Can Tho, the epicentre of the Mekong Delta
Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta, home to over a million people. Strategically located alongside the Mekong River, farmers travel by boat from other townships throughout the Mekong Delta to sell their produce. Consequently, Can Tho is a bustling area, well known as the epicentre for trade in the Mekong Delta. Tourism has also started to flourish in the area; in particular, people (like us) travel to see the floating markets and rice paper factories.
We arrived in Can Tho from Phu Quoc, and I was quietly amazed by how simple the trip was. After catching a car to the ferry, the ferry to Rach Gia, a mini-bus from the wharf to the Rach Gia bus station, boarding the Can Tho bus before catching yet another mini-bus to Can Tho centre, I was surprised we only had one minor glitch. When we were waiting to be picked up from the hotel in Can Tho, a taxi turned up and hustled us quickly into his car. Very suspicious, we showed him our ticket twice, emphasising the transfer to the wharf and he happily nodded and drove off. When we arrived at the ferry terminal, he tried to charge us 450,000D ($20 USD). We refused, showing him our ticket again. He promptly rang John’s Tours, who we booked through, to find out what was happening. When we finally communicated that we weren’t paying, he left without another word and we continued on our way. Yet again, I was thankful for the excellent customer service we received from John’s Tours.
After a relatively long journey, we were pleased to discover Can Tho is a charming riverside town. We really enjoyed our time here. I learnt a lot about Vietnamese culture and had the pleasure of trying even more Vietnamese food. We gained a lot of insight to the lifestyle in the Mekong Delta and saw slices of South Vietnamese history.
Yet again we arrived to town without much of a plan on where to stay. After being dropped in the centre, we found Thanh Thuy Hotel, a great budget option in the perfect location. We spent our two nights in Can Tho here and while basic, it suited our needs perfectly.
We continued our assault on Vietnamese street food, enjoying Pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We also tried a stir fried sweet corn dish, which was beautiful, and a savoury rice meal. It’s difficult to know exactly what the meals are called and it is guess work to know what goes into them. So far, we have enjoyed everything and love the change up from the heavy curries and fried noodle dishes we became accustomed to in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
The coffee continues to be amazing; it certainly helps giving the day a bit of a kick-start! Super strong, I was surprised to find it quite enjoyable with condensed milk.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Knowing we wanted to visit the floating markets, our first order of business was finding the best (and most reasonable) way to make that happen. As we wandered around Can Tho, multiple women approached us asking if we wanted a boat to the markets. Fortunately, we had walked past Hieu’s Tour office and after some quick research we discovered this was one of the most highly rated companies in the area. Right from the first instance I was impressed with Hieu and his staff. Friendly, extremely competent and very knowledgeable of the area, they added so much value to the trip and our time in Can Tho. We splashed for the most extensive tour, which included both the Phong Dien and Cai Rang floating markets, a trip to a Cacao farm and a rice paper factory. A bright and early start, we met our guides before walking to the river where we met our captain, Miss Mekong. Apparently, women are often the captain of many of the boats in the area as the men are usually working on the land farming.
Phong Dien and Cai Rang floating markets
We were up bright and early with the promise of seeing the famous floating markets while the locals were participating in their early morning trade (this also meant beating all the big tour groups). First stop was at the tiny floating coffee shop. A little old lady was cast out in the middle of the river serving the beautiful coffee we have become addicted to. When we reached Cai Rang market I was amazed by the amount of produce carried on the boats. Our guide explained they load the boats to the brim, travel to the market and stay until it is all sold. This is a wholesale market, and people usually buy in bulk to then sell-on at the markets on land. I was amazed to learn the people live on-board the boats, usually in extremely cramped conditions. Ingeniously, each boat has a piece of bamboo that holds a sample of their produce high above the boat like a flag, allowing everyone to easily see who has what.
We travelled further down the river to Phong Dien market, which was much smaller and mainly consisted of smaller long boats. It was much more intimate and we were easily able to see the various fruits and vegetables on offer. It was great having the opportunity to go through the market with a local; I was able to ask all my questions about the various fruits and vegetables that are foreign to me. Historically, the markets were a lot larger and in a slightly different location. Since the government has built retaining walls along the edge of the river (to prevent erosion), it has limited the access to the markets. Previously, the boats could line the edge of the river and locals would jump across the boats to buy their produce. Now, people must have a boat to access the floating markets and for many people it is much easier to go to the land markets.
After a trip down a smaller canal, we arrived at the cacao farm. While I was expecting a large, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory type set-up, we were instead greeted by a man at his house in the centre of his cacao plantation. He told us his story, how his father returned from Malaysia in 1960 with a cacao pod and told him he would be rich if he could produce cacao. After studying from books and a lot of trial and error, he now successfully grows and sells organic cacao beans. Majority of the beans he exports to Belgium, the remaining he uses himself to make cacao butter, cacao powder, cocoa powder, chocolate and cacao wine. It is all handmade and we had the pleasure of trying some of his produce. His organic, hand made cacao wine was similar to a dessert wine, quite sweet but thoroughly enjoyable. His dark chocolate was also delicious!
He has 2,000 trees on 1 hectare of land. The cacao grows year round and he harvests approximately 500kg of pods every 10 days. From 12kg of pods he extracts 1kg of cacao beans. From this, he makes 700g of cacao powder. He uses every part of the pod, the husk becomes compost, he presses the fruit on the outside of the bean for it’s juice (which he uses to make his wine), before he ferments the beans and dries them in the sun. The beans can then be exported to be made into chocolate.
If he decides to make chocolate for himself he then roasts the beans over a fire for an hour in a circular chamber he turns constantly by hand. He then puts the roasted beans into a rotating press, which he adjusts depending on what he wants to achieve. There is about 1cm gap to remove the skin from the beans. To make cacao nibs he drops the stone slightly, which crushes the beans into smaller pieces. To make 100% cacao he drops the stone completely and the beans form a thick paste. From here, he can further press it, which separates the cacao butter from cacao powder. He then uses the cacao powder mixed with milk to make dark chocolate and the cacao butter mixed with milk and sugar to make white chocolate. To make his Cacao wine, he takes the juice pressed from the cacao fruit and ferments it for 10 days in banana leaves before it is ready for drinking.
Listening to this man speak was fascinating. He had taught himself to grow and develop cacao and now also has a successful homestay set up. I was surprised to learn from our guides that he spent two years after the war in a re-education camp. The legacy of the war continues to fascinate me.
Rice noodle factory
From the cacao factory we travelled to a rice noodle factory. I was very impressed by the family run business and the process of making the noodles. Firstly, the rice is harvested, sorted and shelled. It is then soaked in water for half a day and processed to form what looks like rice clay. Tapioca flour and water is added until it is the right consistency. The more Tapioca the lighter the noodle. Once the right consistency, they steam the mixture on a hot plate, forming rice paper. Once the rice paper has dried in the sun it is put through a machine to be cut into noodles. I was amazed when I realised the pattern on dried rice paper is from the bamboo boards it was dried on. Other types of noodles are made slightly differently depending on the desired outcome, this is the basic process.
After touring the factory, we sat down and had the opportunity to try the factories speciality, a rice pizza. While it doesn’t sound to appetising, it was really nice. With a rice paper base, it was then topped with deep fried rice noodles, pork, spring onions and a few other ingredients. My description doesn’t do it justice, it was delicious!
PEOPLE & CULTURE
For us, Can Tho was all about the tour we did through Hieu’s Tours. While I learnt a lot about the area, the markets, and both the rice factory and Cacao farm, I also really enjoyed having the opportunity to chat with the local guides. Both were female and I’m guessing in their early 20’s. Their beliefs, values and worldviews were fascinating. Naively (on my behalf), I was surprised to find they were extremely independent and had some slightly feminist beliefs. The more I chatted to them the more interested I became. After very little travel in Vietnam we had noticed many women working extremely hard in many labour-intensive jobs. Our guide explained to me women in Vietnam work because they have to. Previously, families could live off one income, but with inflation families now need dual incomes to survive. Women aren’t fussy about the jobs they have and are prepared to work hard to earn a living. The income they earn is equivalent to that of men, the better they are at their job the more they are paid. While this shouldn’t be surprising, the matter of fact manner in which this was explained did surprise me slightly.
It is evident family is extremely important here. The older generation who survived the war have worked extremely hard to give their children a better life. Education is seen as the key to success. Children are raised to work smarter and to strive for a better life. It is becoming more common for young adults to move to the city to gain an education and employment, which leads to them living a more western lifestyle.
Traditionally, children live with their parents until they are married. Once married, they continue to live with the husband’s family. This is still common practice today, however, I was told it is becoming more common for young adults to ‘live privately’ once they are married. I was also fascinated to hear young couples go to a fortune-teller prior to getting married to find out if they are compatible; and this is usually based on their year of birth. It would certainly cause some drama if you learnt from a fortune-teller your marriage would suffer because you were born in the wrong year.
WHAT WE LEARNT
I learnt a lot about Vietnamese culture after chatting to the two girls working as guides for Hieu’s tours. It was really great to have the opportunity to talk to them while we were cruising along the river. One of the more interesting things I learnt was 80% of Vietnamese people have no religion. A fact I found surprising after travelling other countries in Southeast Asia that seem to have such a strong religious belief system.
We are managing our budget quite well at this stage. While Hieu’s Tour was expensive (on a backpackers budget), it was thoroughly enjoyable and we had a bit extra saved after minimal activities in Phu Quoc. The price of accommodation is much more reasonable than Cambodia and the quality is significantly better. Food is also incredibly cheap and really enjoyable, which is really exciting.
From here we will travel straight to Ho Chi Minh City. We decided to skip My Tho and Ben Tre at this stage, but we are still considering travelling back down for a day tour from Ho Chi Minh City.