As I recently learned, a trip to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta can’t be fully complete without spending some time in My Tho City. Only 70 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho is one of the closest destinations for a truly relaxed getaway away from Saigon’s madding crowds.
As I learned, My Tho has innumerable things that can be enjoyed. A bike trip through towns, villages, and along footpaths; tours of fish farms, coconut farms, and cocoa farms; exploring small city markets full of beautiful local products; visiting Cao Dai temples and Buddhist pagodas; and, of course, enjoying the peace and serenity of Vietnam’s country life.
And, if you’re as lucky as I was, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery and high-class luxury of The Island Lodge.
But First, a Few Words About My Tho
You might not have heard about My Tho, and I don’t blame you. When placed alongside larger and more overly scenic cities like Ha Long Bay, Da Lat, Can Tho and Hoi An, My Tho often gets sidelined.
You’re even more likely to hear about the neighboring city of Ben Tre, connected by the relatively new Rach Mieu Bridge, which is quickly becoming a homestay hotspot. While all of these locations have their own charms, let me tell you: there’s no place like My Tho.
This small city of around a quarter of a million residents thrives on small-town charm. In the past, this town, located in the northern region of the Mekong Delta, was considered a gateway into the southern lands and rivers. The economy here is largely built around fishing and agriculture.
Nowadays, My Tho is separated into six “communes”, and our story today takes place in Thoi Son. Even more specific, I spent my weekend on Unicorn Island (Con Lan), one of the four islands in Thoi Son (the other three: Dragon Island, or Con Rong; Tortoise Island, or Con Qui; and Phoenix Island, or Con Phung).
The mere fact that you can stay somewhere called Unicorn Island should be reason enough to go. But if you need even more reasons, read on.
Experience the Truly Special Island Lodge
The fun thing about this weekend was that I was able to experience two completely different worlds. On the one hand, I spent time in authentic Vietnamese countryside, biking and sightseeing for two wonderful days (more on this later). One the other hand, I got to luxuriate in The Island Lodge, an exquisite hidden gem of a boutique hotel.
Run by Michel and Françoise Scour, from the time I stepped foot in The Island Lodge, I knew it was a special place. As I walked up to the receptionist, I saw a welcome drink waiting for me; as I sat down and took a look around the open-air restaurant area and magnificent 24-metre pool, I was given three amuse-bouches just because.
I could wax poetic about the quality of the rooms, the deliciousness of the French and Vietnamese food offered in the restaurant and the lush opulence of the grounds and well-placed architectural touches. Basically, there are so many places to relax on the grounds of The Island Lodge that, even if you trip and fall, you’ll probably land in a beautiful and comfortable lounge chair. Just try and feel tense at The Island Lodge – I don’t think it’s possible.
One of the best things about The Island Lodge, however, is the owners, Michel and Françoise. Natives of France, they opened their hotel two and a half years ago because 1) who wouldn’t want to live there?? And 2) to celebrate and promote the beauty of My Tho’s surroundings and people.
Their devotion to both their guests’ happiness and the Mekong Delta as a whole is evident by the way that Michel personally leads bike tours and tailors each guest’s experience to their particular interests. Case in point: during my weekend there, two guests told Michel they were in Vietnam to look for chocolate farms to source cocoa for their candy factory in France. So, Michel organised a trip to a local cocoa farmer in the area.
What Can You Do in My Tho?
Bike Through the Countryside
Without a doubt, biking is a must when you visit My Tho, or anywhere else in the Mekong Delta. The plentiful bridges arching over small rivers and streams, the narrow country paths leading to places more and more beautiful, the ability to pass at your leisure and enjoy the country at your own pace… it’s hard not to fall in love with My Tho on the seat of a bike.
But before we go on, a bit of context. I don’t exercise often. For me, climbing up three flights of stairs to my apartment is exercise enough, thank you. So when Michel announced on Friday night that he would show me his 13-kilometre Fish Farms Road tour, I was, at first, a little worried. I’d been to the Mekong Delta several times before, and the tours were markedly different.
On a typical tour, travellers are herded onto a boat where they are driven straight to an empty floating market and then the coconut candy factory. The tour Michel was proposing sounded like a proper bike tour. Could I handle it? Or had my cushy Saigon lifestyle atrophied my leg muscles? I would soon find out.
It was actually amazingly fun. We rode through a variety of different terrains and Michel essentially showed me a cross section of what life was like in the sleepy towns of Ben Tre and My Tho. I was able to see sugar cane fields, banana farms, cocoa trees, pink carp fish farms, and about a dozen other spectacular things. What I really enjoyed about the trip was how relaxed the itinerary was. Michel asked casually if I wanted to see an independently owned pagoda for fruit and water, for example (the answer, of course, was “yes”).
Explore the Vinh Trang Temple
The Vinh Trang Temple is definitely the most famous tourist destination in My Tho, and for good reason. To call it just a temple does it a slight injustice, because you get a lot more than a temple when you come here: the grounds also feature two massive statues of Buddha (one reclining and one sitting), the temple proper, a lotus garden, a small cemetery and amazingly beautiful gardens.
But be warned: when I visited the temple, I was not alone. There were three large tour groups milling around the grounds and enjoying the sights. Be prepared to have a certain number of photobombers invading your pictures.
Admire the Cao Dai Temple
This beautiful building is a great example of Cao Dai architecture. This religion, established in 1926 and unique to Vietnam, incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. What I discovered on my visit, however, is that it also incorporates stunning and colourful architecture.
As soon as I walked in, I was struck by how quiet and still the pagoda was. It’s not a huge place, and there aren’t many attractions attached to it, but it was a wonderful place to visit.
Visit the Fruit and Vegetable Market
After my trip to the peaceful Cao Dai Temple, my trip to the fruit and vegetable market was a big shock. The energy! The people! The (sometimes unpleasant) smells! And, of course, the fruit!
Fruit and vegetables weren’t the only things sold here. I went on a Sunday morning, and the place was packed with people, sounds and activities. There’s a huge food court, flowers, textiles, sassy vendors (one woman let me take her picture and then – somewhat – playfully tried to shake me down for VND 5,000) and fresh fruit and vegetables literally everywhere you look. Even better, this market was a good place to interact with locals. The language barrier was strong, but we still found ways to communicate.
Read. Live. Enjoy.
I’ll just leave this here.
Things to Watch Out For
The sun. I grew up in Hawaii, and I’ve never felt the sun so strong as during this trip. During my bike ride I slathered myself with sunscreen, and I still got a slight burn. My advice: keep the sunscreen with you and reapply it often.
If you’re a foreigner, you’ll probably get a lot of stares. Don’t let this get to you! Just take it in stride. If you smile, you’re pretty much guaranteed a smile in return.
Who Should Go
My Tho is a great place for families and couples.
Boat tours and market visits are perfect for families. With the scenery changing with every moment, kids will no doubt be entertained. Plus, the abundant fruits, teas and candies in most restaurants are ideal for people who take pleasure in sitting for longer periods and simply enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
More adventurous couples will definitely love My Tho as well. Bike tours abound, and most hotels and homestays rent bikes for a half day or full day if you’d rather go solo. While there’s the slight chance that you’ll get lost amidst the different paths, roads and canals, it won’t be difficult to find somebody willing to direct you back on the right path.
For more information about The Island Lodge, be sure to check out their website.