More Mekong, markets and the best pho of my life [Part 2]

I’m going to plunge right into part two of my Mekong Delta (mis)adventure. For the first part, where I discovered that I really didn’t get all the fuss about the region, you can catch up here.

We pulled into Can Tho just before dinnertime, and thankfully we were told that we were free from our group for the night. We’d lost quite a few members of our group after My Tho and had picked up some newbies; almost all of whom belonged to the get-me-away-these-people-are-driving-me-mental-already category. We ran away almost immediately, leaving some Frenchies in the hotel lobby bickering about extra charges for air conditioning, happy to have some time to ourselves.

Can Tho is a big city; indeed, it’s the biggest city in the Mekong region. There’s a big statue of Uncle Ho near the river and a riverside park, but other than that the city didn’t really feel like it had a personality. It didn’t feel particularly touristy, strangely enough, but it just wasn’t what springs to mind when you think ‘Mekong Delta’. It is urban Vietnam.

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We wandered through the park for a while, not quite ready to eat yet, but were scared into a restaurant after not one, not two but three gigantic rats ran only inches away from my thonged feet. We dined on seafood (which was delicious), had a few 333s at a little streetside bar and got an early night. We were off to the floating markets in the morning and were instructed to meet at 7.30am.

7.30am sounded quite late to me in terms of a meeting time. I’d read that the markets kicked off early, but I figured I’d trust our tour operator. After all, they knew the place better than me.

As it turned out, our new haphazard group was all over the place at the meeting time and by the time we boarded our boat, still 45 minutes from the Cai Rang markets, it was past 8. On our journey down we passed dozens of boats; unlike the day before, they were all filled with locals and their morning purchases. They were returning to Can Tho, with their shopping already finished.

There were a few boats still around by the time we got to the market, but it wasn’t at all like I’d expected. Nobody was shopping anymore – hey, it was almost 9am – and the only boats around were filled with us tourists. The market was in complete wind-down mode. I was on the wrong side of the boat and unable to see much at all (the market is on the opposite side of the river to Can Tho so board on the left side of the boat for good views) – not just because I was on the wrong side, but because everyone else who had made the same unfortunate decision got to their feet and pushed their way through, cameras clicking everywhere.

Meanwhile, the only boats that approached us were snack food boats, selling coffee, Pringles and pineapple to all the caffeine-deprived Frenchies. You would see them coming – they would physically latch onto our boat with ropes and ties so as to not drift away – and you would think no, nobody’s going to buy any of that in the middle of the Mekong. But almost everybody did.

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I was angry. If I’d known it was going to be like this, Paul and I would have gotten up earlier and hired a private boat on the Can Tho quayside (they are available for about US$20 per hour, but in my mind would be worth it), despite paying for the tour. The first day was different – the scenery was disappointing, rather than solely the tour itself – but this time it was the tour that was the problem. The markets were interesting (from what I could crane my neck and see, anyway). We had been let down by bad service rather than an inferior product.

We sat in one spot for a while, chained to about half a dozen snack boats while people bought carved pineapple. I was hungry, but after three weeks in Southeast Asia I’d eaten my body weight in pineapple and I just wasn’t in the mood.

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 Then I spotted something and my heart soared.

Our tour guide and boat driver were sitting down, slurping some amazing-smelling pho. Nobody else had noticed that another boat had quietly approached, with a man aboard accompanied by pots and pans. I made my way over to him and ordered without asking any questions. (Rule of thumb: always take food advice from drivers. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, whatever. They know their stuff.)

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The man went to work, adding a plethora of ingredients to a bubbling concoction. I could only identify about a third of them but their combined aroma made me weak at the knees. I leant over the water and exchanged the soup for 15,000 dong (about 55 euro cents) and then proceeded to have the best pho of my life.

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I am not kidding you. I do not take such claims lightly; I have eaten a lot of good pho over the years but nothing came close to the pho that day. It was a local version, with plenty of pepper and boasting glass noodles. If you have ever seen the classic Seinfeld episode ‘The Soup Nazi’, it was a bit like that. I hunched over my bowl, smelling and tasting all at the same time. I blocked out the pineapple sellers, the Frenchies’ cameras and the unwelcome smell of coffee. I offered Paul a taste – a very, very small one – and a split second later, he was ordering his own bowl.

It was just perfection.

After that, I was in a bit of a pho coma. Our boat turned around and I was able to see a bit, taking some photos in rapid succession. We were dragged to a noodle factory and a rice mill afterwards, but I didn’t really care. I only half-listened. All I could think about was that pho.

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We got to ditch the group at Can Tho. They were all either off further to Phnom Penh and beyond or back to Ho Chi Minh City; we instead jumped on a local bus to Rach Gia, where we were to catch a ferry the following day to Phu Quoc. Along the way we saw rice fields, busy canals and riverside homes (albeit in short burst between urban sprawls). So, that sort of scenery does exist. We just didn’t see it on our tour.

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So, my verdict. Did I enjoy my time in the Mekong Delta? Yes. Despite my whinging, at the end of the day I was on holiday. However, I can’t recommend visiting the area unless it’s in the context of a lengthy Vietnam trip (let’s say a month or so). I just didn’t find it unique enough unfortunately.

In terms of taking a tour, I can’t recommend Delta Adventure Tours. If you only have a couple of days set aside for exploring the Mekong Delta you don’t really have much choice; tours are far cheaper and easier to do than doing it yourself. We paid only US$15 each for the tour, including our accommodation. For that price, you can’t really expect much.

But, the tour introduced me to this man. Paul took his photo after we’d returned his dishes and he set sail again. I can’t tell you his name, or his address. But he does make the best pho in the world, right from his little boat.

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4 Responses to More Mekong, markets and the best pho of my life [Part 2]

  1. Henry | @fotoeins October 28, 2013 at 8:34 PM #

    The “Best Pho” label applies to just about any pho-boat, pho-stall, pho-shack in Saigon or on the Mekong River Delta. My best pho experience occurred various times throughout my short stay in Saigon. The joy is discovering all or as many of these locations, and talking to (or attempting to speak with) the owners. “You’re making my pho with something very special that I haven’t had before, I must know the person who’s making my pho.” :-)
    Henry | @fotoeins recently posted..Fotoeins’ Favourite 5 in GermanyMy Profile

    • Caitlyn October 31, 2013 at 12:29 PM #

      Glad you share my love of pho, Henry!

  2. Thuy Tien January 14, 2015 at 4:47 PM #

    Hi there, I am from Vietnam. I have to say that what you ate on the boat is not “pho”. We call it “hu tieu”. “Hu tieu” means noodle soup with pork. “Pho” uses a different kind of noodle and it is ussually cooked with beef or chicken. There are so many kinds of noodle soup here in Vietnam and it may get you confused. Some noodle soup that you can try when you visit Vietnam again:
    – Hu tieu
    – Mi
    – Banh canh
    – Mien
    – Bun
    They all use different kind of noodle and the taste are also different!

    • Caitlyn February 2, 2015 at 11:52 AM #

      Thanks Thuy! I must say I am very lazy and just call all Vietnamese noodle soups “pho”… which is terrible and incorrect! Thanks for letting me know!

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