Khuong Nha

Culture, history, and fun await in Can Tho – the biggest city in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Vietnam’s fourth-largest city features a unique riverside culture

The best way to explore this bustling city and its environs is by boat

Floating vendors in the Mekong Delta

It’s no coincidence that Can Tho is dubbed “Tay Do” (Capital of the West) of the Mekong Delta. This land of white rice and clear water is a prosperous city so captivating that “those who come here never leave.”

While I’ve lost count of how many trips I’ve made to Can Tho, they always start with an early morning visit to Cai Rang Floating Market to relive the lives of the once-renowned traders who traveled across the Six Southern provinces of Vietnam, adrift in their small sampans, and to enjoy a flavorful bowl of pork soup from one of the “mobile eateries” on the choppy river.

Tourists discover Cai Rang Floating Market

Heading to the wharf from the city center, I would rent a small boat for 300,000 VND to begin my river excursion. If you’re on a budget, you can join a group tour for as little as 40.000 VND/pax, although it will have a fixed schedule. The market usually opens at dawn and is at its busiest around 7-8am, after which it gradually slows down.

European-style embossed patterns adorn the main gate of Binh Thuy

Through the ebb and flow of centuries, locals still maintain their typical floating lifestyle. Unlike at inland markets, the vendors at floating markets don’t cry out their wares to attract business. Filled with goods for sale, the boats feature distinctive “beo” poles. The “Vietnamese Southern Dialect Dictionary” explains that “beo” is a verb, which means “to show; display to attract.” Looking at the goods hung on a “beo” pole, customers know what’s being sold on a particular boat. Despite the rule of “what you see is what you get”, some hanging stuff is not for sale, such as clothes, for instance.

Floating vendors in the Mekong Delta live on the river year round. Their boats also serve as their mobile homes. They might have a TV and a small space for sleeping, washing, and cleaning. Washed clothes are normally hung on the “beo” pole to dry. However, some goods for sale are not hung up, such as food and beverages. A boat owner once explained how the locals sell second-hand boats. A palm leaf hung on the “beo” pole typically means that the boat is for sale.

The ancient house of Binh Thuy charms visitors with classic architecture and antiques

The excitement of eating on a boat seems to elevate the feeling of freedom in this boundless scene. Holding a bowl of boiling soup in the early morning cool, surrounded by bustling hawkers, is a one-of-a-kind experience.

You will find many cultural and historical gems in one of the Mekong Delta’s busiest floating markets. The brightest gems are the hospitable and sincere people, whose stories will fascinate you, from old folktales about the region’s early settlers to tales about the mysterious U Minh Forest.

Can Tho has more to offer than just Cai Rang Floating Market. This busy city in the Southwest boasts many landmarks and entertainment areas. One of the best-known stops is an ancient house on Bui Huu Nghia Street called Binh Thuy. This mansion was busy with flocks of tourists when I arrived late one afternoon. Binh Thuy is praised for having the most beautiful architecture in the region. European-style embossed patterns adorn the main gate, fence, roof ridge, and gables.

From the outside, the building looks no different from any extravagant 19th century French villa. Stepping onto the bow-shaped stairs to enter the main hall, visitors will be surprised by its traditional Vietnamese interior and decorations. Furthermore, beneath a floor laid with ceramic tiles imported directly from France lies a 10cm-thick layer of salt. Not only does this special insulation material help the house remain cool in summer, and warm in winter, but according to local beliefs, it wards off bad luck. In addition to its well-preserved and distinctive architecture, the Binh Thuy ancient house has an orchid garden and an antique collection with many valuable artifacts.

In the evening, I spent time strolling along Ninh Kieu Wharf to truly feel the city’s urban vibe. Can Tho by night is a completely different experience. What amazes me most is the “love bridge” across the Hau River, connecting Ninh Kieu Wharf with Cai Khe Island. At night, the whole city is brightly lit with colorful neon, and is no less exciting than any other wealthy metropolis.

Apart from Cai Rang Floating Market, Binh Thuy ancient house, and Ninh Kieu Wharf, tourists should stop by the Southern Truc Lam Monastery, fruit orchards, and the stork sanctuary. Don’t forget to sample seasonal Mekong River specialties such as fresh Siamese mud carp, sesbania sesban flowers, magenta sticky rice cake, grilled pork sausage, stir-fried three-striped crab in tamarind sauce, or the delicate sourness of a boiling apple mangrove hotpot.