Can Tho is the capital of the province with the same name. It lies 160 kilometres west of Ho Chi Minh City and is in the heart of the Mekong Delta. The whole province has 1,4 Million inhabitants and the “City of Can Tho“ has around 280 000 inhabitants. This makes Can Tho the biggest city of the delta and a worthy place to visit.
This region was dominated by the Khmer over centuries, but there were only some small fishing villages in the south. The Vietnamese got interested in this area in the 17th century and settled in it. This small history results in a lack of relics from the deep past. Can Tho has been settled around the 2nd century AD, but was left around 800-900. Grown out of a small Khmer village, the districts of Ninh Kieu and Binh Thuy got urban character during the American War. Today, these districts are known as “The city of Can Tho“ and are the biggest urban complex in the delta.
Why should you visit Can Tho?
It is true, on the first view, Can Tho seems to be only a typical Vietnamese provincial city without many sights. However, on the second glance you will discover a typical Vietnamese way of life you cannot see in Hanoi or Saigon. Everyday life in the delta is unique. Visitors coming to Can Tho can discover a totally different Vietnam than in the metropolis of Saigon or Hanoi, or in the middle. The people in the delta are special, influenced by Khmer, Thai, Cham, Chinese and – last but not least – Vietnamese culture.
It is easy to go to Can Tho from Sai Gon. All day buses are coming and going to the delta. Big bus companies include Phuong Trang, Mai Linh and Thanh Buoi. These go from the Western Bus station of HCMC (Ben Xe Mien Tay). A ticket usually costs 90 000D (July 2012). The trip is four hours, so it is inconvenient to do as a one-day trip. You can also go by private car, but it is not much faster. You will arrive in Can Tho at the Bus Station of 91b-Street.
Most visitors go to Ben Ninh Kieu – the Ninh Kieu Quay. This is the “Pham Ngu Lao“ (Backpackers Area) of the city, concentrating all places which seem to be interesting for visitors here (for my opinion, a little too touristy). However, it is also easy for visitors who are not acquainted with Vietnamese to stay here. In Ben Ninh Kieu you find many hotels, restaurants and shops. Most lie directly on the waterfront with a wonderful view of the Can Tho River, a branch of the Mekong, and on the Can Tho-Bridge. In the evening you should not miss eating on one of the floating restaurants there. It can be a little loud, since Vietnamese favour music very much. But it is worth going, you will have a wonderful view on the skyline of Can Tho.
If you are more adventurous, you should try to get a hotel outside of the Ben Ninh Kieu. Here you will experience real Vietnamese life. Many hotels have western standards, warm water and air conditioning, but you will not find western food (You find that in Ben Ninh Kieu only). In Cai Khe, in the east of the city are some good hotels, as well as in Xuan Khanh (Mau Than Street). Xuan Khanh and Hung Loi are centres for students, since the University of Can Tho is here. This means cheap food and services, which are also welcomed by many visitors.
What should you do in Can Tho?
Most visitors come to Can Tho to do a boat tour on the Lower Mekong (the Hau Giang). You should try to get a boat in the morning, maybe before dawn. You can see the sunrise on the Can Tho River and feel the fresh air. The driver will take you to Cai Rang, where you’ll find the famous Floating Market. The market of Cai Rang is the biggest in the delta but only a glimpse of what it was in olden times. But beware! If you think you come to a tourist Disneyland, you’re wrong! The market is for Vietnamese, and it is hard for visitors to bargain with them and buy some fruit. If you had not have a breakfast, try coffee and noodle soup of one of the boat sellers. The families live on the boats working and selling their offerings during 5am and 9am. After that, you can drive over the canals and visit the smaller market in Phong Dien, or you make a one day trip to Phong Hiep, some 30 kilometres from Can Tho. The canals are very lovely, fruit trees growing at the sides and you can tear off some fresh mangos or water-apples directly from there. Don’t miss visiting a fruit garden either! Here you’ll find all exotic fruits which you have to pay a fortune for at home. And sure, make a break, drink coffee or eat something on the way. Some tours last 5-6 hours. You should enjoy, and you will learn a lot about Vietnam.
But Can Tho City has more sights. Ben Ninh Kieu – the waterfront – has a famous statue of Ho Chi Minh. From here you can walk through the streets and will find some nice pagodas on the 30/4- or Hoa Binh-Street. The Muniransay Pagoda is of Khmer origin and the central pagoda of the Khmer minority in the city. You can come inside and watch how the monks live – some are eager to improve their English by talking with you. Vietnamese pagodas are on the opposite site and in Binh Thuy you find an ancient house, a fascinating mixture of Vietnamese and French colonial styles. By walking through the small alleys (hem) you can find many places to rest, have some coffee, eat something or have a talk with some of the talkative Can Tho residents, though only some speak English.
The best thing, Can Tho may be one of the most popular spots of Southern Vietnam, but outside of Ben Ninh Kieu you do not find many foreigners. This makes the place ideal for visitors who want the feeling of being the “first discoverers“. Can Tho is really worth of staying some days. I hope you enjoy the flair of this nice city of the south.