Known for its university, floating market, and interesting old architecture, this deceivingly-small looking city of more than a million boasts vibrant youth culture, tasty South Vietnamese food, and interesting and interested locals eager to engage with foreigners.
Friday Can Tho is home to a range of quirky coffee shops. Check out Roma Coffee, located on Nguyen Viet Hong street. It's like walking into a Roman-themed whorehouse, albeit one filled with Vietnamese college-age kids on group dates instead of fallen women.
Else try Le Club 8 on Vo Thi San Street which from the outside looks like a cute white-board house. Inside, a blue-sky ceiling painted with clouds as well as fake window-boxes and flickering candles, give the place a pleasingly home-y ambiance.
Can Tho isn't far from Cambodia, and many people of Khmer extraction make their home here. Check out Can Tho's Khmer temples: the larger Munirangsyaram Pagoda on Hoa Binh street, and the small, newly renovated Quang Duc Pagoda on Mau Than Street. The monks at Quang Duc are happy to show tourists around -- this is what a new Khmer temple looks like with a local group of worshippers, a departure if you're only familiar with the crumbling antiquities of Angkor.
For dinner, try the excellent grilled-squid-and-shrimp stand near the Quang Duc Pagoda, featuring hefty portions of seafood, beef skewers, and something called "squid teeth."
Saturday Wake up painfully early to check out the Cai Rang floating market — it's suggested you be on the water no later than 06:30 to catch the best action. Sellers exchange pineapples, cabbages and other goods boat-to-boat, literally throwing items at one another across the water. Typical trips last two or three hours and there are other floating markets and back canals that can be added on to keep you busy till the early afternoon -- pack sunscreen if you're opting for a longer trip.
For lunch, try Nem Nuong Thanh Van (17 Hoa Binh, Ninh Kieu district), where you can tuck into Vietnamese spring rolls, or nem nuong, a dish composed of pork meatballs, rice paper wrappers, fresh herbs, and rice noodle "paddies". Think of them as do-it-yourself Vietnamese burritos. Your spring rolls will likely look like the work of a schizophrenic gibbon. But they'll taste good.
To immerse yourself in Can Tho life, try strolling around Can Tho University (Ba Thang Hai, Xuan Khanh, Ninh Kieu district -- campus II), where students are eager to chat with foreigners. Grab a sugarcane juice at the student canteen and hang out -- you're likely to make new friends without trying.
If you're interested in a guided tour of Can Tho's culinary delights, Hotel Xoai offers food tours run by expatriate James Thomson. Ask at the front desk, or call (012) 9903 9604 to set something up — he charges $12. If a food tour isn't your thing, head to De Tham Street, which features a dizzying array of Vietnamese specialties.
Sunday If staying at the Hotel Xoai, walk out of the hotel and turn left — there's a woman who makes superb barbecue pork banh mi, Vietnam's iconic sandwich, a few feet down. Stop at any cafe for a cafe sua da and enjoy your sandwich there.
Kick off the day's sightseeing with a stop at Binh Thuy Ancient House (Bui Huu Nghia, Binh Thuy Ward, Binh Thuy district), built in the late 1800s in a cross of French and Vietnamese architectural styles. Inside the house you'll find a cluttered kaleidoscope of antiques and colour; try to meet the gracious great-granddaughter of the original builder, who shows visitors around.
Com Chay Lac Hong at 46B Mau Than will set you up with an excellent vegetarian meal in a no-frills setting -- the fake meat dishes are almost impossible to discern from the real thing and even carnivores should experience this meat-free Vietnamese phenomenon once.
Just about every Vietnamese city has a Ho Chi Minh Museum (1 Hoa Binh, Tan An), but the student of Vietnamese kitsch will find such places a compelling look into this nation's recent history, including Can Tho's iteration. The hefty Can Tho Museum next door features over 5,000 historical objects, including a simulated tea house, the usual assortment of slightly creepy dioramas, and signage in English.
For dinner, head to Mau Than St, Hem 1, known for duck hot pot -- the owner of your hotel or any English speaking local can direct you here. If you wish to find it yourself, the alley can be entered off of Mau Than street, from an entrance directly across the street from Hotel Xoai. Walk straight until you reach the intersection with Hèm 1, then bear left. The duck hot pot here features a copious quantity of fresh duck meat and liver in a cauldron of soup, brought up to a volcanic heat by the table-top burner.
Can Tho's name is believed to derive from "c?m thi giang," which translates into "River of Poems." This vibrant city may not be Vietnam's most sublime location, but it's one of the best places in the South to get a glimpse at what modern Vietnamese life is like without the decorative trappings of mass tourism. Put your vacation in a slightly slower gear and check out what Can Tho has to offer: you'll likely be very glad you took the time.
Logistics Can Tho is the transport hub of the Mekong Delta and has bus connections to just about all the main Delta cities. Most travellers approach from Saigon or My Tho. Expect a trip from Saigon to take around three hours and cost around US$7.
It is also possible to fly to Can Tho with regular flights on Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Phu Quoc Island to Can Tho.
Can Tho has plenty of options for accommodation. While off the river, Hotel Xoai, a high-rise guesthouse run by a Vietnamese-German couple, is great value. Another budget option that is much closer to the river is Number One Hotel which has spotless and modern rooms from 160,000 VND and just a block back from there you'll find the long-running and ever-popular Hien Guesthouse with variable rooms with a backpacker vibe from US$5.
If you'd prefer something a little fancier, the upstairs riverfront rooms at Tay Ho go for 350,000 VND and are a solid deal with a great people-watching terrace, while further along the river you'll find the more upmarket Kim Tho Hotel, where the upper floors boast some of the best views in town, with equally sky high rates (by Can Tho standards) at 950,000 and 1,200,000 VND.
Selected hotels and guesthouses in Can Tho
Hien Guesthouse 118/10 Phan Dinh Phung St, Can Tho. T: (071) 812 718, (091) 397 3320.
Hotel Xoai 93 Mau Than St, Can Tho. T: (090) 765 2927. http://hotelxoai.com/ - Check rates at Agoda.
Kim Tho Hotel 1A Ngo Gia Tu St, Can Tho. T: (710) 222 7979. http://kimtho.com/ - Check rates at Agoda.
Number One Hotel 1B Ngo Duc Ke St, Can Tho. T: (710) 382 9444.
Tay Ho Hotel 42 Hai Ba Trung St, Can Tho. T: (710) 382 2392. Check rates at Agoda.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.