THE MEKONG DELTA || VINH LONG
Ringed by water and besieged by boats and tumbledown stilthouses, the island that forms the heart of VINH LONG has the feel of a medieval fortress. However, if you find yourself yearning for a peaceful backwater, first impressions will be a let-down; central Vinh Long is hectic and noisy, its streets a blur of buses and motorbikes. Make for the waterfront, though, and it’s a different story, with hotels, restaurants and cafés conjuring up something of a riviera atmosphere. From here you can watch the Co Chien River roll by, dotted with sampans, houseboats and the odd raft of river-weed. Though there’s little to see or do in town, Vinh Long offers some of the most interesting boat trips in the delta – to the Cai Be floating market, coconut candy workshops, fruit orchards or even overnighting in home-stays.
Phan Thanh Gian
Born in Vinh Long Province in 1796, the mandarin diplomat Phan Thanh Gian was destined to be involved in a chain of events that was to shape over a century of Vietnamese history.
On August 31, 1858, French naval forces attacked Da Nang, citing persecution of Catholic missionaries as their justification. The French colonial land-grab, that would culminate in 1885 in the total conquest of Vietnam, had begun. By 1861, the three eastern provinces of Cochinchina had been conquered by the French Expeditionary Corps, and although there were popular anti-French uprisings Emperor Tu Duc sold out the following year, when the three provinces were formally ceded to the French by the Treaty of Saigon, which was signed by Phan Thanh Gian. A year later he had the opportunity to redress the situation, when he journeyed to Paris as ambassador to Emperor Napoleon III, to thrash out a long-term peace – the first Vietnamese ambassador ever to be despatched to Europe.
However, efforts to reclaim territory given up under the terms of the treaty failed, and by 1867 France moved to take over the rest of Cochinchina. Unable to persuade the spineless Tu Duc to sanction popular uprisings, Phan Thanh Gian embarked on a hunger strike in protest at French incursions and Hué’s ineffectuality. When, after fifteen days, he had still not died, he swallowed poison, and his place among the massed ranks of Vietnamese heroes was assured.
Boat trips from Vinh Long
The cheapest and simplest way to see the river is to hop on the An Binh Ferry on Phan Boi Chau, and cross the Co Chien River (10min; 5000) to reach An Binh Island. Sometimes called Minh Island, it’s a jigsaw of bite-sized pockets of land, skeined by a fine web of channels and gullies, eventually merging, to the east, with the province of Ben Tre. This idyllic landscape is crisscrossed by a network of dirt paths, making it ideal for a morning’s rambling or cycling, though you’ll need to take your own refreshments.
However, most people fork out for a day or half-day boat trip to see several aspects of delta life, organized through Friends Travel Vietnam or through local boatmen always on the look-out for customers near the tourist jetty. These tours often include the option of overnighting in a home-stay in a totally rural environment, though as they increase in popularity, some start to resemble guest houses rather than home-stays, with visitors put up in custom-built bamboo huts separated from the family home.
Most tour itineraries head upriver to the floating market at Cai Be, stopping to visit fruit orchards, and rice-paper and candy factories en route; some tours also stop for a fish lunch at a rural outpost. Watching the river traffic, from the tiny rowing boats to huge sampans loaded with rice husks (fuel for the nearby brick kilns), is fascinating, and stepping ashore from time to time reveals insights into the lifestyles of the locals.