Can Tho: Gateway to the Mekong Delta's Soul

Nestled along the sinuous bends of the Mekong River, Can Tho in the deep south of Vietnam emerges as a vibrant dosser of history, culture, and the timeless ebb and flow of life in the Mekong Delta. Life here revolves around these waterways, which existed even before Vietnam became a country. Known as the "Pearl of the Mekong Delta," Can Tho is a city that beckons travellers with the promise of authentic Vietnamese experiences, a fascinating historical narrative, and the allure of a region where the land and water are inextricably entwined. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

© Logan Ly

Can Tho's days of old is a chronicle of resilience and prosperity, woven into the fertile soil of the Mekong Delta. Millennia before colonial powers arrived on its shores, and even before the country had an official name, this land was inhabited by diverse communities, including the Khmer, who left indelible imprints on the cultural fabric of the region. The delta's intricate network of waterways was both a lifeline and a trade route, sustaining communities and facilitating commerce.

The arrival of the French colonialists in the 19th century brought winds of change to Can Tho. Under their influence, the city began to evolve as an economic and cultural centre, bridging the traditions of the past with the opportunities of the future. Can Tho's architecture still bears traces of this colonial heritage, a testament to the city's historical significance. Can Tho's location at the heart of the Mekong Delta made it a strategic point during the American War. The city and its surroundings were witness to intense military operations and played a pivotal role in the conflict. The area's waterways, such as the Hau River, were vital transportation routes, and Can Tho served as a hub for U.S. military operations in the delta.

© Logan Ly

In the post-war era, Can Tho, like the rest of Vietnam, embarked on a journey of reconstruction and reunification. The city's resilience and determination were evident as it rebuilt its economy and infrastructure, setting the stage for its transformation into a dynamic economic centre in the Mekong Delta. Can Tho's cultural identity is a captivating mosaic, shaped by the convergence of ethnic Vietnamese, Khmer, and Chinese communities. This vibrant blend of cultures manifests in traditional festivals, religious ceremonies, and a vibrant culinary scene that beckons travellers to immerse in the flavours of the delta.

I took a 4 hour bus from Saigon to Can Tho for a weekend trip, which was super easy to do since there’s transportation leaving every 30 minutes, every day, from 7am to 10pm. It has been like this since my mother’s time growing up in Vietnam, since the two cities are huge economic urban centres for Southern Vietnam. But Can Tho is what I like to refer to as the deep south - life is calmer there, slower in pace, but filled to the brim with the hearts and smiles of the locals. If Saigon is an ever-non-stopping scramble, then Can Tho is its antidote. 

Wikimedia/ Isderion

The best way to experience Can Tho if you are going for a weekend or a couple of days, is by homestay. Homestays here are usually on the outskirts of the city, but will give you a deep-dive into the bucolic slow travel lifestyle of the Mekong. The one where I was at served one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes famed from this region, Bun Mam. This traditional Vietnamese noodle sou boasts a distinctive seafood-y and complex flavor profile which is created by simmering a mixture of fermented fish paste (usually made from various types of fish), shrimp, and various aromatic ingredients like lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and sometimes chili peppers. This results in a broth that is deeply savoury, umami-rich, and slightly pungent - topped off with grilled pork, shrimp, squid, and occasionally, fish. While it can be an acquired taste due to the fermented fish paste in the broth, it’s a must-try for those who want an authentic bite of the Mekong. 

But back to accommodations - see how I can get caught talking about the deliciousness of this region? If you think homestays are too far out of the city, do not worry as Can Tho is a great size metropolis that you can explore easily by motorbike. It’s not an overwhelming size. If you prefer to stay in the city, there are tons of great hotels for all types of budget too. 

Flickr/ Marco Verch

Now for must-sees and what not to miss out on in Can Tho, here are recommendations from my several trips down to the Mekong capital: 

Start your day EARLY (I am talking 5am, 6am, as by 9am you are too late) and head to Cai Rang, one of the largest and most famous floating markets in the Mekong Delta, if not in all of Vietnam. Witness the lively spectacle of boats laden with colourful fruits, vegetables, and other goods, bobbing on the water. Here you can engage in the vibrant market atmosphere, just pay a small boat to ferry you out to the other boats and have breakfast ladle to you from another boat. Don't forget to try some of the fresh and exotic tropical fruits available (so succulent with how fresh they are!) as well as another noodle soup speciality, Hủ tiếu. Perfect for breakfast, Hủ tiếu is popular Vietnamese noodle dish that features a clear and aromatic broth that is light but full of flavour. The broth is often made by simmering pork bones, shrimp shells, and sometimes chicken or beef bones, then served with thin rice flour noodles. Garnished with a variety of fresh herbs and vegetables such as bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, lettuce, you are also encouraged to squeeze a lime wedge and eat it with a side of hoisin sauce. Mmmm! On a crispy air morning in a boat over the Mekong Delta, this is absolute perfection.

Flickr/ Marco Verch

If you want to check out a market that is lesser known, the Phong Dien Floating Market is just as a symphony for the senses. It's known for its smaller-scale operation and friendly local vendors. Exploring this market allows you to immerse yourself in the daily life of Mekong Delta residents.

© Logan Ly

This one once place that really drew my imagination out and took me back to when the French ruled the then cobbled stone streets of Vietnam. Explore the historic Binh Thuy Ancient House, a beautifully preserved French colonial mansion that provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of the region's elite during the colonial era. Amongst the antiques, old photographs and meticulously well-preserved heritage here, the house is surrounded by lush gardens and a peaceful setting that you will be seduced by.  

During your time in Can Tho, visit this serene Buddhist temple, renowned for its intricate architecture and peaceful ambience. The temple is adorned with intricate carvings, statues, and well-maintained gardens. It's a place for quiet contemplation and spiritual reflection.

Wikimedia/ trungydang

Stroll along the picturesque Ninh Kieu Riverside Park, located along the banks of the Hau River. Here, you can take in the scenic views of the river and the city skyline, especially during sunset. This is also a popular spot for locals, and you will often see younger Vietnamese going on cute dates here.

Gain insights into the history and culture of the Mekong Delta at the Can Tho Museum. It houses a collection of artifacts, exhibits, and historical documents that trace the region's development.

Flickr/ Marco Verch

Go where the locals go once the sun sets… Experience the lively atmosphere of the Can Tho Night Market, where you can shop for local handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs - as well as eat night market snacks like Bánh Tráng Nướng (playfully nicknamed the Vietnamese pizza). 

Take a drive or walk across the Can Tho Bridge, an iconic landmark of the city. This cable-stayed bridge offers fantastic views of the surrounding area and is especially beautiful when lit up at night.

© Logan Ly

Honestly the food and dishes from the Mekong region is so fresh, so if your idea of Vietnamese food was already full of flavour, just wait til you try the dishes from Can Tho. At Chợ Cần Thơ, the city’s market hall built in French Colonial time, you can try tons of dishes (as well as from the vendors around). Be on the look out to try Cái Răng grilled fish, as this dish is famous for its grilled fish served with a variety of fresh herbs, rice noodles, and a flavourful dipping sauce. It's a must-try when visiting Can Tho! There is also Cá lóc nướng trui, which is grilled snakehead fish, known as cá lóc, a popular local delicacy. The fish is typically marinated in herbs and spices before being grilled to perfection. It's often served with rice paper, fresh herbs, and a dipping sauce. I also absolutely go feral for the Bún riêu cua, a crab noodle soup that features a delicate broth made from crab paste, tomatoes, and a variety of local spices. It's served with rice vermicelli noodles, tofu, with fresh herbs, lime, and shrimp paste. Already you can get the sense of how the flavours of the sea and land intertwines in these regional specalities! 

Flickr/ Marco Verch

Now, this one is super important and worth it just to do, is exploring the intricate network of canals and tributaries in the Mekong Delta with boat tours. You can choose from various options, including short trips to nearby markets or longer journeys to explore remote villages and islands.

© Logan Ly

Can Tho's soul is intimately tied to the Mekong Delta, where the land and water create a harmonious symphony of life. The city's famed floating markets, where commerce and tradition intersect on the waterways, left us with a deep appreciation for the enduring spirit of the delta.  The "Pearl of the Mekong Delta" will leave an indelible mark on your hearts (as it would on your tastebuds). Because that’s the thing - Can Tho isn't just a city; it's an experience—a journey through time, culture, and natural beauty. It's where history whispers through the city's canals, where flavours tell stories, and where the river's embrace welcomes all who venture to its shores.

© Logan Ly

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