Vietnam is a nation of snackers. The practice suits the climate, which is hot and tropical and wherever you turn it seems someone is selling something to nibble on, whether it’s rice paper spring rolls (goi cuon) or a bag of freshly peeled jackfruit (mit).
Like all the great food cultures, so much of life here is built around what to eat next. And in Can Tho, Vietnam's fourth largest city (and highly reputed for its exquisite tropical fruits and fresh produce), there's so much on offer that choosing what great food to eat next is no easy task.
Located about 170 kilometres south-west of Ho Chi Minh City on the Mekong River, Can Tho has more than a million people. It’s popular with tourists for its floating markets and rice paper noodle production but it’s also an important economic and education hub, with institutions including Can Tho University, the College of Agriculture and the Mekong Delta Rice Research Institute.
Can Tho’s network of canals and waterways have made its food markets outstanding and we found some great eating here. After feeling our way blindly around the local market near us (on Hai Ba Trung Street, along the river) we signed up for a food tour with Eco-Tour.
Our guide, Yen Vo, and her friend from university, Jerry started the company in 2013. The team has now grown to 19 members and food tours are tailored to your needs – they just ask that you pay for the food (which is cheap) and for a tip at the end (if you’re happy) of between US$5 or US$10.
We start on foot, grazing on a few sweet potato fries (khoai lang chien) as we find our way to a place specialising in rice noodles (banh uot) stuffed with pork mince (banh cuon). These noodle ‘pouches’ are steamed in banana leaves and then served with herbs and pickled bean sprouts. The dish originally hails from Hanoi but the owner, Ms Le Thi Thu Hong, learnt how to make them from her parents, who took the recipe with them when they moved to Saigon.
From here we walk 10 minutes to a restaurant called Banh Cong Co Ut, famous in Can Tho for its savoury, deep-fried pork and shrimp muffins. We find a table past the dozen-or-so scooters and motorbikes parked in the middle of the place, and order the only dish on the menu – banh cong. Made from mung beans, pork mince and shrimp, and eaten with lettuce, herbs and a dipping bowl of fish sauce, this dish is made on a frantic and fascinating production line, which you can watch at the front of the restaurant.
"That’s a lot of banh cong."
With help from Yen we learnt from the owner, Nguyen Thi Nguc Xung, that her late sister founded the business more than 25 years ago. So, we ask, just how many banh cong do you make per day? Madam Xung is understandably cagey but according to our quick, back-of-the-envelope, estimate we reckon it must be around 1,440. That’s a lot of banh cong.
From here we drop in to a place called Thanh Van, for pork sausage (nem nuong) rice paper rolls. These barbecued pork sausages are served with pliable rice paper sheets and fine rice vermicelli noodles packed into bite-sized squares. To that you add slices of young banana, cucumber, pickled orange and ‘white’ carrots, pickled onion roots, garlic, lettuce and several herbs. Build-your-own rice paper rolls are a typical restaurant experience in Can Tho and it makes for a relaxed, fun way of sharing a meal.
Yen finishes the tour with a stop at her favourite childhood haunt: a pop-up restaurant in the car park of the Bao Tang military museum. In the shadow of a decommissioned Soviet anti-aircraft missile launcher we sip on chilled soya milk (also available hot) and munch on chewy papaya salad laced with dried beef and chilli. A delicious complement to the salad’s chilli heat the trick to this particular soya milk is that they add 20 per cent blitzed peanuts to the recipe. Open 3pm to 10pm, this is more of a late-night spot but great value.
Looking back, we wish we would've found Yen and Eco-Tours earlier – it was such a great way to orient ourselves in a new city as well as tasting what it has to offer. We learnt so much and can highly recommend this tour if you find yourself in these parts.
Eco-Tour also runs floating market boat tours, scooter tours and bicycle tours. See here for more information or phone 0939 764 216, or 0934 082 553.
The dishes and where to try them
- Rice noodles (banh uot) stuffed with pork mince (banh cuon)
Banh Cuon Sai Gon
75 Vo Van Tan Street, Ninh Kieu district, Can Tho
- Savoury pork and shrimp muffins (banh cong)
Banh Cong Banh Cong Co Ut
86/38 Ly Tu Trong Street, Ninh Kieu district, CanTho
- Pork sausage rice paper rolls (nem nuong)
17 Hoa Binh Street, Ninh Kieu district, Can Tho
- Papaya salad and soya milk
Car park of the Bao Tang military museum
Bao Tang Quan Khu 9, Hoa Bijh Street, Ninh Kieu district, Can Tho
Keen to try making banh cong at home? Here are a couple of recipe links you can try: