First published May 2021 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAPS | RELATED POSTS
This motorbike loop connects over 50 Khmer temples in Tra Vinh Province, via quiet rural back-roads, lanes and pathways passing through large swathes of rice paddies, hay fields and fruit orchards, crisscrossed by channels and canals, dotted with palm-thatched farm houses beneath huge Mekong skies with clouds rolling over as the breezes take them. Seldom visited, Tra Vinh is a peaceful province occupying a slab of land in Vietnam’s southeastern corner, bounded to the north and south by the two biggest branches of the Mekong River, and to the east by the sea. There’s nothing self-conscious about Tra Vinh Province: this is the real Mekong Delta. The province is about 30% ethnic Khmer. Despite a complicated history with the Vietnamese, the Khmer influence in this region runs deep, going back over a millennium. In Tra Vinh today, the presence of Khmer people and culture is obvious thanks to their ostentatious Theravada Buddhist temples. There are over 200 Khmer temples scattered across the province, some of which have been sacred sites for many centuries. As you ride this loop – visiting dozens of Buddhist compounds and walled enclosures under big tropical trees with large, decorative, brightly adorned and architecturally fascinating temples, wats, shrines, stupas and monasteries, filled with elaborate sculptures, friezes and frescoes – you get a real sense of history and you can’t help but fall under the spell of Tra Vinh Province and its Khmer cultural heritage.
GUIDE: TRA VINH TEMPLE-HOPPING LOOP
A great way to explore and experience the Mekong Delta, the Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop can be completed in 2-4 days by motorbike or bicycle. The temples are fascinating, the back-roads enchanting, the scenery lush, the towns charming, and the distances short. Easily accessible from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Tra Vinh Province is nonetheless still way off the beaten path. On this page, I’ve included two separate routes maps: one of the temple-hopping loop, the other of potential routes between Saigon and Tra Vinh. Base yourself in Tra Vinh City for a few nights and ride out to the temples on the loop during the days. Personally, I think this route is deeply satisfying and culturally rich: unique, refreshing and rewarding. Hence this page contains a lot of information, including some history, descriptions of the temples, accommodation suggestions, food and drink recommendations, and much more detail about the route itself:
Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop
- Blue Line: East Loop
- Red Line: West Loop
View in a LARGER MAP
Ho Chi Minh City↔Tra Vinh | Fast & Slow Routes
- Blue Line: Fast Route (highways & bridges)
- Red Line: Slow Route (back roads & ferries)
View in a LARGER MAP
About this Route & Guide:
Below I’ve written a few paragraphs covering general details about the Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop, such as road conditions, how to use the maps, where to start/end the route, and how many days it takes:
General Information: The main objective of the Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop is to visit over 50 fascinating Khmer temples via quiet and attractive back-roads through a charming and little-travelled province of the Mekong Delta. As mentioned, Tra Vinh is around 30% ethnic Khmer and there are some 200 Khmer temples scattered across the province. The Khmer follow Theravada Buddhism (most Vietnamese follow the Mahayana branch), and as such their temples are very distinctive, intricate, impressive and exotic-looking structures. With so many temples in the region – most within 5-25km of each other – a motorbike (or bicycle) is ideal for hopping between them. Almost all the temples can be connected via small, quiet back-roads, lanes and paths, rather than busy highways (see Road Conditions). These byways are very pretty, peaceful and off the beaten path.
The Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop is relatively short and easy to ride. It’s packed with cultural sites and a very rewarding, satisfying road trip for anyone who wants to experience a different side of the Mekong Delta. Although it’s now fairly easy to get to Tra Vinh Province, you’re very unlikely to meet any other travellers on this loop. On my map, I’ve divided the Temple-Hopping route into two loops: an east loop (the blue line) and a west loop (the red line). I’ve also included a second route map with two alternative options for riding between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Tra Vinh City: a fast route on highways and major bridges (the blue line) and a slow route on back-roads and ferries (the red line).
Ideally, I would suggest spending 2-4 days on the Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop. Base yourself in Tra Vinh City, spend one day riding the east loop, the next day riding the west loop, an extra day relaxing in Tra Vinh City – taking in its considerable charm – and a final day riding the slow route back to Saigon via the many ferry crossings over the myriad arteries of the Mekong River (see Where to Start/End). Alternatively, you could make the Temple-Hopping Loop part of a wider Mekong road trip (see Connecting Routes).
Tra Vinh City itself is a little gem, with a shaded French colonial-era central grid of streets, some surviving French villas and Chinese shophouses, lots of temples, a lively riverside market, a newly paved waterfront embankment, plenty of street food (see Food & Drink) and a handful of decent budget accommodation options (see Accommodation). Tra Vinh Province is an enchanting region and, what’s more, there are hardly any visitors at any of the temples and no admission charge or parking fees.
Note that some of the 53 temples on this route are more interesting than others: some are worth stopping at, going inside and exploring on foot; others are just worth a quick ride around before continuing on the loop. Of course, you can skip the History and Temples sections of this guide, and just follow the route map. But, personally, I think the Temple-Hopping Loop is much more rewarding with a little bit of background and context. There’s a lot of history in this region and some of the temples have been sacred Khmer sites for many centuries. You get a real sense of this when riding the loop and visiting the Buddhist enclosures.
Using the Maps: On this page I’ve created two separate maps. The first map is of the Temple-Hopping Loop in Tra Vinh Province, featuring two short loops within the province – one to the east (the blue line) and one to the west (the red line) – both of which start and end in Tra Vinh City. The second map features two alternative routes to get between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Tra Vinh: a fast route (the blue line) using highways and bridges, and a slow route (the red line) using back-roads and ferries.
All the routes outlined on both maps should be fairly simple to follow. However, some of the roads on the Temple-Hopping Loop are very small and narrow, so it can be easy to miss the turnings. The temple-hopping map includes the names and locations of 53 Khmer temples and all the bigger towns on the loop. Also on the temple-hopping map I’ve included markers of places to stay, eat and drink in Tra Vinh City.
On the Saigon to Tra Vinh map, I’ve marked all the major bridges over the various branches of the Mekong River on the fast route, and all the ferry crossings on the slow route.
Where to Start/End: The Temple-Hopping Loop consists of two separate mini-loops – an east loop (the blue line) and a west loop (the red line) – both of which start and end in Tra Vinh City, thus forming a (very deformed) figure-of-eight (see map). Personally, I think this route works best if you ride the east loop on one day and the west loop the next, starting and ending each day at your accommodation in Tra Vinh City. However, it is of course possible to join up the east and west loops without returning to Tra Vinh City, simply by taking any of the roads connecting the two. The east and west loops can be ridden in any order and in either direction, but I prefer taking the east loop first and then the west, riding both loops anticlockwise. .
Assuming that most riders will start/end the Temple-Hopping Loop in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), my second map outlines two alternative routes to get to Tra Vinh from Saigon: a fast route (the blue line) using highways and bridges, and a slow route (the red line) using back-roads and ferries. Thanks to new infrastructure projects, Tra Vinh is now surprisingly quick and easy to get to from Saigon on the blue route. If you leave early in the morning (to avoid the traffic), the blue route only takes around 4 hours. However, it’s not an especially interesting route (although the bridges themselves are a sight to behold) and there are a fair amount of trucks and traffic on the roads. If you’re looking for a quieter and more off-the-beaten-path route between Saigon and Tra Vinh, the red route is the one to take. None of the major Mekong River crossings are bridged on this route; instead all are crossed via small, slow, old-style car ferries (it’s like travelling in the Delta during the 1990s). As a result, the red route is far more exciting in terms of riverine scenery, far shorter in terms of distance, but far longer in terms of time: waiting for any of the five separate ferry crossing on this route can be anywhere between 5-45 minutes, and the journey can take between 6-8 hours. Personally, I would suggest turning these two alternative routes into a loop: take the blue route out, and the red route back, for example.
Road Conditions: Most of the Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop is on paved roads in pretty good condition. In general, my route tries to stay on small back-roads, country lanes, dyke roads, concrete paths (and occasionally dirt tracks) as much as possible in order to avoid the busier highways (QL roads). These smaller roads also pass through more interesting and attractive scenery than the bigger highways. However, sometimes the highways are useful or unavoidable, and thus in some cases this loop utilizes them.
The Temple-Hopping Loop can be ridden on any motorbike, scooter or bicycle. The terrain is flat, the roads are paved and the traffic is light. However, some sections are on very narrow lanes or back-roads with worn, pot-holed surfaces, but this shouldn’t be a problem for most riders. Finally, there’s a chance that some of the smaller roads could suffer from flooding during the rainy season (May-October). Although the riding on this route is fun, very interesting and far from the beaten path, it’s not a route that’s suitable for cruising. Rather, the small and sometimes uneven back-roads make for a slower, gentler pace, not to mention the numerous stops and breaks to look at the temples.
Connecting Routes: Tra Vinh Province is in the east of the Mekong Delta. This temple-hopping loop covers almost all of the province. But you could also incorporate the Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop into my Deep South route, leading all the way to Ca Mau at the southern tip of the Mekong Delta. Alternatively, you could continue from Tra Vinh due south to the port of Tran De, in Soc Trang Province, where you can put your motorbike on the fast boat to the Con Dao Islands. Finally, riders could continue due west from Tra Vinh to either Rach Gia or Ha Tien, both of which have frequent car ferries to Phu Quoc and other islands in the Gulf of Thailand.
This is a part of Vietnam where you can really feel the history: it’s alive in the present; resonating through the fields and the temples and the sacred enclosures. I can’t claim to have much depth of knowledge about the history of this region, nor the long relationship that the Khmer people have with this part of the Delta, nor, indeed, the complex – and often fraught – relationship between the Khmer and the Vietnamese populations. But, in researching this guide, I did learn a little about all of the above and it’s a fascinating story, an awareness of which makes riding this loop and exploring these temples a much richer experience. What little I do know, I’ve briefly described below.
*Please note: Historical information in this article is based only on my limited reading & understanding of various sources & conversations with people: I am not an historian & I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this historical overview.
Khmer people have been living is this region for at least 1,500 years. As such, the Khmer have a much deeper relationship with the Delta than the Kinh (Vietnamese). And one gets a sense of this when exploring Tra Vinh Province and its temples. In some cases, the Khmer temple sites were established many hundreds of years ago; by contrast, the relatively modern, bustling Vietnamese cities which we commonly associate with the Mekong Delta are merely a couple of centuries old.
During the Khmer Empire, this region was known as Kampuchea Krom – Lower Cambodia – so as to distinguish it from the ‘upper’ parts of the empire, such as Angkor Wat. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Vietnamese settlers began to inhabit the region we now know of as southern Vietnam.
From the early 17th century, the Khmer king allowed Vietnamese to settle in Saigon (then known as Prey Nokor – ‘Forest City’) and the southern delta region. At that time, many Vietnamese were heading south, fleeing the conflict between the Trinh and Nguyen lords. Over time, there were so many settlers that eventually the Vietnamese became the majority in the region. From the late 17th century, as the Khmer Empire began to wane, Vietnam solidified its presence and power in the south.
During the colonial period, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the French (who controlled both Vietnam and Cambodia) administered the region as part of Cochinchina (essentially southern Vietnam). Eventually, in 1949, the French formally annexed the Mekong Delta as part of Vietnam, much to the chagrin of Cambodia. Khmers have been a minority in the region ever since.
The 1970s saw a wave of anti-Khmer feelings in Vietnam as the Khmer Rouge conducted raids across the border into the Mekong Delta, carrying out mass killings of civilians, sometimes slaughtering entire villages, murdering and mutilating men, women and children (as commemorated at Ba Chuc village). The incentive was, apparently, to reclaim Kampuchea Krom (the Mekong Delta) for Cambodia. Provoked in part by these raids, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Subsequently, many Vietnamese viewed the Khmers with suspicion, and the relationship became uneasy, leading many Khmers to leave Vietnam, fleeing across the border to Cambodia. Even today some tension remains, and there have been reports of human rights abuses against the Khmer population in Vietnam. Whichever way you look at it, there’s a lot of complicated history between the Vietnamese and the Khmer in this region, some of it ancient, some recent.
However, the population of Tra Vinh Province today is still about 30% ethnic Khmer. Indeed, it feels larger than that because of the hundreds of distinctive Khmer temples dotting the province and signs in Khmer script everywhere. What’s more, as a casual visitor, there’s no indication of tension between Khmer and Vietnamese. The former speak both languages fluently, and in most cases the Khmer people I spoke with had never been across the border to Cambodia, although they did generally identify as Khmer, rather than Vietnamese. So visible is the Khmer influence in Tra Vinh Province – the temples, the architecture, the food, the faces, the language – that, after a few days of travelling in the region, I felt pleasantly disorientated: was I in Vietnam, Cambodia, somewhere between the two?
As with the history of this region, I know very little about the hundreds of impressive Buddhist temples that dot this province. But, during the week I spent temple-hopping, I made some notes and observations about the architecture, ambience and general quality of the sites I visited.
*Please note: Historical information in this article is based only on my limited reading & understanding of various sources & conversations with people: I am not an historian & I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this overview.
There are some 200 Khmer temples scattered across Tra Vinh Province. Obviously, I didn’t have the chance to see them all, but I did manage to visit over 50 of them, all of which I’ve marked on my temple-hopping route map. There are no admission fees for the temples and hardly any visitors (with the exception of festival days and the big temples located within Tra Vinh City itself). For the most part, the only people in the temple grounds are monks and novices. All temple compounds can be entered if the gates and doors are open, but shoes must be taken off if entering the temples proper. For this reason, flipflops or sandals are a good idea, because they’re easier to take on and off. Technically, respectful clothing (long pants and T-shirt) should be worn when visiting the enclosures, but most people – including the monks and novices themselves – didn’t seem too concerned about this dress-code.
Religion is particularly alive in the Mekong Delta, where history has left Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Buddhism (Mahayana and Theravada), Islam, Hinduism, animism, ancestor worship, and the veneration of local deities and historical heroes. There’s hardly a street or field in the Delta without some kind of spiritual building: it’s a pious place. The Khmer, however, have been in the region for some 1,500 years, and many of the sites on which the temples stand today have been sacred ground for the Khmer for centuries. This long relationship with the land means that the Khmer holy sites in Tra Vinh Province are far more ancient than any of the Kinh (Vietnamese) pagodas, temples, shrines and churches. One gets a real sense of this when exploring the temples on this loop: a feeling of time, history and permanence.
However, although many of the temples in Tra Vinh Province have been holy sites for hundreds of years (in some cases over a thousand), the structures themselves are constantly restored, renovated or completely rebuilt. To this end, most of the temples in the sanctuaries on this loop are recently constructed – built between the last ten to sixty years at most. But the place, the land, the site is ancient. The bricks, the paint and the concrete might be relatively fresh and new, but these sites have echoed to the same chants, bells, gongs and worship for over a millennium. In some cases, for example, the structures might be 20th century, the trees 19th century, but the site a Khmer place of worship for seven centuries. The buildings are revitalized but the site remains ancient. This seems strange to many Europeans: it would be like the Greeks deciding to restore the Parthenon to its original, classical-era glory of the 430s BCE, erecting new columns, porticoes, friezes and sculptures, and painting them all in bright colours as they were in Periclean times.
As described in the History section above, there’s a complicated relationship between the Khmer and the Vietnamese populations in this part of the Delta. Nevertheless, the influence and presence of Khmer culture in Tra Vinh Province is obvious thanks to the hundreds of ostentatious temples. These temples and sacred enclosures are striking and distinctive: clearly distinguishable from the Vietnamese pagodas and shrines. This is because the Khmer are Theravada Buddhists, the oldest and more conservative branch of Buddhism, dominant in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia; whereas the Vietnamese are predominantly Mahayana Buddhists. As such, the architectural style of the Khmer temples is very different from that of the Vietnamese ones.
The Khmer temples in Tra Vinh Province are all enclosed in leafy, walled compounds, shaded by tall tropical trees including exotic-looking lontar palms, tamarind, mango, coconut and traveller’s palms. In fact, there’s so much flora in the temple grounds that you’d be able to tick off nearly all the flowers, plants and trees listed in my flora index. The temple grounds are pleasant, calm places – refuges from the sun, heat and rain of the Mekong plains, and from the noise, commerce and industry of much of the Delta region. For me, the temple enclosures are places to contemplate, to read, to write, to breathe, to stroll: like a park.
As well as places of worship, some of the temple enclosures also function as Buddhist schools and monasteries, populated by bright orange-robed monks and novices. Depending on the time of day and year, the temple grounds echo to the sounds of chanting, gongs, cicadas, leaves in the breeze, cockerels calling, bats screeching, rain falling, birds chirping, dogs barking, and the scent of flowers and incense fills the sanctuaries. At some of the older, more neglected compounds, the smell of bat guano inside the temples is quite powerful, but the scent of jasmine usually prevails.
The structures and adornments within the enclosures are colourful and intricate, sometimes elegant, sometimes gaudy. Some temples are colossal in scale, imposing, grand and grotesque; some are diminutive and intimate; some are made entirely of concrete and brick; others have wooden pillars and roofs; some of the embellishments are garish and chintzy; some are restrained and understated. The grounds are dotted with wats, stupas, shrines, stelae, statues, sculptures, and decorative ponds. The main temples, with their distinctive steep-pitched tiled roofs and serrated edges, are always the central focus of the enclosures, surrounded by smaller structures and guarded by gargoyles, phoenixes and elephants. The tapering towers similar to those at Angkor Wat are a constant feature – their shape imitating the upper canopy of local trees – as are the ubiquitous many-faced heads. All enclosures feature crematoriums which are rather public, especially if there’s a funeral. Some of the interiors of the larger temples are completely painted – from the walls to the ceilings – in extraordinary murals depicting various scenes from the life of The Buddha and Buddhist teachings and mythology. Michelangelo who?
Coming, as I do, from a predominantly Christian part of the world, it’s impossible not to notice and remark upon the superficial differences in ambience and tone between Christian churches and cathedrals, and Buddhist temples and shrines. The former seem to me to be solemn, grim, sometimes violent and macabre places, with an image of intense physical pain and suffering at its centre: Christ crucified. Buddhist sanctuaries, by contrast, appear to be places of peace and tranquility, decorated in bright colours, with smiling seated or reclining figures dotted everywhere. Buddhist temples are no less reverent than Christian cathedrals, but there’s much less guilt, shame, agony and death. To some extent this is strange, as both religions, as far as I know, have suffering, death, altruism, stoicism and a suspicion of sensual pleasure and desire at their core, but they clearly arrive at it, deal with it, illustrate, tell and express it in very different ways. (Although you do get ghoulish guardians and, occasionally, macabre depictions of death and torture at Buddhist temples, too). I wonder what impact this might have on a culture over centuries and millennia: one that worships daily in front of an image of a man nailed to a piece of wood with blood pouring from his torso; the other that worships daily in front of a man sat comfortably with his hands in his lap grinning. For my part, I remember visiting churches and cathedrals across Europe as a child and the overall feeling I had was awe and fear. Although I do not practice either religion, Christian churches scare me; Buddhist shrines comfort me.
As the distances on this loop are quite short, and because accommodation is in relatively short supply, it makes sense to find a hotel or guesthouse in Tra Vinh City and base yourself there for 2-4 nights while making day trips on your motorbike (or bicycle) to the temples.
Because Tra Vinh isn’t a popular tourist destination, there isn’t a wide variety of places to stay in the province. Tra Vinh City, the provincial capital, has by far the greatest concentration of accommodation in the province. Beyond the city, there are budget local guesthouses (nhà nghỉ in Vietnamese) in most of the towns on the loop, such as Cau Ke, Cau Ngang, Cau Quan, Tra Cu, and Duyen Hai. Staying in any of these towns is quite a fun experience, because hardly any other foreign travellers do. But Tra Vinh City has the best accommodation, such as it is, and the city has genuine charm, character, and plenty of street food and cafes.
There are no fancy hotels in Tra Vinh; only local guesthouses and government hotels. However, both are very cheap and good value for money. Although the accommodations available are quite stark, they are comfortable and clean. What’s more, you’ll be spending most of the day out on the temple-hopping loop, so accommodation isn’t a major concern. Below are a handful of places to stay in Tra Vinh City that are fine for a couple of nights:
Nhà Khách Tỉnh Trà Vinh [MAP]: Just south of Tra Vinh city centre, this enormous government hotel is anonymous and ugly, but actually very comfortable and great value for money. Although the edifice is full of stark, echoey, empty spaces, the rooms have big windows, balconies and bathtubs. A basic buffet breakfast (very old-school) is included in the room price and so is use of the big swimming pool. 400,000-600,000vnd/night
Hotel An Khang [MAP]: Simple, clean, cheap and quiet, An Khang is a typical Vietnamese motel: rooms are arranged either side of a drive-in corridor. Sure it doubles as a ‘love hotel’, but that’s pretty common in Vietnam. Rooms have air-con and hot water showers. There’s no breakfast. (When I stayed here, the static from the sheets caused my bed to light up in the darkness.) 250,000-400,000vnd/night
Khách Sạn Cửu Long [MAP]: An old-style government hotel belonging to a different decade, Khach San Cuu Long is close to the city centre and comfortable. Rooms have showers and bathtubs, windows and carpets, and breakfast in the thatched restaurant at the back in included in the price. 400,000-600,000vnd
Food & Drink:
Like all Mekong Delta provinces, Tra Vinh is full of great food. The region has several specialities, one of which is bún nước lèo – a fish based noodle soup with lots of extras, such as roast pork. You’ll see signs for bún nước lèo all across the province. Tra Vinh City has lots of good street food. Rather than heading to a specific place, just explore the city centre until you stumble upon a streetside stall with lots of diners. For example, there are many food stalls in front of the central market (Chợ Trà Vinh) in the evenings, and around the night market (Chợ Đêm), too. Trần Phú Nối Dài street is lined with BBQ restaurants, beer joints and cafes – great for a night out if you’re travelling with friends. The shady grid of streets in the old quarter (the pink shaded area on my map) has lots of good local cafes, some serving Vietnamese-style iced coffee, others serving hot Italian-style machine coffee. I like Coffee 89. There are a couple of big supermarkets that are useful if you want to buy food for a picnic on the road: try GO! Mart. Thanks to the large Buddhist population, vegetarian food is quite common in Tra Vinh: look for signs saying Cơm Chay or just Chay.
Weather & When to Go:
This part of the Mekong Delta is fascinating and good to travel whatever the weather. The Tra Vinh Temple-Hopping Loop can be ridden at anytime of year. But, if you want to avoid the heavy tropical downpours of the monsoon, come during the dry season (roughly November-April), when the skies are clear, the sun shines, and humidity is low. However, by April the temperatures can be extremely hot. On the other hand, the rainy season (roughly May-October) can be atmospheric in this region because of the epic monsoon skies: great cloud cathedrals rising above the vast flat delta. But flooding could be a problem at this time of year, particularly as many of the smaller, back-roads on this loop run alongside waterways.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free & independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this motorbike route & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here