After a couple of months of traveling, we have finally reached Vietnam. We’ve been looking forward to this for a while now. Our first stop was Phu Quoc. Now we’re in Can Tho. Can Tho is a wonderful city, offering beautiful surroundings and incredibly welcoming people. It is however relatively off the beaten track. Meaning, not many tourists come here, and those who do usually stay no longer than a day or two. This was one of the reasons we really liked Can Tho. However, if you don’t speak Vietnamese (and we don’t), this might make the city a bit tricky to explore properly by yourself.
Since we love exploring more than what is right in front of us, we really wanted to see the real, authentic Can Tho. We decided to go with a guided tour with Can Tho River Tour, along the Mekong River and through the countryside. This way, we got the opportunity to discover Can Tho for real. We usually aren’t big fans of guided tours, but the tour exceeded our expectations big time. We will tell you more about our experience in this article.
About Can Tho and Mekong Delta
Can Tho is the biggest city of Mekong Delta. The city is located about 170 km South-West of Ho Chi Minh City. Floating markets, pagodas, fresh fruits, many restaurants and the beautiful surroundings of the Mekong Delta is what attracts tourists. Still, the city is not yet too touristy. Even though the city center of Can Tho has developed into an urban city, Can Tho has kept its rural area.
Many people in Can Tho are dependent on the Mekong River for survival. In the old days, before there were cars and roads in Can Tho, transporting by boat on the river was the only means of transportation. Therefore, it was very popular to live close by the river on bamboo stilts to avoid the rising waters, or on houses on boats the river. Now a days, many people prefer living closer to the city and hence seek land away from the river. Still, in Vietnam alone, more than 20 million people are dependent on the river for income and survival.
The Mekong River is about 4300 km long and runs through China, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is also known as the river of nine dragons (translated from Vietnamese). The name is influenced from the fact that the river used to empty into the sea at nine points in Cambodia. Today there’s only eight points and Vietnamese suspect there soon only will be seven, due to one of them shrinking each year.
Tour – A Real Mekong
Pajam and I enjoy exploring the off beaten track. We usually prefer to go where we will meet locals, rather than other tourists. Often we also prefer to go by ourselves, and stay away from guided, touristy tours. However, we really wanted to see and learn more of Mekong Delta and Can Tho, so we decided to give it a try. After some research we decided to go with Can Tho River Tour, based on their good reviews on Tripadvisor. You can read more about Can Tho River Tour further down or on their website.
Can Tho River Tour offers several tours. We decided to go with the tour that seemed the most authentic – A Real Mekong. A Real Mekong is a full day tour, starting at 6am and ending at 3pm. The majority of the day is spent on the back of a scooter, passing along the Mekong River and the countryside of Can Tho. Every group has one English-speaking guide and a driver for each tour-participant. The tour includes lots of interaction with local families and a lot of food.
A Real Mekong seemed like a great tour for us, so we booked it. At 6am sharp the next day, our guide Louie and one of the drivers stood outside our guesthouse with two scooters. Louies face turned into a huge smile as soon as he saw us. He shook hands and very polity introduced himself. After he had got our names, I jumped on behind him and Pajam behind the driver. Our first stop was Cai Rang Floating Market.
Stop 1: Cai Rang Floating Market
Cai Rang Floating Market is the big floating market in Can Tho. It is mainly a wholesale market where big boats are selling big quantities to smaller boats. For visitors it’s possible to buy from the small boats. While cruising along the market, smaller boats will come up to your boat and offer whatever they’re selling.
We drove for about 10 minutes before we parked the bikes outside Cai Raing Floating Market. There we waited for a few minutes for the rest of the group to join us. All in all, with guide and drivers, we would be 12 people. As soon as the rest had arrived, we walked towards the river. On the way we passed the land-based market where local ladies sold fruits, vegetables and snacks wearing traditional Vietnamese hats.
We put on life vests, got into a boat and sat down. Louie thanked us for coming to Vietnam and for choosing Can Tho River Tour. Then he started working his magic. It took us about 2 minutes to realize that we were in the hands of one of the best guides we’ve ever had.
Louie told us that the people on the bigger boats are farmers from other cities. Once they have harvested enough, they pack their things on their boat and drive to Can Tho. Here they stay until they’ve sold everything. It’s common for them to stay between 3-7 days. If they have kids, they are left at home so that they don’t miss school. Because they live on their boat for a couple of days, the inside of their boat works as a bedroom and the back of the boat as a kitchen and this is also where they hang and dry their laundry. If they wish to go to land for some reason, they have to take a taxi boat.
We noted that the big boats had a stick with fruits or vegetables hanging on top of it. Louie told us the stick on the back of each big boat, is a tall bamboo stick. On this each wholesale seller hang whatever they are selling. This way the small boats can easily find what they are looking for. Unlike land-based markets, calling out what they’re selling cannot be heard and is therefore not efficient.
We cruised along the market and some small boats came up to us to try to sell us things. At one time a lady with a huge, smoking pot placed her boat next to us, poked her head into our boat and asked if anyone wanted hot soymilk. I love soymilk. For 40 cents I got a big glass of hot, fresh soymilk. After we’d passed one side of the market, we stopped at one of the big boats to get some pineapples. We got to go on the boat and see what it looks like inside. The “bedroom” is small. This is however described as cozy by the couples on the boats, according to Louie. This way they get to lay close to their partner all night. I guess they have a point.
On our way back to where we started the boat tour, we kept on passing big boats. As if we hadnn’t learned enough at this time of the day already, Louie gave us more information. He pointed to one of the big boats and said asked if we could see the “eyes” on the back of the boat. The “eyes” were two big dots in the middle of the back of the boat. Then he told us that they are there to give the couple on the boat a piece of mind. With these eyes the boat can see the way its going, and find its way back if needed. Also, in the old days, Louie told us, there used to be many crocodiles in the river. The eyes on the back of the boat made the boat look like a sea monster and would scare the crocodiles away. He then laughed a little and said “it might be a bit superstitious, but who knows, maybe it works”.
Wow, okay. At 6.45 in the morning, 45 minutes after we had left our hotel, I had already learned a lot. Less than one ninth of the day had passed and I started to get very excited about how much I would learn that day.
Shortly thereafter we were dropped off on land again. It was now time to get back on the scooters and go to the next stop.
Stop 2: Phong Dien Floating Market
There are two famous markets in Can Tho. It’s Cai Rai and it’s Phong Dien. Phong Dien is a smaller floating market, more focused on locals and tourists. On this floating market, there’s no wholesale going on. The sellers on this market buy products from the big boats in Cai Rang. Then they come to Phong Dien to sell what they’ve bought.
We got off the scooters and Louie showed us where we could sit down, relax and watch the action on the floating market. He asked what we wanted to drink and ordered our drinks for us. While waiting for our refreshments, Louie took the chance to tell us more about the Mekong Delta and Can Tho.
He told us that as young people study and seek work in the city, people move from the river side to the city. Also, as roads, scooters and cars are getting more common, the river life gets more inconvenient in comparison and people prefer to move. Due to this, the floating markets are getting fewer, smaller and more rare. Since it’s such a big part of the culture of Can Tho and the Mekong Delta, the government wants to support floating markets and the local sellers. Therefore, people doing business on the river doesn’t have to pay taxes.
The lady from the restaurant soon came with two coconuts for Pajam and I and coffee for the rest. We sat in silence for a while and enjoyed our drinks and the surroundings. A cool coconut was perfect now that it was starting to get warmer outside. The two other couples in our group were all from Cyprus. We all sat along the table and shared stories about our countries and lives. We added each other on Facebook and one of the couple invited us to Cyprus and offered to host us. Pajam and I knew for sure that had ended up with the best tour-group ever.
After we had finished our drinks and everyone had let off the steam so to speak, we were back on the scooters, on our way to our third stop.
Stop 3: Breakfast and learning how to make vermicelli noodles
The drive to the third stop was beautiful. There were palm trees, bushes and flowers all around us. Everything was so green. I just sat on the scooter, behind Louie and enjoyed. We passed locals that said hello and smiled and cows and dogs laying around. This was exactly what I had hoped to see during this tour.
The third stop was very interesting. Louie followed by the drivers drove the scooters through a small gate, into the garden of a local family. We parked the scooters outside a small house and got off. A woman came out and greeted us. Louie explained that she’s the boss here, while smiling. She invited us into her home. We entered and saw a big, wooden/steel tool. Louie explained that the lady who greeted us is famous for her way of making vermicelli noodles. Instead of making ordinary vermicelli noodles, she makes them with a pattern that reminds one of a hammock.
After watching the lady making noodles for a while it was our turn. Really, it looked like a piece of cake. I was sure this wouldn’t be any issues for me. Oh, how wrong was I… I’m not sure what I was doing but it was not vermicelli noodles looking like a hammock. After everyone had had a go, and everyone failing at least as much as I did, it was time to enjoy these incredible noodles. Luckily, not our own. Louie joked that they would be placed in a museum, due to their uniqueness.
Louie led us to a shadowed table in the garden where we sat down. We didn’t have to wait long for the food to be served. It looked amazing. We all got one plate each with a couple of layers of the gorgeous vermicelli noodles. To this the others got meat, while Pajam and I got tofu and spring rolls. In the middle of the table was a big plate of lettuce, mint and cucumber. Louie showed us how to eat it. “Take a piece of lettuce, dip the meat/tofu in the sauce and place it in the lettuce together with noodles, mint and cucumber, roll it, dip in in the sauce and enjoy.” YUM. Louie told us that this dish usually is eaten on special occasions, for example on weddings.
We finished our food (way too fast), visited the toilet, thanked the lady and her family. Then we were back on the scooter. The next stop excited all of us.
Stop 4: Cacao Farm
We got off the scooters and at once we could feel the smell. Mmm… Chocolate. We were at a cacao farm. The first thing we saw was a big bowl of cacao nibs. Louie told us we could try some. It tasted like chocolate without sugar (well, duh?). But when I put it in the back of my mouth, it tasted very bitterly. Bitterly but good. I mean is it possible for cacao and chocolate to taste anything but good? Well, yes. I would notice soon.
All of us sat down at a table under a roof. I was very happy the roof was there because it was getting really hot by now. Louie stood in front of us all and started talking. He told us about the farm, the owner, the process of turning a cacao fruit to chocolate and showed us the different stages. Once he finished talking, he led us over to what seemed to be an old, manual machine of some kind. This was the machine that turns cacao nibs into 100% chocolate, Louie explained. He told us how it works and then the owner of the farm, the 68-years old Muoi Cuong came to demonstrate.
Muoi Cuong told us that his father had brought cacao fruits to Vietnam for the first time back in the 1960s. He started planting them and managed to create a farm of 2000 cacao trees. At this time, no one knew anything about chocolate and even less how to make it. Muoi Cuong’s father asked Muoi Cuong to start making chocolate. Muoi Cuong had no idea what to do, so he read a book. With the help of a French book about chocolate, he managed to experiment until he reached his goal. He had managed to make chocolate. Now a days, Muoi Cuong only produces chocolate for tourists to see. Mainly, he’s selling his cacao nibs to Belgium. Everything is done by hand and by Muoi Cuong himself. He doesn’t have any employees, it’s only him and his family.
Once Muoi Cuong was done telling us about his history and his farm, Louie led us through the farm and gave us facts a long the way. Among other things, we learned that in the old days, Vietnamese used dried banana leafs as toilet paper and that there’s two different colors for cacao fruits, but when they are ready they both turn yellow. Aa you can see, we gained very varied knowledge. After our walk through this beautiful farm, we got back to our table and got to enjoy the most incredible ice chocolate I’ve ever had. I even bought some cacao powder to bring on our travels. We also got to try cacao wine. This was surprisingly delicious. Apparently Muoi Cuong needs 1 ton (!!!) cacao fruits to make 20 liters of wine. That is some luxury wine right there.
We couldn’t get enough of these chocolate treats, but eventually we had to stop. We got back on our scooters. It was time for the next stop.
Stop 5: Lunch and Learning how to make rice noodles
I started wondering whether this tour was handmade for Pajam and I. We love food and this whole tour had so far consisted of eating. The next stop was the home of a local family who makes rice noodles. We parked bikes and looked into the house. The first thing we saw was a what looked like a huge oven, lots of smoke, and a man and a woman steaming what we all assumed would become rice noodles.
We walked into the house and were greeted by the couple. Louie started showing us how the rice noodles are made, step by step. We got to stand and watch while the couple steamed what would eventually become rice noodles. It was clear that they had been doing this for a while. They had a really good flow going, and each of them had their own tasks. I wondered for long they had been doing this. We found out that this local family alone produces between 400 – 500 kilos of rice noodles every day. Each morning the woman takes her scooter and delivers their noodles to many local restaurants.
We noticed that the man put old textiles into the fire to keep it going. Louie told us that a couple of years ago everyone was using the shells of rice for this. There was a lot of it and it cost close to nothing. Later, this product has become popular for Western countries to use for fires and therefore the price of rice shells has went up more than 800%. Therefore, locals are now buying old textiles from factories instead.
After our very interesting lesson, it was time to enjoy another delicious Vietnamese dish. This time we were served deep fried rice noodles with bean sprouts and egg. I got so surprised when I took my first bite. I had not expected it to be that crispy! It was so good!
We left very happy and satisfied. I was really looking forward to the next stop though.
Stop 6: Tropical Fruit Farm
After a long and hot day exploring, what fits better than some tropical fruits? Nothing, if you ask me. The next stop was a tropical-fruit garden. Here they grow every tropical fruit I can think off – mango, papaya, jackfruit, durian, dragon fruit, coconuts, pineapple, guava and oranges (the ones with a green shell). We walked through the garden and it was gorgeous! There were a countless number of palm trees, mango hanging around every corner, trees filled with huge jackfruits, small pineapple bushes, beautiful dragon fruit cactus (if you don’t know what they look like, Google it, they’re super cool) and a few durians hanging in a tree.
In the garden were also some very lucky chickens, hens and huge turkeys that walked around freely among the fruit and fruit trees. They also had a pond filled with almost 200 catfishes. It was a very refreshing walk, after sitting on the scooter the whole day. Louie told us a lot about each tree, fruit and animal. I started wondering if there was anything this man didn’t know.
After our walk we sat down at a table in the shadow (thank god) and we were served fruits and green tea. On our table were plates with guava, mango, jackfruit, dragon fruit and papaya. Mmm… It was incredibly colorful and I couldn’t wait to get started. Every single fruit tasted like heaven, even the papaya (which I usually find soso). It was so fresh and sweet and simply perfect. I had to control myself not to eat all of it at once. I mean there were 6 other people at the table too…
We left our table super full, thinking we couldn’t eat anything more this day. Then Louie told us about our last stop – a local restaurant where we would enjoy some noodle soup. Oh my… I never turn down a meal, but this was starting to get a bit challenging. Well well, you only live once, right?
Stop 7: A second lunch at a local noodle restaurant
We drove for about 20 minutes through beautiful surroundings (like we’d been doing all day), until we reached the restaurant. Here we found out that the soup was made out of meat broth – which we had suspected it to be. However, the family owning the restaurant offered to make some noodles with hot water, vegetables and eggs. We really appreciated this and kindly said “yes, please”.
The soup was really delicious and it was the perfect end to this perfect day. Once everyone had finished we said goodbye to the others in our group and got back on the scooters for a drop off at the hotel. Before leaving us, Louie thanked us again for coming to Vietnam and for choosing Can Tho River Tour. We said goodbye and went up to our room and straight to bed. It had been a long and very, very good day.
To say the least, we were very positively surprised by how much we enjoyed this tour. The tour was well planned, from the beginning to the end. We barely saw any other tourist during the whole day, except for on the floating markets and in the cacao farm. Other than that, it was only our little group. Even though it was a guided tour with pre-picked stops, it never felt as if it was a tourist-set-up, which really surprised us. Most of our stops felt very authentic and real (even though of course, parts of it was for show).
Our guide, Louie, was simply amazing. He was very informative and we learned more than we could’ve hoped for. He told us in detail about every stop we made, about Can Tho and Mekong Delta and about Vietnam in general. More than being informative, he had a good sense of humor. He was smiling at all times and not once did we get the feeling that our questions bothered him, rather the opposite. He seemed to enjoy answering all our questions and teach us about the Vietnamese culture and history. It was obvious that he really enjoyed what he does and that does a huge difference.
Time flies when you’re having a good time. All of a sudden it was 2.30pm and the tour was almost over. Neither Pajam nor I had the time to feel tired, even though we had only slept four hours that night. For us, that’s a really good sign. Hands down, we really recommend Can Tho River Tour for a tour for everyone visiting Can Tho. It is really, really worth it.
About Can tho river tours
Can Tho River Tour is a tour company located in, well, Can Tho. It was founded in the beginning of July 2017 and they’ve already earned themselves a good reputation. They are focusing on showing tourists more than only the floating markets and teach them about Can Tho and Vietnam in general. Can Tho River Tour is offering tours and services for everyone. You like to walk? They have free walking tours. Prefer to go by bicycle? Well, no problem. Too lazy to do the work yourself (like us)? Sit on the back of a scooter. You’re into the more private and comfortable tours? Get a private driver. Can Tho River Tour has English-speaking, local, expert tour guides. They prefer going with small groups on their tours, for their customers to get the most out of it.
If you’re interested in going on a tour with Can Tho River Tour, you can check out the tours they offer and the prices on their website. You can also book your tour here. They have a live-chat on their website as well, for you to ask all your questions. Don’t hesitate to contact them if you have any questions, they will be more than happy to help you.
DISCLAIMER: We were welcomed as participants by Can Tho River Tour. As always, all opinions and views are our own.