Mekong Delta, Can Tho, Vietnam
Life in the Mekong Delta is slow. Boats putter along the waterways at a casual but consistent pace. Putter putter putter.
They have places to go but they’re in no great rush. They’ll get there when their engines get them there. No point stressing. Putter putter putter.
The boats are carrying goods – to and from markets. They’re carrying locals between their homes and their jobs. And, perhaps most relevant for us, they’re carrying tourists to see the life that the water gives. Putter putter putter.
I’m spending a couple of days in the Mekong Delta here in Vietnam. I’ve based myself in the city of Can Tho, the largest population hub in the region.
The city is relatively large with a population of 1.2 million people but it feels like a small country town after the chaos of Saigon, which is just three hours drive away.
There are two parts of Can Tho that I think are most interesting.
The first is the riverfront, which is the focus of the tourist activity. Most of the hotels are here, markets fill the streets at night, and the boats for tours of the area leave from here. All you have to do is step outside your hotel and you’ll suddenly get an offer of a boat trip.
For the most part, these are genuine offers for decent tours from good natured people. If you say you’re not interested, you won’t be hassled – you’re more likely to get a baffled look. “What are you here for then?”
I do say no. Consistently. Although a boat tour interests me, I’ve decided I am going to try to explore the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta here in a different way.
This brings me to the second interesting part of Can Tho – the suburbs of the city that have developed around the small fingers of water that come off the main maritime thoroughfare.
The standard trip for foreigners leaves from the central riverside in Can Tho early in the morning, not long after dawn (or even before) to go up to the famous floating markets.
From there, the boats go off the main river and into some of the smaller canals. In total, the trip usually takes about three hours.
While there’s nothing wrong with these trips (assuming you are on one of the smaller boats – not the large ones that can’t go off the river), I develop my own alternative.
Looking at a map, I figure that I could actually walk to most of the places that the boats go. Sure, I won’t get the views from the water, but I am hoping to see a bit of the life on the shores instead.
I wonder whether I’ve made a mistake when I get to the floating market, about an hour’s walk from the centre of Can Tho. The name should have given me a clue that getting a boat would’ve been a better idea.
I can see the barges and ships in the middle of the river but, from here on the bank, I can see very little of what is going on.
Most of the shoreline is taken up with buildings – workshops or storehouses that use the direct river access to load and unload goods. It’s hard to see through them.
There are only a few spots where I can actually stand near the water and look. I do wonder whether I’m missing much, though, the action out in the centre doesn’t look as colourful or lively as I had imagined.
I’m a bit disheartened but don’t give up. I move to stage two of my plan and turn off the road and into a small pathway that runs alongside a smaller canal of water.
This is where I find what I am looking for. As well as the path alongside the canal, there’s a constant stream of activity.
Houses have been built right up to the edge – some are simple wooden shacks, some are larger and made from brick. Boats are tied to poles partially submerged by the banks; fruit grows from trees; birds jump between trees; and occasionally I hear the putter putter putter in the distance.
Children ride past me on bicycles and wave. Motorbikes also go by and I normally get a smile from the rider.
This isn’t a busy pathway but it is the only access for all the people who live along here – and there’s quite a lot of them.
There is house after house and even some side roads that lead to other villages. Looking into the backyards, I see dogs and chickens and pigs and cats. There are some vegetable patches, small stores and even a barber.
I take my time and I get a bit lost. I cross a couple of bridges and go off on different forks of the canals. It all connects and there’s plenty to see.
I know I wouldn’t have seen all of this from a boat. Even the things that would have been visible would have felt detached.
I am in the middle of Mekong life here, as I smile at the residents and they shout hello as I stroll past. It may be all about the water here but that doesn’t mean you need to be on it.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN CAN THO
There are a few decent options for accommodation at the riverfront near the boat tours. More interesting places are further out.
For a good backpacker option, I would recommend staying at the friendly Nguyen Shack.
For a nice affordable hotel near the river, have a look at MIDMOST Boutique Hostel.
For something a bit nicer, the Nam Bo Boutique Hotel is still reasonably priced.
And there’s a very special experience on the island in the river at Azerai Can Tho.