I cannot recommend a better place where to eat in Can Tho as the place I experienced…
As we were so tired after our day on the Mekong, and as the town of Can Tho was flooded, we decided not to venture too far from the hotel for dinner so we just walked down to the river front.
We immediately found the place recommended in the Lonely Planet: big, spacious, clean-looking, packed with foreigners…
… And following our own advice and experience we walked straight past.
Actually we didn’t walk far; we stopped just along the river at the next place.
This was more our kind of place: plastic chairs and metal tables forming an outdoor eating area along the river; no actual restaurant building, just a make-shift kitchen set up under a canopy (or rather a few curtains tied to poles) and what could have been a wallpaper pasting board as a work surface and a few old metal drums being used as barbecues.
Oh yes, this looked promising!
We wove our way through the dining area enjoying the smells coming from mini barbecues, individual grills and woks on the tables. We got a few stares ourselves as we passed local diners, who clearly thought we were in the wrong place, and found an empty table.
As soon as we sat down the man appeared with an old rag to wipe the seats so we had to stand up again. It looked like we were getting the special treatment!
As we browsed the menu trying to decide between the grilled mouse, the snake stew and the smoked crocodile, a couple of small bowls, a couple of pairs of chopsticks and a couple of glass beer mugs filled with ice appeared on the table.
Actually as a change we decided to push the boat out and get the bottle of 90,000d (3€) white wine. I think that must have been a first for them because suddenly the woman was in a flap and started shouting things in Vietnamese to the man and the man hurried off.
A few minutes later another man appeared proudly producing a bottle of wine! There was a big show then of finding a bucket, wedging so much ice around the bottle that it wouldn’t budge and setting it on a plastic chair by our table.
Then 10 minutes later a corkscrew was found and the best crystal-ware was brought to our table.
By this time our attention was already taken by the food that had been set on our table. In the end I had played it safe and ordered the chilli chicken which I had assumed would come with rice as everything does here. It didn’t.
The woman had set a clay bucket full of burning coals in the centre of our table with a wire mesh over the top and a plate of diced raw chicken smothered in chilli in front of me. She demonstrated with the chopsticks (please bear in mind that not a word of English was spoken during the whole evening) that I was supposed to barbecue the meat and some mini courgette-type veggies myself. Easy, right? Wrong!
I threw a few pieces on the barbecue and when I turned my attention to the wine and conversation they went a little black!
While this was fine for me (I’m quite used to eating burnt food as I have the hottest and dodgiest oven in the world at home) this wasn’t fine with the woman who strode over, tut-tutted, threw my efforts into the fire, took the tongs off me (yes, by this time they’d brought me tongs too – apparently I don’t have much finesse with chopsticks, though I thought I was doing alright) and proceeded to cook the rest of my dinner herself!
As each piece was ready she put it proudly on my plate, gave me back my chopsticks and watched me eat every bit. I felt like a naughty child!
When the woman had finished cooking mine and I had a plate full of very spicy cooked chicken, the mesh was taken away and it was Toni’s turn. A cooking pot full of simmering brown river water was put over the fire in the middle of the table. Plates full of fresh prawns and other raw sea urchins arrived along with plates of fresh veg, bean sprouts and noodles.
Obviously after watching the process with my dish and seeing that everything on his plate was raw, Toni figured that he was supposed to cook his things in the simmering pot. But no; now we had our own personal chef, we would be doing no more cooking and to hell with the other tables full of customers that need attending to!
She shooed his hands away and carefully placed items from each plate into the stock. She left it bubbling a bit and then came back to serve us, putting first noodles, and then ladling the soup mixture over the top before draining the stock back into the pot leaving just the noodles, sea food and veg in the dish.
The food was good and plentiful, the wine was drinkable, the price was peanuts and the overall experience was absolutely unforgettable.
The moral of the story is: make sure that you choose where to eat in Can Tho very carefully. Don’t settle for the places recommended in the guide books and don’t be afraid of trying something different. It doesn’t matter if you can’t communicate with words and it doesn’t matter if you don’t really know what you’re ordering.
This night was one of my best in Vietnam just because I didn’t know what to expect and because I was emerged in the life of the locals. After all, that’s what travelling is all about.
Read more of my gastronomic travel adventures in Vietnam here.
About the Author: Lisa, born and grew up in England, live in Mallorca, Spain... Have visited more than 20 countries, have twice as many to yet visit, love sharing experiences....