The Mekong Delta is a vast area covering over 15,000 square miles in Southern Vietnam. Often referred to as the “Rice Bowl of Vietnam”, the abundance of sun and water make for ideal farming conditions for rice and a variety of fruits and vegetables. A trip to the Mekong River Delta means sampling local products like coconut candy and honey, paddling through winding river canals, and visiting one of Vietnam’s famous floating markets.
The nearest floating market to Saigon is a wholesale market in the small town of Cai Be. Many tourists visit the Cai Be floating market as a part of an organized 1-day tour. But, we decided to explore Cai Be on our own.
This gave us extra time to check out this part of the Mekong River Delta while also allowing us to avoid some of the more touristy activities typically included in organized tours. We also saved quite a bit of money by taking local transportation and arranging our own accommodations in Cai Be.
So if you’re like us and prefer to get off the beaten path, then follow our DIY guide to the Cai Be Floating Market and explore Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta on your own.
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DIY Guide to Visiting Vietnam’s Mekong Delta: Cai Be Floating Market
Why Avoid a Tour to the Cai Be Floating Market?
A trip to the Mekong Delta is on most people’s Southern Vietnam itinerary. In fact, we did a Mekong day trip from Saigon in 2018 that brought us to the village of My Tho. The tour agency took us to a small shop that produced and sold honey (we were encouraged to try and buy), we watched a musical performance (we were asked for tips), and we did a rowboat ride through a canal (we were repeatedly pressured for a tip).
For us, this Mekong River Delta experience was fun and informative, but also quite touristy. We didn’t feel like we actually got a sense of the local life in the delta. We certainly didn’t have any authentic interactions with any Vietnamese locals. The area around My Tho is really beautiful, but when you’re part of a tour you get shuffled from one organized activity to the next, without really getting to enjoy any of it.
After living in Saigon for a few months, we thought it would be fun to get out of the city and spend a few days in the Mekong – preferably somewhere a bit more “off-the-beaten-path” than our last trip to My Tho. A short trip to the Cai Be Floating Market seemed like the perfect opportunity to begin exploring the Mekong Delta on our own.
If you plan your own trip to the Mekong Delta, without a tour company, you’ll have more control over where you go. And while many tour agencies visit the Cai Be Floating Market, if you go on your own you can actually interact with locals and get off the beaten path.
Of course, a trip to Cai Be can more difficult to organize yourself, but there’s no doubt that you’ll have a much better experience in Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta!
Cai Be Floating Market Opening Hours
The Cai Be floating market is technically open all day, but you’ll find it’s best to visit right at sunrise. This floating market is a wholesale market so most of the activity occurs early in the morning. Shopkeepers are out on their boats purchasing produce from the wholesalers in the floating market that they will take back to their shops or market stalls to sell during the day.
Because most organized tours don’t even leave Saigon until 7 or 8 am, you won’t be able to experience this Mekong floating market at dawn unless you plan your own trip to Cai Be and spend at least one night in the Mekong Delta.
How Much Time to Spend in Cai Be
Cai Be is a small town so there are only a handful of things to do there – the main one being the Cai Be Floating Market. Two days and one night in Cai Be should give you plenty of time to see the floating market, explore the area around Cai Be by bicycle, and even spend a bit of time lounging by the pool.
We recommend booking an early bus from Saigon to Cai Be on your first day. After you arrive and drop your bags at the hotel, you can spend the afternoon biking around Cai Be and Tan Phong island before watching the sunset over the Mekong River.
Get up early on your second day and see the Cai Be floating market just after sunrise while it is busiest. If you like, you can visit the Cai Be church and then have lunch at Mr. Kiet’s Historic House. Spend a couple of hours relaxing at the pool before catching an afternoon bus back to Saigon.
Where to Stay in Cai Be
For our trip to Cai Be, we stayed at the Mekong Lodge Resort. It’s located right on the banks of the Mekong River so you can sit and watch the boats slowly passing by while eating breakfast or lounging at the pool.
The resort is down a small dirt road, outside of town, so the atmosphere is peaceful and serene. In fact, you can’t even reach the Mekong Lodge by car as the road is only wide enough for motorbikes and bicycles (don’t worry, they’ll send a boat to pick you up at the pier in Cai Be).
The price at the Mekong Lodge Resort is quite reasonable so don’t expect luxury here. You’ll be staying in a bungalow under a mosquito net (although the air conditioning probably does a better job at keeping them away). The beds are comfortable, the bathrooms are quite large, and it includes an ample breakfast spread. Plus, they have a large pool surrounded by greenery and an onsite spa – both are perfect for relaxing in the Mekong!
The Mekong Lodge provides complimentary bicycles and the location is ideal for exploring Cai Be. It’s just a 10-minute ride to the Cai Be floating market and Tan Phong island is just a short ferry ride away.
If there is no availability at the Mekong River Lodge, you can try these other properties in Cai Be:
- Mekong Riverside Boutique Resort & Spa
- The Durian Lodge at Mekong
- Mekong Ecolodge (located on Tan Phong island)
- Mekong Rustic Cai Be (located on Tan Phong island)
Mekong Packing Essentials
There are only three items that I would highly recommend you pack for your trip to the Mekong Delta – bug spray, sunscreen, and a swimsuit. It gets incredibly hot in southern Vietnam so sunscreen is a must. You’ll probably also want a sunhat to protect your face while biking around the villages. And you’ll likely encounter a few mosquitoes in the evenings depending on the time of year that you visit.
And be sure to check out our complete packing list for Vietnam here!
Getting to Cai Be and the Mekong Delta
The best bus company for getting from Saigon to Cai Be is the Hải Duyên bus company. Bus tickets are inexpensive (only 90,000 VND per person) and they depart approximately every half hour during the day. The buses are air-conditioned, the seats are comfortable and spacious, and, in our experience, the buses are punctual.
The bus terminates in Cai Be so you won’t need to worry about where to get off. Just stay on until the last stop and you’ll arrive in downtown Cai Be.
If you choose to stay at the Mekong Lodge, you’ll want the bus driver to drop you off at the Cai Be Tourist Pier (labeled Bến Tàu Du Lịch Cái Bè on Google Maps). Their English may be limited so just show them this phrase in Vietnamese: “Vui lòng trung chuyển tôi đến bến tàu du lich Cái Bè (gần bến phà Tân Phong – Cái Bè), xin cảm ơn!“
The Mekong Lodge Resort will arrange to pick you up in a boat when you arrive at the harbor. The hotel is just a short boat ride away.
Getting Around Cai Be
While it’s possible to rent a motorbike to explore the delta, most visitors choose to utilize the free bicycles offered by most resorts. The roads are bumpy and occasionally muddy but the distances are relatively short. Plus, you’ll notice that many of the locals opt to travel by bike as well so you’ll be in good company.
Two passenger ferries run between the mainland and the island of Tan Phong in the middle of the Mekong River. The first ferry leaves from the town of Cai Be near the tourist pier (labeled Bến tàu Cái Bè on Google Maps) and drops you on the western end of Tan Phong island.
The second ferry leaves from further downriver near the village of Hiệp Đức and drops you closer to the middle of Tan Phong island (labeled Bến phà Hiệp Đức -Tân Phong on Google Maps). This allows you to make a loop on your bicycle.
The ferries run about every 10 minutes so you’ll never have to wait long to cross. You can ride your bicycle or motorbike up the ramp and onto the boat. The fare is ~4,500 VND ($0.20) for a person plus a bicycle. You don’t need to buy a ticket before you board – someone will come around to collect payment during the river crossing.
The Best Things to do in Cai Be
Visit the Cai Be Floating Market
Arguably the most popular activity in the Mekong Delta is to visit one of their famous floating markets. Get up early and bike to the Cai Be Floating Market. You can check out the view of the market from the Cau Cai Be 2 bridge, or head back to the Cai Be Tourist Pier and arrange a boat ride to get up-close and personal.
There is a small table right next to the Cai Be Tourist Pier where you can book a boat trip. If you want to check out the floating market as well as a few other touristy activities in the area, you’ll be quoted 500,000 VND (~$22 USD) for a private boat. If you book a similar tour through the hotel, you’ll be quoted $15 USD per person for a shared boat and $40 USD for a private boat.
So you’ll save yourself some dough if you skip the hotel tour and organize it on your own. We chose to skip the touristy stuff and just do a 20-minute boat tour of the floating market. The price was 200,000 VND (~$8.50 USD) for a private boat. I am sure we could have negotiated a bit if we had tried but we didn’t bother.
Keep in mind that this is an actual, functioning market with only a couple of boats geared toward tourists (they sell overpriced fruit and your boat driver may try to stop at one). The Cai Be floating market is technically open all day but it’s busiest early in the morning. During the heat of the day, most of the shop owners are just lounging in hammocks and trying to stay out of the sun.
This is a wholesale market so that means most of the boats are loaded with large sacks of vegetables and fruit. Goods are arranged in a manner that is most convenient to sell them rather than in a way that is most ideal for photography. Also, many of the floating shops keep their wares covered and out of the hot sun. This is an authentic Mekong floating market, which means it may not be as colorful and vibrant as you’re expecting.
Take a Row Boat Through the Canals
We found this activity to be a bit more difficult to arrange, not being on a tour, but it is something that you can easily add to your boat trip through the Cai Be floating market. We crossed the river from Cai Be town to Tan Phong island and took the small road that cuts off to the right. You can find this location on Google Maps labeled as “Rạch Bà Năm”.
Here we found a woman chopping up jackfruit and a few men lazing around in hammocks. They were able to track down a woman who spoke English and she called in a favor.
The sweetest old man picked us up in an old wooden boat right there by the jackfruit stand. He used paddles to slowly row us through the narrow, winding canals that snake around the island. He pointed out different fruit trees along the way. Once we reached the end, he pulled the oars into the boat and revved up the motor to get us back to where we started. The trip was 100,000 VND (~$4.50) but we added an extra tip.
Cruise Around Cai Be on a Bicycle
If you want to really see what life is like in the Mekong Delta, there’s no better way to do it than cruising around the villages on a bicycle! Get lost on the winding backroads, stop for coffee at a roadside stand, and smile and wave at the friendly locals.
We outlined a perfect bike route in the “Getting Around Cai Be” section above. It will take you through the town of Cai Be, across the Mekong River to the island of Tan Phong, and finish back at the Mekong Lodge.
Visit a Historic Vietnamese Merchant House
In Cai Be, you’ll find a handful of historic merchant houses set alongside one of the canals just outside of town. Mr. Kiet’s Historic House was built in 1838 and has been owned by wealthy Vietnamese families ever since. Guests can wander around the main room to appreciate the beautiful architecture and furniture.
Through the back door is a covered patio where you can dine on the set meal of the day. For just 170,000 VND per person (~$7.30 USD), you’ll enjoy a feast that includes a massive deep-fried elephant ear fish. You’ll also enjoy vegetable soup, various friend rolls, pork, rice, and fruit for dessert. It’s a delicious meal served in a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere.
Try some Mekong Specialties
Fishing is a part of daily life in the Mekong Delta and you’ll find that seafood is served in pretty much every restaurant. The two dishes considered specialties in the Mekong are the deep-fried elephant ear fish and “canh chua“, a tamarind-flavored fish stew full of pineapple, okra, tomatoes, and bean sprouts. Make sure you give them both a try while you’re in Cai Be!
Go for a Swim
Midday in the Mekong Delta is HOT. And after spending the morning cruising around on your bicycle, you’ll definitely enjoy taking a refreshing dip in your hotel pool. Order yourself a fruity cocktail and spend the rest of the afternoon lounging.
Go on a Mekong Delta Tour
I know, I know, this entire post is dedicated to helping you avoid joining a tour group. But sometimes the thought of arranging your own transportation and trying to negotiate prices on your own can be daunting. So opting to join a pre-arranged tour provides some peace of mind. You know you’ll have an English-speaking guide, you won’t have to worry about negotiating prices, and you’ll have people to shuttle you around between activities.
The Mekong Lodge offers both an afternoon bicycle tour for $7 per person or a morning tour to the Cai Be floating market and a nearby handicraft village for $30 per person ($80 for a private tour for two people).
If you’d rather take a guided tour of the Cai Be floating market and the Mekong straight from Saigon, then just check out the various tour options on Get Your Guide!
We hope you have a wonderful time exploring the Cai Be Floating Market and visiting the Mekong Delta on your own!
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