Our time in Vietnam was coming to an end, after travelling all the way from Hanoi overland to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping in Ninh Binh, Hue, Danang, Hoi An and Nha Trang. We had two more days left before flying home via Hong Kong, and we wanted to spend them exploring the Mekong Delta. There are numerous operators offering day trips from HCMC to My Tho, the nearest river town, but I had heard terrible things about them. Instead, we decided to take a bus to Can Tho and once there arrange a boat tour. We took a taxi to Mien Tay bus station (on the way back we would take a public bus, it’s quite easy), and bought tickets with Thanh Buoi (VDN 100,000, $4.5). There were many options available, we chose these buses because they took less than 4 hours and had free wifi. They also offered a free shuttle from the Can Tho bus station, in the outskirts, to the center, but I believe all of them did.
Can Tho felt a lot like Ninh Binh: underdeveloped, local, authentic. The few hotels in the riverfront were quite expensive, and we walked a bit deeper into the back streets to find a decent budget place. We had left most of our luggage in HCMC, but still had small backpacks we wanted to unload. By then, we were starving, so we sat down at a quaint restaurant on one of the main streets, Hai Ba Trung. The food was yummy, especially some caramelized fish, giving us a first taste of what we would experience in Can Tho, definitely our favorite place to eat in all of Vietnam. We strolled around the riverside, with its nice park, the pier full of shops, and some pedestrian streets. There wasn’t much going on in the city at that time, it would become much livelier in the evening. There was one thing that was already up and running: fruit stalls. The Mekong Delta is considered the rice bowl and the orchard of Vietnam, its unique geography and climate making it the perfect place for agriculture. We bought a big bag of mangosteens (Elena’s favorites), and placidly enjoyed their aromatic sweetness by the river.
As we walked up and down, we were solicited by several boat operators, mostly old women. We arranged a private tour for the following day for VND 350,000 (~$15), after a short negotiation and pre-paid a deposit. Because the famous floating markets ran early in the morning, there was little to do the rest of the day… let’s get a massage! We failed to find a blind masseuse place we had read about, and ended up walking for two hours in random, uninteresting streets on the other side of the Cai Khe canal. We walked back and stumbled upon a small salon right by hotel, where we got not very professional but still relaxing massage for VDN 120,000 (~$5). As the sun was going down, we made our way back to the market area, where lots of food stands had popped up. We ate octopus fried balls, shrimp and scallion crepes, sticky rice sweets and more, and drank a few delicious fruit shakes; my favorite was probably the jackfruit one.
Since we wanted to check out two floating markets, Cai Rang and Phong Dien, and they are most active before 8-9am, we had arranged our boat tour to start at 5:30am, and we needed to go to bed early. Full and tired, we passed out quickly… only to be woken up at 2am by the noise of trucks being unloaded, fish and produce being traded. Lesson learnt: don’t stay close to a market. When we walked to the river, the old lady who had sold us the tour, and who seemed to run a cartel of boats, was waiting for us with our boatman. Soon we were underway, as the sun fought to come out of the horizon and among the clouds. In about half an hour, we arrived at the Cai Rang market area. There were tens of large wooden boats, quietly floating in the middle of the brown river. Each one of them had a stick with a fruit or veggie hanging up high, so that buyers could tell from far away what they sold. Smaller boats would approach them to bargain, and once a deal was reached, the produce would be thrown over.
It was an interesting sight, but to be honest, it wasn’t as spectacular as I was expecting. Apparently, the level of action depends heavily on the time of the year and the fruit and veggies that are in season. We only saw pineapples, watermelons and some sort of turnip, and overall not as many boats and trades as I had seen in pictures. The Phong Dien market, an additional 45 min up river, was underwhelming, with just a couple of boats. We still enjoyed a breakfast pineapple, cutely carved by our boatman, and the random sights of the river life, like the local ladies stand-up paddling. The tour also included a few more activities beyond the markets, starting with a tour of the canals. Compared to the development and bustle of the main river, the canals were tranquil and atmospheric, surrounded by lush forest. It reminded me of our time in Maynmar’s Inle Lake, so recent and yet feeling so distant, with so many things happening since.
We stopped at a fruit orchard for a walk, though there was nothing much to see. Then we pulled over at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, but it looked a bit like of a tourist scam, so we decided not to stay. We would eat at the last stop: the noodle factory. It was cool to see the end-to-end traditional process, from grinding rice to make dough, to creating a sort of tortilla, drying it and cutting it into strings. Elena even got to participate into some of the steps, while I was more interested in sampling what was described to us as noodle pizza… yum! Overall, it was a good 6 hour tour, giving insight into the life in this part of Vietnam. Back in Can Tho, before heading to the bus station and HCMC, we wanted to eat one more time: we absolutely had to have mangosteens again, and we couldn’t leave without trying some stinky yet mouth-watering durian.