Can Tho may be a quick stop on a larger Mekong Delta journey but its food may entice you to linger. The Mekong Delta is one of the country’s proverbial rice bowls, bounty drawn from both land and sea. Fresh and cheap vegetables, fruit and seafood are on the menu.
Can Tho is most famous for its floating market, and part of the experience of zipping between boats heaped with fruits and vegetables for wholesale is flagging down the small boats selling breakfast, anything from a noodle soup to banh mi to coffee.
Try Can Tho speciality bun rieu cua, a tomato-based crab noodle soup with rice vermicelli and a dumpling/cake made of paddy crab and shrimp paste. The broth is rich with umami flavour, slightly sweet and sour, and is served with a medley of raw herbs and veg like sprouts that add interesting textures. It’s also usually served with pork meat and cubes of pork blood; the vendors know that foreigners tend not to like it so they withhold it. Vendors can also serve meatless versions, though the broth itself is likely still meat based.
In addition to a glass of Vietnamese coffee to perk you up or coconut water to rehydrate, your sampan driver can pull up beside one of the boats selling fruit like pineapple or dragonfruit, help you buy and carve it up for a snack.
It’s not all about food on the river. Get thee to dry land. De Tham St is the food street, chock full of local eats like banh xeo, crisp savoury pancakes filled with beans sprouts, green onions and meat. In the Mekong Delta, they are made large and eaten by ripping off a piece and rolling it in a lettuce leaf or rice paper with herbs, chilli and dipping sauce.
Head to Com Ga Cam Ky # at 37 De Tham St for a delicious plate of chicken rice. It’s hard to miss the row of poached and barbecue chickens hanging at the front along with a woman firmly hacking each with a cleaver. There’s a menu with photos as well as photos on the wall, so it’s easy to order. Try com ga hap cai, poached chicken on a bed of bitter greens with rice, sweet mustard leaf pickle and sauce for 40,000 dong. Open daily 09:00-22:00.
A popular breakfast or lunch dish is hu tieu #, a simple yet satisfying noodle soup. Thought to have originated from Chinese immigrants and popular in Cambodia, hu tieu has morphed into something that can be left up to interpretation. There’s no specific toppings or noodles—we’ve seen it with fresh, semi-dried or dried noodle, including the packet instant noodle and egg noodle. The only hard rule is the clear stock is made from pork bones, and pork meat is a popular topping, sometimes seafood as well. You’ll find it everywhere in Can Tho. We had a delicious one a couple shops from Minh Vuong Hotel, between the corner shop and 33 Phan Dang Luu. Just a cart and a few low plastic tables, she starts cooking at 03:00 and opens at 05:00. By 09:00 she’s sold out. Only 20,000 dong for a small bowl, 30,000 loaded with extra meat including intestines.
Domestic and foreign tourists, as well as some locals hit up the night market # spanning two blocks on Hai Ba Trung St (the river road). Food vendors sell popular street snacks like banh trang nuong, “Vietnamese pizza” with rice paper as the base, grilled with toppings like egg, meat, seafood and green onions. Look for banh tran tron, rice paper salad where strips of rice paper are tossed with peanuts, herbs, dried shrimp, dried beef, hard boiled quail egg, shredded mango and a sweet, spicy, sour dressing for a medley of textures and flavours. There’s also goi xoai (mango salad), things grilled on a stick like meat, meatballs and fishballs, crepes and bap xao bo, corn stir fried with margarine, green onions and dried shrimp.
However, given the choice between the tourist night market and the local night market, we’d definitely pick the latter. Cho Dem Tran Phu # is about two kilometres north of the city centre, at the dead end of Tran Phu St where it meets the river. Here is where to get your seafood fix. Carts are loaded with sea creatures like fish, octopus, prawns, clams and squid. Pick what you want, ask the price, then choose how you want it prepared, the most popular option being hot pot with all the trimmings you add yourself including noodles, vegetable and egg. We had a fantastic one at Lau Nuong 68, the joint near the junction. A seafood hot pot for one is only 60,000 dong, for two is 100,000 dong. The value for money should please even the most frugal of travellers.
Seafood not your favourite? Ask for grilled meat, which you can eat nem style, wrapping the meat yourself in lettuce or rice paper into rolls.
Ensure you have room for dessert. At the Tran Phu night market, enjoy fresh sugar cane juice for 10,000 dong. Che is Vietnam’s go-to dessert of choice, ice loaded up with syrups or condensed milk (think snow cone) as well as a wide assortment of jellies, sweetened beans, nuts and fruit you can pick yourself. Choose between a cup or bucket (we’re not kidding), obviously ideal for sharing. But you need not get the works. We enjoyed a giant cup of cut tropical fruit like mango, lychees, jack fruit and soursop for only 20,000 dong. It’s not easy to get a taxi from here, so you if you arrive by taxi you may want to ask for them to come back at a specific time. All locals arrive by motorbike; park and eat at a specific stall then the parking is free.
Finally, it seems the sky is the limit with noodle soups and Mekong Delta specialities. Banh canh cua is a pork and crab broth with chunks of crab and a fat, chewy noodle made with rice and tapioca flour, the tapioca thickening the broth. Bun mam packs a punch with a dark, flavourful stock, rice vermicelli and seafood. The aroma of mam tom (fermented fish/shrimp paste) may cause you to wrinkle the nose but try it. It’s umami rich and tastes better than it smells.
Look for banh cong, a fried mung bean, taro and shrimp cake. The adventurous can indulge in chuot dong nuong (grilled field mouse).
Cho Dem Tran Phu Tran Phu St; .
Com Ga Cam Ky 37 De Tham St; .
Hu tieu cart Phan Dang Luu, Can Tho; .
Night market Hai Ba Trung St, Can Tho; .
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.