Before this trip, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam conjured up images of Navy swift boats and hovercrafts fighting Viet Cong guerrillas. Or maybe scenes from the (fairly bizarre) war movie, Apocalypse Now. But as we cruised up the Mekong River – on the lookout for Marlon Brandon and Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall – we found a vast, vibrant area now known as the breakbasket of Vietnam.

This area is much more densely populated than we imagined.The Mekong Delta is home to 17 million of Vietnam’s 94 million people.  Though we didn’t visit it, the Delta’s largest city, Can Tho, has over 1.2 million residents, an international airport, and is the 4th largest city in Vietnam. The rest of the Delta is dotted with bustling towns – we went to a couple over 100,000 strong – and a multitude of small villages, all connected by a network of watery highways and, since the 2000s, a few bridges.

The Mekong River is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, second only to the Amazon. Over 1,000 animal species were recorded between 1997 and 2007 and new species of plants, fish, lizards, and mammals have been discovered in previously unexplored areas.

After its 3,000-mile journey from the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River crosses 6 countries (China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) before it splays across southern Vietnam in a water web, emptying into the South China Sea through nine branches known as the Cuu Long (Nine Dragons). Its rivers, channels, and canals irrigate the Mekong Delta, 15,000 square miles (as large as Switzerland, and 3 times the size of the Mississippi Delta), spreading alluvium over rice fields that yield three crops a year. This map has a few errors… Phnom Penh is right on the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap/Bassac Rivers, while we traveled 2 hours from Ho Chi Minh City to board our river cruise.

Our home away from home for the next four days, the 205 foot Aqua Mekong. This gorgeously luxurious ship with its world-renowned chef, sleek modern design, and first-class amenities (there’s an infinity pool on the upper deck’s stern) provides quite the juxtaposition to the floating villages and bamboo-stilt houses we would float past in the coming days. We were also very impressed with Aqua Expeditions’ philanthropic activities in the area, especially Room to Read.

To Mark: “Hurry up. The boat is about to leave!”

Aqua Expeditions hires, educates, trains and provides career paths for a mostly Cambodian and almost all local staff. This week’s crew of 35 (for us 27 guests) were polished, professional, knowledgeable, and so sweet!

As we pulled away from the dock, the modern bridge – one of 17 planned to traverse Mekong Delta waterways –  was a stark dichotomy from what we would see for most of our cruise.

The Delta is by far Vietnam’s most productive region in agriculture and aquaculture, while its role in industry and foreign direct investment is much smaller. As most of the country’s fish, fruit and rice come from the region, everywhere we looked something was being caught, harvested, bagged and transported. Here’s glimpse of the daily life of the farmers and fishermen and middlemen to many industries plying the Mekong Delta.

One of the sand barges (a common sight in the Vietnam section of the Mekong) taking sand to Saigon where it will be used to make concrete.

The water hyacinths were plentiful in the canals that lined the Mekong.

We rode bicycles on the islands and along the banks of the river just about every day. Somebody is trying to poach a banana.

We visited a frog farm – i.e., a farm that grows frogs for their legs. There were about 20 pens this size.

This guy is a breeder and is not destined for the dinner table. His offspring are, though. Yum.

You gotta love it – putt-putting up a canal glued to his smartphone. The Mekong has a daily tide of almost six feet as evidenced on the canal bank.

A ubiquitous setting along the Mekong – sheet metal houses on bamboo stilts surrounded by palm trees.

Some had a bamboo retaining wall…

…..for some it was too late.

Everyone has a boat of some sort on the Mekong. The little skiffs are used for fishing, to transport goods, etc. etc.

On one of our shore excursions, we sampled some of the local fruit. Over 100 different varieties of edible fruits are produced along the Mekong. Among these are rambutan (hairy lychees) and the big one: durian (which we tasted – ewww – in Japan)… even though our guide tried to persuade us: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven”, we weren’t buying it and we didn’t indulge this day.

If your branch of the river isn’t wide enough to warrant the new modern cable-stayed bridge, you make do.

At the home of a local family, we were serenaded with Khmer music…

…..and saw a dog dance. Actually, the two teenagers who performed the ‘Unicorn Dance’ were amazing, leaping off and on the platforms, and jumping on top of each other to make the dog ‘stand’.

With our bicycles, we crossed one of the numerous canals on a ferry. Here, Shauna – helmet askew – poses with one of our guides, Tuyen from Hanoi, who did a super job.

The ferry captain could make the run back and forth with his eyes closed. In fact, he did.

We bicycled past corn and sugarcane fields, coconut palms, banana plants, orchards, vegetable fields and bonsai gardens.

Everywhere we went, toddlers to pre-teens rushed to the roadside or riverside to wave and say “Hello!” – eager to speak the one English word they knew.

Mark: “All I want for Christmas is to be able to sit on my ankles with my knees bent like that”.

Wooden working boats have glossy paint jobs on the prow that give them a can-do attitude, like Thomas the Train, or the Little Engine Who Could.

We visited the famous Chau Doc floating Market. These boats come from all over the Mekong Delta, laden with a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Not much in the way of meat or leafy greens, though, as the market features products that don’t spoil easily. 

While many say there’s less haggling in the floating market than in a land-based one, they’re also much quieter. No one needs to hawk their goods, as a sample is conveniently displayed on the top of a bamboo pole for everyone to see.

A vendor for the vendors, serving up cold drinks to the floating market.

While in Chau Doc, we took a tuk-tuk ride. Here, Shauna poses with someone that we thought might be a Buddhist monk.

….who kept wanting to pose with her.

At the Chau Doc market, the harvest from surrounding farms was on vibrant display…

As was the harvest from the river, which we passed on.

Very near to Chau Doc, “Sam Mountain,” a 700 foot hill, rises off of the rice paddies and is host to a popular Buddhist pagoda. Even on a hazy day, the hill provides a stunning view of the surrounding patchwork of rice paddies. Cambodia was within sight now at the upper righthand corner of the photo where the smoke was rising.

We crossed the border into Cambodia via the river; the contrast in both activity and surroundings was striking. We were now often the only boat in sight (where at times, in Vietnam, there were a hundred boats); the river water became cleaner by the inch; lone fishermen replaced numerous sand barges; and children played in the water.

Another feature of the Cambodian riverside: beautifully maintained Buddhist temples with steeply pitched red roofs and hornlike finials became the signature architectural flourish, spaced every two or three miles along the riverbank.

We visited a fourth-grade classroom which meets from 7:00 am to 12:00 pm. Third-grade meets in this same classroom in the afternoon as there are not enough classrooms to go around. The children performed a few songs for us, a mixture of English and Khmer, including “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” About a third of the class took private English classes in the afternoon.

Boats working together to fish with nets. Sand beaches started to line the banks.

We kayaked by a community that was floating on barrels.

With satellite dishes attached.

We visited a soya paper factory that raised pigs on the side because the waste from the pressed soybeans is good food for the pigs. This little guy wanted to go with us.

On our last evening, we had sundowners on the beach watching a local dance troupe perform.

When in the Mekong…

Together with new friends from Houston, Jeff & Deb.

Our last sunset on the Mekong River, just outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia.