We took a bus from the laidback town of Ca Mau to the somewhat laid back city of Can Tho, further north. A nice little canal runs between the two, but when you get to this portion of the southern province, the roads are so well developed that the canalboat operators no longer run services between towns. This probably means that we’ll have to take a bus when we go to Chau Doc for our departure in a few days, so I am even more glad that we took the day to go to Ca Mau by ferry.
Can Tho is a pretty happening place, with great food, fun lightlife, good tourist activities and very nice little guesthouses. Hollie made arrangements at a place (Hotel Xoai) identified by the LP as being very tourist friendly, and we arrived midday to check in. Very nice…rooftop lounge, great prices on rooms (I grabbed a $20 deluxe room with a big bed and a computer, and Hollie went for a smaller room with an equally big bed for $14), nice hot showers and free wifi. I also needed a bit of time to recuperate from this head cold (a strangely recurring theme on trips for me…) so we laid low for a few days.
The first night, we headed out for a ‘foodie tour’ with a local guy who takes people to some offbeat food joints. This town has lots, and we had a great time trying some totally unique dishes…some only made in Can Tho, others only made at that particular food stall!
Our first stop was for a Can Tho speciality called Nem Nuong. It’s a piece of barbequed pork wrapped in rice paper along with some veggies and other things (like pickles, lotus root, pineapple, banana), then dipped in a sauce. Really nice, and you can add a lot of variety by changing the amounts of things you put inside.
After that, we scootered over to another place that makes unique little deep fried muffins called Banh Cong. These were invented at this shop, and are very tasty (and very cheap!). They are made in individual muffin tins that look like flat bottomed ladels. First they spoon in some batter, then a layer of pre-fried pork with seasonings, then a layer of nuts, then another layer of batter on top, and finally a few shrimps to top it all off. The whole thing is immersed in a deep fryer, and the muffins are popped out and served wrapped in a lettuce leaf with some mint and basil.
It had a very familiar taste that I still cannot place….maybe it reminded me of a wholewheat muffin, or possibly rye bread or something. Hollie also felt something familiar about the taste, but neither of us could figure it out. But they were great!
After that, we went to a little sidewalk stall that served several dishes, and had their particular invention which was Chinese eggplant with shredded pork. It was served on a hot pot on our table, and was really fantastic and simple. It would be a great side dish for any meal back home, for sure.
Then we got daring. The Vietnamese in this region often eat Fried Mice (and as I discovered the next day, Fried Rat), and this little stand served mouse, so we ordered one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but anyone who has ever dressed an animal (including a chicken) knows they go through a transformation from ‘critter’ to ‘food’ once you skin, gut and clean them, remove the legs and head, and prepare them for cooking. Same with these field mice…what I saw go into the fryer (breaded and seasoned) didn’t look any different than a small piece of chicken or anything else that we cook and eat. And when they served it up nicely, on a bed of lettuce (the irony was palpable), there was no problem tasting it. And it was really nice, although most of the flavor came from the breading, as there is really very little meat on a mouse (you probably didn’t need me to point that out, eh?)
After that, we headed out for some dessert. At a little sidewalk stand down the road a woman was selling sticky rice…she had been selling her product at this location for 30 years! That’s important to know: any street food has to be delicious and safe in order to survive on the street, so rather than being risky to eat, if you can find the stalls that have been around for years, you’ll find the most delicious and safest food in town. In her case, what set her sticky rice apart from everyone else is that is was heavily seasoned with ants! She had both red ants and yellow ants, which were mixed in at equal portions to the rice. These ants are steamed (and obviously not cleaned lol) and tasted very much like sweet, peppery little pieces of caviar. It made for a fantastic tasting sticky rice!
Then for our last stop of the evening, we got some snails. Nothing amazing about that, lol, although they were prepared in lemongrass rather than garlic and butter, which I prefer.
The next day, Hollie and I walked all over the downtown, visiting the street market with lots of interesting and diverse foods. It was here, among the frogs on a string and the bizarre fish, that I saw the skinned rat bodies for sale. These were considerably larger than the mouse we had eaten, so I know we didn’t eat a rat, but I guess there is a real demand for it. In fact, I once read that more than half the world’s population gets its protein primarily from insects and rodents, so I have no qualms about most foods. But rat seems a little extreme, even for me.
Today (day 3 in Can Tho), Hollie elected to get up very early and do a boat tour along the canals to the floating market, a noodle factory, and a few other spots. I chose to sleep in and chase off the last of this cold, then went to explore the War museum.
Tomorrow morning we head up to another little town for a homestay (which is really just a remote bungalow village guesthouse), then we start working out way out of Vietnam to Cambodia. Stay tuned!