Can Tho has emerged from the dark days of the Vietnam War bearing hardly any trace of its physical scars, writes Benedict Lopez.
Not many people I know of have heard of Can Tho as an interesting place to visit.
One night in February a friend of mine phoned me and enquired about my interest in visiting this city. As it was the inaugural flight of a low-cost carrier and the airfare was cheap, I spontaneously gave him the green light to book the ticket for a visit in early April.
I had to read up on the internet to learn more about this city in southern Vietnam as I too had not heard much about it.
On our arrival at Can Tho Airport, we were greeted by officials from the Can Tho Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism and were given memorabilia – a warm gesture to welcome tourists on an inaugural flight from a neighbouring Asean country.
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Located in the centre of the Mekong Delta Region, Can Tho sits on the south bank of the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong River. Vietnam’s fourth largest city with more than 1.5 million residents, it has endured a tumultuous past, first under the French colonialists and later against the Americans during the Vietnam War.
A visit to the museum will reveal the extent of the suffering of the people of this now vibrant city, which hardly displays any scars of its history. Gallantly putting up a brave resistance against foreign aggressors, despite fighting with inferior weaponry, the people of Can Tho showed true resilience in the face of adversity.
Fast forward more than four decades after the war, Can Tho is today a flurry of activity and developing rapidly as its new airport and the buildings being constructed bear testimony. Any tourist would be impressed by the cleanliness and greenery flanking both sides of the roads all the way from the airport to our hotel in the city centre.
Our hotel room too had environmentally friendly messages placed on the table. People here seem to be environmentally conscious about their city. How I wish Malaysians too could absorb such values!
The floating market in Cai Raing in a suburb of Can Tho is a tourist’s delight. Vendors ply their trade in a congested area selling fruit, vegetables, drinks and other sundry goods to locals and tourists.
Just a few kilometres from the floating market is a village selling all types of handicraft and a small noodles (bihun) factory. Workers at this factory use rice husks instead of fossil fuel to make their noodles.
Places of worship have always aroused my curiosity. Upon exiting a Buddhist temple, a monk invited us into his house for tea and an informal chat. We spent about half an hour engaging with him on contemporary issues related to religion.
Islands, big and small, fascinate me. Con Son Island, situated about 10km from Can Tho, was no exception, as it is flushed with greenery, fish ponds and various water lily species. Water lilies are thought by some to have health benefits for ailments such as blood pressure, swellings and nose-bleeds.
Taking a two-hour boat trip along the canals and backwaters of Can Tho rekindled my memories of a similar trip in 2015 through the backwaters in Cochin, Kerala. The serene and tranquil ambience was only spoilt by the rubbish spewed in some parts of the backwater. A clean-up operation is required to preserve the environment. I was disappointed to see this side of Can Tho in a city otherwise noted for its cleanliness.
That said, Can Tho seems to have a magnetic pull for the foreigners, especially Australian retirees, who choose to reside here. Many have lived here for years.
Russell, who hails from Melbourne, is a long-time Can Tho resident as he likes the calmness of the place. A cafe-owner in the city, he believes Can Tho can be a tourism hub due to the friendliness of its people. “Everything about Can Tho is different in comparison with other parts of Vietnam,” he says.
As we chat, Yvonne, a teacher from South Africa who teaches English at an English-language centre, joins us. She likes Can Tho as a place to live but feels the humidity is a challenge. “There are lots of foreign teachers here and its easy to make friends. The cost of living here too is cheaper than in South Africa,” she remarks.
Below the radar of many tourists, Can Tho is a relatively inexpensive place for a holiday. We stayed in a decent hotel in the city, which costs us only around RM180 per night, and the breakfast was sumptuous. Even our lunches and dinners were relatively cheap: a four-course dinner and beers cost us only around RM80 for the three of us. (Seasoned beer drinkers will definitely appreciate and enjoy the local brew, which can give internationally well-known brands a run for their money!)
Any complaints about Can Tho? Just one. People in this city find it difficult to communicate even in basic English. It will be good if employers and government agencies send their staff for courses to learn the rudiments of the language. This will go a long way towards boosting tourism.
Can Tho may be eclipsed by other more popular destinations, but it is just be a matter of time before this city carves a niche for itself globally as a renowned tourist destination. The city’s scenic tourist spots and the friendliness of the people will catapult it to global attention. Indeed, its simple ordinary people, ready to flash a generous smile, made our stay in this city a memorable one.
All photographs by Benedict Lopez