Can Tho is a pleasant little city in the heart of the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Anxious to shake off our bus adventure, we checked in to the Kim Long hotel and immediately signed up for an evening food tour, which was hosted by local uni students looking to perfect their (already very good) English.
For a bargain $5, they took us around the city and showed us food stalls loved by the locals. We sampled beef skewers, filled omelettes, a locally brewed beer and…snails. Which were a bit shy about being coaxed from their shells!
I loved the peppery sauce the snails came in, but they can keep the snails as a dish (or share them with the French, whatever works) – they are chewy and slimy and refuse to be swallowed without a solid few minutes of mastication. Bleurgh.
Apparently we could have tried some more Vietnam delicacies in Can Tho, but I think it depends on the preferences of your tour group as a whole. Ours was not overly bothered about trying BBQ mice and snake so, sadly Chewy Snail was about it in the Weird Eating stakes for the evening.
The next morning we were up at the inhumane hour of 5am for our tour of the Can Tho area. By 5:30am we were buzzing down the vast, silty river to the Cai Rang floating market – a wholesale fruit and veg market conducted entirely on boats.
The whole market covered a wide patch of river all the way across, and lengthways was perhaps the length of a tennis court. In order to advertise their wares in a crowded, chaotic market place, the sellers hang a sample of their produce from a pole. If you are looking to buy a pineapple, or a melon, or a pumpkin, you just look for one hanging two metres or so in the air.
Although there were nearly as many little boats of tourists as there were larger produce barges, this is no tourist zoo – the produce has been grown and brought to be sold here to river-dwelling folk long before the first sightseers appeared; the market seemed to continue around us unconcerned by the little boats slinking in their shadows. The only concession to tourists seemed to be enterprising fruit sellers who appeared in their own little boats to sell pineapple and coconuts to refresh the visitors.
After half an hour or so we sailed further up the river to Phong Dien floating market, a smaller version of Cai Rang. Although supposedly the darling, less touristy market, I thought it’s relative size meant the tourists were more conspicuous. Each to his own I guess!
Once we were fully educated in the floating markets of the Mekong, we took a walk through a Vietnamese village. If you ever need an ego boost, this is where you should go. Children ran down their garden paths just to shout “hello” while elderly ladies beamed at us from their doorsteps. This is one of the things I adore about Vietnam – the people are so friendly and welcoming.
We also got to visit a rice noodle factory and see the various stages of production in action, from a glutinous wallpaper-paste concoction made by boiling rice to creating sticky discs to dry in the baking heat on raffia shelves. Once dry, these would eventually be sliced into the sliver-thin noodles. We even got to “help” make a few batches!
Our last stop was a “tropical garden” consisting of mainly canals with traditional bamboo bridges for us to have a go at climbing. This was my least favourite stop for two reasons. The first was that the food (this was our lunch stop) was pretty bland, and bland food in Vietnam is, frankly, a travesty given their delicious cuisine.
The second, and more pressing, reason was that my bargain baggy Traveller Trousers had split at the crotch. A lot. This had reduced me to a slightly undignified waddle-walk to try and conceal the gaping, pant-revealing hole at my bum to all of South Vietnam, and also meant an added layer of stress when attempting to traverse a flimsy bamboo bridge.
Once we’d returned to dry land, we celebrated (commiserated?) our final night in Vietnam with Vit Nau Chao Hot Pot – a vast urn of broth into which we added vegetables, duck and (fresh from the Mekong!) rice noodles. We picked our way down unmarked back alleys, aided by Wikitravel directions – and stepped into a busy looking Hot Pot shop. We watched the locals and tried to copy them, resulting in delicious (and seemingly neverending) bowls of spicy duck soup.
If you want to sample some of the Mekong’s delights (preferably with intact trousers), Can Tho is a great place to base yourself for this region of Vietnam. We only stayed for a couple of days (unable to resist the siren call of Phnom Penh for New Year!) but got a lot out of our brief trip, and were reminded of why we love the country so much – the wonderful people and fabulous food create a totally invigorating travel experience. As we boarded (another) bus bound for Cambodia, we promised to each other that we will return again to this wonderful country.