Well worth getting up early for
Touring a floating market in the Mekong Delta is a box that many travellers to Vietnam wish to check, and none are bigger or more popular than Can Tho’s Cai Rang Floating Market. Here’s what to expect and how to book a boat tour.
Cai Rang is the largest wholesale floating market in the Mekong Delta. It starts around 05:00 and runs until midday, meaning boat tours pick up around 05:00. It’s a six kilometre journey or around a 30-minute boat ride from Can Tho to arrive to the wondrous scene.
Packed into a section of river, large vessels sell all sorts of fruits and vegetables grown in the Delta. You’ll see one boat heaped with pineapples, another with carrots while sellers nimbly toss watermelons down to a smaller boat that has latched on. Vessels advertise what they sell by hanging their product from the top of a long bamboo pole at the bow. Need garlic? Scan the horizon and look for the bouquet of bulbs dangling off a boat. Get your radishes! Come here for gourds! they announce.
In between the large cargo vessels, smaller sampans weave in and out selling anything from banh mi to bun rieu, to coffee, coconut water and lottery tickets. The experience of flagging down a sampan loaded with boiling pots of stock and having a bowl of noodle soup on the river is a fun one. It gives new meaning to getting a coffee to go.
Travellers get to experience water commerce in the Delta and observe life on the boat, which is their business, method of transport and home. Steal a glimpse of the kitchen at the back, the clutter of everything they need on board, laundry hanging to dry.
It’s a chance to see a way of life that is disappearing. The waterways were once integral to the French as they exploited Indochina’s natural resources. The need for floating markets like Cai Rang has diminished as roadways and bridges now connect the entire region. River living ain’t easy and vendors are leaving, seeking jobs and housing on land, in the city. According to AFP, as of 2017 there are 300 boats on the water, significantly down compared to 550 in 2005.
The floating market is the primary attraction but sign up for a full six to seven hour tour and after the market, the trip continues along the river with stops at farms, orchards and cottage industries to learn about what is grown and made in the Mekong Delta. Our tour included a visit to a rice paper/noodle making shop and a cacao plantation.
We recommend doing a private tour with a sampan, a small flat bottomed wooden boat with a sun cover, motor and a driver. We think this is the way to go as they are nimble and can easily navigate within the floating market, getting into the thick of the action. We spied large group tours and the boat could only circle around the melee as the guide squawked into a loudspeaker. The sampan is also a more personal experience. Our sampan driver went out of her way to please us and when we wanted to see something, she obliged. She even bought us a pineapple and expertly carved it up while somehow still steering the boat with her leg.
Sampans can enter into the smaller channels, narrow waterways choked with greenery and houses built on stilts over the water. The joy comes from simply motoring along these quiet byways and seeing how people live. Unfortunately, you also see the reality of Vietnam’s catastrophic plastic and styrofoam pollution problem—the driver will have to stop and unclog the motor of a plastic bag more than once. We returned to Can Tho via these small channels through the city rather than going back the same way, a memorable way to arrive into the centre.
The small sampans can fit up to four passengers. The driver will likely not speak any English but they have become adept at communicating through charades and even using photos on the phone to explain what’s happening next. Most hotels work directly with a specific person who they deem reliable; we booked through Minh Vuong Hotel and had an excellent trip. It is US$20-25 per boat including snacks, not including nominal admission fees and tip. Note that hotels will take a commission. The tour lasts for six to seven hours, returning to the city mid-day. This is enough as by 10:00 the sun is blazing hot. Just be clear at the time of booking whether or not it is a private trip or you are joining a large shared boat.
A downside to going with a small sampan is you do feel the waves more, something those prone to sea sickness should be aware of. If you have mobility issues, sampans are challenging as sure-footedness is required getting in and out. Passengers must climb up/down steep riverbanks.
Larger boats are slightly easier to disembark from and can accommodate six or more—they cost around US$40 per boat.
Since the market starts early in the morning, and because Can Tho is around a four hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City’s Mien Tay bus station (itself some 10 km outside of the city centre), the floating market can’t be a day trip from HCMC. Instead, you’ll have to spend at least the night.
Ho Chi Minh City travel agencies will sell two-day, one-night tour packages somewhere around the 1,000,000 dong mark and up. However, the trip is fairly easy and straightforward to do it independently as there are frequent public buses and every guesthouse and hotel in Can Tho will sell boat tours.
Our recommendation: take the Phuong Trang bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho. There are departures by sleeper bus every 30-60 minutes round the clock, taking four hours including a toilet break. At Can Tho bus station, ask someone at the Phuong Trang desk for the free shuttle which can drop you off at any hotel in the city centre (be prepared with the hotel’s address and telephone number). Can Tho has plenty of affordable accommodation in the US$10-20 range. While checking in the receptionist will ask if you want to book a boat tour. They will usually let you check out after you return from the tour and can call Phuong Trang for pick up/shuttle back to the station.
Alternatively, travellers can go to the waterfront on Hai Ba Trung and negotiate/arrange directly with one of the many boats found along the shore. Head here in the late afternoon/early evening and sampan captains, often women, will find you before you find them and try to sell a tour. English is limited or non-existent. Some have photos to explain the program. The initial price we were quoted was high, 500,000 dong for a six hour tour—the same price as our hotel and remember the hotel makes commission—so if arranging directly, definitely negotiate down. However, only enter into negotiations if you are serious about booking. Be prepared as it can be a bit intense. As we walked along the river, we were first approached by one sampan driver. Further down the river, we were chatted up by another and the first came flying down the footpath to claim us as theirs and there was a squabble.
Finally, tour operators and travel agents line Hai Ba Trung St including high-end Bassac Cruise, operated by TransMekong. Those looking for a higher end experience, we were quoted 935,000 dong per person. They also do overnight live aboard Mekong Delta cruises.
The truly frugal can leave their bag at their Ho Chi Minh City hostel, take a late night bus and skip accommodation by getting a little shut eye on the bus, arriving before boats leave from the pier at 05:00 in the morning. We don’t recommend this way as we think Can Tho is worth spending some time to explore, even if just for an afternoon and evening.
We think the Can Tho floating market and morning boat trip is superior to the “Mekong Delta day tour” sold in Ho Chi Minh City, especially the backpacker area Pham Ngu Lao. These tours go to My Tho and a few islands on the Mekong. They may be cheap and time efficient but are lacklustre and suffering from mass tourism, loads of people being funnelled through touristy stops. Given the choice between the two, we’d opt for 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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.