The great floating market of Can Tho

Can Tho is a large city located in the Mekong Delta. As most of big cities, it is not a place where you’d like to stay for long but it’s really worth to stop for one night to witness an early morning, huge, wholesale floating market.  Can Tho is also a great jumping point for other destinations in the Mekong Delta, including a smaller floating market located just 17 km outside the city.

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Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta region

 NIGHT WALK THROUGH THE CITY

We came to Can Tho from Ha Tien without even researching our destination properly. Having read about the floating market, I expected to arrive at a small town while in fact we ended up in the 5th largest city in Vietnam.

It was already dark when we arrived at the bus station and we were too stingy to take a Grab. Instead, we walked a torturous 4 km through the busy city. We grabbed some banh mi (baguettes with filling) on the way and finally arrived at our hotel totally exhausted.

The hotel was a bit of a disappointment comparing with the one we had in Ha Tien. It was one of the cheapest we could find within the reasonable distance to the boat pier but the room didn’t have a window and wasn’t particularly fresh. I was glad I was going to spend there just one night. On the positive note, the owner was very friendly and spoke excellent English which – as we soon learned- was quite rare in Vietnam.

THE BOAT LADY

We left very early next morning to see the Cai Rang floating market. We walked for around half an hour through the empty streets of not-yet-awake city until we reached the Ninh Kieu pier. We were prepared to haggle hard for the boat ride. Just as the blogs and forums warned, we were immediately approached by a ‘boat lady’ who tried to sell us a private boat ride for a price which was certainly not within our budget.

We insisted that we knew the correct price per person in a shared boat (60k according to the information from the forums). We were quite hopeful to find co-passengers since we noticed a couple of just partially filled boats. We decided to ignore the obstinate boat lady and search for a boat independently.

The driver of the first boat which we approached waved a categorical no. Likewise, the person in the second boat- full of Vietnamese people -told us there weren’t any seats left. Seemingly unfazed by that, the boat lady suddenly offered us the ‘last price’ of 150k for both, snatched the money from us and pushed us onto the very same boat which was supposed to be full. As soon as we entered, the driver magically popped up two seats on the back of the boat and off we went.

As soon as the boat started, a man who seemed to be in charge of the group asked angrily how much did we pay. When we said truthfully the price, he retorted this money should have been paid to him not to that woman as it was him paying for the boat.

We were worried he was going to ask us to pay but luckily he didn’t- he was clearly upset only with the boat woman. In fact, he turned out to be a very nice guy and we had very interesting conversations with him during the whole trip. It was remarkable, considering we were unwanted strangers at his privately hired tour! He was Vietnamese but lived in the US since the 80s and now he brought his relatives and friends for a nostalgic journey to his homeland.

THE GENUINE FLOATING MARKET

We were going down the river for at least 20 minutes until we finally saw the Cai Rang floating market. It was a great sight, incomparably better than the fake tourist traps of Bangkok. This was a thriving, living, breathing, wholesale market for the locals.

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Large cargo boats congregating on the river

Yes, there were a few tourist boats around and a couple of smaller boats with fruit and coffee catered just for the tourists. However, the main bulk of the motored vessels were large cargo ships, usually selling just one or two kinds of products. To make it easier for the buyers, each boat was fitted with a long pole brandishing a specimen of a product on sale.

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Pineapple stuck on the top of a pole signifies that this is the only product sold at this boat

We didn’t arrive to Can Tho in the peak season of any particular crop so the only products on sale were some tubers, pumpkins and cabbage, along with pineapples. It was quite interesting to learn the trade rules on the river. Apparently, trading on the water was tax -free, guaranteeing lower prices.

The coffee which Sayak bought straight from a small boat was indeed very cheap but the rambutans we bought in the same manner were overpriced in comparison to what we could buy in the city’s land markets. Probably the low prices applied only to the wholesale transactions.

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Apart from wholesale, there were smaller boats targeting tourists

OTHER ATTRACTIONS ON THE RIVER

Our boat stopped for breakfast break at a floating restaurant but as there wasn’t any vegetarian food available, we just started nibbling at our fruit, frankly quite starved by then. We were already satisfied with the trip and expected to turn back any moment.

Yet, to our surprise, the boat carried on further down the river, past the houses and workshops with the doors facing the river. It was interesting to see that even in such a big and modern city people still used the waterways for transportation on a daily basis. There were even petrol stations on the river.

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Mooring at one of the canals

After a short ride, the boat turned into a smaller canal and everybody got off to see a noodle factory. Our Vietnamese self-proclaimed guide bought from a street vendor boiled cassava and shared one with us. This tuber, something of a mixture between a potato and a plantain, tasted quite bland but was very filling. No wonder it was a war-time staple. Without hesitation, we got some more cassava to serve us as much needed breakfast.

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Cooking rice flour pancakes – the first stage of noodle production

The visit to the noodle factory was free of charge. We could witness the entire process of the noodle production and some tourists could even participate in it. First, the rice husks were burned in the large, earthen oven. The fire from that fuel was used to cook the thin pancakes made of rice flour in lidded, round, metal pans . Once ready, the sticky wafers were carefully scooped and transferred onto weaved bamboo racks to dry. After sun-drying and hardening, they were pushed through a special press which shredded them into noodles. We didn’t buy any noodles (as we wouldn’t be able to cook them)at the factory’s shop but we got some really tasty coconut based sweets instead (see my vlog). Our breakfast was complete.

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Sheets of rice paper from which noodles will be cut would first need to dry in the sun

The next attraction was a large store where rice alcohol was produced. We could see huge earthen vats used for fermentation standing beside the river. We left the adjoining shop quite quickly, though, forced out by the stench of dry shrimp and fish, very popular among the Vietnamese.

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Rice wine maturing in earthen jars

Finally, we headed back towards the pier, after two hours on the water. We were completely satisfied with that trip and considered ourselves very lucky in the way our adventure developed.

For an easier access to the market -in case you don’t manage to jump on a boat with friendly American Vietnamese- I’d suggest heading to another, nearer pier at the An Binh market. It is just a very short distance from Cai Rang market which makes the tour prices more affordable. You can even find a Trip Advisor a post on how to see the floating market from the bank of the river but I doubt there would be any place which would provide truly unobstructed view.

PHONG DIEN

We were on a mission to see the entire Vietnam in just one month so we skipped visiting another floating market, located 17 km outside Can Tho. From the descriptions I found online, it sounded like an ideal destination, though. Phong Dien is a retail market where local people sell their goods from small sampans. As it’s a bit further and inconvenient to get to (consider hiring a motorbike or a bicycle if you manage to find one), there aren’t many tourists around. If you have time to explore the Mekong Delta properly, it’d totally make sense to stay for a night near the market and walk or cycle through the countryside.

OTHER THINGS TO SEE IN CAN THO

After completing the boat trip, we still had a couple of hours to while away in the city.  We started with visiting Ong Pagoda, located nearby the Ninh Kieu pier and just opposite to Ho Chi Minh statue. This 19th century Chinese temple was quite impressive (even more so since I hadn’t seen many Chinese temples before). I loved its dark interior, heavy smell of incense and the huge, spiral joss sticks hanging from the ceiling. You can see my video from that temple here

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Beautiful Ong Pagoda

We spend the next few hours wandering through a riverside market and sitting at a park. Since it was difficult to find bahn mi  (baguette) with a vegan filling, I got some fried tofu at the market and stuffed it into a  bahn mi with pickles which I bought at a street stall.  It was a very wise strategy which I applied many more times in Vietnam.

VIETNAMESE SLEEPER BUSES

In Can Tho, we got our first experience of high standard sleeper buses. When we were walking around the city, we came across a place which looked like a ticket office but turned out to be a section of the bus company dealing with parcels. The staff didn’t speak English but was nice enough to hand us a phone to someone who could. We asked if there were any seats to Ho Chi Minh available.  The lady at the call centre confirmed. Within seconds we booked our tickets over the phone. We got picked up by a minivan right from the hotel and taken to the bus station.

Even though the journey was quite short, we travelled in a sleeper bus. Vietnamese sleeper buses had a different look and layout than sleeper buses I remembered from India. Inside, there were three rows of almost horizontal seats, arranged on two levels. There was a box under the back of the seat for storing the shoes (everybody had to take off the shoes upon boarding).

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Inside the Vietnamese sleeper bus

Sadly, the seats were made for  the average Vietnamese person’s height which didn’t give enough space for the legs. We got lucky during our first journey having been sold the seats on the back, which had much more leg room. Due to the excellent quality highway the back seats weren’t much of a problem.

The buses of the most reputable companies stop at their own exclusive rest stops with very decent restaurants, toilets and snack stalls. You don’t need to take out your own shoes: slippers would be waiting for you right outside of the bus. The biggest bus company in the south of Vietnam is FUTA (easily recognisable for its orange fleet) but you might find shopping around could save you some money.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Can Tho?
Can Tho is a large city with good bus connections to Ho Chi Minh City which is just 3.5 hours ride away.  It’s also easy to get a sleeper bus to the nearby Ha Tien (Cambodian border/ gateway to Phu Quoc Island). It’d take you 11 hours to get to Dalat (Central Highlands). Public buses would take you cheaply to Ben Tre or other smaller destinations in Mekong Delta.

Many private bus companies offer a pick up service (and some even a drop-off) so it’s really worth to check that out when booking the ticket. In most of the Vietnamese cities bus stations (ben xe) are located inconveniently far from the city centre so whatever you save on the ticket, you might lose on paying for a xe om (motorbike taxi) or a cab to the station. Throughout Vietnam, you can easily and safely buy the bus tickets online or reserve them over the phone.

Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of July 2018]:

150 000 bargained two seats on a shared boat tour to Cai Rang market
135 000 accommodation (en-suite double room with A/C and hot water, no window)
130 000 seater bus Ha Tien- Can Tho
110 000 sleeper bus to Can Tho- HCMC (Saigon)
15 000 boiled cassava from a street stall
5 000 local rice sweet

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