Barges full of bananas, pineapples or coconuts pass down the river leading from Can Tho, the largest city in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. You arrive by Phuong Trang (FUTA) buslines from Chau Doc. The bus pulls into a dusty lot east of downtown. You give the name of your hotel to a dispatcher at a wooden desk, and then board a minivan which provides door-to-door service.
The bus pulls out into the Can Tho rush hour traffic. Each person on the bus yells to the driver where they are heading. You realize but cannot pronounce your address, or even the hotel name, Hotel Xoai with enough accuracy to satisfy the driver, so you sit quiet. The bus continues on.
Luckily, a Vietnamese passenger, attune to the situation, asks your hotel information and relays it to the driver. Soon thereafter, you are dropped off and walk into the hotel.
The Typical Can Tho Experience
Most people head to Can Tho for either a day-trip or arrive for one night and leave the next afternoon. The primary draw is the Cai Rang Floating Market. Once people see the Floating Market, they head to their next destination. If you ask most people what they thought of Can Tho, it will be an opinion about that single activity.
The Cai Rang Floating Market
The alarm chatters at 0500AM, and a half-hour later you are heading down the streets towards the harbor. The Hotel Xaoi offered a 3-hour trip for 385,000VND ($18USD), with a 530AM departure from the hotel (and that transfer time included in the three hours), but you passed that up to see what would happen if you cut out the middleman. Further, you wanted to be on the water at 530AM (not leaving the hotel at that time).
You arrive at the dock area, located at the end of the street of Nguyễn An Ninh, and immediately have a guy inquiring. He offers two hours for 200,000VND, but you want three hours. You field a couple more offers and then head north-northwest along the promenade until you find a lady who agrees to 200,000VND ($9.35) for a three-hour tour.
Pretty soon, you are on a small wooden boat being motored slowly along by an old Vietnamese woman. The darkness starts to give way to the illuminating skies. Every now and then, a much quicker boat would pass by, but generally the river was quite desolate, save for the occasional coconut boat.
After a fair amount of time, perhaps 45 minutes, you arrive at the Cai Rang Floating Market. For all the focus placed on this market, it is quite underwhelming. You spot some activity, such as deckhands throwing coconuts from one boat to another. You note that coffee boat that motors around looking to make pastry and coffee sales.
Many times, and especially so of day-trippers from Ho Chi Minh, a late arrival is blamed as to why the market lacked electricity. But here you are, just after sunrise and the atmosphere is certainly not electric. Further, the market really isn’t that big, especially considering how much you’ve heard about it being one of the largest floating markets in the Mekong.
Perhaps you arrived on the wrong day or month, but whatever the case, you quickly realize you’ve seen enough and instruct the old lady to bring you into the canals—a slow way back to Can Tho.
At first, this is a great decision, as the scenery of locals living on the river is a nice counterbalance to the staid market scene. But that proves fleeting as the houses peter out and give way to monotonous riverscapes. And given that the canals are quite long, and that your boat is quite slow, you decide to merely kick back and enjoy the ride.
So now you are back in Can Tho. In fact, given that it is only 0830AM, you encounter a seller trying to get you to go on a floating market tour, not realizing you just completed one.
The Cai Rang Floating Market Conclusion
If you are in Can Tho looking for a floating market tour, you want to know what exactly is included in that tour? Are you going to noodle factories, through canals, which floating markets (Cai Rang which is a produce market or Phong Dien which includes consumer goods), etc. Also, how big is the boat you are taking? If you are on a large, long tourist boat, then you will find your boat unable to maneuver through any tight spots in the floating market, and thus resigned to missing out on opportunities. If your boat is slow, it will take longer getting places. If your boat is motor-only, you won’t get any peace from the puttering. If your tour guide can’t speak English, and you can’t speak Vietnamese, then maybe you lose something as well.
The Non-Floating Market Can Tho
You head south along the street that parallels the river until you run into a bunch of street-sellers selling everything from meat, seafood, vegetables and fruit. You continue along, impressed by the banana varieties and varieties of seafood.
You turn towards the river into a darkened facility. Narrow pathways split between the numerous stalls. Dodging puddles of seafood run-off and busy locals buying their produce, you are amazed by the electricity of this market. While all the tourists are busy shooting out to the Cai Rang Floating Market, the much better market seems to be the tourist-free land-market.
After wandering aimlessly through that, you find yourself walking through another complex that is filled with locals repairing old circuit boards, televisions and other used electronics. Behind all of them, you see what looks to be a cafe, and head towards that.
Soon thereafter, you have an iced-sweetened coffee in front of you and a pot of hot tea. To your right, a bunch of hard-working locals carrying coconuts from a ship to a pile on the land. Straight ahead, the Hậu River (a distributory of the Mekong River) with its boating traffic including the late-rising tourists on tourist tours who will see an even deader floating market. To the left, a bunch of locals enjoying juices and coffees. It is the perfect location to relax.
Food in Can Tho
There are a bunch of options for food in Can Tho. De Tham street has an excellent array of options. The alley ways connecting Mau Than and Ly Tu Trong (specifically Hem 1) are littered with Duck Hot Pot options, amongst other things. And as you wander around in other areas, you encounter a fair number of street carts selling excellent banh mi sandwiches and grilled meat and noodle dishes…not to mention the fried bananas.
Can Tho in Conclusion
It is a mistake to come all the way to Can Tho just for the floating market. The floating market was perhaps the least interesting thing in Can Tho. Talking to random locals about random events was much more interesting. Trying crab and duck dishes in Can Tho was much more interesting. Hanging out on the rooftop of the Hotel Xaoi while the sun went down was much more interesting. Wandering through the bustling land market early in the morning was much more interesting.
Can Tho went from a one-night idea to a five-night idea. It is more of a place to settle into normal living while being delighted by randomness than one that has 100 different tourist activities to partake in, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. If you are in Saigon and need a slightly smaller city feel, head to Can Tho.
And the best unique thing about Can Tho in comparison to the tourist districts of Hanoi and Saigon? The lack of street hustlers. You can walk around Can Tho without being badgered into buying sunglasses, tours, lottery tickets, motorbike rides, taxis or cigarettes.
Up next, photo narratives from Can Tho
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