The boulevards of Tra Vinh, one of the prettiest towns in the Mekong Delta, are still lined with shady trees, harking back to an earlier era. With more than 140 Khmer pagodas dotting the province, Tra Vinh is a quiet place for exploring the Mekong’s little-touted Cambodian connection.
Ha Tien may be part of the Mekong Delta, but lying on the Gulf of Thailand it feels a world away from the rice fields and rivers that typify the region. There are dramatic limestone formations peppering the area, which are home to a network of caves, some of which have been turned into temples. Plantations of pepper trees cling to the hillsides.
A thriving port on the Gulf of Thailand, Rach Gia's population includes significant numbers of both ethnic Chinese and ethnic Khmers, and the lively waterfront and bustling backstreets are worth a stroll. With its easy access to the sea and the proximity of Cambodia and Thailand, fishing, agriculture and smuggling are profitable trades in this province.
The capital of An Giang province has little to detain travellers, especially since Can Tho and Chau Doc are an easy bus ride away. Long Xuyen was once a stronghold of the Hoa Hao sect. Founded in 1939, the sect emphasises simplicity in worship and does not believe in temples or intermediaries between humans and the Supreme Being.
It's not the most charming of Mekong towns, but modern Soc Trang is an important centre for the Khmer people, who constitute 30% of the province’s population, the highest proportion in the country. It’s a useful base for exploring Khmer temples in the area, although you can probably skip these if Cambodia is on your radar.
On the shores of the Ganh Hao River, Ca Mau is the capital and sole city in Ca Mau province, which covers the southern tip of the Mekong Delta. It’s a remote and inhospitable area that wasn’t cultivated until the late 17th century. Owing to the boggy terrain, the province has the lowest population density in southern Vietnam.
The drowsy former capital of Dong Thap province, Sa Dec is a comparatively peaceful city of tree-lined streets and fading colonial villas, ringed with orchards and flower markets. Lining the waterways are flower nurseries you can visit, which are especially popular just before Tet for witnessing a riot of blooms loaded onto boats.
You'll pass Khmer pagodas, Cao Dai temples, pepper farms, grandiose churches and karst outcrops en route to Hon Chong, home to photogenic stone grottoes, cave shrines and what would be the nicest stretch of sand on the delta’s mainland if it weren't for the dirty water, polluted by discharge from the nearby cement factory.
A sacred place for Buddhists, Sam Mountain (Nui Sam, 284m) and its environs are crammed with dozens of pagodas and temples. A strong Chinese influence makes it particularly popular with ethnic Chinese, but Buddhists of all ethnicities visit here. Temples at the base and surrounds can show Islamic, Indian and Khmer influences.