Just a short three-hour coach ride from Ho Chi Minh City (or a two-hour hair-rising motorbike ride if you’re feeling adventurous), down in the Mekong Delta, lies one of Vietnam’s most beautiful, untouched and authentic provinces.
Ben Tre province, Vietnam’s capital of coconuts, is so close to Saigon that the contrast between the city’s hustle and Ben Tre’s tranquillity is immediate and incredibly dramatic. The main town of the province, Ben Tre, is the epitome of simple Vietnamese small-town life. With only a handful of restaurants and hotels, the town has retained the simple charm of traditional Vietnamese life, with simple beer halls and local cuisine dominating the nightlife scene.
Sedate and serene, the calm town is a delightful getaway option for anyone seeking a quick and easy break from city life. Try and get there early in the afternoon, explore the town, eating as you go until the sun sets. Here are two places you should definitely check out:
Nguyen Trung Truc Street, Ward 2, Ben Tre
Situated between two busy roads, Phan Ngoc Tong Street and Hung Vuong Street, the Ben Tre night market serves clothes, handmade souvenirs and an enormous range of coconut-derived crafts. You could browse the wares for hours if you wish, and maybe take a short break to pick up some delicious fresh fruit, grown in the local orchards. If you get tired of shopping, the nearby Ben Tre riverfront with its idyllic lights and calming serenity makes for a perfect location for a romantic evening stroll.
Photo by: Nguyen Anh Duy
51 Ngo Quyen Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre
Purportedly the only Western restaurant in town, Thuy Pizza is a gem of an eatery for anyone who needs a break from noodles and pork. The dough is fresh and crisp and the toppings tasty and filling. The staff is friendly and the interior is peaceful and beset with a gentle, homely atmosphere. Well worth a visit if you’re craving some home comforts.
Where to stay
Hung Vuong Hotel
148-166 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre
With unbeatable value for money at around $15 a room, the Hung Vuong hotel comes highly recommended. Modestly furnished, yet clean and efficient. it’s no surprise most travellers make it their first port of call in the town. It’s also conveniently located in the city centre, offering easy access to the night market, restaurants and street food stalls.
Viet Uc Hotel
144 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 3, Ben Tre
Slightly downriver, and slightly upmarket, the Viet Uc hotel may be twice the price of Hung Vuong at $30, but the 4+-star service is well worth the extra money. If you’re only staying a night or two it’s perfect for a luxurious getaway on a shoestring budget.
Ham Luong Hotel
200 Hung Vuong Street, Ward 5, Ben Tre
Similarly priced to the Viet Uc, the Ham Luong Hotel may be the pick of the town due to its gorgeous coconut field views, crisp river breeze and quint traditional decor. It's a little further away from the action at around two kilometres from the city centre but in a town with such a sedate pace, a two-kilometre stroll is all part of the fun. Highly recommended.
Venturing South: Ba Tri
While Ben Tre province is worth a visit for the main town alone, there really isn’t much to warrant more than a one or two days’ stay. To really experience the beauty of the province, take a trip south to the smaller town of Bat Ri. Nestled down at the bottom of the peninsular, this sleepy town is a truly untouched joy, with friendly locals, rich heritage and exquisite scenery.
Amazing Dream Homestay
039/AL An Binh Tay Hamlet, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre
To best experience the town there is no better way to go than to opt for a homestay, such as the fantastically friendly Amazing Dream Homestay. By staying in a family home you can immerse yourself in village life in an instant and enjoy unrivalled access to the local attractions.
Arriving around midday is to be advised, not least because you’ll no doubt be invited to join the family for a light lunch on arrival. It is fairly common for guests to be welcomed and treated instantly as one of the family, and at the Amazing Dream Homestay. Like many homestays, accommodation is not the family’s primary source of income. You may notice the family preparing mounds of vegetables into dua mon, a local delicacy which combines fresh vegetables with fish sauce and spices to create an unmistakably strong, pungent accompaniment, added to almost every meal. If you pitch in and help them with their craft you will no doubt enjoy a discount on your room bill.
Dinner is eaten with the family, giving a wonderful opportunity to experience authentic Vietnamese cuisine – enjoying a traditional mix of salted fish, rice, vegetables, hotpots and a variety of sauces.
Ben Tre province is famous for its unique cuisine, from elephant ear fish to coconut candy. Restaurants abound but again, there is no better way to experience the variety of flavours than with the assistance of a local expert, yet another reason to opt for a homestay rather than a hotel or hostel.
Ben Tre’s beautiful scenery is peppered with vast lakes of what at first appearance seem to be lilies. In fact, these lakes are home to vast floating fields of lotus plants, resplendent with pink flowers and bright green leaves.
With a little negotiation, and for a small fee, it is possible to hire a boat and driver to paddle out into the mass of lotus plants.
As you approach the field or green and pink flora, the silence of the countryside lulls you into a state of pure calm. The delightful peace and gentle sound of the paddle hitting the water are only interrupted by the occasional low ‘moo’ of a distant cow.
Nearing the edge of the floating forest you begin to make out the beauty of the iconic lotus plants. The locals I floated out with picked occasional plants and as we slowly drifted through grabbed what looked like children’s rattles, passing them to me. These dark green cones, specked with strange looking lumps on their flat upper side were, they told me, guong sen, Lotus pods. By breaking them open and retrieving the Lotus seeds within we were able to snack out on the lake, pleasantly basking in the mild afternoon sun and enjoying the cool breeze and idyllic peace of the scenery.
By the end of our trip around the lake, our boat was filled with lotus pods and flowers, making perfect gifts for friends and our newly adopted family.
Ba Tri is full of delightful little secrets. You might have to put a bit of effort into finding them all but it’s worth it.
Quang Anh Coffee Shop
No. 42,19 Thang 5 Street, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre
One of the reasons Ba Tri is so popular with locals is the abundance of coconut-based delicacies. Sticky coconut is available pretty much everywhere (and well worth sampling) but for an unforgettable experience, visit the Quang Anh Coffee Shop to try the coconut pudding cake (Rau Cau Dua). Succulent and tasty, it's the true taste of the South.
Ong Pagoda – That Phu Vo Mieu
Ba Tri District, Ben Tre
With a unique heritage dating back to 300 years of Chinese Buddhist settlers, the That Phu Vo Nieu Pagoda is a mystical and humbling building. As you enter, shoeless, of course, you smell the ancient carved wood and the scent of incense. A monk or priest will invite you to light joss sticks and pray to the Buddha, and any other deities you choose to honour.
The branch of Buddhism practiced here, Xin Xam Dau Nam, is a rare mix of Buddhism and ancient Chinese spiritualism. Different statues represents different facets of life and the faithful pray to whichever god can best help guide them on their way.
It’s generally rare to see large crowds in attendance: Local worshippers visit the temple sporadically in times of need, to light joss sticks and pray. Usually they do so in the hope of finding guidance on life’s important junctures – be they marriage proposals, job issues or family disputes.
However, throughout the year, the pagoda holds special events which are well attended by locals. Many Ba Tri residents are of Chinese descent, and the pagoda offers them a chance to reconnect with their spiritual heritage. Ornamental weaponry is taken off the walls and incorporated into the pageantry, creating a unique and deeply historical atmosphere.
Phu Le Rice Wine Factory
456 HL14, Phu Thanh, Phu Le Hamlet, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre
A trip to Ba Tri is not complete without sampling a local delicacy with justified national notoriety. The intensely potent sticky rice wine made at the Phu Le distillery is a force to be reckoned with.
Master Distiller Mrs. Loan will happily demonstrate her craft, chattering away as she simmers huge vats of sticky rice and water over bamboo kilns, before slowly distilling the alcohol through a huge vat of cold water.
It's a painstaking process that she undertakes largely on her own, but with generations of distillers behind her she is happy to continue the family tradition.
With an average output of around 40 litres a week it’s hardly an industrial operation, but her large tubs of high-power liquor supply bars and restaurants for miles around. At around 50 percent ABV, calling this stuff ”wine” is a heinous misnomer, but with such a unique taste there really isn’t an easy alternative English equivalent. Its strong flavour is overpowering at first but after becomes surprisingly drinkable afterwards; provided it is suitably mixed. Locals advise coconut water and lime, I went with coca cola, purely out of convenience.
Ba Tri is not a party town, but most of the homestays in the region do offer entertainment of some sort. After drinking a few rice wine/coca cola mixers with your fellow guests you may feel the the need to party. From across the farmland that surrounds the town you will hear karaoke machines blaring out Western and Vietnamese songs. Take the hint and join in.
Karaoke is such a simple pleasure that you can forget how much fun it is, but when staying in the countryside, getting to know new friends in a sedate and simple setting and drinking alcohol that could probably, in all fairness, be used as paint thinner, there is nothing more fun than butchering a rendition of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello.
This is the nightlife. While there are bars, they rarely attract enough customers to justify late opening hours. The way of life in Ben Tre is that of agriculture, nature and tranquillity. Bedtime for my hosts was generally around 9 to 10 p.m.
Ben Tre is a different world from Ho Chi Minh City, much like the rest of rural Vietnam in many respects. But with it so close, there is every reason to take a short break south and explore this delightful province.