Look at a map of Vietnam, and you’ll be struck by the many lines indicating rivers. The country boasts more than 2,360 rivers stretching a total of 42,000 kilometers, including 16 major river basins, offering huge potential for a strong water-based transport, industry, and tourism. Most of the population lives around two of these: the Mekong and Red River Deltas.
As rivers are crucial for the livelihoods of locals and maintaining biodiversity, the government is serious about protecting these valued river basins.
Rivers are embedded in Vietnamese culture, folklore and art. They’ve long inspired artists and writers – and it’s no wonder. Snaking through lush valleys. Shimmering down mountains. Their awe-inspiring waterfalls, babbling brooks, and inviting riverbanks offer respite from the stress of daily life. As they provide fresh water and habitats to many creatures, rivers represent the flow of life itself.
Needing inspiration of your own? Explore the scenery surrounding three of Vietnam’s southern rivers…
Craving a soul-restoring escape from city life? How about a getaway at a gorgeous river within unspoilt nature?
About 150km from Ho Chi Minh City lies Cat Tien National Park, bordering the Dong Nai river. At 720km2, it’s one of Vietnam’s largest nature reserves. Its rare, specious and endemic types of fauna and flora have seen it recognised as a UNESCO world biosphere reserve.
People have long enjoyed the peaceful banks of Dong Nai. In fact, an archaeological site discovered on the northern side apparently belonged to an ancient Hindu civilisation. Many ethnic minorities (including the S’tieng, Tay and Chau Ma) still live along the river in the park.
Plant-lovers will be blown away by the park, which comprises low woodland, five types of forest, grasslands, wetlands, lakes, streams and swamps. There are some 1,610 botanical species, many under conservation. Get grounded by hugging one of the gigantic trees − such as the Uncle Dong Tree (Cây Gõ Bác Đồng) and Tung Tree (Cây Tung cổ thụ) − with their sturdy, curvy roots. Orchid hunters will be in their element as over 100 orchids flower in the forests.
Of course, there’s a plethora of reptiles, fish, birds and butterflies. For a romantic, ethereal experience, visit after the summer rains, which is both flower and butterfly season. Be mesmerised by the sight of gorgeous blooms and droves of butterflies flitting along dreamy forest paths… It’s a nature photographer’s paradise.
Go on a sunrise trek or night safari to spot the park’s animals, including golden-cheeked gibbon, langurs, the pygmy slow loris, sun bears, clouded leopards, Siamese crocodiles, deer, civets, and more. The park is home to a herd of Endangered Asian elephants, who shy away in remote regions.
To really slow down and appreciate nature, overnight there. Hire a bike, or take a guided walk, then rest beside the gushing Ben Cu Rapids. Or take a soothing boat tour along the Dong Nai River, and visit the Ta Lai Village.
Within the park, great work is being done at the Cat Tien Bear Rescue Centre. Another place to visit is the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre.
The longest river in Southeast Asia is Vietnam’s most famous. It’s known as Nine Dragons River (Sông Cửu Long), representing its major tributaries. The Mekong splits into many smaller rivers and canals that run through many settlements, where life revolves around the waterways. Colourful, buzzing floating markets – such as the Cai Rang Floating Market − abound.
The soil of the Mekong Delta is so rich, more than half of Vietnam’s agricultural output comes from here − Vietnam’s ‘rice bowl’. Book a tourboat to explore the rural life of the local farming and fishing communities, such as Cai Be or Ben Tre, Vietnam’s ‘coconut land’.
The delta’s also home to stunning national parks, such as the Tram Chim National Park and the U Minh Thuong (Upper U Minh) National Park; forests including the Tra Su Melaleuca Forest; the Unesco-protected Cần Giờ Mangrove Biosphere Reserve; and mountains like Sam Mountain.
This branch of the lower Mekong, also known as Bassac River, is in the heart of the delta. Picture swathes of patchwork rice fields, peaceful canals, and abundant fruit orchards − a sensory balm for any world-weary soul.
The “green lung” of the delta is Lung Ngoc Hoang, a nature reserve of grasslands, forests and wetlands that nurture many fish and bird species. Explore its gentle beauty by floating along on a boat tour and feel your worries drift away…
Another boat tour to explore the wetland ecosystem takes you through the Vi Thuy cajuput forest, the biggest ecotourism site in Hau Giang. You’ll see plenty of water birds, such as storks, with many other types nesting along the banks. Along the canals, fish include snakehead, catfish and tilapia.
For an immersive cultural experience, don’t miss the floating market at Nga Bay (meaning “seven way cross road”, as this is where seven rivers meet). Go early, when the market bustles most boldly. It’s a riot of colour and activity, with vessels of all colours serving as food and produce stalls. Something not to miss, for sure.