Sa Dec doesn’t rate highly on Mekong Delta itineraries, which is understandable if you’re pressed for time. But I think that Sa Dec is one of the underrated destinations of the Delta region. The city has old colonial buildings, lots of temples, and pleasant tree-lined streets.
Part of Sa Dec’s problem is that it’s not on the way to anywhere. Tour groups from Saigon do day trips in My Tho, or overnight trips to Can Tho to see the Cai Rang floating market. Tours coming from Cambodia start at Chau Doc and then make their way to Can Tho. None of these itineraries are in the path of Sa Dec.
Sa Dec does get visitors from Saigon for its flower market, where the chrysanthemum flowers used for Tet celebrations are grown. Beyond that, Sa Dec doesn’t get many tourists. I found that out the first time I visited Sa Dec in 2015. I was travelling around the Delta and decided to visit Sa Dec the next day. I couldn’t find any hotel availability online so I just went, hoping to find something when I got there. I arrived and couldn’t find a place to stay, so after a couple of hours of wandering around with a bag I went back to Vinh Long.
This time I made sure I booked a few weeks in advance, but even then there was not a great number of hotels to choose from. I found a hotel near the main market, which is the best place to start exploring an unfamiliar city in the Mekong Delta. It’s chaotic and full of interesting sites, and I love it.
Sa Dec Map
This map features places mentioned in this post. These are my travel notes rather than being a guide.
[Map of Sa Dec, Vietnam.]
Sa Dec Sights
The main market building is an architectural highlight of the city, and it was good to see that it hasn’t been covered up with advertising boards as some markets do.
From the main market, there are other markets connected to it along the river. While everyone wants to see the floating markets, this is a good example of the modern reality of a Mekong market.
Sa Dec is on a branch of the Mekong River, though the town centre sits on the Lap Vo River that runs alongside it. The main branches of the Mekong are too big to conduct market activity on, so town markets are usually on these smaller rivers and canals that connect directly to the main river.
From the market area, the next point of interest are the old houses along the riverfront of Nguyen Hue Street.
It’s here that you will find the most famous house in Sa Dec – the Huynh Thuy Le old house.
This house was made famous by the French writer Marguerite Duras, who wrote the novel L’Amant (The Lover). It was made into a film in 1992.
Continuing along Nguyen Hue Street I was amazed at how many nice old buildings there were.
In any other city, this wall would probably be known as the Instagram Wall.
[Corner of Do Chieu and Nguyen Hue.]
I wondered what this riverfront would have looked like in its prime. I also wondered what might have been, if only the city had been able to conserve its historic city centre. If they had been able to keep a few blocks intact, perhaps Sa Dec would have become a “must visit” destination on the tourist circuit. Unfortunately, some of the old homes are just going to crumble back into the earth.
On the other side of the river are some more old houses next to the Iron Bridge.
From here I walked to the Tien River, which is the main northern branch of the Mekong. The river is so wide and the landscape so flat that there isn’t much to see here. It’s just a big body of water with no landmark to anchor the view. Still, it’s an amazing river that earns its title of “the Mighty Mekong”.
There are canals throughout the city, and I found this lovely bridge (Cau Dau) near a temple.
I liked that this worksite took care to protect this ancient tree from construction.
I didn’t go out to any flower farms, so I opted to walk up to the main flower park in the city. Upon entrance you are greeted by Uncle Ho.
The park has lakes and ornamental bridges.
Even without flowers on display this was a great park to walk around.
In the evening the old section of Nguyen Hue becomes a night market.
Sa Dec has a population of about 215,000 people, and it’s slightly bigger than the Dong Thap capital of Cao Lanh. I have been visiting the provincial capitals of Vietnam while I have been based here during the pandemic, so I will have to visit the capital of Dong Thap province on another trip.
The one dish I wanted to try in Sa Dec was Banh Tam Bi. There is a restaurant in Saigon called Sa Dec Quan (Sa Dec Restaurant), which serves this Mekong speciality. In Saigon you can find a restaurant from practically every province, so I like to try the Saigon version and compare it with the provincial source.
Banh Tam Bi is a rice/tapioca noodle dish with pork, drizzled with sweet coconut cream and then fish sauce added on top. “Fish sauce and coconut cream together?!” I hear you exclaim. Before I came to Vietnam I might have had my reservations as well, but I am now at the point where I would put fish sauce on anything, and wow does this dish works for me.
One thing I’ve noticed about the Mekong Delta region is that there is a higher proportion of vegetarian restaurants than anywhere else in Vietnam. Just look for the word chay, usually shown with a lotus flower as well.
A good place to find vegetarian street food is outside of Buddhist temples, which is where I found this vegetarian Bun Rieu.
There isn’t much in the way of international food options here. Jollibee from the Philippines is here, and they seem to be in every provincial city by now.
It got me wondering if Jollibee or Lotteria are the biggest fast-food chains in Vietnam, and it turns out it is Lotteria.
Sa Dec is still a typical provincial Vietnamese city where chain cafes have not yet arrived (as they have in Can Tho). Here it is mostly Vietnamese coffee, and I’ve noticed that in the far southern reaches of Vietnam they prefer Ca Phe Sua Da with an enormous portion of sweetened condensed milk.
Hallywood Roastery had espresso-style coffee.
There are direct buses from Saigon to Sa Dac with the FUTA bus company.
From Vinh Long there are frequent local buses to Sa Dec.
I arrived here from Can Tho, which took me two buses to do so (via Vinh Long). It was only when I arrived in Sa Dec that I found out that there is a direct bus from Sa Dec to Can Tho, also operated by FUTA.
The nearest airport is Can Tho, and there is no plan in any anyone’s lifetime for a train line to be built here. Perhaps if the Saigon – Can Tho railway is ever built it might bring more curious travellers into the region that would want to look around further.
If I was in charge of transport and tourism (a refrain I mutter to myself often), I would set up a river transport system in the Mekong Delta. There would be different options, where you could choose to hitch a ride on a cargo boat, and have scheduled ferry services between major cities. Alas, I’m not in charge of anything, so I am reduced to blogging about my ideas. There used to be an informal cargo boat travel system where if you knew who to ask you could get a ride on a cargo boat. I wrote about Mekong Delta cargo boat travel.
Keith Crane says
Enjoyed this piece. I visited Sa Dec prior to Tet last year before like you I got stranded here in HCMC.
I did visit the flower nurseries which are well worth seeking out at that time of year as they’re a hive of activity. They are also vast with all sorts of plants and shrubs. Luckily there are now tourist style golf buggies which will take you on a 30k VND tour rather than trudge round in the heat.
Food wise, the Co Opmart has its own passable restaurant and a Pizza Company restaurant.
James Clark says
Ah yes Pizza Company are everywhere as well. I tried them for the first time in Thanh Hoa. I didn’t see the buggies, but it sounds like a more sensible idea than walking around in the heat.
I was born in Sa Đéc, Sa Đéc always peaceful. Love your article, hope you had a good time there.