A PLAIN TUNIC. A fragile canoe floating silently on the river. A conical hat worn just off center. A flock of swallows flying over rice fields ripe for harvesting.
So goes the imagery in Chiec Ao Ba Ba, one of Vietnam’s most beloved songs from the 70s, a melancholy melody that paints a picture of a long-haired beauty waiting for her lover at Can Tho’s Ninh Kieu Pier, an image of a simpler life in the Mekong Delta.
Known as the “Western Capital” of Vietnam, the city of Can Tho is the largest in the Mekong Delta and fourth largest in Vietnam. Just like the song that’s at once hopeful and wistful, looking forward and looking back, Can Tho itself is a paradox. The city of over a million people boasts an international airport and Southeast Asia’s longest cable-stayed bridge, but it’s equally well-known for its low-tech floating market, endless rice paddies and tiny home factories churning out everything from noodles to bricks.
I find myself standing on the Ninh Kieu Pier, the place where lovers meet, at least in song. It’s midday and scorching hot, and there’s not much meeting going on, other than a few school kids out for the summer watching the boats go by at the juncture of two rivers: the Can Tho River and the Hau Giang, a tributary of the Mekong. Some workers are sprawled out on the stone benches of the neatly manicured riverwalk, catching a bit of shuteye under the watchful eye of the seven-meter tall copper statue of Uncle Ho that dominates the park.
I walk past the pretty Can Tho Market, built in 1915 and fully restored with its red roof and Sino-French architecture, and head towards Can Tho’s cultural downtown, packed with museums, temples and pagodas, all within a 20-minute walking radius. As the heart of the Mekong Delta, Can Tho is a wonderful kaleidoscope of peoples and cultures from all over the region.
I first visit Ong Temple (32 Hai Ba Trung), right on the waterfront, a beautiful Chinese temple completed in 1896. Also known as the Guangzhou Assembly Hall, it speaks of the influx of Chinese workers to Vietnam starting around 1770, creating their own communities alongside the Vietnamese. The colorful temple is built in the shape of the Chinese character for “nation,” and is filled with intricate carvings and altars to the Goddess of Fortune, General Ma Tien and General Kuan Kung with statues of the God of Earth and the God of Finance. Dozens of coils of incense hang from the ceiling, leaving the temple in a permanent smoky haze that’s not all together unpleasant. To the side, a young mother leans in as a man pores over a book of Chinese characters, reading her fortune. The sign says that believers can ask to be released from bad luck in general, or from a litany of ills, including sickness, litigation and flooding. She slips the man a note and leaves with a smile. Apparently, things are going to be okay.
From there, I walk to Munirangsyaram, a Khmer Theravada Buddhist pagoda (36 Hoa Binh) located on one of Can Tho’s largest streets. There’s almost a sense of dislocation, seeing the golden spires punctuate the Can Tho skyline. The three golden towers that adorn the front gate are very Angkor Wat-like but in miniature. Up the stairs, the area for worship is surprisingly plain, in stark contrast to its ornate façade. The small area features a 1.5 m high statue of the Buddha on a lotus flower, surrounded by several smaller statues. Back outside, three shy Khmer boys emerge from the adjoining dormitory. They’re from Soc Trang and have come to Can Tho for university, a closer alternative than going to Saigon. Ethnic Khmers have been living in the Mekong Delta for centuries and Cambodians still refer to the area as Kampuchea Krom, or “Lower Cambodia,” not without some lingering animosity.
“This is a Khmer temple, not Cambodian,” says Cuong, groundskeeper of the smaller yet much more interesting Pitu Khosa Rangsay Pagoda (27/18 Mac Dinh Chi). To get to it, I walk past a group of men playing an animated game of Chinese chess followed by a wall of glass jars housing Siamese fighting fish outside a school. The pagoda is turning out to be hard to find, located in a warren of alleyways right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. “We’re Vietnamese, not Cambodian. We’re born here,” Cuong corrects me as I ask about the compact building, colloquially called the “After Pagoda” because it was built a few years after Munirangsyaram. Despite its smaller size, its architecture is much more photogenic, with a sanctum, bell tower and monks’ house. Dragons, fairies, birds and deities adorn its three levels, each displaying large Buddha statues serenely tucked under painted bodhi trees. It’s said that in the early 70s, there were more than 400 Khmer pagodas serving the one million or so ethnic Khmer in the Mekong Delta.
Day turns to dusk and I make my way directly across the street from Munirangsyaram to the Chua Phat Hoc Buddhist temple (11 Hoa Binh). Built in 1951, the three-story temple is hosting special ceremonies today for Buddha’s birthday. The faithful gather to bathe a small statue on the ground floor, while men and women don grey smocks in preparation for a Buddhist reading on the top floor. I spot a teen who doesn’t seem to be with anyone. “I come here because it’s peaceful,” says 15-year-old Tuan who frequents the temple on his own most days after school. Looking out over Can Tho, Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind, backed by golden Khmer spires in the distance, glinting in the late afternoon sun, I feel at peace, too.
Another holy book says that ‘man cannot live by bread alone,’ so I head over to De Tham Street, known to locals as “Food Street” in search of whatever non-bread dishes are unique to Can Tho. I have rather low expectations because everyone I’ve asked to name a dish unique to Can Tho, has had the same response: a furrow of the brow, followed by a long pause, and the inevitable… “nothing.” Without a dish to truly call its own, Can Tho has co-opted the best dishes from all over the region that people brought along with them as they moved to the “big city.”
Bun nuoc leo Soc Trang is a noodle dish with Khmer origins most known for in Soc Trang, 60 km southeast of Can Tho. The soup base is made from slow boiling fish stock and was originally flavored using Khmer prohok, a pungent fermented fish paste, but the Vietnamese version uses pickled river fish instead, often seen piled high in local markets. It’s then served with noodles, whole shrimp, roasted pork, pork crackling, fish balls and a heap of fresh herbs and shredded banana blossom. Fish heads are dipped in a kumquat fish sauce.
Also from the Khmer people in Soc Trang comes banh cong, a deep-fried ball of doughy goodness. Named after the ladle that’s used to fry these muffin-like cakes, they’re a happy marriage of rice flour, whole mung beans, eggs, taro and minced pork, all topped with freshwater shrimp, eaten with fresh herbs and dipped in ginger fish sauce.
Taking in the rich fabric of cultures that have combined in this picturesque city by the river, the labyrinth of waterways that crisscross their way through endless patchworks of rice fields, the broad smiles of a gentle people, it’s easy to understand why this place has been immortalized in song: “Even if you visit only once, words do not do it justice. The river will remain beautiful for a thousand lifetimes.”
IF YOU GO…
• All the religious sites mentioned here are free to visit. However, please remember that they are active places of worship, so dress accordingly.
• Try Bun nuoc leo Soc Trang at 12 De Tham, just across the street from the Chua Phat Hoc Temple. Look for the sign that says “Phi Long,” run by Loan and her father, Long, since 2001. a bowl is VND 30,000 and fish heads are served separately (also VND 30,000). They also make very good goi cuon (fresh summer rolls) for VND5,000 each. For banh cong, try the little outdoor stall at 34 De Tham. it’s not much to look at (expect low plastic tables under a tarpaulin), but in addition to banh cong, Banh Xeo Hue Vien also serves up everyone’s favorite banh xeo (sizzling turmeric-colored, rice flour crepes filled with shrimp and pork) for VND25,000 each. expect the mekong Delta version to be much bigger than the ones you’d find in Vietnam’s Central and Northern regions. One is enough for a filling meal.
• The 92-room Victoria Can Tho Resort makes a stylish base from which to explore the area. Set right on the banks of the Hau River, its French colonial architecture and spacious gardens create an aura of sophisticated serenity. a complimentary shuttle boat ferries guests to the nearby Ninh Kieu Pier. Until September 30, rooms start at VND2,385,600++, including buffet breakfast. See Victoria Hotels for more.
• For those looking to explore the surrounding area by river, Victoria Can Tho Resort also arranges boat trips that include sights like the Cai Rang Floating market, the ingenious stilted nurseries over the river and the 1672 Khmer pagoda, located in a jungle setting at Phu Ly in nearby Vinh Long.