Can Tho City, considered the heart of the Mekong Delta, is well-known for its unique floating markets and maze of rivers and canals that are tailor-made for ecotourism.
Can Tho is not much affected by storms, and its weather is pleasant all year round with distinct rainy and dry seasons.
The ideal time to visit is in summer between May and August when orchards are harvested.
September to November is the flood season in the Mekong Delta, when fish swim into the paddy fields along with alluvial deposits to fertilize the next crop.
The Mekong Delta is famous for its floating markets where local specialties are sold in boats, something that has been part of the daily lives of local people for generations.
About five kilometers from downtown Can Tho and 30 minutes by boat from Ninh Kieu Wharf is Cai Rang floating market, the biggest in the delta.
Here, from early morning traders gather to buy fresh vegetables and fruits to sell elsewhere. The most crowded time is 5:30-6:30 a.m. when boats clog the waterway.
A 40-minute boat ride is the best way to explore life along the waterways as it passes houses built on stilts over the water and boats in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes and colors.
Tourists need to get a boat at Ninh Kieu Port to get to the market, which floats on the Hau River, about six kilometers from the city center. A boat ride costs VND30,000 ($1.26). If in a group, you can rent a boat for VND350,000-400,000 ($15-17).
The market is open all day but is busiest from dawn to around 9 a.m. The main items sold here are farm products and regional specialties such as dried fish, coconut candy, fish sauce, and milk.
Every boat has a long upright pole in its bow from which samples of the goods it sells are hung.
One thing that makes your experience more interesting is the market has floating eateries where you can fill your stomach with breakfast dishes such as pho bo (beef noodle soup), bun rieu (tomato-based crab noodle soup), com tam (broken rice), and hu tieu (noodle soup) at less than $1.
"It's worth visiting once," Talia, a visitor from the U.S., wrote on Tripadvisor.
"It's fun to buy and eat on the boat. Our guide says that in a few years it may be gone."
Lee from Belgium wrote on Tripadvisor that "It's not as crowded as I thought, but good to enjoy. We visited the Cai Rang floating market on a Mekong River cruise for two days. I tried a hot coffee and local fruits that I never had before. All were great."
The Binh Thuy ancient house has earned the title of the prettiest old house in Can Tho for its unique looks: its exterior looks European while interiors have traditional Vietnamese architecture.
Situated on Bui Huu Nghia Street in Binh Thuy District, it was built in 1870 by a renowned family with a history of contributing to the country.
Son Islet lies in the middle of the Hau River, and is home to 79 families who live in traditional style.
Since 2015 they have been involved in community-based tourism and turning their homes into homestay facilities.
The only way to reach the islet is by boat, and tour operators offer half-day tours of Son Islet for VND300,000-600,000 that take visitors by boat to traditional craft villages and enjoy regional specialties.
Floating fish farms are one of the unique highlights of Son Islet.
Visitors are shown how to feed fish and how they are raised on rafts. The fish farms charge an entrance fee of VND10,000.
The ‘flying fish show’ is also a must-try experience. It involves snakehead fish jumping out of the water to feed. Entrance costs VND25,000.
Another popular activity for tourists on Son Islet is making sweet cakes from rice flour with instructions from locals.
They are taught how to make banh la mit (Vietnamese jackfruit tree leaf cake) and banh phu the (husband and wife cake), a dessert made from rice with mung bean stuffing and wrapped in pandan leaves.
Simon from the U.S. said it was one of the best tours of his life.
"When we reached Son Islet, we felt like we were in a totally different world. It was tranquil with many birds flying above and a dense rows of trees. I found it interesting to make banh la mit and witness the flying snakehead fish performance."
Bang Lang stork sanctuary is home to 300,000 storks from 20 different species.
To avoid disturbing the birds, buses stop at the beginning of the road and visitors have to walk or rent a bicycle to enter the sanctuary.
Entry fees cost VND20,000.
According to conservation staff, the best time to see storks is in the afternoon when they come back to their nest after a long day of foraging for food.
They leave the nest at around 5-6 a.m.
The stork sanctuary is surrounded by rice paddies and the interlacing canals of Can Tho.
Tourists can also go on a cruise tour along the Hau River or cycle past orchards and craft villages.
Can Tho is famous for traditional craft villages that make rice paper, rice noodles, fine rice vermicelli, and bamboo baskets.
Hu tieu (noodle soup) is a typical dish in the Mekong Delta and one of the most popular Vietnamese breakfast items. For visitors who would like to see how the delicious rice noodles are handmade from scratch, the Chin Cua noodle factory near the Cai Rang floating market is a must-visit place.
The Guan Yu Temple with red-tiled roofs and red bricks on Hai Ba Trung Street in Ninh Kieu District was built by Chinese immigrants from Guangdong in 1894. It has Chinese architectural touches while almost all its construction materials, including stone, porcelain and enamel, were brought from China.
The temple is dedicated to General Guan Yu, who served under the warlord Liu Bei of the late Eastern Han Dynasty and is worshipped by many Chinese for his bravery and loyalty.
Nightlife in Can Tho
Ninh Kieu is more than just a wharf; it is a park on an area of 7,000 square meters and part of the city’s nightlife with floating restaurants and cruise tours.
Its popularity took off in 2016 with the launch of a food hub and night market and a 200-m pedestrian bridge.
Earlier this year a one-kilometer-long pedestrians-only street divided into areas for shopping, dining and festivals and art performances like don ca tai tu, traditional southern Vietnamese music was set up.
Visitors can consider homestays in the city center or a riverside resort depending on their budget.
High-end accommodation facilities include Azerai Can Tho Resort and Victoria Can Tho Resort at prices ranging from VND1.2-5 million a night.
Hotels are also scattered along the Ninh Kieu Wharf with an average tariff of around VND300,000.
At Ninh Kieu Port, visitors can head to a local wet market to try one of the Mekong Delta’s lesser known foods, bun goi da, which is made from noodles, shrimp, meat and other ingredients one would normally see in a spring roll (goi cuon in Vietnamese).
A bowl of bun goi da with noodles, shrimp, meat, and other ingredients. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Vinh.
The broth has the refreshing flavor of tamarind and the taste of tuong hot (a form of fermented soybean). In some places, locals add shredded coconut and duck embryo (hot vit lon in Vietnamese).
A bowl costs from VND13,000.
Fish sauce hotpot is a unique dish in the southwest made from more than 40 kinds of vegetables, fresh seafood and meat. The sauce made from fish sauce has a rich and alluring flavor.
You can try the dish at Da Ly Fish Sauce Hotpot at 89 3/2 Street, Ninh Kieu District, at prices of VND100,000 – 220,000.
Banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake) is also a must-try dish in Can Tho. Inside the golden crispy and greasy crust are meat and shrimps. The pancake is eaten wrapped with raw vegetables and dipped in fish sauce.
You can try the dish at Muoi Xiem Pancake at 13/3 Nguyen Chi Thanh Street in Binh Thuy District. It costs VND40,000 – 150,000.
Grilled snakehead fish is also a signature dish of Can Tho with the cook skewering the fish in the mouth, sticking it in the ground, covering it with straw, and burning it.
When it is well done the fish is placed on a banana leaf and has all burned parts removed.
It is eaten with peanuts, rice paper, fresh vegetables, and fish sauce.
Banh hoi thit nuong (fine rice vermicelli served with grilled pork) has the vermicelli woven into intricate bundles, topped with chopped scallions and wrapped with grilled pork and fresh vegetables.
You should try the dish at Ut Dzach stall, 509 Provincial Road 61B, Phong Dien District, for VND20,000 – 50,000 a serving.
Banh cong or fried shrimp cake is made by putting pork, shrimp and green peas inside a crispy crust. The cake tastes better when you enjoy it with fresh vegetables and sweet fish sauce.
Co Ut fried shrimp cake at 86/38 Lu Trong Street in Ninh Kieu District is a popular place to try this dish, which costs VND10,000 – 30,000 per serving.
There are direct flights from Hanoi and Da Nang to Can Tho costing VND 1.7-2 million.
From Ho Chi Minh City, visitors can travel by motorbike or car that follows National Highway 1A to Can Tho. The 170-kilometer journey takes three to four hours.
If you take a bus, you can buy tickets at the Mien Tay bus station in District 6 or bus stations on Le Hong Phong Street in District 10. One-way tickets cost VND130,000-180,000.
Story by Hoang Phong, Khuong Nha