Mekong Delta

where the Mekong meets the sea

Flowing 4350km from its source in Tibet, the Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world- 10th largest in terms of volume, and is a life force for over 60 million people along its way. Entering Vietnam, the Mekong splits into a vast maze of rivers with islands and villages surrounded by rice paddies, where boats have been the main means of transport since early centuries.

A bit of history in the flow-
The Lunar and Solar Empires of Funan and Chenla:
The Kingdom of Funan was established in the 1st century AD.  Legends tell of an Indian Brahmin called Kaundinya who traveled to the lower reaches of the Mekong and married Soma –  a daughter of the Naga deity.  The Naga drank the floodwaters of the Mekong and enabled people to cultivate the land. This unity symbolized the fertility of the kingdom and the founding of the Lunar Dynasty of Funan– a maritime empire with its ancient port at Oc Eo, which was involved in trade stretching from China to India and beyond to the Roman Empire. No architecture survived this period but excavations discovered early trade items including pottery, jewelry. A religious statue of the Hindu god Vishnu is on display at the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City.  It is clear that the Funanese had developed great skills in creating irrigation systems turning their swamps into canals for agricultural heartlands.
By 550AD, the Kingdom of Funan, under the last King Rudravarman, was taken over by its vassal state, Chenla.

Chenla was established around the area of Kampong Thom of modern-day Cambodia and stretched into what is today southern Laos- the region of Champassak where you can visit the ancient Khmer temple of Wat Phou.

A Chenla legend tells of an ancestral hermit named Kambu from an area called  Kambujadesha  ( similar to modern term Cambodia ) of the Lunar Kingdom.  The god Shiva gave hermit Kambu the hand in marriage of a celestial nymph called Mera. The merged names of  Kambu and Mera probably explain the origin of the name Khmer. Kambu and Mera  formed the union of the Lunar and Solar Dynasties  and produced a line of kings from which descended the later Angkor sovereigns.

During the 8th century, Chenla was split by unrest into two separate states: Land Chenla and Water Chenla. The territory of Land Chenla included northern areas of what are now Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  Water Chenla bordered the sea and lakes in the south including part of the Mekong Delta in present day Vietnam.

Another naval state that had emerged was the Javanese empire. With its own expansion ambitions, the Javanese conquered the Chenla States.  Several Chenla princes were taken to be raised in the Javanese court and it was Jayavarman II who returned to found his new Kingdom of Angkor.
The area of the Mekong Delta was called Kamphuchea Krom (Lower Kampuchea) and minority ethnic Khmer Krom still reside in this part of Vietnam today.

Angkor fell in the 15th century, and during the time of Cambodian King Chey Chetta II who reigned from 1618-1628, Cambodia was still battling with the Siamese. King Chey Chetta married a Vietnamese princess and asked the Vietnamese to assist in regaining its territory from the Siamese.  The Vietnamese had gradually expanded south into what became Sai Gon, having taken over this trading port which was called Prey Nokor by the Cham Empire.

King Chey Chetta allowed Vietnamese settlers into Cambodia, but the numbers grew overwhelmingly and the successors of King Chey Chetta, concerned about Vietnamese domination, then asked Siam for assistance.  This ping-pong pattern continued for years with Siam and Vietnam fighting on Cambodian territory with the Khmer Royal family split into pro-Siamese and pro-Vietnamese factions.

Finally Champa, the other Indianized empire dating back to 2nd century and which stretched from present day Central Vietnam and down the coast, was absorbed into Vietnam by Minh Mang and the Nguyen dynasty in 1832.

In 1864  King Norodom agreed to French protection as he believed the French would provide military assistance against the Siamese. But this proved wrong as the French still honored Siam’s claim to Cambodian’s western provinces including Battambang and Siem Reap. In 1884 King Norodom was persuaded to sign a treaty turning Cambodia into a French colony and along with Laos and Vietnam, became part of the Union of French Indochina. It was not until 1907 with the Franco-Siamese treaty, that Cambodian Battambang and Siem Reap provinces were handed over to French control.

Following independence from France, the Mekong Delta became part of the Republic of Vietnam and eventually the country of reunified Vietnam. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime attacked Vietnam in an attempt to reconquer the Delta region. This campaign precipitated the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and subsequent downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

Travel to the Delta region today:

More than 17 million people live in this important agricultural and fishing region. Can Tho is the main town and tourism base, as well as Chau Doc, which is very close to the Cambodian border. Visitors can explore the waterways and floating markets on day trips or with live-aboard cruise boats that also offer itineraries up into Cambodia.  See Links below.

Can Tho’s airport now receives flights from Hanoi and perhaps more will be added from DaNang allowing easier access.
Phu Quoc Island is becoming the new beach destination with direct flights from Ho Chi Minh and a new service from Bangkok is planned by Bangkok Airways.

Driving from Ho Chi Minh City will bring you to Cai Be in approx 2.5 hours. Enroute visit a Cao Dai Temple– an interesting religion that encompasses all beliefs into one.

At Cai Be, begin your waterway exploring. Local boats bring you to villages where see the life of local farmers who open their homes to visitors to enjoy lunch and to sample their wonderful fruits. Local families also produce rice paper and are famous for their home-made candies.
From Vinh Long, continue by road and bridge to Can Tho.

Can Tho is another city bustling with energy.  A great base for visiting the Cai Rang Floating Market and perhaps set off on a bicycle ride on to paths passing rice paddies, ducks, water buffalo and monkey bridges!

Lots of small hotels at reasonable prices are to be found in Can Tho city, but for quieter sanctuaries and done in lovely style, check out  Victoria Hotels in Can Tho and if you have more time, venture out to Chau Doc where there are now two Victoria properties- one along the river and another on Sam Mountain:

In Chau Doc, explore the floating houses and fish farms where catfish and tilapia are still cultivated here in a traditional way.  There are also ethnic Cham villages accessible by boat.

A culinary specialty of the region is the smelly Mam Fish which is primarily used for Fish Sauce production. (Nuoc Mam).  The Vietnamese love to argue about where the best fish sauce comes from-  the North or the South?  Numerous factories which produce fish sauce are located around Chau Doc.

Mountains above the Delta- an unusual sight in this normally flat area.
From Chau Doc town,  Sam Mountain about 5km away. Up at 230 meters, you have a splendid view of Chau Doc, the surrounding plantations and the river heading up into Cambodia. You can climb the mountain either by foot in about 45 minutes (2 km one way) or by a motorbike taxi (Xe om). Along the way there are numerous stations with refreshments and a Café at the top.
Sam Mountain is where many locals gather for early morning  exercise and the area is also very popular with pilgrims visiting the nearby Lady Xu and Tay An Temples.

Cam Mountain is the highest mountain in the region  (716 meters) located about 40 km south of Chau Doc and also attracts many Vietnamese tourists.

Tra Su Bird Sanctuary is about 20 km from Chau Doc.

Oc Eo-  the archaeological site of  the old port city of former Kingdom of Funan is located about 2 hours southwest of Chau Doc and west Long Xuyen.

Following history of human conquests and conflicts, the delta now faces new challenges. More proposed dams further up the Mekong, as well as climate change with rising sea waters may change the landscape of this area for the next generation.  So this is the time to explore the fascinating Mekong Delta.

Below are links to some live-aboard cruise operators:

Toum Tiou Cruise
Boats named after two young lovers, Toum and Tiou who tell a Cambodian Romeo and Juliet story.  Today offering various cruise options in the delta and from Saigon, and upriver into Cambodia.

Mekong Pandaw Cruise:
same operator as the Pandaw boats on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, and now also exploring remoter rivers in Indonesian Borneo.

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