Vietnam is really a treasure trove of traveler’s delights: Beautiful smiling people, cheap and good shopping and, of course, the mouth-watering food. But outside the art galleries of Hanoi and the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh (HCM), there lies a country waiting to be discovered. We went to southern Vietnam to find out what’s beyond the big cities, and found a thriving rural community and breathtaking scenery.
To Market To Market
About 170km out of HCM is Can Tho, the perfect spot to experience the simple but busy lives of the people of the Mekong Delta. Here everything happens early. The sun rises before 6am, but the folks are up much, much earlier. This is a farming region, so by 3am the farmers are getting ready to ply their wares at the Cai Rang floating market.
It’s worth getting up to see this spectacle. The sound of tens of small boat engines putt-putting along the river driven by sun-tanned people in conical hats is quite enchanting. At the market proper the boats are bigger, with tall vertical bamboo sticks displaying vegetables and fruits available that day, and Vietnamese agilely tossing produce backwards and forwards, chatting loudly all the time.
If getting up before 5am seems a little ridiculous, Victoria Can Tho Resort (Cai Khe Ward, Can Tho City, +84 71-810-111) has a good option. This little haven right on the Mekong offers its residents the option of a lingering breakfast aboard their cruiser, the Victoria Lady Hau, to allow you to adjust to the sights and sounds of your surrounds before you transfer to a smaller boat to really explore all the Delta has to offer. But you can still expect to get up early: Most of the floating market well and truly dissipateds by 9am.
On the Farm
Around the Delta it’s worth taking time to also check out some of the smaller tributaries. Tree-lined shores give a glimpse of local life as it’s happening: You’ll drift past women doing their laundry, children bathing in the river, and men constructing buildings or fishing, all in waist-high water.
If you want to get even closer, you can arrange to be dropped off at a rice noodle factory. Here fresh rice noodles (think something like our kway teow) are being made by hand. These are not big teaming warehouses of workers, rather, tiny set-ups in rural shacks in someone’s backyard. Here women pour the noodle mix on to hot plates and steam wafer thin pancakes of noodles one-by-one, before taking them off to dry, cut, package and sell. Watching this painstaking process will make you appreciate your bowl of pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) the next morning even more.
A walk around the area will also take you closer to the farms proper: Small blocks of land where farmers grow just a handful of vegetables to support entire families.
The Victoria Can Tho Resort can arrange all day trips and excursions from the hotel to suit your itinerary. Most people stay at Can Tho for one night only before heading off elsewhere (it’s a good spot to stop on your way to Cambodia or to visit other parts of southern Vietnam) and few venture out of their hotels. Since the overland journey is quiet lengthy, we’d suggest you make the most of your stay to recover a little. In the day, Victoria Can Tho Resort has a decent spa with massage villas on the water and a pool that’s virtually people-free.
And if you want really authentic Vietnamese fare outside of your hotel, complete with traditional Vietnamese musicians and warbling singing, have dinner at Song Que Restaurant (118/119/53B Tran Phu, Tp. Can Tho, +84 71- 811-136). House specials include classic local southern fare such as escargot with meat, burnt rice with salted fish and, of course, the compulsory rice paper rolls.
If you prefer sunny beaches and lots of physical activity, then an excursion to Phan Thiet might be in order. 200km north east of HCM, Phan Thiet, with its Mui Ne beach, is a veritable Mecca for kite surfers (many consider this to be one of the best kite surfing spots in the region). This means the surrounding area has a charming mix of surfer types, other more adventurous tourists and local fishermen, all living harmoniously. Closer to town is a haven for water sport junkies while further up the coast, one can see traditional fishing boats bringing in their catches.
For an environmental culture shock after the urban jungle of Singapore, Phan Thiet provides plenty to whet the appetite. Behind the beach are sand dunes as far as the eye can see. A walk barefoot along the The Fairy Stream is an enchanting experience: Tall cliffs of sand that start off a pale color stretch up to become a burnt red on one side, while along the other side of the canyon green foliage contrasts against the brilliant blue of the sky. These formations, colored by iron, are spectacular and make for a peaceful retreat.
To feel like Lawrence of Arabia, get in a car to the Lotus Lake 65km from Phan Thiet. The drive across sparse open plains reveals a huge enticing lake that is suitable for swimming if you don’t mind the algae. But what is really unusual are the endless sand dunes that stretch for kilometers. Slap on that sun screen and bring a hat and sunnies as it can get pretty hot out there, but the view is really amazing. Keep an eye out for the kids touting sheets of plastic if you want to do some sliding down the dunes as well.
Given the numerous activities available and the beachside locale, it’s worth investing a few days into a trip to Phan Thiet to make the long overland journey from the airport seem less taxing. (The journey takes around four hours by car.) An ideal base is the brand spankingly newly-renovated Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort & Spa (Km 9, Phu Hai, Phan Thiet Town, Binh Thuan Province, +84 62-813-000). All the villas have large ocean-facing terraces, there are two pools (the newer infinity pool is divine), a spa and the seafood at the L’Oceane Restaurant & Bar is fantastic. Better still, they’ll organize all day excursions plus activities for you so you can integrate them into your holiday as you see fit.
Quite apart from the charm and historical significance of the area’s capital HCM, southern Vietnam, with the mighty Mekong’s thriving fishing communities and the endless beaches, is really an interesting and memorable escape from the big city. Get there first before it gets too discovered.