The Mekong Delta and Can Tho City in Vietnam
Of the mix of practical research-related and indulgent tourism activities we’d planned for our initial month in Vietnam, our tour of the floating markets of the Mekong Delta was super-high on the list of indulgences we were looking forward to. We booked an affordable two-night stay at Ms. Ha’s Guesthouse in the city of Can Tho which would serve as a convenient base camp for our boat tour.
We’d booked our tour of the Mekong Delta many months in advance with Eco Tours, the top-ranked company on TripAdvisor. It wasn’t until closer to our trip date that we arranged our $15/night lodging with Ms. Ha’s Guesthouse which had great reviews on Airbnb.
When we arrived to Ms. Ha’s, she jovially brought us in from the pouring rain and encouraged us to dry off in our rooms before beginning the customary guesthouse introduction. When we returned from our immaculate, spacious, well air conditioned room (with a balcony! (for $15/night!!!) she presented us with a complimentary welcome plate of freshly sliced pineapple and papaya alongside icy iced-teas. We were tired and famished, so these offerings felt like one of the greatest acts of hospitality we’d ever received.
One of Ms. Ha’s first questions for us was if we would be joining other guests for her tour of the Mekong Delta the following morning. We let her know we’d already made tour arrangements, to which she responded by letting us know that she was confused how we didn’t know from her Airbnb page that she is a Mekong tour guide and has been doing so for more than 20 years, and why would we have booked a tour with another company, and so far in advance, because it absolutely not necessary, and would we please tell her the name of the company?
It wasn’t just our gut instinct that told us to “forget” the name of the company we were taking our tour with, but also a direct email request from Eco Tours which asked us not to mention to our guesthouse proprietor that we were using them for our Mekong Delta outing, and that they would explain on the day of the tour the reason for the need for secrecy. Oooh…we love a good mystery!
Although Ms. Ha was clearly not our buddy after this conversation, she remained a good host and ensured we received a map highlighting the Can Tho produce markets, restaurants of-note, etc., plus a double-wide umbrella for us to use that rainy night.
We enjoyed our first evening in Can Tho very much. Having just departed Saigon, we were still in defensive walking mode and were genuinely surprised when no one intentionally tried to run us down with their motorbike. In fact, many people were very polite, would make eye contact and smile, and even apologize if they got too close to us on the sidewalk (and wow, yes! Sidewalks you could walk on!). We were stunned. We strolled through a charming public park and beneath cheerful decorative lights strung over the main streets. Thanks to Ms. Ha’s map, we found an avenue pulsing with food vendors of every kind. We had our first Vietnamese “lẩu”, (hot pot) that evening. We’re pretty certain it won’t be the best we’ll try, mostly because we couldn’t identify any of the food that was floating in the hot pot. We’d ordered the seafood lẩu, but might have gotten a variety fried tofu? Maybe? Who the hell knows… So we’re ready to give hot pot another go ‘round later in our travels. KSK recommends goat brain hot pot, and that seriously sounds like our kind of lẩu.
We went lights-out early that night so we could be properly conscious for our pre-sunrise meet-up with Eco Tours. Ordinarily the company will personally pick you up from your hotel or guesthouse, however in our case, they asked if we would be willing to meet them in front of the Can Tho market at 5:00 a.m. That seemed perfectly fine to us, as the market was a mere 5-minute walk from our guesthouse, but when it’s pitch black outside at 4:50 a.m. and random dudes repeatedly circle you and ask if you want a boat ride (or who knows what else since we’re still barely comprehending Vietnamese) and it’s clear they’re not with your pre-arranged boat ride, it can make you feel a bit squirrelly. However, at 5:00 a.m. on the dot, a polished, energetic young man in a school backpack approached us and showed us our names on his cell phone and introduced himself as our guide, which brightened us up immediately. We followed him through the dark streets to the dock opposite the market, where climbed into a small boat and met a strong, elegant woman who was to be our boat captain for the day.
As our boat cut through the dark water, the sky above was painted in deep ribbons of purple and magenta. Over a bunch of finger bananas, we became acquainted with our guide who we learned was an international business student studying at the University in Can Tho and who learned his English primarily from watching his favorite TV shows and movies including Gordon Ramsay’s cooking programs, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, and Friends. He was keenly interested and extremely versed in matters of American politics and celebrities and so, cause we had of lot of explaining to try to do, there was never a dull moment in our conversations.
Once dawn broke, we found ourselves in one of the Mekong Delta’s wholesale markets where vendors’ boats were piled high with inventories of cabbage, pineapples, durian, dragon fruit, jackfruit, potatoes, and more. Each boat would advertise its goods by stringing a sample onto a tall pole. Seeing giant pumpkins dangling high in the sky was certainly a an amusing sight! Some boats were merchants to the merchants, selling either assorted beverages, meals, or snacks. We saw one boat, zip by with potato chips, cookies, and Red Bull (Mark would be in heaven living on this boat).
Along our ride through the floating wholesale market we frequently saw other tourists, mostly Asian, donning bulky orange life vests and crammed tightly on large sight-seeing boats. Whenever these groups would pass us, we’d be pointed out as exotic Westerners, enthusiastically waved at, then prolifically photographed. We enjoyed waving our greetings in return, but enjoyed even more the realization that our tiny boat could move far more nimbly through the tangle of floating markets, bringing us a much more intimate experience of the Mekong Delta. Among these experiences were hitching to a beverage boat for glasses of iced café sua da and then shortly after, sidling up to a breakfast boat for steaming bowls of seafood pho. It was hands-down our favorite meal we’ve ever had. Scrumptious seafood noodle soup + bobbing on a boat in the Mekong Delta = happy forever-memories.
We next traveled to a retail floating market which was winding down in the late morning, but where our Guide bought us assorted fruits and dried banana and sweet potato chips tossed with ginger and sesame. OMG, so addictive!
Our tour guide was a mind reader because as we were silently thinking that there hadn’t been nearly as many vendor boats on the water as we’d expected, he explained that over the past 5 years, the “traffic” on the Mekong Delta has declined substantially because of improvements in the area’s roads and highways. It is now often faster and cheaper to transport produce by car which was once moved and sold exclusively in the Delta’s waterways. Our mild disappointment in not seeing more action quickly turned to gratitude for the opportunity to witness this centuries-old trade tradition even in its dwindling days.
After the retail market tour our boat driver navigated a narrow channel alongside a rural area of the Mekong before docking for us to take a short walking tour with our Guide. We encountered many beautiful butterflies (some with wings as big as our pair of outstretched hands!), friendly people, chickens, “monkey bridges” (narrow trunks of trees lashed together to make a bridge with just wires or rope as handholds over the water). We saw many native fruit trees such as start fruit, jackfruit, coconut, bananas, kumquat, and more, and sampled various medicinal leaves and herbs that were sometimes sweet, other times spicy, bitter, sour, or spicy. A favorite was the aptly named “False Mango” leaf. We learned that a leaf from a milk apple tree can be squeezed to produce a substance that will substitute for glue. Neat!
We returned to the boat to discover our driver had artfully cut a heaping plate of mango and pineapple for us from the goods she picked up at the floating retail market. Absolutely decadent!
We next rode to a rice noodle factory (which was blatantly for tourists) where we observed and tried out how rice paper is produced then dried before being shredded into noodles. It was admittedly fun in a hokey sort of way to make the rice paper, then operate the shredder. We came away with some new noodle knowledge as well, which is this: the difference between vermicelli noodles and rice noodles is that the Vermicelli are produced and sold as “wet” noodles whereas rice noodles start out dry and brittle, like plastic.
After the noodle factory, we returned to our boat for the trip back to Can Tho. Our boat driver again surprised us with yet another bountiful plate of locally-sourced gems: dragon fruit, rambutan (so wonderfully bizarre looking!), and a fruit from Korea that has no name translation into Vietnamese or English that are small, round, and golden which you peel to reveal wedges of gummy/stretchy flesh that is sweet and sour and amazing.
Also along the way back, our Guide spotted a custard apple tree and asked our boat driver to turn back so he could try to pick one. He scored a fine specimen, and instructed us to let it ripen for a few days, then cut it up and mix it with milk, ice, and sugar, but to under NO CIRCUMSTANCES mix it with dragon fruit as it could cause a poisonous reaction. Uhhhh? (We unfortunately couldn’t give it the full blended-drink treatment since we had to travel the following day and couldn’t ensure its safe passage in our jammed luggage, so we cracked into it before we checked out of our guesthouse in order to give it a look and a taste. We found it to be pleasant in flavor but so full of gigantic seeds that it wasn’t worth the work to get through them. At least we weren’t poisoned!)
Full of fruit and becoming subdued by the mid-day sun, we fell into more casual conversation with our Guide on the topic of American idioms. We realized for the first time that a shocking number of our idioms refer to excrement in some way or another (“shit faced”, “really stepped in it”, “pooped out”, “full of shit”…they just go on and on it turns out). We left feeling even more confused and embarrassed by America’s idioms than our young Vietnamese Guide.
There were two errands to run before re-docking: stopping for gas at a floating gas station and returning our bowls to the soup lady. We loved both for the HowStuffWorks peek into the Mekong Delta. Our boat driver and tour guide then left us with a hand-crafted grasshopper and bouquet of flowers that she had fashioned from dried reeds.
Our day on the Mekong Delta with Eco Tours was extremely educational, fun, and memorable experience that we cannot recommend highly enough. Our entire tour spanned from 5:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. and ran us 500,000 VND per person. With a generous tip of 700,000 between the boat driver and Guide we spent a total of $38 per person. An astonishingly low price for the time and unique adventure they provided.
Oh! And the cause for the tour company’s secrecy! Sadly, it turns out it’s because due to their popularity on TripAdvisor, many of the other Mekong tour companies have begun employing gangster-like threats against Eco Tours. :o( We now completely understand why they didn’t pick us up at Ms. Ha’s!
After a restorative afternoon shower and a snooze at our guesthouse, we reemerged at sunset to delve into Can Tho’s wonderland of a Night Market: an entire block lined wall-to-wall with street vendors serving deliciousness. Warm pancakes filled with assorted jams, freshly made gigantic sesame seed crackers, crazy beverages, Vietnamese quesadillas, and all manner of stuff-on-sticks to be grilled on request (including chicken feet and tentacles which if you care to, you can see us try out in the video below). We wished we could have stayed an additional night just to get through even more of the Night Market’s offerings!
And the end of our very comfortable stay at Ms. Ha’s, she sent us off with proper shaming by telling us how silly we were to be taking a bus back to Saigon in order to catch our connecting flight to Hue, when we could have flown there directly from Can Tho (so folks reading this who may follow a similar itinerary: Can Tho has an airport! (We seriously didn’t know!)). She also did us the courtesy of booking our return bus trip, but booked us on to sleeper bus versus regular bus back to Saigon. That was a whole other crazy adventure we’ll have to tell you about later.
But for now, you can see our full collection of photos from the Mekong Delta and the Can Tho Night Market HERE and watch our two videos below.