It's 5am and the sky above Can Tho is still black and speckled with stars. Yawning, I make my way to the statue of Ho Chi Minh that dominates the riverfront of this sleepy city at the heart of the Mekong Delta, in southwest Vietnam. Xuan is waiting for me. Cheerful and talkative, the mother of two will be my guide to the floating markets and villages that line the Hau River in this area.

Also known as the Bassac, a legacy from French colonial rule, the Hau is one of the mighty Mekong River's major tributaries. Running off it are innumerable smaller canals and waterways that large vessels can't navigate. The long boats operated by Xuan and her fellow "boat ladies", enthusiastic middle-aged women who roam the Can Tho river-front offering tours for HK$80-HK$120 a head, are by far the most practical - and fun - transport on which to explore the Mekong Delta.

Can Tho is a four-hour bus ride southwest of Ho Chi Minh City and its manic, scooter-crowded roads, the abiding memory of Vietnam for many visitors. Like the rest of the delta, the city operates at an altogether slower pace, but that is not to say it isn't busy; locals congregate along the promenade and in the riverfront park at all hours.

During the day, pagodas hum, albeit serenely, with visitors, and food markets bustle with buyers and the buy-curious. When the sun sets, Hot Pot Alley, a narrow lane that sees fewer tourists than the eateries along the riverfront, does a roaring trade in the local speciality: duck hot pot.

Above all, though, Can Tho sits at the centre of a water world, the surrounding landscape a patchwork of rice paddy fields bisected by rivers and canals. Boats take the place of cars and bikes across the 39,000-square-kilometre delta area, and the two-lane roads are punctuated by a seemingly endless procession of hump-backed bridges. Without them, there would be no way over the rivers that criss-cross the region.

As if to confirm the dominance of water over land here, Xuan stops at one of the many floating petrol stations positioned along the banks of the Hau, to fill up on fuel. While we wait, a smaller boat glides towards us. It is a water-borne version of Starbucks and on board a tiny lady in a non la - the conical hats worn by women across rural Vietnam - is brewing strong local coffee, which is very welcome at this hour.

Dawn starts to break, the sky is streaked pink and orange. Xuan gives me an impromptu Vietnamese lesson as we head upstream, steering to the side of the river to avoid the cargo boats that come through at regular intervals. She tells me the names of the various fruit trees that lean over the water and makes me repeat them. The land here is bountiful; the delta is Vietnam's rice bowl and home to a bewildering array of exotic fruit and vegetables.

The floating market of Cai Rang appears, a jostling mass of boats bobbing on a gentle swell. Mostly crewed by women, they ride low in the water, weighed down by everything from bananas, durian, pineapples and pumpkin, to gourds, onions and sacks of rice. People come from the surrounding villages to sell their produce here, mainly to traders from the markets in Can Tho.

Tour groups circle the vendors, shooting picture after picture. Many are Vietnamese, drawn to the delta from the big cities, but some are foreigners, here to discover a more peaceful Vietnam. Their numbers, though, are still small compared with the hordes that descend on Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, or the beach resorts of Nha Trang and Mui Ne.

From Can Tho, some travellers carry on west, to the nearby coast and the white-sand beaches of Phu Quoc island. Cambodia, and the rejuvenated seaside village of Kep, is a matter of hours away, too, offering the chance to combine a trip to the delta with a stay in what French colonial officials regarded as the St Tropez of Indochina.

Perhaps sensing my disappointment at the number of tourists at Cai Rang, Xuan says, "Where we are going next, the big boats won't follow."

After a couple more bends of the river, the tour groups disappear. Our only company now are the local long boats heading downstream to Can Tho. Here, pontoon ferries connect the banks of the Hau at strategic points, allowing small vehicles to get across.

It's not yet seven in the morning, but delta people rise early and as soon as it is light they start emerging from their homes onto the river banks to brush their teeth, do washing or prepare their boats for a day's fishing. Some houses are mere shacks, others are substantial and set back from the river, the Vietnamese flag flying over many of them.

Phong Dien, the most evocative floating market in the region, is 14 kilometres upstream from Cai Rang, down a small waterway off the main river. Much more a market for locals than Cai Rang, the bargaining is intense here, as boats bang into each other and fruit and vegetables are weighed on scales and passed over the water into waiting hands. It's very much a market for early risers.

"They'll be finishing for the day soon," Xuan says. "All the boats will be gone by eight."

The return to Can Tho is leisurely; a few blissful hours floating along the small canals that wind their way towards the city. We pass hamlets and villages where the houses rise above the water on wooden stilts and people wave as we drift by.

I drowse in the front of the boat under a now fierce sun while Xuan guides the tiller with her foot, still pointing out the local fauna and trying to teach me Vietnamese, until the Can Tho riverfront and the statue of Ho Chi Minh appears once more.


Getting there: Vietnam Airlines and Cathay Pacific ( both operate daily flights to Ho Chi Minh City. A regular bus service operates to Can Tho from Ho Chi Minh City's Mien Tay Bus Station (Western region), 395, Kinh Duong Vuong, An Lac Ward, Binh Tan District.