Arrive at Ben Tre
To save spending an extra night at a hotel in the Mekong, just get a bus out of Ho Chi Minh City to Ben Tre early in the morning. The earliest buses leave around 07:00 a.m., meaning you can easily arrive at your destination in two or three hours depending on traffic. Make sure you get a banh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) to eat as breakfast on the bus. For reputable bus lines, you can check out Futa, Sinh Tourist or Phuong Nam.
Make your way over to the Ham Luong pier, a large tributary of the Mekong River. You can take a xe om (motorbike taxi) or ask a local tuk tuk to guide you there. Over at the pier you’ll be able to find a boat to board that will take you through the river and stop at whatever looks intriguing. You will come across brick factories, rice paper factories, coconut candy production houses, fruit orchards, cacao farms, etc. Think of the boat like a river taxi — you will be able to cross out multiple must-see things this way.
For lunch just stop by any riverside restaurant you see. You’ll find Mekong specialties on the menu such as hu tieu Sa Dec (noodle soup), bun ca (fish noodles), lau mam (fish hot pot) and nem nuong Cai Rang (Cai Rang grilled pork rolls). Ben Tre is also the land of coconuts, so make sure you enjoy a nice fresh coconut during your boat ride or at lunch.
Tours to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City usually include all this. If you are looking for a tour that starts at the pier, reach out to Ham Luong Tourist.
The tour by Ham Luong Tourist also includes taking a smaller wooden sampan through the tiny palm frond-lined canals of the Delta. You will get up close and personal with floating homes — boats with a covered mid-section where people sleep, cook, and spend their day shielded from the sun. It is interesting to see how the locals live their life on the water.
Off to Can Tho
Around 04:00 p.m., you should board your next bus and head off to the capital of the Mekong, Can Tho city. It will be late in the evening when you arrive, so it’s best to immediately check into your accommodation, take a shower and rest. Book yourself a homestay for a more intimate and authentic experience.
A quick dinner
For dinner head off to Sao Hom restaurant that is set by the riverside. Enjoy some seafood dishes and a quick beer or two but make sure to head off back to your place and sleep early because you need to wake up at dawn to head out to the floating market.
Hai Bà Trưng, Tân An, Ninh Kiều, Cần Thơ, Vietnam, +84 292 3815 616
A floating breakfast
You should be up and ready to head out by 04:30 a.m. Make your way over to Ninh Kieu Wharf, which is a short distance from the Can Tho city centre. You can board a boat here and tell them you wish to go to Cai Rang floating market, which is a 30-minute boat ride away. Many people will be willing to take you, and it should cost you a little over USD$2.00 just to get to the market. On the way you will get to catch the beautiful sunrise (only if you make it early enough), and watch the city wake up from its slumber.
At the Cai Rang floating market, you will find a crowded trading atmosphere, everything done on boats. You will find fruits and vegetables handed from one boat over to the other while other boats pass by with stacks of coconut and fresh seafood. To see what each boat sells, just look to the pole erected at the front and you will find a display of every item available on it.
Breakfast is best enjoyed here, too — just wait for a boat with steaming hot food to pass by and ask for some. Bun ca (fish noodle soup) is a great choice to try at Cai Rang, as is hu tieu. Chef Gordon Ramsay will agree — he tried it here during his Southeast Asian culinary adventures.
A history lesson
Head back inland and over to Ong Pagoda, built in the 19th century by Chinese descendants. It is located on the river road of Hai Ba Trung and makes for a convenient stop after the floating market. From the outside, the temple looks a little out of a children’s fairy tale story book, with its vivid colours and cute shape. The inside feels very other-worldly too, with copper-coloured and smokey chambers decorated with red and gold statues and displays. The smell of incense will guide you through the various chambers. At the entrance you will find all the information you need about the temple, so you do not need a guide to walk you through and explain the architecture and symbolism of the place.
Can Tho Grand Prison is a good next stop. It was built during the French colonial era, in 1886, and intended to deal with Vietnamese revolutionaries. The South Vietnamese and Americans proceeded to use it during the Vietnam War. Information about this prison is a little limited but if you are well-versed about the prisons in Hanoi, Phu Quoc and Con Dao, you will have an idea of the cruel conditions, imprisonment, torture and executions that went on within the premises. If your imagination doesn’t run very wild, the eerie mannequins will help fill out the blank spaces.
After getting lunch in any of the restaurants you see lining up the streets, head over to Mien Tay Homestay. No, this is not a homestay. Well, it is. But it is also a modest cacao farm run by a lovely man named Lam The Cuong and his family. You’ll be able to learn the process of how fruit from the cacao tree becomes a bar of rich, dark chocolate, and even other products such as cocoa butter, jam and alcohol. Tours are a little over a dollar per person, and the homestay is about USD$15.00 a night. The price includes pick-up, breakfast and dinner.
A good evening
For the sunset, head over to Ninh Kieu Wharf to witness the beautiful spectacle over the harbour. Stroll the park, visit the Uncle Ho statue, take some pictures and spend a few minutes enjoying the cool evening breeze. The night market is only a few feet away and here you can try some delicious local delights sold in the many different stalls. You’ll be able to fill your tummy up with fried meat, noodle dishes, rice, pancakes and the like.
What better way to say goodbye to a city like Can Tho than from the roof of a very tall building? Iris Skybar is located on the top of Iris Hotel, and here you will get unrivalled views of the whole city. It’s a little trendy, so leave your shorts and flip flops behind, dress appropriately, order yourself a nice cocktail and watch as the lights in the distance turn off one by one.
Tòa Nhà IRIS, 224 30 Tháng 4, Xuân Khánh, Cần Thơ, Vietnam, +84 292 3686 969