After 5 hours on the bus from Saigon, we mercifully arrived in Can Tho yesterday. The bus ride itself was a little adventure. We bought our tickets for the Phuo Trang bus at STA Travel in Buivien. We were told to show-up at 9am for the shuttle that will bring us to the Phuo Trang office. They arranged a cab for us and a couple from England and we were accompanied by someone from STA Travel. The bus office was about 20 minutes away and we were given our tickets. We paid $8 at the agency but our tickets only cost about $4. We were told the bus was leaving at 10:30. There
was still about an hour to go. There were a lot of locals waiting at the station and we noticed that minivans were coming and getting passengers who were being herded into them by someone who looked like the dispatcher. I was beginning to get worried that we had been duped into thinking that we were taking a bus when it was actually a mini van which didn’t sound too appealing for a 5 hour trip. “But we were given seat numbers,” I comforted myself. Then the guy asked the English couple to board the minivan. The girl pointed to us but the guy said that we would take the next one. I asked a girl at the desk and she assured us that she would “take us to the bus.” Then we were herded to a mini-van. “We’re supposed to take a big bus,” I protested. The smiling dispatcher said we were indeed going to a bus. There was nothing we could do but ride. At least we weren’t cramped at the back. We rode through the Saigon traffic and about 30 minutes later, it clicked to me that the minivan was taking us to the Mien Tay bus station at An Lac District which is several kilometers outside central. We were actually in a shuttle! True enough, we turned to the bus station and we got off at the Phuo Trang office and there were the English couple! We did take the big bus all the way to Can Tho.
We stopped at a bus station half-way through the trip for lunch. I had bahnmi with roasted pork which is similar to lechon. It was really good, I ordered another one, this time with sticky rice. I also had my dried jackfruit and bananas that I bought from the Ben Thay market the day before us a bus snack.
Can Tho is the industrial heart of the Mekong Delta and its size and modernity quite surprised me. When we arrived at the bus station, one of the staff asked us where we were going and told us the company had free shuttle service. Now, that’s what you call customer service! The English couple hadn’t made accomodation arrangements so they came with us to check out the Huy Hoang where we were staying.
I booked the hotel online through Mekong Tours and our second-class room for $16/night was clean and had a/c and a bathroom. Plus it was very close to the riverside. Duy from Couchsurfing met us for dinner at Capuccino and also brought us around for a quick tour.
I liked the vibes of Can Tho. It was such a relief not to have someone offering you a ride on a moto or cyclo every minute. It was big enough to have some modern feel and yet small enough to retain its provincial charm. Nice cafes and restaurants like Mekong and Sao Hom facing the riverside added to its charm. We really enjoyed the park where the only tin statue of Ho Chi Minh is. It was around 8pm and there were locals enjoying the refreshing breeze coming from the river. There were stalls selling fruit, meat balls, and grilled meet with lotus leaves which we liked.
Located near the center, the Can Tho Museum is a colonial building with a gigantic bust of Ho Chi Minh greeting you as you walk up the stairs to the lobby. We barely had enough time to really enjoy the exhibits on Can Tho and Mekong history before a buzzer sounded to announce the closing hours at 9pm. Walking home, we passed by a local bakeshop that had mini cakes going for only D17,000 which is dirt cheap. I bought some custard-looking things and a small cake covered with icing and strawberries. Yummy!
We took the boat that Duy had arranged for us for $20 for an 8-hour trip that includes the Cai Rang and Phung Diep floating markets as well as the canals and a stop at a garden for lunch. On another boat were Duy, Angela from Couchsurfing, her friend, and Nick and Jan from New York who are here for a quick tour before returning home to the US then packing their bags for a 6-month teaching stint at the Can Tho University where Duy is in his senior year in English.
All my apprehensions about the river-worthiness of the boat vanished as soon as we set-0ff. It was a small wooden boat powered by a motor that our driver, a woman, stirred at the back. There were life vests but of course it would really stupid wearing one. I just placed mine near me. There were bigger more touristy boats but that would mean not being able to go to the canals. The wooden boats also had its charms and besides it was the more traditional means of transportation.
We knew we were at Cai Rang when we saw all the little boats selling vegetables and fruits. There were cabbages, squash, dragon fruit, turnips, watermelon among others. We bought some bahnmi and iced coffee from the boats. An hour later, we were at Phung Diep where we disembarked to go to the market. It was 9am already which meant the market was over. We just browsed through some of the stalls and had refreshments. I had a really good tamarind juice. The other boat went back to the city while we continued on to the canals. This was the highlight of the trip.
I really enjoyed the canals as they were very peaceful and rural. Some were narrow while others were much larger. Only small boats could navigate them so it was very quiet and not too many boats were there. Palm trees, shrubs, and grass lined the banks of the canals while houses with their kitchens and service areas opening to the river gave us a glimpse of how people in the Mekong lived. It seemed so far removed from the city. There were also small roads running parallel along the canals with an occasional moto or bike. We passed a few bamboo bridges and some boats moored along the banks. It was the most relaxing and wonderful boat ride I ever experienced especially at portions where our boat driver would cut the engine and just row.
We stopped for lunch at a garden where tables were set-up underneath cool cottages. The price was reasonable and the food really good. We invited our driver to have lunch with us. I had an elephant-ear fish fried to a crisp and eaten with thin rice pancakes. I thought the fish was eaten in itself and that the rice pancakes, noodles, and basil laid out on the table were for Francis’ order of noodles. When his noodles soup arrived, I pointed to the rice paper. Our driver pointed to the fish and demonstrated how to eat it. She took a pancake, put basil leaves, some fresh noodles, fish, then rolled it. She pointed to the dipping sauce. It was very tasty and absolutely delicious. It was one of my best dining delights in Vietnam.
After lunch, we continued through the canals until we finally exited back to the Mekong. We started singing songs to entertain ourselves much to the amusement of our driver. Apparently, we could be heard as a group of men loading something on the boat started dancing and motioning us to get down. It was fun.
We were back at the city about 3pm.