5 weeks in Vietnam, part 2: Floating Market and Honeymooners

Follow us on a trip from the bustling floating market of Can Tho to the serene highlands of Dalat. A blend of adventure and romance.
Laughing buddha statue dalat vietnam

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Join us for Part 2 (see Part 1 here) of our 5-week, 1300-mile adventure through Vietnam as we continue from the bustling Saigon to explore the tranquil countryside of Can Tho, famous for its floating market and lush greenery, and the quirky and cool Dalat, with its mind-bending “Crazy House”, silk-making and cricket farms. Stay tuned for Part 3, where we’ll uncover more of the beauty and culture of Vietnam in the charming UNESCO-heritage city of Hoi An and end up in the lively Hanoi.

“Vietnam. It grabs you and never lets you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”

– Anthony Bourdain

Can Tho, a pretty town nestled in the Mekong Delta, is famous for its floating market. We booked a clean and comfy room in a hotel owned by a friendly local named Hiro (pronounced “hero”) for $12/night. He went above and beyond to ensure we had a smooth arrival, sending us detailed instructions on how to get from Saigon all the way to his hotel by bus. It was a smooth, 4-hour journey. Across the road from the hotel, a park filled with exercise machines was a hub of activity, where the locals, young and old, gathered to get their groove on.

Sunrise on the Mekong Delta: Floating Market

Hiro introduced us to Tran, a local young woman who was to become our floating market tour guide. At her request, we met her in the lobby an hour before sunrise the next day. Early-rising locals were already exercising in the park.

As we made our way to the market, the river slowly came to life around us. Tran rented a boat with a driver and off we went, into the sleepy waters. As if on cue, a happy lady with a floating coffee shop beckoned us closer. She skillfully pulled our boat alongside hers and handed us cups of rich, sweet, Vietnamese coffee that hit the spot perfectly. Tran paid. All our food and drinks for the day were included in her $20 fee, as was an impromptu language lesson where she taught us a few of the most common Vietnamese phrases.

We sipped our coffee and watched people living on the river waking up, brushing their teeth, stretching, and greeting each other. For them, the boat was their home. As the sun began to rise over the winding waterways, a flurry of activity began to stir as more boats and barges arrived from all corners of the delta to sell, trade, and barter their goods at the floating market. You’ll see long poles jutting skywards from the boats, with a sample of their goods stuck to it as a form of advertisement. That way you can spot exactly what you’re after even from a distance. If you see a palm leaf stuck to the pole, the boat itself is for sale.

My fruit radar was on high alert, and when I spotted a lady selling fresh produce, we made our way over and indulged in the sweetest, juiciest mangoes. The fruit lady was a hoot, and enthusiastically responded to our attempts to use the vocabulary we learned from Tran.

If you want to have a peek at another fruit haven, read about the Month we spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

There’s more to Can Tho than the floating market. For a detailed travel guide, have a look at WikiTravel.

From the busy Floating Market to the Serene Countryside

The boat became our chariot for the rest of the day. After coffee and fruit at the floating market, we made our way down one of the smaller arms of the river through a mangrove forest with entangled roots and lush foliage. Tran took us for lunch at the humble abode of a beautiful, rice-noodle-making family.

This trade is not for the impatient. It takes over a year to grow, harvest, thrash, dry, and age the grains of rice. Then they soak and grind the rice, mix it with water into a batter, and spread it onto a hot plate crepe-style. The thin, delicate rice paper then dries in the sun on wicker platforms before it’s collected and cut into noodles.

The family rewarded our clumsy efforts with a bowl of delicious soup with fresh-made noodles. What took them a year to make, took us 15 minutes to devour.

Mark’s Hair-raising experience

Mark was in dire need of a haircut (as you can see in the previous photos) and our hero, Hiro, came to the rescue once again. He took us to his own barber, who was an absolute wizard with the scissors. You could just see the passion oozing out of the guy as he snipped away, checking and rechecking his work. The end result was one of the most finely-crafted haircuts Mark had had in ages and for just four bucks (including a 50% tip!).

Mekong Delta is teeming with life. As we made our way from the famous floating market to the small canals in the countryside, we were struck by how connected people were to the land and the river – they use it for washing, fishing, transportation, and irrigation for farms and gardens. The shores are filled with houses on stilts and the waterways are full of wooden boats with fishermen or traders. The environment is both challenging and beautiful and the locals have learned to thrive in it.

The Good, the Bad, and the Bumpy: 10-hour night bus journey

If you want to get from Can Tho to the honeymoon town of Dalat, there’s a sleeper bus that’ll take you there in about 10 hours and for just $15 bucks. It’s quite an experience.

Take a look at the picture below, you see those bunk beds on either side of the bus? That’s where you’ll be spending your night. Your legs will be tucked away in a cubby hole under the seat of the person in front of you. We were pretty excited about this arrangement, it was our first night bus of the trip. Not to mention, we saved some cash on a night’s accommodation and got to a new destination at the same time. We threw our backpacks in the cargo hold below and boarded the bus with just a small bag holding our valuables.

Our excitement vanished as soon as that bus took off. This was no smooth ride with a gentle hum lulling us to sleep. No, this is Vietnam, where the roads are chaotic and the drivers seem to have a death wish. We bounced and swerved our way through the night-time traffic. I’ll be honest, I was scared. I was praying to any deity who would listen to keep us safe on those winding roads. I listened to Eckart Tolle’s books so at least I die with a peaceful, present mind.

But here’s the thing about Vietnam: despite all the chaos and the seeming recklessness, there’s a strange order to it all. Drivers honk their horns incessantly, but somehow it all seems to work. The drivers have done it thousands of times before. It’s like everyone knows the rules of the road, even if those rules seem to be written in some secret code that only locals can decipher.

But hey, we got to Dalat in one piece and had one of the most authentic travel experiences that you could ever ask for as a traveler.

Dalat: The Honeymoon Haven

The night bus dropped us off just before sunrise, and we stepped out into the cool and misty Dalat air. The city was quiet, and the only signs of life were a few street food vendors. We stumbled upon a lady selling something that looked like rice with different toppings and sauces. We had no idea what we were eating, it was neither sweet nor savory, but it was delicious.

While we were sitting on a curb eating, a coffee shop across the road opened its doors for the day. We sat on the terrace and ordered coffee, nutty and chocolatey, thick with condensed milk. As we sipped, we watched the city come to life. Motorbikes whizzed by, and street vendors set up their stalls. The smell of fresh bread and grilled meats started to fill the air.

Dalat rewards those who wake up early. The city has a serene and calm energy in the morning that is delightful. We took a walk through the maze of streets and alleys with French colonial architecture and heart-shaped motifs. Dalat, with its eternal-spring weather, is Vietnam’s honeymoon destination.

As the sun rose higher, we happened upon a morning market, where locals were busy buying fresh produce and meats for the day. The food in Dalat is amazingly fresh since vegetable and fruit farms surround the city.

We got to the Cozy Nook hostel. Despite its fantastic amenities, such as the charming staff, communal breakfast to rub elbows with fellow travelers, spotless rooms, and heavenly beds, we encountered a tiny hiccup. Mark’s snoring was so thunderous that he was the only one of the twelve roommates who slept like a baby. I was mortified and tried to play the role of the snore police by clambering down from my top bunk to wake him up a few times. But alas, as soon as he shut his eyes again, the trumpet began anew.

We got to know a delightful German couple in our hotel in Saigon the previous week and now, 200 miles away, we bumped into them again. We celebrated the chance encounter over a mammoth tureen of soup and some frosty brews at the night market and made plans to explore the city and countryside together over the next few days. New place, old friends.

Crazy House: A Gaudiesque Treehouse

The Crazy House, also known as Hang Nga Guesthouse, is a bizarre architectural creation that looks like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie, a Dali painting, or a psychedelic trip. It’s a maze-like series of rooms and passageways that are meant to resemble a treehouse, with twisting staircases, hidden nooks and crannies, vines and flowers, and surreal design throughout. There are unexpected details and whimsical flourishes everywhere you turn. I’m not sure if it would pass any safety committee meeting, but the result is delightful, as are the views from the various rooftops.

“Crazy House is a culmination of my life and creativity – it all came together in this structure. I wanted to create something original, pioneering – different from anything else in the world,” said Dang Viet Nga, the architect behind the guesthouse, a trained mathematician and artist who has dedicated her life to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of design and construction. Instead of the usual blueprints, she paints her visions, which local builders turn into reality.

Whether you’re a fan of Gaudiesque architecture or just some good old-fashioned weirdness, leave enough time to explore the nooks and crannies of Crazy House. You can even book a room if you’re ok with hoards of tourists trying to peek through your windows.

A Worm’s Life: Dalat Silk Farm

A cool thing to see near Dalat is a silk farm. The whole process is pretty wild. First, the worms are fed a steady diet of mulberry leaves until they’re nice and fat and ready to pupate. Then they spin themselves into cocoons, each made of several hundred meters of delicate silk fiber that is stronger than steel of the same thickness.

There is a dark side to this process. The worms will never become the silk moth they set out to be. They meet their unglamorous end in a vat of boiling water to loosen the cocoon. Each fiber is then unraveled and reeled. Some of this is done by the skilled hands of the silk workers, and some by a machine. The dead worms apparently make a nice snack but they weren’t serving them up on the Dalat silk farm.

If the moth is allowed to emerge, it’s cute and fuzzy and too heavy to fly. It doesn’t have a mouth to eat with, so after it burns through its body fat (which takes about a week or two), it dies. But it enjoys lots of sex in the meanwhile.

Bugs for Breakfast: Dalat Cricket Farm

I’m no stranger to eating weird things, but even I was a little hesitant as we were heading for the cricket farm near Dalat. But then I met the cheerful owner who gave us a tour of the farm and explained the process. The crickets are kept in big concrete tubs separated by age and fed banana leaves.

When the crickets are big enough to be harvested, they are starved for 3 days to empty their bowels. To kill them, some farmers plunge them into boiling water and others stick them into a freezer. They are packed with protein, have been safely eaten for thousands of years and they’re an eco-friendly alternative to traditional livestock. Plus, they’re actually pretty tasty, especially when fried up with some lemongrass. It’s a crispy, savory snack if you can get over the fact that you’re eating insects.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the current farming practices are unsustainable and insects are an untapped protein resource.

“Edible insects contain high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans. Insects have a high food conversion rate, e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Besides, they emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock.”

-Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Check out this photo gallery of some of the other amazing things we experienced during our time in Dalat.

So there you have it. Can Tho and Dalat are many miles apart, not only in distance but also in vibe. Can Tho is a lively city in the Mekong Delta, with a bustling floating market and down-to-earth, lovely people. It immerses you in the colorful rhythms of daily life in southern Vietnam. Meanwhile, Dalat is a highland honeymoon destination with a cool, refreshing ambiance, waterfalls, quirky attractions, coffee plantations, and flower farms. Each city has its own unique personality.

Next, we set sail towards Hoi An, a beautifully preserved, UNESCO heritage-listed trading port town. We had a decision to make: shell out about $80 per person for a quick flight or be more… uhm… thrifty and opt for a 15-hour bus ride for $15. With a combination of excitement and dread, we hopped on that bus and hoped for the best. But that’s for another story (Part 3). Also, sign up for Mappy Monday Monthly below to stay in the loop.

Here you can read Part 1, about our time in Saigon.

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