Although we’ve been in Vietnam for 5 days, I feel like this is our true beginning in Vietnam – the real deal, if you will. Phu Quoc seemed a lot like Cambodia, where Can Tho is an entirely different experience.
***Side note from McKayla – Nate was in scuba lessons the whole time in Phu Quoc; I’ve been experiencing Vietnam this whole time.***
Neither of us had any idea of the sheer volume of Can Tho. Turns out, it’s the fifth largest city in Vietnam with a population over a million. It’s the capitol city of the Mekong Delta.
I’ve always had a weird thing for deltas. The idea that the area is grown and built on the stuff that flows down a river over the course of a million years – just fascinating. The Mississippi Delta has always been a part of my draw to New Orleans (women trading a flash for plastic beads barely makes the top 10). While they both have deltas, there seems to be very few other similarities between New Orleans and Can Tho. Maybe if all the bars in New Orleans were coffee shops and they traded their fan boats for wooden fishing boats, they’d be a little more comparable.
It’s hard to go more than a block without passing a cafe or two. Everyone is always either on or or next to their motos so caffeine seems to be the drug of choice over alcohol. Just in case the high octane Vietnamese coffee doesn’t give you all the jolt you’re after, everything here is served with a complimentary pot of tea.
We stayed at a skinny, 8 storied hotel called Hotel Xoai, in a shoe box of a room… but a very reasonably priced shoe box. We were about a mile from the tourist area along the Mekong. Most of our time in Can Tho was spent walking around, stopping in Cafes and trying like hell to avoid getting hit by motos. The two biggest highlights of our time in Can Tho was our brief warp back into American culture and our absolute plunge into the heart of symbolic Vietnamese culture.
Along one of our many walks into Can Tho we randomly stumbled out of the blistering heat into a wonderfully air-conditioned mall. For 3 hours we left Vietnam and found our way into a movie theater playing “Dr. Strange” in English. After enjoying our glaringly loud, mediocre movie we found a Dairy Queen. Yep, a comic book movie and ice cream, it was just what the doctor ordered. See what I did there with DOCTOR Strange? Ha.
McKayla did a great job getting on board with my delta fixation. She found Can Tho, booked a place, found us transportation and found the best way to tour the Mekong. Through our hotel, we booked a tour of the delta and secured a guide. The only downside was that we had to be ready to go at 5:30 am. Apparently, the floating market is prime around sunrise and disperses around 10 or so, depending on the boat.
At 5:30 we made it to the lobby to meet our tour guide. A short cab ride brought us to the river’s edge, our boat and our captain. Our tour boat was a wooden skiff about twice the size of a canoe. It was equipped with the standard Vietnamese motor resembling a weed whacked with a propeller instead of twine. It’s a little noisy but at least ours still had a muffler, some of the others sound like an angry helicopter.
Our first stop was the big floating market, just outside of Can Tho. You can tell what each boat was selling by a bamboo post perched on the bow. The product being sold is tied 10-15 feet high on the staff for all to see. The most popular seemed to be turnips, sweet potatoes, pineapples and papaya. Our guide told us that a lot of these people only get off their boats once a year, for New Years, then it’s back on the boat.
The captain did a good job weaving us through the busy market. Merchants will re-stock at the bigger market then take the goods and sell them out at a further, smaller market to the fishermen and residents who live along the delta. A lack of bridges makes it easier to get to the floatin market than into town. Apparently we got to the smaller market a little late. I’ve never heard of anything winding down at 8am that didn’t involve hard liquor and poor choices the night before, but the floating market has broke new ground. Our guide told us some of the boats completely disperse by 9am to. Make river/canal deliveries until about 2pm before calling it a ‘night’ and waking up at midnight to start prep and trading for the following morning.
The tour included a stop at a rice noodle ‘factory’. The ‘factory’ was a thatched pavilion with 3 stations. Each station had a vat of rice mix (rice powder + topeka powder + water) that they would scoop onto a drum over a tire. Once the liquid mixture became doughy, they used a thick wooden stick to wrap the now giant, thin pancake off the drum and onto a long wicker tray. The trays were put out to dry in the sun, then put through a spaghetti press and bam – rice noodles. These people work in an open air pavillionstoking and working next to 3 fires all day long. It was early morning and I was in there only 5 minutes before I was pouring sweat. I can only imagine what it feels like at noon. They make 800 kg of rice noodles per day out of paper thin sheets that can’t weigh more than a couple ounces. Can’t say I’ve ever had a job that could compare.
The tour also took us through canals, a walking fruit tour and lunch at a small place on the water. Our guide recommended duck stew and elephant fish roll ups, so we went with that. Qui taught us how to use our rice paper as a tortilla, throw in some rice noodles, lettuce, fish and hot sauce; boom, Asian fish tacos.
After a full day (well, ending at 1:00, but it was a full day) enjoying the quintessential Mekong Delta, along with some of its lesser traveled passages, it was time to get back to our shoebox and take a nap. Thank you, Qui, for your knowledge, culture and food with us. Thank you, captain, for some pretty impressive navigation, Making McKayla a cool, weaved palm leaf flower and for usually having a shitty little grin while constantly clutching a lit cigarette. Everything I hoped for in a river captain.
Three nights were more than enough in Can Tho. The shear amount of motos and lack of stop lights turned crossing the street into a real life version of Frogger. (I found someone who put a video of it on Youtube) You just walk slowly after all buses have passed to your left, don’t even bother looking to your right, you’ll have to deal with that soon enough. Any second you spend with your head turned, a motorcycle could pull out and those assholes just wedge in. Back to crossing — you slowly walk. Out into traffic at a steady pace and allow the motos to dodge you. Once you get to the middle of the road you can re-evaluate, wait for trucks, dodge people turning left and brave the second half of the road. The main road outside our hotel was 8 lanes wide without a traffic light in sight. It got to be more nerve wracking than anything else. If there was ever a local crossing the street when we wanted to, we’d go with them, discretely trying to use their expertise as a shield.
The city really does rely on the motos, and as such, they just drive up on the sidewalk in front of whatever business they want, order what they need, it’s delivered out to them and they’re off again. Very convenient for motorists, a living nightmare for pedestrians.
They also carry all sorts of stuff strapped to their motos. I’ve seen a few of these guys and honestly wondered, “CouldI fit all that into our car?”They carry giant bags of veggies, food carts, huge stacks of boxes and the other day we saw a guy with a fridge – not a mini-fridge, a full sized fridge just strapped to the back of a freaking scooter. That guy had balls.