THE MEKONG DELTA || CAN THO
A population of around a million makes CAN THO the delta’s biggest city, and losing yourself in its commercial thrum for a few days is the perfect antidote to time spent in the quiet backwaters of the delta. However, first impressions are rather less than encouraging: Can Tho is a hefty settlement but, once the oppressive urban sprawl encasing the town has been negotiated, its breezy waterfront comes as a pleasant surprise.
At the confluence of the Can Tho and Hau Giang rivers, the city is a major mercantile centre and transport interchange. The recent re-opening of the former US air base for commercial flights, as well as the enormous effort of completing the biggest bridge in the delta, shows that this city features large in government plans for future development.
But Can Tho is no mere staging post. Some of the best restaurants in the delta are located here; what’s more, the abundant rice fields of Can Tho Province are never far away, and at the intersections of the canals and rivers that thread between them are some of the delta’s best-known floating markets. Can Tho was the last city to succumb to the North Vietnamese Army, a day after the fall of Saigon, on May 1, 1975 – the date that has come to represent the reunification of the country.
Though its boat trips are the main reason for visiting Can Tho, a handful of lesser diversions on dry land will help keep you amused in the meantime.
Boat trips and floating markets
Every morning an armada of boats takes to the web of waterways spun across Can Tho Province and makes for one of its floating markets. Everything your average villager could ever need is on sale, from haircuts to coffins, though predictably fruit and vegetables make up most of what’s on offer. Each boat’s produce is identifiable by a sample hanging off a bamboo mast in its bow, but it’s difficult to get colourful pictures as the produce is stored below.
Of the two major nearby markets, the most commonly visited, 7km out of Can Tho, is Cai Rang, but you’ll have to be prepared to queue up with all the other tourist boats before you can weave among the fervent waterborne activity, with drinks vendors clamouring to make a sale. Nevertheless it’s a fun experience, especially if you can get there between 7–8am. This market is particularly active on Sundays.
Another 10km west and you’re at modest Phong Dien, whose appeal is that it sees relatively few tourists and so the locals are correspondingly friendly. If you wish to stay longer here, the purpose-built My Khanh Village is nearby at 335 Lo Vong Cung, with wooden bungalows in a shady setting and a good-sized pool. Its attractions (geared mostly to domestic visitors) include an ancient house, a pond full of crocodiles, caged monkeys and a pig-racing track, plus a pony and trap to take visitors round the site. Animal-rights activists might not enjoy it, but conditions here are better than at most such places in Vietnam. There are also demonstrations on making rice cakes and brewing wine, and traditional musicians perform in the evenings. Few Western visitors stay here so it’s a good way to meet some Vietnamese.
Visiting the markets
Most organized tours take you to Cai Rang or Phong Dien early in the morning, then make a leisurely return to the city, via the maze of picturesque canals and orchards that surround it, usually stopping to sample star fruit and sapodilla, longan and rambutan along the way. Can Tho Tourist charges between 200,000 and 250,000đ per person for such a tour, depending on the itinerary and type of boat. As usual, unofficial boat operators are cheaper, charging about 80,000đ per hour for a simple sampan: women prowl for customers along Hai Ba Trung, and some can be friendly and informative, but be on the lookout for scams, and check out the boat as some have no shelter from sun or rain. Phong Dien is more easily reached by hiring a xe om (about 60,000đ), then renting a sampan for an hour’s rowing (about 60,000–80,000đ) among the buyers and sellers.
Bridging the delta
The Mekong River deposits tons of fertile earth on the delta each year, making the region’s produce so abundant, but it also provides a barrier to swift travel, forcing drivers to queue for hours to cross its countless channels by slow, lumbering ferries. In the late 1990s a plan was hatched to build huge bridges at three key points in the delta – My Thuan, My Tho and Can Tho – in order to cut down journey times. The first of these, at My Thuan, crossing the Tien Giang, opened in 2000 and immediately slashed hours off journey times. The second, linking My Tho and Ben Tre, suffered delays but finally opened in early 2009. The third and biggest project, crossing the widest of the Mekong’s nine arms (the Hau Giang) at Can Tho, was the scene of a tragic accident in September 2007 when a 90-metre section of an approach ramp collapsed, killing more than fifty workers. Construction was delayed for a while but was finally completed in 2010, and now visitors arriving by land pass over the longest cable-stayed bridge in Southeast Asia as they approach Can Tho.