Can Tho is a stop on most Mekong Delta itineraries. If you go to Can Tho expecting a rural Vietnamese town, a sort-of Hoi An Old Quarter retreat with picturesque cycle routes and souvenir-selling street vendors you’re going to be disappointed. But if you go to Can Tho expecting a thriving, modern city full of traditional, if well-hidden, eateries and quirky, stylish shops and hangouts then you’re going to love it.
Most people visit Can Tho because it’s a convenient gateway to the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta. A great launch-pad for the floating markets and rice-paper making villages of the region. What a lot of people don’t realise is that Can Tho is the fourth largest city in Vietnam. Can Tho has a lot going for it in its mix of old and new. It has a brand-new shopping mall; a pretty river front that is the cheapest place in town to live, the direct opposite of most riverside cities; tons of proper old-school Vietnamese eateries but its fair share of overpriced air-conditioned cafes, full of hot young things with impressive hair.
I loved our few days in Can Tho but the visit didn’t start too well. I was ill on the day we arrived, the only day during my whole three-month trip to Vietnam that I was ill and, really, it wasn’t so bad. I had one night of illness (I’ll leave it to your imagination to fill the gaps here), one day of mental-health maintenance where I had a long bath, put a face and hair mask on and watched TV in solitary bliss, and by the second night I was ready to explore.
It’s worth mentioning here that the hotel prices in Can Tho are insanely cheap. The hotel we chose was lovely. It had a corner bath for god’s sake and a TV with movie channels for the grand sum of 14USD per night (details below).
That night we found ‘hot pot alley’ (details below). Considering I had been sick the night before I took the bold choice of ordering a seafood hot pot in a street café we chose solely because it was the busiest and we spent a few happy hours gorging on vegetables, noodles and fish boiled in a delicious seafood broth.
You can’t go to Can Tho without going to pre-dawn floating market. Well, you can, you can do what you want, you’re a fully-grown human being, but I would recommend going to a floating market if you can. The market you visit from Can Tho was a completely different affair to the one you visit from An Binh Island. It was bigger, livelier, more exciting and I felt privileged to be allowed to see such a unique way of life up close, a way of life I can’t see lasting through another generation.
Even with a visit to a rice paper making village, that I though was going to be a tourist-trap cringe but was actually really interesting and sweet, we were back before 10am we still had a whole day to fill. As with any day where we have time to spare we went to the cinema, ate frozen yoghurt in the mall and wandered the streets of the city, taking photographs and lazing in coffee shops. My brother once asked me, ‘do you not get bored when you’re travelling, like, what do you do all day?’ And the only way I could think to respond was by saying that ‘every day’s like a Saturday’ and how can you get bored when you’re in a new place, having new Saturdays all the time?
That afternoon there was a huge rainstorm that completely flooded most of the city and left our street under about 2 ft of water. Just before the first mini wave of filthy water flowed into the entrance of the hotel, a swarm of cockroaches, like I’m talking hundreds of them, came scuttling into the foyer hoping to find dry land to save themselves. The two lads on reception attacked them with sweeping brushes but even they were squeamish at the sheer numbers and resorted to jumping up on chairs and flapping their hands. I ran up the stairs to the safety of our third floor room and watched out of the window as cars and scooters tried valiantly but ultimately failed to drive as though nothing was happening and they weren’t so deep in water you couldn’t see their tyres.
We assumed the free food tour of Can Tho we were taking that night would be cancelled but the hotel receptionists assured us it would go ahead, everything always goes ahead no matter what, and called us a taxi. We took off our shoes, waded through the horrible, filthy water and got into a taxi with a cheerful driver who didn’t seem to mind that the floor of his car was completely flooded and made it to the meeting point.
It took two and a half months in Vietnam for us to do a food tour and I wish we had done it sooner. Totally laid back, we went places we would never have found on our own and ate food we hadn’t tried before with people who were a pleasure to spend time with. There were two options for the tour, ‘traditional Vietnamese food’ and ‘something a bit different’. We ate mouse (not worth the hassle) and snake (even chewier than my mam’s roast beef) so I think you can guess which one we chose.
There is a paradox in taking tours and organised trips. The more you pay, the more easily you can immerse yourself in the illusion that you’re not a tourist at all. Your trip is special and unique. It’s just you and the lady you pay to row the boat and the friend you made at the hotel. Money changes hands but it’s more of a token than anything else.
Compare this to the dreaded tourist boat or, even worse, tourist bus trip where you’re surrounded by other tourists and are bussed from place to place, spending only an hour at a time on the actual river. There’s no chance of you kidding yourself into believing that you’re having an experience that’s in any way unique when you’re paying for a standard cookie-cutter tour.
In my humble opinion the only way to travel the Mekong Delta is independently. Take local buses, stay in out-of-the-way hotels and homestays and that way you can spend a little more on your boat trips so they’re tailored to you and not twenty other tourists.
Hotel – We stayed at Spring Hotel, address: No. 22, Residential area No 9, 30-4 St, Xuan Khanh Ward, Ninh Kieu Dist, Can Tho. Here’s the Trip Advisor because the hotel’s website is in Vietnamese. The rooms are nicer than the picture suggest and all have bathtubs. Tip: Make sure you ask for non-smoking. (MAP)
Hot Pot Alley – Hot Pot Alley is located at Hem 1 Ly Tu Trong, dubbed Hẻm Vit Nau Chao by locals. It’s basically just a narrow alley with a concentration of humble hot pot restaurants dotted along the street. Watch out for the scary poodle-type thing in one of the gardens. The little shit would definitely have mauled me if it wasn’t locked in. (MAP)