If you have spent any time exploring the backwaters of the Mekong region, Can Tho can seem like a veritable metropolis. With a population of over a million people, Can Tho is the economic, cultural, and political centre of the delta, sprawling for miles from its waterfront promenade out to the surrounding rice paddies and jungle. With this in mind it is the perfect starting point for anyone hoping to see what South Vietnam has to offer.
Most people travel here with the main aim of visiting the famous floating markets but the city itself is well worth a few days of your time. With its vibrant student population, varied cuisine and walk-able city centre it is hard not to justify staying just that little bit longer.
Where to Stay
93 Mau Than, Xuan Khanh, Ninh Kieu
Located on the edge of the city centre, Hotel Xoai is a colourful and clean place to stay with friendly, English speaking staff. Not only is it an eco-friendly place (the hot water is all heated by solar power), it has plenty of amenities for backpackers; free to use computers in reception, Wifi, free toiletries, and a library of movies. As well as this there is the hammock strewn roof terrace with views across the city.
It is also worth mentioning that the incredible Can Tho Street Food Tours are run our of this hotel. I would recommend that any visitors to the city take part in one of these nightly tours to get a feel for the local cuisine.
Single room – £8 per night
Double room – £11 per night
Kim Lan Hotel
138A Nguyen An Ninh
A fairly basic but clean mini hotel located just 5 minutes walk from the waterfront promenade and night market. The rooms are quirky and if you are willing to pay for one of the pricier suites, you will even get a hot tub on your balcony. Some of the cheaper rooms are windowless but are still absolutely fine. I payed for the basic double room but as the VIP suites were empty, I was upgraded at no extra cost (I understand this is fairly common at Kim Lan Hotel).
Basic double room – £18 per night
Green Garden Homestay
229 Vanh Dai Phi Truong, An Thoi, Binh Thuy
If you’re looking for something a little more peaceful but still close to the city, then Green Garden Homestay is the place for you. The owners, Ha and Tho, have carved out their own little oasis within the city by transforming his vast courtyard in to a lush garden and pond surrounded by basic but comfortable cabanas. There is no AC but each cabin is spacious and comes complete with fans, mosquito nets, a fridge and a private bathroom.
Tho, a retired colonel and journalist, Ha and their two adult children will make you feel incredibly welcome. As the name suggests, this is more like staying with a family than a regular hotel or hostel. Ha cooks delicious breakfasts and if you let her know in advance, she will cook a traditional Vietnamese dinner that you can eat with the family. I spent the majority of my time there sitting by their house, playing with their friendly dog ‘Wit’.
Tho offers tours to the floating markets or along the backwaters of the Mekong as well as having dozens of bikes available for guests to take for free. I spent a wonderful afternoon cycling along the smaller channels of the river through tiny villages near the home stay, catching a glimpse of the delta’s local life.
Standard Cabin with garden view – £19 per night
185C Ong Tim Bridge, Thanh My Area
Even further in to the countryside surrounding Can Tho is Nguyen Shack, marketing itself as a riverside resort but in reality it is a hostel/hotel of bamboo bungalows nestled in a tiny village by the Ong Tim River. Each bungalow comes with a hammock strewn balcony so that you can relax and take in the sights and sounds of the river.
It’s worth noting that Nguyen Shack is 3 miles from the city itself so you will require a taxi to visit some of the main attractions in the centre. However, if you are after a slice of local life, then this is the perfect place for you.
Single bed in a dorm – £7
Basic room with shared bathroom – £19 per night
Waterfront bungalow (for 3 people) – £42 per night
Where to Eat
Can Tho is the perfect place to try southern Vietnam’s famous cuisine and some of the stranger delicacies of the Mekong Delta region. Many visitors to the city only stay for one or two days to give them the opportunity to see the floating markets and if you only have one night in Can Tho, I highly recommend joining the free street food tour run by Mekong Tours at Hotel Xoai.
The tour departs nightly at 6.30pm and runs on a ‘pay for what you eat’ basis. Your guide will walk you through the city centre, stopping at various street food spots to try some of the regions most popular dishes. Not only will it be the perfect chance to try the best foods that Can Tho has to offer, the food is cheap, delicious and you will finish feeling full. All that is asked is that you pay for each dish that you eat and tip the guide when the tour is over. If a tour is not for you, I’ve listed some of the restaurants from the tour (and what to eat in each) below:
Restaurant Nem Nuong Anh
12/21/19 Nguyen Viet Hong
A fairly nondescript looking restaurant with not a great deal of atmosphere but you will find it full of locals stuffing their faces with delicious Nem Nuong – spring rolls filled with pineapple, noodles and barbecued pork. Try the free iced tea while you are there.
Bánh Cong Cô Út
86 Lý Tự Trọng
Bánh Cong is a savoury muffin made from made from a mixture of green beans, little shrimp and minced pork, which is steamed and then deep fried in a flour dough to give a crispy pie texture. At the entrance to the restaurant two women stood over smoking woks of hot oil and let us watch as they set about making their signature dish. One by one they would fill a ladle with meat, fry it, and then cover the cooked filling with batter. Two shrimps would be pressed into the top and the whole thing would be fried again to make a little parcel of joy.
Bia Lanh 74
A short walk from the Bánh Cong is Bia Lanh 74, essentially just a set of plastic tables and chairs scattered on the pavement. It is known for serving that staple of South East Asian cuisine, the hot pot. Hot pots are a large bubbling dishes of meat, veg or tofu served on a gas cooker directly on your table. Bia Lanh 74 specialises in tofu and ginger dishes. However, if you’re feeling a little brave, you may be tempted by one of the menus stranger items; grilled field mouse. This used to be a fairly common dish for farmers on the delta until the wide use of pesticides made them scarce. It is now a local delicacy and doesn’t come cheap (by street food standards) but it is surprisingly tasty.
If you want to sample more of this speciality, then you can head over to Hẻm Vit Nau Chao, or Hot Pot Alley, where you will find dozens of restaurants serving this dish with a multitude of different recipes ranging from duck, Mekong river fish or pork to vegetarian options such as tofu. It is always best to go for the busiest restaurant as this usually indicates quality. The alley is very popular with locals and students but don’t be shocked to find that you are the only tourist there; at the moment it seems to be a bit of a hidden gem but it is fast become popular with everyone. The menus tend to be entirely in Vietnamese so the best thing to do is see what others are eating and ask the staff for the same. Chances are that someone in the restaurant will speak English and be happy to help you order.
The alley is located just off Ly Tu Trong Street near to Luu Huu Phuoc Park. If you need more precise directions, check out the location on Google Maps.
Nam Bo Hotel
For something a little more upscale, head to the top of the Nam Bo Hotel to L’Escale (The Port Of Call). Here you can eat incredible food with views over the river. A word of warning though, a main meal will set you back between 300,000 and 500,000 VND.
Free Things to do
Although it is a fairly populous city, the centre of Can Tho is relatively compact and easily walkable. Other than the obvious tours there is not a great deal to see or do. However, among the ornate pagodas, delicious street food, and vibrant night markets there is plenty to fill a few days in the city.
Chùa Munirensay Temple
36 ÐL Hoa Binh (8am-5pm)
Originally built in the 1940s to serve Can Tho’s Khmer community. Although not as ornate as some of the city’s other places of worship, it is worth a quick visit to see the sort of temple that is typical of of Khmer Buddhist pagodas. As you enter you will be met by monks relaxing in the doorways of the ground floor buildings and colourful banners strewn above you. I found that I was the only person in the temple when I visited so I was able to spend half an hour wandering around the stupa in relative peace.
32 Hai Bà Trưng (6am-8pm)
Opposite the waterfront you will find the brightly coloured Guangzhou Assembly Hall, built in the 19th century by the Chinese to worship Kuang Kung, and still perfectly preserved today. The inside is decorated with colourful paintings, intricate statues and various religious deities. Huge coils of incense fill the ceiling, wafting their sweet smelling smoke throughout the room.
Can Tho Museum
1 Hòa Bình
A large museum featuring exhibitions about the history of the region, its resistance during foreign rule and the culture of the Mekong delta. There is is a heavy focus on both Khmer and Chinese culture as well as recreations of a Chinese pagoda and a traditional teahouse.
The Night Market
On a weekend, two blocks in the centre of the city come alive as people head out for an evening at the night market. Along the waterfront promenade is the Cho Can Tho, a covered market hawking all manners of touristy trinkets and souvenirs. It is overpriced and to be honest, not all that interesting but may be worth browsing if you’re looking to take home a memento of your time in Vietnam.
Around the corner on Vo Van Tan market stalls are set up selling clothing and other useful items. It caters to the Student population with generic market stall wares such as trainers, mobile phone covers and the like but you will find items that could be useful to you if you area long term traveller.
For food, Phan Chu Trinh is the place to be. Street food vendors setup shop here selling a huge variety of Vietnamese cuisine. Look for the busiest places in order to find the best dishes.
I stumbled across this market completely by accident while taking a walk along Can Tho’s promenade. On Hai Bà Trưng, just past Cho Can Tho you will find both sides of the street bustling with activity as people trade fruit, vegetables and seafood. You will hear the market before you see it as the road will be packed with honking and revving scooters. Chances are that there won’t be anything you want to purchase here but it is worth walking the length of the street to immerse yourself in local life and hopefully capture a few pictures of the hectic scenes.
Most travellers come to Can Tho city to visit the nearby floating markets; Cai Rang being the main draw but some of the smaller markets such as Phong Dien can give a better, more intimate experience.
Just 45 minutes by boat from Can Tho’s promenade, Cai Rang is a frenetic, fast paced wholesale affair, with large barges piled high with produce as their owners call out to the armada of smaller boats weaving their way between them hoping to get a good deal. It is very touristy with almost as many tourist boats as actual vendors but it is busy for a reason; The floating market is a fast dying tradition and people want to see it before its gone forever. If you are a photographer this is an opportunity not to be missed. The market starts at around 5am and is in full swing between 6 and 7am so make sure that you take an early tour to see it at its best and miss the late coming crowds.
Phong Dien is much smaller but a lot of people would argue a better experience than Cai Rang. There are no barges or motorised craft, just a few dozen sampans trading goods as the local vendors gossip and shop. I found that there were fewer tourists here meaning that we could navigate our boat through the market, getting up close and personal with the traders who were happy to chat, sell us fruit and share a laugh. Again, it is worth getting to Phong Dien early – between 5am and 7am to see the market at its best.
Most hotels and hostels offer early morning tours to the markets, all varying in quality. It is worth checking a few things before you book and comparing with other agencies in the city:
- Cost. If the tour is too cheap there is a chance that the agency will be scrimping on some important things. It is always possible to haggle the price down though.
- What does the tour include? The quality varies from quick trips to Cai Rang and back again to half day tours that take in both Cai Rang and Phong Dien, making trips along the backwater canals and visiting local villages. I would highly recommend a longer tour as it can give you a better feel for the region. Although the markets were a highlight of my trip, I really enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of slowly navigating the backwater canals and the slow pace of life in the surrounding villages.
- Make sure that your tour leaves early. Before 6am is ideal. It would be a shame to arrive at the markets as they are winding down and miss the sight of the early morning frenzy.
- Make sure you have an English speaking guide. Some tours will put you on a sampan with just the driver who does not speak a word of English. Although this isn’t the end of the world, it is invaluable to have someone who can explain the intricacies and history of market life.
I booked my trip though Mekong Tours. Based at the Xoai Hotel in Can Tho, they offer tours of either one or both of the markets and the trip can be taken with or without a guide. The half day tour includes visits to both markets, a noodle factory, the backwater canals and a walking tour of a small village.
Cai Rang market tour – $25 per boat (up to 3 people). Includes Hotel pickup/drop off
7 hr tour visiting both markets (Phong Dien and Cai Rang), gardens, canals and stops at sights of interest – $42 per boat (up to 3 people). Includes hotel pick up/drop off.
It costs $15 to hire a tour guide for the 7 hr tour. I would highly recommend this as our driver didn’t speak any English so a guide was an invaluable source of information. Not only was she knowledgeable, she was fun to spend time with and answered all our questions and even provided us with food and drink. We bumped in to other boats of tourists along the way without guides that had to borrow ours in order to communicate with their drivers.
Can Tho is surrounded by beautiful countryside, rice paddies and quaint villages and the best way to see it all is by taking a cycling tour of the local area. These range from a few hours to half a day, depending on how much of the region you would like to see.
It’s worth noting that many hostels offer free bike rentals so it is possible to do a DIY tour as I did from Green Garden Homestay. Armed with my camera, google maps and a free bicycle, I had a great afternoon cycling the banks of the canals and through villages.
Getting In and Out
Can Tho has its own international airport in Trà Nóc Airport that has direct flights from Phu Quoc, Da Nang and Hanoi. Flights to Phu Quoc do not depart all that regularly but journeys to Da Nang are cheap and plentiful (expect to pay between £20 and £60 on Vietjet Air). Direct flights to Hanoi leave approximately three times a day and will cost around £50 for the two hour journey with Vietjet Air.
From Ho Chi Minh City
Many travellers make their way down to the delta after a short stay in Ho Chi Minh City meaning that bus operators travelling this route are plentiful, leaving every one to two hours a the Western Bus Station (Bến Xe Miền Tây). Thanh Buoi and Phuong Trang both provide direct routes from Saigon to Can Tho, arriving at the city’s bus station. Both companies provide a shuttle free of charge (included in the ticket price) to take you to your hotel or hostel. The journey will take between 3 and 4 hours and cost you approximately 125,000 VND.
From Phu Quoc
From Phu Quoc you have two options; flying with Vietnam Airlines in to Trà Nóc Airport or taking a longer journey by boat and bus. The hilariously named Superdong hydrofoil leaves the port at 8 am each morning for Rach Gia and takes around 2 and a half hours. If you purchase a ticket from your hostel or hotel to Can Tho the price will include a transfer to the port and the onward bus from Rach Gia to Can Tho which you will be herded onto as you disembark the boat. Tickets cost between £20 and £25 depending on which agency/hotel you buy them from. It’s worth taking earplugs for the trip if you want to get some rest as the TVs on the boat tend to play Vietnamese movies at eardrum perforating levels for the entirety of the journey.
Have you been to Can Tho? Do you have any insider tips? Let me know in the comments below.
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