Apart being the provincial city, Can Tho is also the unofficial ‘capital’ of the Mekong Delta. It’s a vigorous modern place with some good hotels and restaurants, but not much else. However, it’s a useful centre for visiting the Cai Rang and Phung Hiep floating markets and cruising the labyrinth of the Mekong’s channels and canals.
Originally a small settlement in the 18th century, Can Tho expanded rapidly during the French colonial period when rice-growing was introduced to the Mekong. Now it has a population of a quarter of a million people, making it Vietnam’s ninth largest city.
The city is located on the bank of the Bassac River, about 170 km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s an important industrial and farming centre. Local manufacturing industries include shipbuilding, rice processing, textiles, and farm machinery. Agricultural goods include coconut oil and sugarcane.
It has good transport links - the river, local roads and Vietnam's major north-south highway, and a large airport serving most of the Mekong Delta. Two major ports are located nearby. The upmarket Victoria Hotel has a private fast motorboat connecting with Ho Chi Minh City and Chau Doc.
Attractions include a large pagoda built in 1946 in the style of Khmer Theravada Buddhism. It looks impressive, but the interior is very disappointing.
Much better is Chua Ong, a Chinese temple facing the river in the heart of the city. It contains a large effigy of a red-faced General Quan Cong wearing decidedly flamboyant headgear and other statues. Outside, the waterfront cafés offer drinks, coffee and a super view of the busy river carrying everything large container ships to tiny sampans.
Near the main wharf, a lively outdoor market sells a wide variety of fruit and marine products - durian, mangoes, jackfruit, melons, and many shellfish and ocean fish.
The Department of Agronomy at Can Tho University houses Vietnam's largest research centre on rice, one of the country's most important staple foods.
In recent years, a series of gardens have appeared alongside Can Tho land and water routes. One of these, the 2.2 ha My Khanh Gardens, features many different species of fruit trees and flowers, birds, fish, tortoises, snakes, crabs and shrimps. There are small rong houses (ethnic minority communal dwellings) to provide visitors with a place to rest for the night.
There are plenty of opportunities to cruise the river. A 30km drive to Phung Hiep, where a boat will take you to a nearby floating market. Closer, but much more touristy, is Cai Rang floating market.
The best river-born treat in Can Tho is a leisurely trip in a small sampan around the myriad of channels running off the river, visiting gardens and orchards on the way.