The boulevards of Tra Vinh, one of the prettiest towns in the Mekong Delta, are still lined with shady trees, harking back to an earlier era. With more than 140 Khmer pagodas dotting the province, Tra Vinh is a quiet place for exploring the Mekong’s little-touted Cambodian connection. The town itself sees minimal tourist traffic, owing to an isolated location on a peninsula.
About 300,000 ethnic Khmer live in Tra Vinh province. They may seem an invisible minority as they all speak fluent Vietnamese and there’s nothing outwardly distinguishing about their clothing or lifestyle. Dig a bit deeper and discover that Khmer culture is alive and well in these parts of Vietnam. Many of its numerous pagodas have schools to teach the Khmer language and many Tra Vinh locals can read and write Khmer at least as well as Vietnamese. Vietnam’s Khmer minority are almost all followers of Theravada Buddhism. Between the ages of 15 and 20, most boys set aside a few months to live as monks (they decide themselves on the length of service). Khmer monks are allowed to eat meat, but cannot kill animals.
There is also a small but active Chinese community in Tra Vinh, one of the few such communities that remain in the Mekong Delta region.
(Square Lake) Known as Ao Ba Om, this large, square pond surrounded by tall trees is a pleasing place for a stroll. It’s a spiritual site for the Khmers and a picnic and drinking spot for local Vietnamese. It would have once served as a bathing pond for the 10th-century Angkor-era temple that was situated here.
Built on the temple ruins, Ang Pagoda (Chua Ang in Vietnamese; Angkor Rek Borei in Khmer) is a beautiful and venerable Khmer-style pagoda, fusing classic Khmer architecture with French colonial influences. The interior features brightly painted scenes from the Buddha’s life.
Opposite the pagoda entrance is the nicely presented Khmer Minority People’s Museum (Bao Tang Van Hoa Dan Tac; 7-11am & 1-5pm), which displays photos, costumes and other artefacts of traditional Khmer culture.
Ba Om Pond is 5km southwest of Tra Vinh, along the highway towards Vinh Long.
Ong Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE
(Chua Ong & Chua Tau; 44 Ɖ Dien Bien Phu) The very ornate, brightly painted Ong Pagoda is a fully fledged Chinese pagoda and a very active place of worship. The red-faced god on the altar is deified general Quan Cong who is believed to offer protection against war and is based on a historical figure, a 3rd century soldier.
The Ong Pagoda was founded in 1556 by the Fujian Chinese Congregation, but has been rebuilt a number of times. Recent visitors from Taiwan and Hong Kong have contributed money for the pagoda’s restoration, which explains why it is in such fine shape.
(Chua Hang, Kampongnigrodha; Ð Dien Bien Phu) This modern Khmer pagoda is also known as the stork pagoda after the great white birds that nest in the tall trees here. It’s a beautiful, peaceful complex and the birds are an interesting sight in themselves. The best time to see them is around dusk. The pagoda is located 6km south of town, about 300m past the bus station.
In addition to the options listed below, there are various companies offering luxury cruises between My Tho (including transfers from Ho Chi Minh City) and Siem Reap. Pandaw Cruises (www.pandaw.com; 7 nights US$1132-2713) is favoured by high-end tour companies. Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong (www.cf-mekong.com; 5 nights from US$2415) is smaller and is well regarded for its personal service and excellent food. Taking the competition to a new level of lush are AmaWaterways (www.amawaterways.com; 6 nights US$1599-2599) and Heritage Line (www.heritage-line.com; 7 nights US$3384-8129). The longer cruises mean a lot of time looking at very similar scenery, so it’s arguably better just to opt for a shorter sector such as My Tho to Phnom Penh.
The more interesting options for overnighting on the Mekong include the following:
Bassac ( 0710-382 9540; www.transmekong.com; overnight US$232) Offers a range of beautiful wooden boats for small groups. The standard itinerary is an overnight between Cai Be and Can Tho, but custom routes are possible.
Le Cochinchine ( 08-3993 4552; www.lecochinchine.com; price on application) Offers cruises on a luxurious converted rice barge and a traditional sampan that are akin to floating hotels. The main routes are Cai Be to Can Tho (overnight) or Cai Be to Sa Dec, Vinh Long and Can Tho (two nights). Private trips are available.
Mekong Eyes ( 0710-246 0786; www.mekongeyes.com; price on application) A stunningly converted traditional rice barge, the name plays on the ever-present eyes painted on fishing boats throughout Vietnam. This stylish boat travels between Can Tho and Cai Be, but is also available for charter.
Tra Vinh Tourist BOAT TOUR
(074-385 8556; 64 Ð Le Loi; 7.30-11am & 1.30-5pm) Arranges trips to various sites around the province, including boat cruises to local islands.
Tra Vinh Palace 2 HOTEL $
(074-386 3999; 48 Ð Pham Ngu Lao; d/tw/tr 180,000/220,000/250,000d) This friendly minihotel has sparkling rooms with tiled floors and either a bath-tub or a shub (shower tub). Double rooms are internal and windowless, so consider upgrading to a triple.
Hoan My HOTEL $
(074-386 2211; 105A ÐL Nguyen Thi Minh Khai; r 200,000-360,000d) With natty exposed brickwork, polished wooden floors and a lift, this hotel’s trump card is its pricier rooms with oodles of space and balcony.
Tra Vinh Palace HOTEL $
(074-386 4999; www.travinh.lofteight.com; 3 Ð Le Thanh Ton; r 250,000-350,000d) Dominating the corner of a sleepy backstreet, this four-storey hotel is all pink columns, decorative plasterwork, terracotta tiling and balconies. The spacious rooms have high ceilings and mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture.
Cuu Long Restaurant VIETNAMESE $
(999 ÐL Nguyen Thi Minh Khai; mains from 70,000d) Behind the stolid facade of the government-run Cuu Long Hotel, this restaurant has an extensive English-language menu, including delicious salads and soups, and, for the more adventurous, snake and snails.
Cuong Thinh VIETNAMESE $
(18A ÐL Nguyen Thi Minh Khai; mains 30,000-200,000d) Huge open-plan Cuong Thinh, 2km south of town on the road to Vinh Long, is popular for its traditional mains, local and regional favourites and palm-lined ambience.
Vi Huong VIETNAMESE $
(37A Ð Dien Bien Phu; mains 15,000-45,000d) Cheap, cheerful hole-in-the-wall with wholesome traditional dishes like sour soup, fish in claypot and pork with rice.
Tra Vinh is 65km from Vinh Long and 185km from HCMC. From Ben Tre it’s easily reached by yet another new bridge and then a car ferry across the Co Chien River (per car 35,000d); work has already commenced on a bridge to replace this ferry.
The bus station (Ben Xe Khach Tra Vinh) is about 5km south of the town centre on Hwy 54, which is the continuation of the main street, Ð Dien Bien Phu. Buses head to HCMC (85,000d), Cao Lanh (49,000d) and Ha Tien (125,000d).