The Mekong Delta is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. The area, also known as “Miền Tây” or Western Region, forms a triangle as the Mekong river empties into the sea through 9 distributary channels. Because of this, locals call the Mekong river “Sông Cửu Long” or the Nine Dragon river. Come with us and explore Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta.
Best things to do in Can Tho
The landscape in the Mekong Delta is dominated by the dense jungle, flooded plains planted with rice and river islands. The Delta was formed over thousands of years from the sediments deposit by the Mekong river after passing through 6 countries, covering 4,350 km from its birthplace in the Himalayan Plateau.
The Mekong represents the way of life for the inhabitants of Southern Vietnam. The population settles on its banks, people travel from one place to another navigating through the network of rivers and canals, fishermen fish and traders exchange goods from boat to boat. Entire families live on barges as they cannot afford a residence in land. All the water used in the house comes from the Mekong and returns to the Mekong, children play splashing in its waters, … The Mekong is everything, the Mekong brings life.
Visit Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta
With an estimated population of 1.5 million people, Can Tho is the capital of the Mekong Delta. The city is located on the bank of the Hau River, the bigger branch of Mekong, and is famous for its floating markets and canals traversing its rural area. Can Tho reflects the spirit of the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta.
The highlight of the visit to Can Tho is Cai Rang Floating Market. The market opens early at dawn so visitors must spend the night in the city as there is not enough time to leave from Ho Chi Minh and arrive on the same day before it closes.
Mekong Delta tours advertised in the backpackers area of Ho Chi Minh usually include a visit to Cai Be Floating Market, located between My Tho and Vinh Long, however, this market is smaller and not so impressive as Cai Rang. Therefore, spending a night in Can Tho is absolutely justified.
Take a tour around Cai Rang Floating Market
The best time to visit Cai Rang Floating Market is early in the morning when it is active. Visitors should head to the tourist port at 5-6 AM. If you show up at 7 AM you may get to the floating market at 8 AM when the activity has already slowed down and there is not much to see.
Take a tour from Ninh Kieu port
There are two tourist ports in Can Tho. The most popular spot is located at the beginning of Hai Ba Trung Street, in Ninh Kieu district. It’s easy to identify the pier next to the tourist market.
Upon arrival at Ninh Kieu port, you can approach the information desk of Can Tho Travel Service Center and inquire about tours. Tours are scheduled, as the company operates its own fleet, and are divided in different itineraries taking from 3 to 4 hours:
– 3-hour tour to Cai Rang Floating Market + fruit gardens, from 360,000 VND per boat
– 4-hour tour to Cai Rang Floating Market + river canals, from 550,000 VND per boat
– 4-hour tour to Cai Rang Floating Market + Phong Dien Floating Market, from 550,000 VND per boat
Each tour has a limited number of passengers so it is recommended that you book as earlier as possible or even the day before. If you show up in the morning and the next tour is fully booked you will need to wait for the following slot available.
Rent a boat with the “boat ladies”
There is a more flexible option than the organized tour, which is to rent a boat from the “boat ladies” who wander around the pier. These ladies work directly with the boat operators docked at the port and can quickly arrange a tour based on the tourists demand. There is no need to book in advance. You can just show up, wait for more travellers to arrive and jump on the next tour.
The “boat ladies” usually arrange 2 kinds of tours:
– 1-hour tour to Cai Rang Floating Market and back to Ninh Kieu, 50,000 VND per person
– 4-hour tour to Cai Rang Floating Market + river canals, from 500,000 VND per boat
It’s important to remark that these tours are the same offered in the tour packages of the travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh. Most agencies do not own their own boats but resell the tours departing from Ninh Kieu port and add a markup as commission. You may consider travelling to Can Tho and arrange the tour by yourself to save money.
Once there is a minimum number of tourists in the group, from 5 to 10, the boat departs and heads to Cai Rang Floating Market, which is located 6 km upstream. It takes around 20 mins to get there.
Take a tour from An Binh market
As you cross under Cai Rang bridge, on the right bank you will notice a local riverside market, An Binh market. This is the second tourist port, which is closer to the floating market and is accessible by taxi.
From this public dock, you can join a motorboat tour of 1 hour around the floating market for 150,000 VND per boat. You can rent a boat for you and your party or join other tourists and share the cost.
Cai Rang Floating Market can be easily distinguished as a large group of barges floating in the center of Can Tho river. Depending on the time of the year the market may have more or less farmers and merchants. The most active seasons are January-February, 1 or 2 weeks before Tết or Lunar New Year, and April-May when tropical fruits are picked and make it to the consumer market.
Understand how the floating market works
The operation of the floating market is really interesting and worth to understand. With the first light of dawn, farmers arrive on their small boats carrying the products they have picked from their gardens, mainly fruits, and vegetables.
Traders, who live on the barge with their families, place a stick on the bow. Farmers offer traders those fruits and vegetables that still do not hang from the stick and may be of interest to them. Traders acquire the desired products and place the stock on the deck.
A few hours later, the roles are reversed. Farmers leave the market with their boats empty and it is now the turn of buyers, who approach the market from the shore. The goods in the floating market are cheaper than inland markets for one simple reason: commercial transactions off-land are exempt from taxes.
Buyers navigate through the mess of barges and see what each merchant has to offer by taking a look at the fruits and vegetables hanging on the stick.
If they are looking for any particular goods they will come closer, examine them and proceed to purchase. The minimum amount is 10 kg.
The goods are exchanged from boat to boat. Payment can be made in cash or barter if they have another product to offer back.
The floating market also attracts food vendors serving Bánh mì sandwiches or noodle soups for breakfast. The river is the meeting point for all kinds of merchants, big and small ones.
After stocking enough products, buyers go back to land and resell the fruits and vegetables in the street markets, where final consumers do the daily shopping. The sale cycle is completed.
After visiting the floating market, back in Ninh Kieu travellers can spend time walking around the city center or visit the numerous pagodas in Can Tho.
Cruise the canals and visit the fruit gardens outside Can Tho
A visit to the floating market can be complemented with an extension to the rivers canals and the fruit gardens. Once the boat abandons the main river, it gently cruises by the tranquil canals through the rural districts of Can Tho. The ambient is quiet and relaxing, surrounded by the dense vegetation and far from the bustling urban area.
Outside the city tourists can observe the day-to-day of the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta. Most settlements are located on the river banks. Houses are built high on stilts to withstand the flooding caused by the tide, which occurs twice a day in the Delta estuary. The front door usually points to a small dock where the residents park their boats, the common kind of transportation in the rural area.
How to get to Can Tho
Can Tho International Airport (VCA) serves the city of Can Tho with domestic and international flights from Thailand and Malaysia. There are also bus routes connecting Can Tho with the major tourist destinations in Southern Vietnam.
– Within Vietnam, Vietnam Airlines and VietJet Air operate domestic flights connecting Hanoi to Can Tho, Hai Phong to Can Tho, Da Nang to Can Tho, Nha Trang to Can Tho, Da Lat to Can Tho and Phu Quoc to Can Tho.
– From Thailand, Thai AirAsia operates international flights connecting Bangkok to Can Tho non-daily.
– From Malaysia, AirAsia operates international flights connecting Kuala Lumpur to Can Tho non-daily.
For more information, check our guide of domestic flights in Vietnam and international flights from Vietnam to Southeast Asia.
For more information, check our guide of bus routes in Vietnam.
Updated on May 16, 2019.