This post is part 2 of our Mekong Delta adventure, focusing on Ben Tre. We wanted to see if it’s possible to travel the Mekong Delta without a Tour. Spoiler alert: It is. You can skip the highly organised and touristy Mekong Delta Tours, if traveling independently is your thing. If you missed part 1, where I share everything about our trip to Vinh Long and An Binh island, you can read about it here: Mekong Delta Tour Part 1.
Here goes part 2, where we travel to Ben Tre and have a blast buzzing around on a scooter for two days.
Day 4: Getting from Vinh Long to Ben Tre
Our next destination was Ben Tre. We chose Ben Tre because it’s a reasonably large city (about 150,000 inhabitants), so we were hoping to find some nice food there. We also just heard great things about it being less touristy than nearby My Tho, which seems to be overrun with day trip visitors from Saigon. And finally, we wanted to be close enough to Saigon to make it up to Saigon airport on our last day as we were flying out to Nha Trang in the afternoon.
Our original plan was to get to Ben Tre by boat, however the cost was going to be ridiculously high compared to going by bus. The home stay did offer to help us sort something out, but as the journey there and back (for the captain) would take a full day and there were only two of us, the price was just too much. If you can get a group together for the trip, it’s more reasonable. You can also try your luck getting onto a cargo boat which may take you for a very reasonable price, we didn’t explore this option though.
The owners of the home stay took us to An Binh bus station by motorbike, and while we normally avoid motorbike taxis, zipping around An Binh with experienced drivers who know the island was a great rush! The bus station was in the middle of nowhere and there was no info anywhere, but we managed to ask a local fruit seller when the next bus was leaving. We didn’t understand each other at all, but she grabbed a pen and my hand, and we were set!
The journey took about an hour and a half with the local bus and cost just 19,000 dong each (less than a dollar – the boat would have been over 50 dollars each!). No air con, but doors and windows were open so there was always a breeze.
Day 5: Discovering Ben Tre’s river islands by motorbike
After traveling quite slowly in Vinh Long by bicycle, boat and on foot, we decided to speed things up a bit in Ben Tre and rented a snazzy new Honda AirBlade from our hotel. With plenty of water and our phones at the ready for Google Maps, we set off to discover the little islands in the Mekong south of Ben Tre.
We took the ferry across to the nearest island in the Mekong – I have no idea what it’s called, but at this point we didn’t care. Our plan was just to explore, accept that we’d likely get lost, and use Google Maps to find our way back home once we got back to the mainland or a bigger street. I realise that’s not very German of me, at all, but it’s what I recommend for exploring the Mekong Delta. Whenever we just set off with no destination in mind is when we had the best experiences here. Great food and friendly people everywhere.
You should be fairly confident in your scooter driving skills for the small islands, as what Google maps calls roads is often not wider than your scooter itself, and if someone comes towards you, you’ll be playing chicken as one of you will have to move out of the way to avoid a crash. People seem to be fairly relaxed about this though, and not in too much of a hurry, so we survived our day on the islands without so much as a scratch. Our main challenge was finding roads that didn’t just end in the middle of nowhere, so there were a lot of detours, and at one point we took a tiny, rickety ferry across the river – but that just added to the entertainment factor of the day.
Day 6: Motorbike day trip through the Mekong Delta to Ba Tri
On day 2 in Ben Tre and day 6 of our Mekong Delta adventure, we decided to stick to the mainland and go for a day trip to Ba Tri, a small town some thirty kilometres South East of Ben Tre. As I’m not keen on busy highways packed with Vietnamese truck drivers (whose driving style is slightly more chaotic and speedy than I would like), we found our way there using little side roads along rice fields, palm tree plantations and villages, and loved the experience. There was a lot of ducking palm trees hanging over the road, and the occasional outrage at Google (“that’s not a road, that’s not even a dirt path!”), it again made for a day of adventure. We stopped for a Vietnamese coffee once we got back to the main road and spent a few minutes resting and watching the world go by.
Ba Tri itself isn’t the most exciting place, but it has a little market where we bought some oven fresh baguettes and fruit to snack on, and the locals were rather entertained by us and our bad Vietnamese negotiation skills. We also stopped on the side of the road on the outskirts of the city for what was probably the cheapest fresh coconut on our entire South East Asia trip.
Where to eat in Ben Tre
One of the reasons we chose Ben Tre as a stop was that it was a big enough town without being much of a tourist destination. This, we thought, would make for some great foodie experiences. And there definitely is good food in Ben Tre, but it’s not always easy to find.
TripAdvisor lists a pizza place as #1 restaurant in Ben Tre, and since we’d had non stop Vietnamese food for several weeks, we decided to give it a try so you wouldn’t have to. It was boring, had strange toppings that we didn’t order and barely any sauce (which wasn’t tomato sauce anyway). Skip it.
Everything else we ate was great.
Café Lang Van
In search for afternoon refreshments on our first day of driving around Ben Tre, we found Café Lang Van, a great place set next to a canal in a lush palm garden. Their coffee was good, their coconut smoothies were out of this world! And I loved that they served any leftover fresh coconut juice on the side, so with the usual complimentary iced green tea, we found ourselves having three drinks each after paying for one. Great value at 26,000 VND ($1,15 roughly) each, and amazing quality.
Bananas by the Lake
On our following tour through town, we came across what looked like a popular street food stall where something was being barbecued and sat down without really knowing what we were getting. These are smashed grilled bananas, served with a thick coconut and green onion dip. Yes, I know this sounds weird, but sometimes weird is good! So if you’re in Ben Tre, give the banana bbq lady a try. You’ll find her set up on the side of the lake in the middle of town.
Vuon An Mai Vang
Dinner that night was at a place called “Vuon An Mai Vang” (I’m skipping all the Vietnamese accents here). It was recommended to us by our hotel (Ben Tre Oasis) and was within walking distance from it. We had some steamed fish, crispy fried spring rolls, stir fried veggies and a coconut salad. Everything was good, the coconut salad was amazing! I’d never had fresh coconut in a salad before, which is why I wanted to try it, and it was really nice. Exotic, sweet, fresh – scrumptious. It also came with some fresh prawns and prawn crackers to scoop it all up. Yum. With beers, we paid a total of 412,000 VND which comes out to about $20. Not cheap for Vietnam, but the steamed fish was one of the pricier items on the menu at 200,000, and the quality was worth the price.
Ninh Kieu 7
Nothing could beat the dinner we had on our last night in Ben Tre though. We drove to the outskirts of town to an area that seemed popular with locals, just a row of huge restaurants along a busy four lane road. We saw it was packed, so even though it didn’t look like the most romantic dinner setting, we decided to give it a try. The menu was huge, and we were starving, so I ordered a little bit of everything, focusing on dishes that sounded unfamiliar. We had a huge feast of spring rolls, stir fried squid, stir fried garlic vegetables, some rice and fish. My highlights were the latter two.
The rice I chose was “burned” rice with fish sauce. I had no idea what I was ordering really, but what we got was incredibly tasty. The rice was essentially a big rice fritter, that was thrown on the grill until it was crispy and browned on both sides. It was one of those things that you can just spend all evening munching on, kind of like the nice fresh bread you get in fancy Italian restaurants. When the menu said “fish sauce”, I just imagined a small bowl of the bottled, bog standard fish sauce you get everywhere in Vietnam, but what was served with our rice was much more than that. It was a big dish with a bubbling thick, caramelised savoury sauce with small chunks of pork. And it was the perfect accompaniment to our crispy rice.
The fish was crispy and perfectly done. It came with a sweet and spicy tomato sauce and was topped with fried onions and herbs. They served it so late we were already full from the many other dishes I ordered (yes, I may have gone a bit crazy – never let me make decisions when hungry!), but it was so good we finished it anyway.
So: If you only have one night in Ben Tre, this is the place you need to try!
Ben Tre Restaurants – Addresses
Café Lang Van
Mỹ Thạnh An, tp. Bến Tre
Vuon An Mai Vang
79/2C My An C – My Thanh An, Ben Tre
Ninh Kieu 7
Mỹ Thạnh An, tp. Bến Tre
Grilled Banana Lady:
We found her on Nguyen Trung Truc, on the sidewalk opposite the lake.
Taking the bus from Ben Tre to Saigon
This one is easy. There is a direct bus from Ben Tre to Saigon, operated by Thinh Phat Bus Company. They usually leave every half hour throughout the day. Ask your hotel or guest house to book it for you, and ask them to reserve a seat as well, as this bus comes with numbered seats. It’s an easy journey, and will leave you fairly central in Saigon. Tickets cost 69,000 VND per person (just under $3).
Enjoy the Mekong Delta! And if you’re using one of my recommendations, I would love to hear what you think.