An Adventure to Cần Thơ in the Mekong Delta

In researching how to visit the Mekong Delta on our own, we came across a blog that described a homestay at the Nguyen Shack in Cần Thơ that offered a variety of tours. It sounded so easy, we booked two nights immediately for the weekend and went in search of bus tickets. 

Eric had read about the Sinh Tourist bus company, which looked like it had a good reputation, so we went to their office in District 1. They offered buses from Ho Chi Minh City to Cần Thơ and also to Nha Trang where we needed to be the following week for our diving course. This seemed pretty convenient so we agreed to buy a round trip ticket to Cần Thơ leaving on Friday and returning on Sunday for đ338,000 ($14.56) per person and then a night bus ticket to Nha Trang for Sunday night for đ299,000 ($12.88) per person.

The process of buying the tickets in Ho Chi Minh City was a bit complicated. First we talked to a person at the ticket counter to inquire about a bus. That person made a phone call, which presumably was to reserve our spot although we could not understand the call, and then handed us a voucher which listed the buses we requested and the price. Then we went to the cashier counter with our voucher and paid for the ticket. Our voucher was stamped to indicate that we had paid. At this point we were given instructions to return to the Sinh Tourist office 90 minutes before our departure on Friday morning to pick up the actual ticket. 

As a result, we woke up at 6am on Friday to catch an 8am bus because we had to be at the office to pick up our tickets for Cần Thơ at 6:30am. When we got to the office we were given the tickets to and from Cần Thơ and then told we needed to make our own way to an office in District 5 where we could catch a shuttle bus to the bus station. Originally we had thought we might be able to take the public bus to the office in District 5, but since we were not really sure where we were going, we opted to call a Grab. 

We arrived at this second office, checked in, and then sat down to wait. Pretty soon a bus showed up and we were transported to the bus station. At the bus station we checked in again and were told the license plate number of our bus was 281.45. Despite all this complicated, early morning shuffling, taking the bus in Vietnam is quite easy. There are usually monitors that tell you the license number and vehicle number of the bus and the buses are easy to find. Ours was right outside with the correct license plate.

Our bus is so clearly labeled!

Before we got on the bus, we had to take our shoes off. This is true in many places in Vietnam (before entering most hostels or temples), but it was most surprising on the bus. It makes sense though; shoes are dirty and most of the buses are sleeper buses where you climb into a small bed-like seat. If you are Jess sized, this is pretty luxurious. If you are Eric sized, it is a little tight. The bus ride to Cần Thơ is only four hours and it was day time, so we were not really planning to sleep anyway. We arrived at the bus station in Cần Thơ without issue and requested a Grab to the Nguyen Shack, about five kilometers outside of the center of Cần Thơ.

Our first sleeper bus in Vietnam

The descriptions of the Nguyen Shack in the blog we had read were pretty apt. It is a rustic homestay constructed almost entirely of bamboo on the edge of the river. It looks pretty shack-like, but the accommodations are comfortable. We had a private room with queen bed, mosquito net, fan, and mini fridge. There was a porch outside with views of the river and hammocks for lounging. There was a fun suspension bridge over the river between the Nguyen Shack restaurant and our bungalow.

Suspension bridge and the Nguyen Shack

The Nguyen Shack offers activities and tours of the area including a sunset boat tour, a food tour, a floating markets tour, a village bicycle tour, and cooking classes. We signed up for the food tour and the floating markets tour right away. Unfortunately, the food tour only leaves if there are at least four people who want to go. We were the only people signed up, so unfortunately we missed out on trying rat, crocodile, and snake. This was probably just as well as it saved us from spending $50. We did the sunset tour for $4.75 instead which was a beautiful way to explore the river delta.

Our own personal sunset tour

We were taken out on a wooden boat with a long tail motor and given a private tour of the area. We saw herons flying across the river. The boat captain pointed out plants like water morning glory which is apparently quite lucrative and water hyacinth which takes over the waterways if boats do not use them. It is not uncommon to see a jumble of water hyacinth plants floating by. As we came around a corner we saw two men herding a huge raft of ducks from their boats. The boat captain bought us a coconut ice cream while we watched the ducks. It was a pretty funny sight.

Herding a raft of ducks

Back at the Nguyen Shack we had dinner. Since the Nguyen Shack is outside of town, there are not really restaurants nearby. Luckily there is a good, and reasonably priced, restaurant on premises with enough variety to stay interesting for a few days. The tamarind pork and tofu with lemongrass where two of our favorites, but we also had a chicken hot pot for two the first evening. It looked like way too much food when it came out, but we ate every last bit of it.

The next morning we woke up at 4:40am and were ready to leave at 4:50am for the extended floating market tour – we did splurge on this one at $23.50 per person. Unfortunately, someone had forgotten to tell the French couple joining us that the extended tour started 30 minutes earlier than the normal tour they had originally booked, so we could not leave until 5:30am. We boarded the boat and headed off to the Cái Răng floating market as the sun was coming up.

Sunrise on the Mekong Delta

After roughly 30 minutes, we arrived at the floating market. There were lots of boats selling a variety of products. They each had a long bamboo pole on the front of the boat indicating what they sold. This is primarily a wholesale market, and the Nguyen Shack gets a lot of its supplies from here. A boat came by with free beer and offered us some. It was only 6am, but it felt right.

We continued on to a smaller floating market where locals go to buy a few items. These floating markets used to be the only way to buy and sell things in this part of the country. Now there are roads and shops, so the floating markets are not really necessary anymore, but they are tradition.

A smaller local market

The smaller floating market packs up around 8am, so you have to get there early if you want to see it. There is one woman who sells noodle soup from her boat. She is apparently an institution. Other people have tried to sell noodle soup there, but hers is the best. We each had a bowl of her noodle soup for breakfast. Maybe it was our hunger, or the experience of ordering noodle soup from a boat in a river in Vietnam, but that was some delicious noodle soup. Shortly afterwards, another boat came up to buy noodle soup and she was out of noodles – another reason it pays to get to this market early. 

Noodle soup lady serving some soup

Afterwards we headed back past the Cái Răng floating market and stopped at a cafe on the river for a couple of Vietnamese iced coffees. Then we visited Muoi Cuong, a cocoa farm where locally grown cocoa is processed into chocolate, cocoa butter and cocoa liquor. Some of the raw cocoa is also exported. We tasted the raw cocoa fruit around the bean and learned about the process of drying and roasting it.

A cocoa pod

After the cocoa farm, we went to a rice noodle factory to see how rice noodles are made. Jess got to try making rice paper by putting the batter on a hot flat stone and smoothing it out like making a crepe. The stone is heated by a fire fueled with rice husks. After a few minutes it was done and she laid it to dry. The rice paper sheets are then put through a cutting machine to make them into noodles. 

Making rice noodles
Turning rice paper into rice noodles

We finished the tour at a traditional street market where, like in South America, you could buy pretty much anything you wanted: eggs, live chickens, frogs, banana flowers. Our tour guide introduced us to some new fruits including custard apple, which is sort of like chirimoya, and rambutan, which is sort of like lychee. Eric pointed at a random fruit and asked if we could try it. It turned out to also be sort of like lychee even though it looked very different.

A traditional street market

We got back on the boat and headed back to the Nguyen Shack after seven hours of tour. We had planned to do a cooking class for lunch, but Jess was very tired from an early wake up call and a rough night of sleep. Our early morning bus adventure the day before had meant we skipped our morning coffee and Jess had paid the price for her slightly heavy Vietnamese coffee habit with a severe caffeine headache. We ended up napping and hanging out in the hammocks and then eating lunch at the restaurant before going out for a long walk.

A stroll around the village

We wandered around the village turning down random alleyways until we found ourselves in a place with a few shops. Along the way kids would wave and say “hello”. Some adults asked our names and where we were from. Everyone was very friendly. At some point we realized we had walked pretty far and we were going to have to do a big loop to get back if we didn’t want to turn around. We also realized the sun was probably going to set before we made it back. We walked the last half mile with our phone lights out. We had walked a total of six miles around the village!

Sun setting on the way back from our walk

When we got back to the Nguyen Shack, the power was out. This was not really a problem except it meant no delicious fruit shakes and no fans. We got out our headlamps and went to dinner. The staff was working very hard to make the dinner experience pleasant, so they put out candles and strung up flashlights. It was quite romantic. The power did not come back on until midnight, and we were glad to have the fan back for sleeping. It was pretty hot in the Mekong Delta and the mosquito net, which we were very glad to have, did not let a lot of air through without a fan.

The next day we had a leisurely morning, ate a final meal in the Nguyen Shack, and took a taxi to the bus station to catch our 1pm bus back to Ho Chi Minh City. The monitors again displayed our bus number and license plate number, so we went out to find the bus only to be told we were too early. The bus was there, but they were not ready for us. Ten minutes later we boarded the bus and three and a half hours after that we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our arrival was a very confusing affair! We got off the bus to a hoard of taxi drivers all coming up to us and asking where we were going. We actually did not know where we were going. We knew we needed to catch a bus to Nha Trang at 9pm, but we only had a voucher not an actual ticket, and we were not sure which of the multiple bus stations and offices would give us the ticket. It seemed crazy to go all the way to District 1 to get a ticket only to come back here again. To add to the confusion, this place we had been dropped off at with all the taxi drivers did not look remotely familiar… despite the fact that it should have been the bus station in District 5 we departed from. On top of that it was absolutely pouring with rain. Taxi drivers were continually swarming us asking where we wanted to go and we think the only thing that saved us from giving in and getting into a taxi was we literally did not know where we needed to go. We were getting more and more frustrated with the taxi drivers and kept telling them we needed them to give us a minute to think. We suspect the fact that Eric had his phone out trying to look at the map made them more frantic because they thought we were looking for a Grab. One taxi driver offered us a price of đ300,000 (12.92) to go to District 1, which we thought was ludicrous. He reduced his price to đ250,000 ($10.77), but we said no and then used Google Translate to ask him where the bus company office was. He pointed us to the other side of the bus station, so we put on our ponchos and walked over to the Futa Buslines office to see about getting a ticket. This finally looked familiar from Friday morning. They were very helpful but had no idea what we were talking about since we did not have a ticket and they had not issued the voucher. They finally called the Sinh Tourist office and figured out that we needed to go back to the Sinh Tourist office in District 1 at 8:30pm in order to get our ticket.

Now that we knew where we were going, we also figured out that we could take public bus #2 directly from this bus station to the very familiar bus station in District 1 which was five minutes from the Sinh Tourist office. We were not exactly sure where bus #2 picked up, so we also chased this bus around the station for a bit until we figured out where it parked and could get on it. The ticket was đ5,000 ($0.215) per seat, and our backpacks occupied two seats, so we paid đ20,000 ($0.86), a far cry from the đ300,000 taxi fare!

We checked in at the Sinh Tourist office just to make sure we were in the right place. They told us to come back at 8:30pm to get our ticket. We went out to find dinner, came back at 8:30pm, and were then able to board the bus to Nha Trang right outside the Sinh Tourist office in District 1. We finally figured out the bus to Cần Thơ is operated by a different bus company, Futa Buslines, with which Sinh Tourist has a partnership. This is why we had had to go to so many offices and stations to catch the bus to Cần Thơ.

The bus to Nha Trang was a now-familiar sleeper bus with two aisles with window bunk bed-seats and a column of bunk bed-seats in the middle. We took off our shoes as we got on the bus and climbed up into the top-bunk bed-seats we were assigned. Eric was too tall to lay in the bed and also have his bag by his feet, so Jess slept with one backpack by her feet and a second backpack on top of her. That worked surprisingly well, and we both felt pretty rested when we were dropped off the bus on a seemingly random street corner in Nha Trang at 4:30am.

Our first night bus in Vietnam looks like a spaceship

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