About two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City lies Ben Tre, the rice bowl, fruit center and coconut mecca of Vietnam, which was also the scene of some of the worst fighting in the Vietnam War. This area is wonderful to explore if you have the time, but is also an excellent choice for a day trip to four islands in the Mekong Delta. You can easily book a tour from your hotel in HCM or once in Ben Tre. Most tours will stop on Phoenix and Unicorn Islands, and others will round out the trip with stops on Turtle and Dragon Islands.
Phoenix, or Coconut, Island’s main attraction is a pagoda was constructed by Nguyen Tranh Nam ( the Coconut Monk) a French-educated engineer who subsisted on the meat and juice of coconuts for years while promoting pacifism and building his religion during the Vietnam War. He was arrested several times for trying to reunite North and South Vietnam. His religion drew heavily from Buddhism and Christianity, and at its height, had around 4,000 followers. The pagoda features nine dragon pillars and a tower constructed from broken dishware. One of his followers, now in her 90s, was there and more than happy to chat (in Vietnamese) and show pictures of her time there with the Coconut Monk and other followers in its heyday. It wasn’t crowded when I went, but I did go during the hottest part of the day.
The other islands don’t have quite as much political history, but they are absolutely worth a visit. Among the remaining three you can see seriously beautiful countryside, and, happily penned in, loads of crocodiles. On Unicorn Island, after walking along the trails, you’ll get into a sampan for a lazy ride through the canals with soaring greenery on all sides. This part was extremely crowded, but the ride was smooth. This island is also ideal for relaxing. Honey tea is a specialty, as is the plentiful fruit. A group of local ladies will come around to sing Vietnamese standards, and somewhat incongruously, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Dragon Island is also a wonderful place to eat fruit and other local dishes like fried elephant ear fish. There are plenty of shopping opportunities, too. On Turtle Island, there’s a coconut candy factory, so stock up on all the different flavors and then peruse the bags, coconut handicrafts, silk and more.
The river boats were very comfortable with reclining chairs, and the constant light breeze was a delight. The trip offers great views of the stilt houses. I wore a short-sleeved dress and flip-flops when I went. It kept me cool although it got a little dicey when the wind picked up. Depending on your balance, you might want to wear sturdier sandals or shoes, since you’ll be skipping from boat to boat to get back to yours when leaving Unicorn Island. I had a local friend book a boat for us once we got to Ben Tre – he made me crouch down in the back of the car while he negotiated the price. If you want to do this by yourself, get ready to haggle, but it may be worth it for getting a river boat all to yourself.
Have you done this tour? What would you recommend?